Research on what drives human behaviours is fascinating but is notoriously difficult to design a study that isn't tainted with bias and other scientific control requirements for a good study.
To answer the question I've presented here the answer that seems to have the most scientific consensus is that true emotional and reward association changes did not occur.
The practical translation is that if you found yourself drifting back to old habits it's because your origional learned, habituated reward seeking is still intact. The 10 oz steak is still more appealing than the 3 oz steak. Not exercising is still more appealing than exercising.
Additionally it may be that healthy eating and regular exercise are still viewed as a form of restriction or even punishment. Why would anyone keep doing something they thought was this negative and unrewarding?
A common irony that many of you may have experienced personally (myself as well), is that the reward you want to give yourself for having consumed healthy food or participated in exercise is; overeating unhealthy food - the very thing that causes weight gain in the first place.
Burned off a whack of calories the last time you exercised? What are you thinking about? How rewarding it's going to be to eat that extra whatever; or how good you feel for having exercised?
If extra food is still a primary reward provider then that is where we'll end up, especially if we think we've been 'putting up' with arduous healthy eating and exercise. Ate healthy? You poor thing! Terrible that you had to suffer through that. It's ok though, just reward yourself with overeating.
Feel better now?
That's why there is an approximate 85-95% failure rate in sustaining healthy habits beyond the first few months of trying.
There is an attempt to change actions but a limited attempt to change how we cognitively and emotionally process how our sense of reward and well being is associated with our actions and beliefs.
Hard to quit something you love and do something you hate.
There are some other interesting human behaviour things that occur where behaviour change is involved.
Study subjects who participated in weight loss studies and were successful in losing weight tend to gain all the weight back after the study is over. What? So you're a living example of scientific proof of successful weight loss. Simply continue living with the same habits you were asked to do during the study and you're set for life.
Seems logical. Logic is great until emotion screws it up.
Some researchers believe this is due to something called the Hawthorne Effect. Although there is great controversy over what exactly the Hawthorn Effect is or isn't, the term is often used to refer to how a person is affected by being observed while doing something they feel they are expected to do.
If you're in a jumping contest what else are you going to do other than jump as best you can? There isn't anything else to do other than choose not to participate. If you really like jumping you're going to keep doing it after the contest is over. If you're not into vertical accomplishments the jumping is over when the contest is over.
A possible explanation for weight loss study subjects who regain weight after the study is over is that the only reason they followed the weight loss study protocol is because they knew they were in a weight loss study and that their activities were being monitored and tracked. The study subjects wanted to apease the researchers.
Because the study subjects had no real internal drive to lose weight for reasons they held as personally important or rewarding, other than the sense of reward they got from appeasing the researchers.. take away the study and you take away the only thing that was motivating the person.
I've seen similar behavior with people who work in the fitness business and with athletes. As soon as they're not in the business or the sport anymore, the healthy eating and exercise is replaced with little to no exercise and overeating. This happens during the off-season as well. Many who are active in whatever tend to gain weight and lose fitness during the off-season and typically lament these negative effects and wish they didn't have the setback to contend with when the next season started.
Weight gain and loss of fitness occurs. So what's happening here? We've all heard that consistency over long periods is one of the key predictors of long terms success with continuing to live with healthy habits.
The reward of overeating and not exercising is greater than the reward of maintaining healthy eating and regular exercise.
One of the milestones is the six month mark. If you can make it through six months of healthy habits with few regressions you have a much better chance of retaining the habits long term.
If this is true how do we have athletes of any stripe experiencing unhealthy weight gain and tremendous loss of fitness within mere months of stopping sport? Ditto for fitness pro's..
The thinking on this is that so long as you are in the environment where external expectations to perform are placed on you and you feel compelled to meet the expectations of others (rather than mostly from satisfying yourself), you will no longer feel compelled to perform once removed from that environment.
A person may have tricked themselves into believing that they are into healthy living. In reality they were into feeling accepted only when they met the expectations of the environment they were observed in.
How's that for a mind-bender?
Play this out and ultimately a person would have tricked themselves into eventually losing fitness and gaining weight because they were never really into fitness or good nutrition other than meeting work or sports requirements.
So how do you tell if you're really into it or if you're destined to regress to weight gain and loss of fitness?
If you're fooling yourself:
If you feel that second servings are delectable and what your mind is on during the first plate
If you can't wait to eat desert after a huge meal
If you reason that extra exercise deserves the reward of extra food
If you feel exercise is a necessary evil
If donuts make you drool and broccoli makes you gag
You've made it to the real deal and are likely to succeed long term and not depend on external motivation:
If you feel motivated by exercise alone and not just the possible weight loss outcome
If you look at food as feeding your body the nutrients you need rather than getting full
If you love the taste of healthy food
If you feel strongly about how exercise makes you happy and improves health
If you tend not to feel tempted by overeating or overindulgence in sweets or fatty foods
If you feel that missing exercise or healthy food will have a negative affect on your health and how you feel
If you tend to exercise alone or in groups because you want to, not because you're in an exercise group or on a team