How to maintain weight loss, according to researchers

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published February 6, 2020

Key Takeaways

Ever wonder how people who lose weight keep it off? Here’s a hint: it has to do with cultivating good, everyday habits.

To find out what those are, researchers led by Suzanne Phelan, PhD, Department of Kinesiology and Public Health & Center for Health Research, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA, conducted a study and published their results in Obesity. They wanted to pinpoint new behaviors and psychological strategies not in the “biggest losers,” but in those who lost about 20 lbs. on the WW program (formerly Weight Watchers) and, importantly, kept it off.

“This is the first study to use validated and standardized questionnaires to examine habit strength and the specific weight control behaviors and psychological coping approaches used by [weight loss maintainers] in a widely available commercial weight management program,” they wrote.

Dr. Phelan and colleagues recruited 4,786 adults who had maintained a weight loss of 20 lbs. or more for 3.3 years and had a current mean BMI of 27.6 kg/m2. This weight loss number was chosen because it represents the roughly 10% weight loss that is considered clinically significant, they explained.   

Participants answered questions about their weight control strategies, food cravings, physical activity, healthy eating, and the extent of which their habits had become routine in their lives.

For comparison, researchers also included a control group comprised of 528 weight-stable obese individuals, with a mean BMI of 38.9 kg/m2 and a weight change of less than 2.3 kg over the past 5 years.

Upon analyzing participant responses to the questionnaires, researchers found that those who were successful weight loss maintainers were different from controls in that they:

  • Practiced more healthy dietary choices

  • Engaged in more self-monitoring

  • Employed more psychological coping practices

  • Were more willing to ignore their food cravings

Furthermore, weight loss maintainers were more likely to feel that these good habits took less energy and effort to complete than controls did. The reason: their behaviors had become habits.

“Habit strength in healthy eating emerged as a defining characteristic among [weight loss maintainers], suggesting greater frequency, repetition, and automaticity in healthy eating choices. Observational survey studies of convenience samples with measures of habit strength have found that stronger exercise and healthy eating (eg, fruit intake) habits were related to less perceived effort to engage in these behaviors and greater persistence in engagement in these behaviors. In an experimental study, longer-term practice of specific eating or activity behaviors in the same context (eg, exercise after breakfast) was found to produce automaticity, allowing the behaviors to occur with less reported intentional effort,” concluded Dr. Phelan and fellow researchers.

Healthy habits to take up now

So now that you know that the key to maintaining weight loss is forming good dietary habits, here are a few you may want to incorporate into your lifestyle to help you keep off that weight you just lost.

Don’t count calories. Count fiber. Cutting too many calories from your diet could backfire, and may actually trigger your hormones to increase your appetite and slow down your metabolism to compensate. So instead of cutting out calories, work on increasing your fiber intake. Foods that are high in fiber are very filling, usually take longer to eat, and have fewer calories per bite than, say, a doughnut. Some good sources of dietary fiber include whole grains, nuts and seeds, and fruits and vegetables.

Stay hydrated. Drinking 8-10 glasses of water per day can boost your metabolism by 24%-30%, suppress your appetite, and help you lose weight.

Eat more protein. Your body has to work harder to digest and absorb the nutrients in protein. So, eating protein causes your body to burn more calories during the digestion and absorption processes. Protein can also reduce your ghrelin levels. Ghrelin is known as the “hunger hormone” because it stimulates appetite, causing you to digest more food and store more fat. Finally, protein can boost your levels of peptide YY, a hormone that makes you feel full.

Incorporate whole foods into every meal. Whole foods are foods that are as close to their natural form as possible. Not only will eating whole foods keep the weight off, but doing so will keep you healthier. Researchers have shown that eating patterns based on whole, unprocessed foods can reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.

Cultivate a supportive environment. Surround yourself with people who will help you in your weight loss journey. Enlist the help of your spouse, family, or close friends who will motivate you to stay on track, and support you when you get off track. And don’t forget to be supportive of yourself. Go easy on yourself if you happen to cheat on your diet or miss a workout. You’d do the same for a friend, so why not for yourself?

Dr. Phelan’s research was supported by a grant from WW International, Inc.

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