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Lessons from Losers: How People Who Lose Weight Keep it Off

  [ 309 votes ]   [ Discuss This Article ] • December 15, 2003

Since 1993, nearly 3,000 women and men have joined the National Weight Control Registry. This select "club" includes only people who lost more than 30 pounds and kept them off for at least a year. What was their secret?

• They exercised. Registry participants burn an average of 400 calories per day in physical activity. That's the equivalent of about an hour of brisk walking.

• They ate fewer calories. On average, registry volunteers consume about 1,400 calories a day. That's significantly less than the calories consumed by the average American. This doesn't mean, however, that you should aim for 1,400 calories a day. What's right for you is based on your weight, height, and activity level.

• They switched to lower-fat diets, cut back on sugars and sweets, and ate more fruits and vegetables.

Keep in mind that these are commonly used strategies, not hard and fast rules. In fact, one of the main take-home messages is that successful weight loss is very much a "do it your way" endeavor.

These findings are echoed in a survey of more than 32,000 dieters reported in the June 2002 issue of Consumer Reports. Nearly one-quarter had lost at least 10 percent of their starting body weight and kept it off for at least a year. Most chalked up their success to eating less and exercising more. The vast majority did it on their own, without utilizing commercial weight-loss programs or resorting to weight-loss drugs. Interestingly, the successful losers in the Consumer Reports survey tended to adopt low-carbohydrate/high-protein diets rather than low-fat diets.

What these two groups have in common is a focus on exercise and daily calories. In other words, they've learned to balance energy in and energy out in a way that leads to weight loss or weight maintenance. So despite all the pessimistic prognostications about the impossibility of sticking with a weight-loss plan, these two surveys show that it's possible to lose weight and keep it off.

Unfortunately, only a minority of people who try to lose weight follow the simple, tried-and-true strategy of eating fewer calories and exercising daily. For weight control, an hour of exercise a day may be needed.

General Strategies for Regaining or Maintaining a Healthy Weight

It's easy to gain weight in what Yale psychologist Kelly Brownell calls our "toxic food environment." How, then, can you lose weight if you need to? Here are some suggestions that work:

Set a realistic goal. Many people pick weight goals they'll have a hard time achieving, like fitting into a size 8 dress or a wedding tuxedo from 20 years ago. A better initial goal is 5-10 percent of your current weight. This may not put you in league with the "beautiful people" profiled in popular magazines, but it can lead to important improvements in weight-related conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. You don't have to stop there, of course.

You can keep aiming for another 5-10 percent until you're happy with your weight. By breaking weight loss into more manageable chunks, you'll be more likely to reach your goal.

Slow and steady wins the race. Dieting implies privation and hunger. You don't need either to lose weight if you're willing to take the time to do it right. If you cut out just 100 calories a day, the equivalent of a single can of soda or a bedtime snack, you would weigh 10 pounds less after a year. If, at the same time, you added a brisk 30-minute walk 5 days a week, you could be at least 20 pounds lighter.

Exercise more. The amount of energy the body uses to breathe, pump blood, keep muscles ready for action, and other mundane but vital tasks is called resting metabolism. It accounts for two-thirds of your daily energy expenditure. The more you work your muscles--especially with strength training exercises--the more blood sugar they sponge from the blood and the more calories they burn even when you aren't active. If you don't exercise, try a walking program.

Start out with something simple--get off your bus a stop early and walk the rest of the way to work, park your car at the far end of the company or mall parking lot, or take a brisk walk at lunch or when you come home. Gradually increase the amount of time you walk each day until you do 30 or more minutes a day. A pedometer can help you keep track of your daily activity. These watch-like devices hang from a belt and record how many steps you take. A good goal is 10,000 steps a day. If you already exercise, try to increase its intensity or duration.

Keep track. It's easy to eat more than you plan to. A daily food diary can make you more aware of exactly how much you are eating. Include everything, no matter how small or insignificant it seems. Small noshes and drinks of juice add up to real calories.

Tame your blood sugar. Eating foods that make your blood sugar and insulin levels shoot up and then crash may contribute to weight gain. Such foods include white bread, white rice, and other highly processed grain products. As an alternative, choose foods that have a gentler effect on blood sugar (what's called a lower glycemic index). These include whole grains such as wheat berries, steel-cut oats, and whole-grain breads and pasta, as well as beans, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

Don't be afraid of good fats. Fat in a meal or in snacks such as nuts or corn chips helps you feel full. Good fats such as olive or canola oil can also help improve your cholesterol levels when you eat them in place of saturated or trans fats or highly processed carbohydrates.

Bring on the water. When you are thirsty, reach for water. Drinking juice or sugared soda can give you several hundred calories a day without even realizing it.

The longest journey starts with a single step. Most people don't suddenly decide to lose weight and head straight for their goal. It's a trial and error process. The more you learn and the more support you can get, the more likely you'll be to reach your target.

Defensive Eating

In our society, food is everywhere--the mall and gas station, the ballpark and drug store. Super size meals in fast food restaurants are almost too good a bargain to pass up, and servings in all but the most trendy restaurants are often enough to feed two. In the face of such plenty, it's important to learn how to avoid overeating. Here are some strategies that help defend against eating too much:

• Stop before you are stuffed. Learn your body's signals and practice stopping before you feel full.

• Be selective. It's easy to eat food just because it's put in front of you. Be mindful of what you are eating, and make sure that you are choosing what to eat.

• Select small portions. Portions in most restaurants are over-sized. If you are eating with someone else, try sharing an entrée, or order two appetizers instead of an entree. If you're eating alone, eat half and take the rest home for another meal.

• Beware of desserts. A single slice of The Cheesecake Factory's Original Cheesecake packs almost 800 calories and an incredible 49 grams of fat (28 of them saturated, or 50 percent more than is recommended maximum per day). Either share such a rich dessert several ways or skip it altogether and finish your meal with a piece of fruit or other lower-calorie option.

• Slow down. Eating fast short-circuits the signals that your digestive system generates to signal that it's getting full. Slowing down gives your stomach and intestines time to send these messages to your brain.

• Spoil your appetite. Having a snack or appetizer before a meal can dull your hunger and help you eat less at the meal.

• Be aware of why you are eating. Sometime we eat when we're bored, anxious, or angry. Try not to soothe your negative feelings with food. Dealing with them in other ways --talking to friends, listening to music, taking a walk, meditating, or working--can help you relieve stress without gaining weight.


What's sometimes lost in the dire predictions about overweight and obesity in America are the enormous benefits of staying lean or working toward a healthier weight. Maintaining a healthy weight throughout life is associated with lower rates of premature death and heart disease, some cancers, and other chronic conditions. What if you're past that point? Losing 5-10 percent of your weight can substantially improve your immediate health and will decrease your risk of developing such problems. The best time to start losing weight is with the first signs that your weight is straying upward.

The more overweight you are, the more difficult it can be to lose weight. But as participants of the National Weight Control Registry have proven, anyone can lose weight.

Source: Harvard School of Public Health. ©2003 President and Fellows of Harvard College.

For more information about weight loss and healthy dieting, please visit

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