If 2011 was a successful year for slimming down, now comes the tricky part: maintaining your weight loss. Here, we reveal the secrets of those who have shed 30 pounds or more and kept if offBy: Hollis Templeton
As fantastic as it feels to reach a weight loss goal, hitting your target is not a point at which you should cancel your gym membership and bury your food diary in the junk drawer. Keeping weight off can be harder than shedding pounds in the first place, especially when popular diet and exercise programs are more focused on weight loss than weight loss maintenance. (Search: How should your diet and exercise program change once you hit your goal weight?)
That’s exactly the type of question the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) was designed to answer. The NWCR is a database of more than 10,000 Americans who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a 1 year or longer. Founded in 1993 to discern whether it was possible to successfully maintain weight loss long-term, the registry uses detailed questionnaires and yearly follow-up surveys on lifestyle habits and weight-maintenance techniques to investigate what makes individuals successful in keeping off the pounds for good.
While the average member has lost 66 pounds and kept it off for 5.5 years, weight loss among NWCR members ranges from 30 to 300 pounds, and the duration of successful weight maintenance ranges from 1 year to 66 years. These successes have been the subject of several scientific studies, researchers being drawn to the popular topic and very large sample size. Here, we condense recent research on NWCR members into nine tips that can help you keep pounds from creeping back on.
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Skipping the first meal of the day may seem like a smart strategy for reducing the total number of calories you consume from morning to night, but eating breakfast has important weight-maintenance benefits. “By spreading your calories out across the day, you avoid the peaks and valleys in hunger that can lead to overeating,” says J. Graham Thomas, PhD, a NWCR coresearcher and assistant professor at Brown University Alpert Medical School.
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When survey responses from 2,959 NWCR members were compiled for a study published in Obesity Research, 78% of respondents reported that they ate breakfast every day of the week. Nearly 90% of respondents reported eating breakfast on most days of the week, and 4% reported that they never ate breakfast.
According to the study, there was no difference in the total number of calories consumed each day between breakfast eaters (those who ate breakfast four or more times a week) and nonbreakfast eaters (those who ate the meal three or fewer times a week). However, breakfast eaters reported that they engaged in slightly more physical activity each day.
The study’s authors suggest that regularly eating breakfast may help people pick less caloric foods throughout the remainder of the day. They also suggest that the nutrients consumed during an a.m. meal—among NWCR members who typically ate breakfast, 80% reported that, at the least, they sometimes ate cereal in the morning and 79% reported that they at least sometimes ate fruit—may help breakfast eaters better perform physical activity.
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It’s no surprise that members of the NWCR adhere to diets that are low in calories and fat. According to one study, successful weight maintainers consume about 1,385 calories per day with 24% of those calories coming from fat. These numbers are reflective of the fact that more than half of NWCR members are trying to lose more weight.
An additional step that registry participants take is limiting their exposure to diet-wrecking foods. Upon entering into the registry, people complete a questionnaire about how frequently they eat foods from various food groups. When responses from 2,237 members were reviewed for a study published in Obesity Research, researchers concluded that NWCR members consume a diet with little variety in all food groups, especially within groups with the highest amounts of fat, like meat and dairy.
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Registry participants reported consuming between 12% and 47% of the foods within each food group, with the greatest amount of variety occurring in lower-fat foods, like breads, pasta, and rice, as well as fruits and vegetables.
“Our environments are filled with delicious, high-calorie foods that are available to us all the time,” says Thomas. “And studies show that the more variety that is available, the more food we are likely to eat.”
Study authors suggest that eating the same foods over and over makes weight loss easier to sustain because it provides your eating plan with structure and simplicity, making it more possible to consistently stay within daily limits set for calories and fat. The researchers also suggest that as a food is consumed more frequently, it loses a certain pleasurable quality, meaning you’re less tempted to overindulge.
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Allowing a little wiggle room in your eating and exercise plan during weekends, holidays, and vacations might make your weight loss plan easier to stick with for the long haul. However, flexibility also makes it easier to fall victim to high-risk situations, like overindulging during a weekend outing to the movies.
A study in the International Journal of Obesity involving 1,429 members of the NWCR examined whether it was more effective to stick to the same diet over the course of a week or diet more strictly on weekdays. Results show that those who reported being consistent with their eating plans all week were 1.5 times more likely to keep their weight within 5 pounds of their previous year’s weight, compared with those who allowed more wiggle room on weekends. A similar trend was observed with dieting consistency over the course of a year.
Another study examined winter holiday weight control strategies among 178 NWCR members and 101 individuals who had never been obese. NWCR members reported having greater difficulty controlling their weight over the holidays, and more NWCR members than never-obese individuals reported making plans to be extremely strict in maintaining their usual eating plan (27% compared with 0%) and exercise routines (59% versus 14%) over the holidays.
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Continue to befriend your bathroom scale. “The only way you know if what you’re doing is working is by checking in and using the scale,” says Thomas. Upon entrance into the registry, 36% of study participants reported weighing themselves at least once a day, 43% reported weighing themselves less than daily but at least once a week, and 21% reported weighing themselves weekly, according to a study of 3,003 NWCR members published in the journal Obesity.
