Learning from the Losers

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on May 12, 2008 · 0 comments

Why is it that most people can successfully lose weight but can’t keep it off?

You’ve lost 5 pounds to get into a dress for a wedding. You’ve trimmed down 20 pounds just in time for summer. You’ve dropped 2 dress sizes and are feeling great. Let’s check back in a year—few people can maintain their weight loss for that long. It’s estimated that over 90% of losers gain back their lost weight plus a few extra pounds, making their weight problem bigger than when they started.

Back in 1994, two researches Rena Wing, PhD, from Brown Medical School, and James O. Hill, PhD, from the University of Colorado set out to identify and investigate people who had lost weight and kept it off. What were their secrets? What did they have in common? To answer these questions they created the National Weight Control Registry, and they have gathered information on over 5,000 successful losers.

The strategy that Drs. Wing and Hill set up was amazingly simple. Ask people who had lost 30 pounds and had maintained the loss for at least a year, to explain how they did it.

The answers, too, were amazingly simple and the successful weight loss strategies repeated themselves over and over again. The first people to sign up, in the mid-90’s, lost an average of 66 pounds—far above the requirement for registering, and they all maintained at least a 30 pound loss for more than 5 years. They ate a low calorie diet (about 1,400 calories a day), a low fat diet (approximately 24% fat), engaged in regular exercise (burring close to 2,800 calories a week), weighed themselves regularly, and ate regular meals including breakfast.

With 12 years of data, the researches can now look at long-term trends. What did people eat and how much did they exercise when they first entered the registry, and how did their eating habits change over time? Do the people who join the National Weight Control Registry today share eating and exercise habits with those who signed up a decade ago?

A low calorie diet and regular physical activity remain the cornerstones of weight maintenance. Over the last decade there have been slight changes in the composition of the diet eaten by losers. Fat made up 24% of the day’s calories for early losers, and since then has increased to 29%—still below the recommended 30% to 35%. This would be considered a low fat intake. Saturated fat has risen slightly from 12 to 15 grams a day, but still falls below the recommended maximum of 10% of total fat calories. This would be considered a low saturated fat intake.

The amount of carbohydrate eaten daily has decreased from 56% of daily calories to 49%. This would be considered a moderate carbohydrate intake. A low carb diet has 40% or less total calories from carbohydrate. Interestingly, only 17% of the registry members followed a low carb diet to help maintain their weight loss.

While the diet has changed slightly over the years, the amount of exercise has remained almost constant. Initial registrants in the mid-1990’s reported burning about 2,800 calories a week through activity. Today, registrants exercise enough weekly to burn a little more than 2,600 calories a week.

For participants in the registry who said they had regained weight, the gain was consistently associated with a higher calorie intake, eating more fat, eating more fast food, and exercising less.

The National Weight Control Registry is providing us with a valuable, ongoing tool to better understand exercise and eating strategies that are needed for long-term weight loss.

• Eat a low calorie diet
• Eat a low fat diet and eat less saturated fat
• Eat a moderate amount of carbohydrates
• Go easy on fast food
• Exercise regularly

For more information about or to participate in the National Weight Control Registry go to www.nwcr.ws.

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