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Hoping to drop five pounds in a week? You might want to change your mindset and your strategy: Steady, and most often slow, weight loss is more likely to be long-lasting, researchers say.
In a study that included 183 overweight or obese volunteers, those with consistent weight loss in the first couple of months were more likely to keep the pounds off long term than those whose weights fluctuated from week to week, according to the report published in Obesity.
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"While it’s possible that some people did have fast and consistent weight loss, for most who are consistent from week to week it’s probably slower,” said the study’s lead author, Emily Feig, who was a graduate student at Drexel University while doing the research and is now a clinical research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Most people can lose weight — the hard part is keeping the pounds off.
To figure out the factors for keeping weight off, volunteers were enrolled in one of three weight-loss programs that included some behavioral treatment. In addition to the standard counseling, one group was told to use two meal replacements per day and another was told to consume fewer energy-dense foods while increasing protein and fiber intake.
The participants were also asked about food-related behaviors and attitudes, such as cravings, emotional eating, binge eating and confidence in regulating intake, and their weights were checked weekly.
When the researchers checked in after a year and then again after two years, they found that when it came to long-term weight maintenance it didn’t matter which group the volunteers were from. What did matter was how consistently someone lost weight. So, those with more variability in their weight loss over the initial 12 weeks of the study tended to have poorer weight control at 12 and 24 months.
Intriguingly, volunteers who reported lower emotional eating, binge eating and preoccupation with food when the study started were more likely to display higher weight variability and less weight loss overall. That may mean that consistent weight loss, rather than a person’s relationship with food, may be far more important in predicting who will be more successful long term.
Another important point, Feig said, “It tells us that if you’re in a weight-loss program and you are not able to lose consistently, it’s a sign you may need to try something else."
The bottom line: Find something you can stick with, even if it means not losing more than a pound, or even a half pound, a week.
Dr. Zhaoping Li, who was not involved in the new research, said the study underscores the need for an individualized approach.
“We need to find an intervention that fits the individual,” said Li, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. “One issue we’ve been suffering from overall is trying to find one meal plan that works for everyone. That’s a recipe for disaster. If people are struggling in the very beginning, you need to modify the plan, otherwise it won’t stick long term.”
For inspirational stories of weight-loss success, check out our My Weight-Loss Journey page.