Science Identifies the No-Brainers For Weight Loss and Maintenance

Whether you’ve tried to lose weight and failed or tried and succeeded, you probably have a pretty good idea of how to do it. One simple strategy is to do the opposite of what led you to gain the weight. DUH! The same thing goes for keeping the weight off. There are common-sense things done by those who succeed at losing weight and keeping off.

Before you say it, I’ll say it first. Yes, there are a myriad of factors that can complicate the process of weight loss and make it more difficult to keep it off. Here are just a few of those things:

  • Stress can throw your hormones into a tizzy. But let’s face it, stress really turns your decision-making into a dumpster fire of poor eating and drinking choices.
  • Kids and their schedules and needs and homework and drama, am I right? With everything that revolves around raising kids, it’s a miracle any parent makes it through without a trip to the “Biggest Loser” ranch or a turn on “My 600 Pound Life!”
  • Grocery shopping! Everyone knows that random desserts jump into your cart, then hold a gun to your head to make you take them home and eat them.
  • The doughnut/cookie/snack table at work. Yeah, you walk by it without taking anything. No cookie, no doughnut, no nothing. You get back to your desk and there it is. That doughnut rolled off the table, followed you back to your desk held your keyboard hostage until you ate the doughnut and sabotaged your diet for the day.
  • Just when you start making weight loss progress or think you have this maintenance thing down, the six pack of beer, the gallon of chocolate praline ice cream (coffee ice cream for me, if we’re being totally honest here) or the meat lovers pizza start doing their “sexy dance” and you just can’t help yourself.
  • Your significant other (even if that’s YOU!) Let’s face it. Dealing with the moods and needs of those we love can drive you to drink. And eat double bacon cheeseburgers from the local fast food outlet a couple times a week. And yes, they still count as fast food if they’re plant-based. Still garbage.

I don’t mean to be cruel or unsympathetic here. But come on, we’ve been talking about what works for weight loss and keeping the weight off for a hundred frickin’ years! What do you want, some kind of scientific study to figure out what works?

Well, you’re in luck! The folks at Cal Poly have done exactly that! They’ve put together a study that determined the keys to success in weight loss and weight loss maintenance. They’ve found the best ways to build healthy eating habits, self-monitor health and create psychological coping strategies. Now what are you gonna do when the pizza starts the sexy dance, huh?

They published their results in the journal Obesity. (Read the actual study here.) In a nutshell, they found that habits like choosing healthier foods, engaging in positive self-talk and tracking what you eat with a food journal or app are among the best tools for achieving weight loss and keeping that weight off.

While it may be easy for those of us who work in the health and fitness profession to read this and say “DUH,” for many people this stuff isn’t so intuitive. Media, celebrities like Dr. Oz and the gajillion “influencers” on social media make the arena of diet and exercise confusing and scary. Frankly, many well-meaning strength, fitness and health professionals confuse the issue even more.

When people are confused, they tend to do nothing. No change gets made and no results occur. So this study may be a good thing after all, even if it does cover what should be familiar, “no-brainer” ground.

The researchers engaged almost 5,000 WW members (you know, Weight Watchers before it was Oprah-ized) for the study. These folks had lost 50 or more pounds and had kept it off for more than three years. Impressive to say the least. The team wanted to find out their weight management strategies. They also used a control group of 500 obese people who reported having not lost or gained more than 5 pounds over a period of more than five years.

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The researchers looked at 54 behaviors which relate to weight management. Those who had maintained their 50+ pound weight loss had some things in common. They were using strategies like recording what they ate each day, weighing and measuring their food, setting daily goals for food intake, focusing on their past successes and keeping a positive outlook in spite of any temporary weight gain rebounds. The group that had not lost any weight over the previous 5+ years did not engage in these behaviors regularly (or irregularly, one might assume.)

The team also noted that the successful weight loss and maintenance group saw these eating habits and lifestyle and thought habits and behaviors became easier and more ingrained as time progressed.

“People who maintained their successful weight loss the longest reported greater frequency and repetition in healthy eating choices,” said Suzanne Phelan, a kinesiology and public health professor who led the study. “Healthier choices also became more automatic the longer people continued to make those choices. These findings are encouraging for those working at weight loss maintenance. Over time, weight loss maintenance may become easier, requiring less intentional effort.”

Studying these things may seem trivial to those who don’t struggle with weight. However, for the nearly 40% of American adults who are obese and the additional 32% who are overweight, these habits and behaviors aren’t a “no-brainer” or trivial. They may actually mean the difference between life and death.

We may have been joking about this earlier, but there’s nothing funny about the increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, metabolic diseases and other negative health outcomes that are connected to overweight and obesity.

Obesity and overweight can affect quality of life long before it impacts health in a measurable and serious way. Interestingly, many of the habits that lead to weight loss and the maintenance of it will contribute to better quality of life while addressing the issues attached to excess weight.

Choosing healthier foods can improve sleep, energy, attention and mood. Being more active can relieve joint pain, stiffness and lack of energy. It can also improve mood, cognition and the sense of self-worth. Tracking food intake can provide opportunities for reflection and a sense of accomplishment.

All of it can lead to a longer, healthier and happier life. As I noted in Longevity, Health, Happiness and Consistency, if that isn’t the point of engaging in health-improving behaviors, what is the point? If studying people who’ve been successful at weight loss and it’s maintenance can help more people succeed in this area, then we need more of it.

“Successful weight loss is associated with a variety of health benefits,” Phelan said. “The improved quality of life observed among the successful weight losers in this study may serve as an important motivator for people working at long-term weight management.”

Want to be fitter, healthier and happier? Get a handle on your food and activity habits. The ones this study highlighted are good places to start.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Success! You’re on the list.

Journal Reference – Suzanne Phelan, Tate Halfman, Angela Marinilli Pinto, Gary D. Foster. Behavioral and Psychological Strategies of Long‐Term Weight Loss Maintainers in a Widely Available Weight Management Program. Obesity, 2020; 28 (2): 421 DOI: 10.1002/oby.22685

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