Keeping weight off

  • Health
  • Sunday, 09 Feb 2003

Shedding those extra kilos is a struggle, bit even more diffcult is keeping them off. Now, researches are learning what it takes to maintain long-term weight loss, writes CARIN GORRELL

WHAT'S harder than trying to lose weight? Keeping the kilos off, unfortunately, but research on the probability of maintaining weight loss is always encouraging. 

“The most difficult part of maintaining weight loss is sticking to what got you there,” says Kerri Plum (name has been changed), a 27-year-old American human resources representative who has made three unsuccessful attempts at reaching and maintaining her weight since attending college. “When the weight is gone, it's hard not to think 'Hey, I deserve dessert tonight or chips with lunch today.'“ 

Of those who do successfully lose weight, 90% to 95% are unable to keep it off long-term. This is a particularly disconcerting statistic considering the numerous physical and mental-health problems that accompany being overweight, including increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and depression. 

There are not short-cuts to weight loss, which means you have to include exercise, as part of your weight-management regime to expend your calorie intake.

That said, take heart: A number of people do beat the odds. Doctors at the Universities of Colorado and Pittsburgh devised the National Weight C Registry (NWCR). Founded in 1993, NWCR was designed not to help people lose weight, but to study adults who have already dropped 13kg or more and kept it off for one year. 

“People lose weight all the time, but keeping it off seems to be the difficult part,” explains Holly Wyatt, endocrinology professor at University of Colorado who conducts research with NWCR co-founder Jim Hill. “We're really more interested in weight maintenance than in initial weight loss,” adds Wyatt. 

Thus far, Wyatt and other NWCR researchers have discovered four distinct behavioural trends among the registry's nearly 3,000 participants regardless of the diet they followed to lose weight. In addition to monitoring diet, registrants regularly engage in high levels of activity to remain slender. They report burning an average of 2,800 calories per week each, which is roughly equivalent to walking about 6km a day.  

Of course, people tend to overestimate their activity levels, so Wyatt asked participants to wear pedometers, instruments that count the number of steps a person takes. She also gave pedometers to people who had visited the University of Colorado's clinic and wished to lose weight but hadn't yet started a weight-loss programme.After comparing tallies, Wyatt discovered that those who were overweight and hadn't changed their habits took significantly fewer steps than did their thinner counterparts, averaging only 5,000 steps per day compared with those in the registry who were taking 11,000 daily steps. “Other studies report that physical activity is the best predictor of long-term weight maintenance,” Wyatt says. “This agrees with what our registry people are telling us.”  

Finally, successful weight-loss maintenance seems to require consistent “self-monitoring.” For instance, some NWCR participants weigh themselves daily, while others keep a precise food journal. “They're always watching for changes and respond to them quickly,” Wyatt says. “They don't just let things go.” Whatever the method, self-monitoring requires the same restraint and vigilance – what some experts refer to as “cognitive control” – as does committing to a weight-loss programme. 

“Cognitive control plays a big role,” Wyatt notes. “But it doesn't mean that if you have a weight problem you don't have control. It's harder for certain people than for others; that may be where genes and physiology come in.” 

Not surprisingly, cognitive control is also key in losing weight, a struggle that varies in difficulty among individuals and genders. One recent US national survey by the Calorie G Council found that 41% of women blamed weight loss failure due to lack of self-discipline, and 36% admitted they eat for emotional reasons. 

In comparison, only 30% of men attributed an inability to lose weight to low self-discipline, and they were half as likely as women to eat emotionally while women are more prone to internal reasons for their failures, men point to external factors such as eating improperly at restaurants. 

Despite differing opinions on challenges of losing weight, men and women do agree on what is necessary win: Both genders say it takes long-term lifestyle changes, not short-term fad diets. In fact, the majority of men and women surveyed by the Calorie G Council named exercising, consuming foods and drinks low in fat and sugar, eating smaller-portioned meals and combining calorie reduction with physical activity as the most popular methods for losing and controlling weight. 

Ultimately, it appears there is no magic pill for keeping trim. Instead, the old adages prove true once again: Everything in moderation; live healthy, look healthy. But while making lifelong behavioural changes can be daunting, there is some reassuring news. “People who have maintained their weight loss for three to five years say it gets easier,” Wyatt says. Jeffrey Kluger, a Time magazine senior writer, agrees. And he speaks from firsthand experience. 

“It really has gotten easier,” says Kluger, who lost 9kg in 1985 and has since kept it off through both dieting and exercise. “I find the reward for remaining vigilant in the long run is much greater than the short-term gratification of indulging.” - Psychology Today  

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