As a high school senior, I was convinced I needed to lose weight (note to my former self: I didn't). So I started drinking Slim-Fast shakes for breakfast and lunch and eating Lean Cuisine entrees for dinner. Unsurprisingly, I lost weight. Equally unsurprisingly, I gained it all back.
And I learned the lesson that every dieter already knows: It's pretty easy to lose weight on any calorie-restriction plan, but maintaining the loss is a whole other ball of wax. A new study out today underlines that point, and while its conclusions don't offer dieters any easy answers, I find it encouraging to see research focusing on the very tough issue of weight-loss maintenance. One key finding: Some sort of structured support may slightly improve the odds.
The study, which appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association, took a group of 1,032 overweight or obese adults with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or both and who had lost weight using a diet focusing on fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains. Their average weight loss was 19 pounds. One group was given regular phone and in-person support from a counselor, another had unlimited access to a website designed to encourage weight-loss maintenance, and a third received no support. After 30 months, all three groups had regained some weight, and the differences between the groups were small. But the personal contact group fared best, with a net loss of 9.2 pounds. The website users followed, with 7.3 pounds, and the control group brought up the rear (6.4).
A forthcoming paper will focus on which individual factors were associated with success, says Laura Svetkey, lead author of the study and director of clinical research at the Sarah W. Stedman Nutrition & Metabolism Center at the Duke University School of Medicine. Researchers will also continue to follow the group to track its progress. Meantime, the best-known picture of weight-maintenance strategies comes from the ongoing National Weight Control Registry, which tracks the characteristics of people who were successful at keeping off at least 30 pounds for a minimum of a year. The most recent findings from that registry, published in January in Obesity, found that exercise appears to be key. The average physical activity of the registry's 3,683 participants is the equivalent of about 60 to 75 minutes of moderate intensity activity (like a brisk walk) every day, or 35 to 45 minutes of more intense exercise like running or cycling. There was a lot of variability among the group, though; some people who racked up far less workout time still managed to keep weight off. But the people who were the most successful were also the most physically active.
As this current study seems to suggest, frequent monitoring may also be important. Richard Siegel, an endocrinologist at the Obesity Consult Center at Tufts Medical Center, has a patient who has come back for a quick visit every week for seven years in an attempt to maintain a 100-pound weight loss. "He thrives on the week-to-week interaction," Siegel says. That's not possible for most people, probably, though self-monitoring (regular weigh-ins) also keeps people on track. Have you got a maintenance strategy that works for you?