Study participants who weighed themselves most frequently reported being less likely to give into temptation and more likely to practice restraint around trigger foods. Subjects who decreased their weighing frequency between entrance into the registry and their 1-year follow-up consumed more calories and were less able to hold themselves back from indulging in unhealthy foods.
“It’s a lot easier to cope with a small gain than it is to cope with a big weight gain,” says Thomas, explaining that catching a small gain can encourage people to make the behavior changes necessary to head off additional weight gain.
Keeping a record of calories and/or fat grams is also a popular strategy among NWCR members, with approximately half engaged in keeping a log. “It’s a powerful strategy that helps to increase your awareness of how much you are eating, and it can be helpful if you are setting specific goals or limits for calories or fat grams,” says Thomas.
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Not surprising, keeping weight off requires keeping yourself off the sofa. When researchers examined the television-watching habits of 1,422 NWCR members for a study published in Obesity, they found that 62% watched less than 10 hours of TV a week—36% reported watching less than 5 hours a week, and 26% reported watching 6 to 10 hours a week. These findings are a stark contrast to the TV-viewing behavior of the average American, who watched 34 hours and 29 minutes of TV a week between October and December of last year, according to a Nielsen study.
“Cutting back on TV time has two benefits,” says Thomas. “First, it leaves more time to be physically active and, second, for many people, sitting and watching TV is associated with indulging in junk food.”
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According to the NWCR, 90% of its members exercise, on average, about 1 hour a day, which is slightly more physical activity than the average gym-goer gets.
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In a recent study in Obesity, researchers compared the exercise habits of 26 NWCR members with a control group of 30 never-obese individuals as well as a control group of 34 overweight people. Study participants wore accelerometers, devices that chart calories burned from various degrees of movement, to track their level of activity over the course of 1 week. Exercise was defined as a moderate to vigorous activity lasting at least 10 minutes. Results show that NWCR participants exercised for an average of 42 minutes a day, the obese control group worked out for 19.2 minutes daily, and the normal-weight group for 26 minutes daily.
“You don’t have to do an hour all at once,” says Thomas, who suggests breaking a 60-minute workout into 10-minute segments. “It also doesn’t have to be high-intensity,” he says, explaining that the most commonly reported exercise among registry members is brisk walking. “Walking is something most people can do and it doesn’t require special gym equipment.”
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Research shows that maintaining a significant weight loss is entirely possible without surgery. Results from a study published in the International Journal of Obesity show that among 105 NWCR members who underwent bariatric weight loss surgery (only about 2% of registry members have had weight loss surgery) and 210 members who lost weight by nonsurgical methods there were no significant differences in weight regain between the groups upon entry into the NWCR and after a 1-year follow-up.
“Surgery is not a magic bullet,” says Thomas, explaining that maintaining surgical weight loss requires many of the same behaviors, like restricting calories and exercising regularly, necessary for maintaining weight loss in general.
Nonsurgical weight loss, however, does take more work to maintain. Surgical study participants reported that they consumed more fat calories, ate fast food more regularly, ate breakfast less frequently, and got less physical activity than nonsurgical participants.
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The relationship between weight maintenance and medical triggers, like being instructed by a doctor to lose weight or witnessing a family member suffer a heart attack, was the subject of a study published in Preventive Medicine involving 917 members of the NWCR. While 83% of study participants reported that something had triggered their weight loss—responses ranged from approaching a 40th birthday to stumbling upon a new weight loss clinic—medical triggers were the most common motivators, with 23% reporting that a doctor’s instructions or an existing obesity-related condition such as type 2 diabetes had sparked their weight loss.
Participants with medical triggers also reported greater initial weight loss and less weight regain after 2 years, compared with those whose weight loss was motivated by nonmedical triggers.
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Here’s something to look forward to: Over time, staying slim will require fewer tricks and less obsessing about your lifestyle. Yet you’ll still reap all the rewards of weight loss success.
In a study of 758 women and 173 men who had maintained a weight loss of at least 30 pounds for 2 years or longer, NWCR members completed questionnaires that assessed the effort, attention, and pleasure they associated with maintaining their weight over the past year.
Results show that as time passed, maintainers used fewer strategies to keep pounds from creeping back on. They were less likely to report keeping a photo of themselves in a prominent place, less likely to record eating and exercise habits, less likely to keep themselves away from restaurants, and less likely to purchase health-related books or magazines. (Related: Good Advice from Bizarre Books) Subjects did, however, report that they continued to monitor their weight by frequently stepping on the scale.
“It’s important to keep in mind that you’re not necessarily doing less, it just takes less effort,” says Thomas. “If you are able to build healthy habits and stick to them over time, they become more habitual and part of your life versus something you have to work at to maintain.”
The bonus: The rewards of successful weight loss don’t disappear when effort levels decline. Passing time did not decrease the amount of pleasure derived from exercising, eating low-fat foods, and maintaining weight loss, according to questionnaire responses.
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