Blog | Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Seven secrets to successful, long-term weight loss

Most people who have lost weight understand how easy it is to gain it back. In fact, I often hear patients tell me that over the course of their lifetimes they've "tried every popular diet out there" and yet have failed to keep the weight off permanently. If that's your situation, you're not alone. It's estimated that only 20% of overweight individuals are successful at long term weight loss. But there is hope for success, and we can learn the secrets of "successful losers" from the National Weight Control Registry.

In a flash of brilliance, sociologist Rina Wing and psychologist Jim Hill decided to create a database of weight loss success cases, and simply observe how they live their lives over decades of time. They called this research study the National Weight Control Registry, and it has been enrolling study subjects since 1994. What they've found is that those who have been successful at losing at least 30 pounds and keeping that weight off for at least 1 year share many behaviors in common. I believe that the closer we follow in the footsteps of these successful people, the more likely we are to be fit for a lifetime. So here goes, this is what the study subjects report:

1. They eat a low-calorie, low-fat diet. Only 10% of participants reported that they used a low-carb diet to maintain their weight loss, but those who chose the low-carb diet showed no difference in weight gain over a three year period (compared to the low-cal, low-fat majority). Interestingly, the low-carb group reported eating more total calories (and more fat calories) with less restraint, even with similar results.

2. They are extremely physically active. Though there isn't one particular type of exercise that was preferred, the average study participant burned about 2,600 calories per week (which is equivalent to about 8.5 hours of brisk walking). Roughly one-third of the people in the study reported burning more than 3,000 calories per week with physical activities.

3. They eat breakfast regularly. Seventy-eight percent of the study subjects reported eating breakfast every day.

4. They watch the scale. About three-quarters of the participants report weighing themselves at least once a week. Almost a third of the study subjects weigh themselves at least once a day.

5. They are consistent in what they eat, throughout weekdays and weekends. Interestingly, one of the characteristics of successful losers is that they don't eat a large variety of foods. The study subjects found food/meals that they liked, and repeated them regularly. They did not change what they ate during holiday seasons or special occasions.

6. They often lose weight on their own without the help of a formal weight loss program. About 45% of the successful losers did it without any outside assistance.

7. They watch less television. While the average American watches about 28 hours of TV per week, 62% of study subjects reported watching fewer than 10 hours per week, and 36% reported watching fewer than 5 hours per week.

The good news is that the research also showed that weight maintenance becomes easier over time. So even though it takes a lot of discipline to succeed at maintaining a healthy weight for a lifetime, it feels a lot easier over time.

The bottom line? To lose weight and keep it off, it's important to eat a calorie-controlled, consistent diet, beginning with a healthy breakfast each day. Participating in daily physical activity, avoiding sedentary behaviors such as watching a lot of television, and opting for regular weigh-ins with the bathroom scale are critical disciplines. Weight loss programs can help you succeed, but you can also do just as well on your own if you adopt the behaviors of the success stories from the National Weight Control Registry!

This post by Val Jones, MD, appeared at Get Better Health, a network of popular health bloggers brought together by Val Jones, MD. Better Health's mission is to support and promote health care professional bloggers, provide insightful and trustworthy health commentary, and help to inform health policy makers about the provider point of view on health care reform, science, research and patient care.