Expert Tips: Losing versus maintaining weight

By John Berardi, Ph.D.

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Recently there was a big media hullabuloo about the study showing that folks who followed the Atkins diet lost more weight than those folks following the Zone, the Ornish plan, or the USDA’s plan.

In that study, research participants were coached on each of these diets and then told to go forth and eat — stopping back for measurements every so often.

Although the media made much ado about nothing, a couple of really noteworthy findings came out of this study.

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Finding 1: No one really lost all that much weight.

Yes, even though the Atkins group lost the most weight over the course of the study, the total amount of weight lost was very modest. The Atkins group lost about 9 lbs while the other groups lost about 5 lbs.

When you consider the study lasted a year, this rate of weight loss is downright disappointing.

Finding 2: No one really followed the diets.

When researchers looked at participants’ dietary records, it became clear that the groups really weren’t following their respective diets all that well.

That could explain the relatively poor weight loss progress. And it could explain the lack of differences between groups.

How do we know what works?

But right now, I don’t want to focus on weight loss at all. Rather, I want to focus on the differences between weight loss and maintaining weight loss. These are two very different things.

Dr James Hill, psychologist and authority on weight loss, had an interesting take on this in a commentary in Scientific American. He said that he’s not terribly interested in comparing diets or devising new ones. He wants to know about people who have lost weight, and then kept it off for good.

“The Atkins diet is a great way to lose weight… But it is not a way to keep weight off. There’s no way you can do it forever… I think the weight-loss part is something we [already] do pretty well,” he says.

He oversees the National Weight Control Registry to collect data on people who have cut at least 30 pounds and kept them off for a year.

People’s experiences of weight loss are diverse.

  • The average is a 70-pound weight loss maintained for six years. But some people have lost 100 lbs or more.
  • Duration of successful weight loss has ranged from 1 year to 66 years (!)
  • Some people lost it quickly, some people lost it slowly.

“If you look at how they lost weight, there’s no commonality at all,” Hill says. But “if you look at how they kept it off, there’s a lot of commonality.”

The NWCR currently tracks about 5,000 successful weight maintainers. Here’s what they’ve found.

Common features of weight maintainers

According to Dr Hill, successful maintenance plans share these features:

1. Exercise daily

“Activity becomes the driver; food restriction doesn’t do it,” says Hill.  “The idea that for the rest of your life you’re going to be hungry all the time — that’s just silly.”

Successful maintainers average about 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Many do up to 90 minutes a day.

As Hill states, people “get to the point with physical activity where they don’t say they love it, but they say ‘it’s part of my life’.”

2. Control calorie and fat intake

Successful maintainers keep their diet relatively controlled.

Fat intake, as recorded by Hill, was around 25% of their diet.

To me, the most important part is that they had a greater food awareness. Even the simple knowledge of how much fat, carbohydrate, and protein they’re eating, as well as appropriate portion sizing, helps them control their weight permanently.

3. Eat breakfast

Everyone reading this should know the importance of breakfast. But many people don’t. So spread the word.

Nearly every individual successful in long-term weight loss maintenance eats breakfast every single day.

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If you’re maintaining your healthy weight, you share this!

4. Weigh in

Although weighing in has become taboo, according to Dr Hill’s research (as well as research from Brown University), weighing in regularly helps improve weight loss and weight loss maintenance in research participants.

Again, it comes down to awareness. If you know how many calories you’re consuming, and you know how much you weigh any given week, you can adjust your intake or exercise program as you require.

If you don’t have this information, you’re expecting to lose weight (or maintain your loss) on a wing and a prayer.

What’s the difference?

Goal Weight loss Weight maintenance
Duration Temporary; short term Life-long
Speed Ranges from slow and steady (PN style) or rapid approach (Get Shredded) What speed? I’m already here! The time is now!
Amount of change Small to large changesMay “fall off the wagon” bigtime and backslide significantly Very small changes; awareness of slight fluctuations in weight from day to dayQuickly responds to very small deviations; gets back on track rapidly with little harm done
Potential mindset Learn new habits”Get ‘er done”Deprivation, limiting options Stick with good habits already learnedPatiencePersistence

Continuous adjustment

Flexibility within reason

Composition of diet Can range dramatically: low fat, low carb, Mediterranean, etc. etc.Often a focus on strictly eliminating or limiting a certain macronutrient, or eating “special foods” (e.g. grapefruit diet, cabbage soup diet) Some variation, but most importantly, all involve careful monitoring and self-awarenessMust be an eating pattern that can be sustained for life
Typical actions Regular observation and monitoring (may be less frequent to allow progress to occur)Regular exerciseFocus on food choices Daily observation and monitoring — including weigh-insRegular exerciseOngoing, habitual healthy food choices

If you’ve noticed that the last columns look much the same, you’re right. Weight maintenance carries over the good habits that were built (ideally) during the weight loss phase.

If you’re hoping to diet down to your ideal weight, then quit working on it, you’re in for a surprise. Just like you don’t brush your teeth once and then forget about it, research shows that staying at a healthy weight requires regular effort, exercise, and a long-term focus.

And here’s one more finding from the NWCR: 62% of successful weight maintainers watch less than 10 hours of TV per week. Turn off the TV, eat breakfast, and haul out that bathroom scale!

Learn more

To learn more about making important improvements to your nutrition and exercise program, check out the following 5-day video courses.

They’re probably better than 90% of the seminars we’ve ever attended on the subjects of exercise and nutrition (and probably better than a few we’ve given ourselves, too).

The best part? They’re totally free.

To check out the free courses, just click one of the links below.