There is a group of thousands of people that have all successfully lost weight and kept it off for years. Not only did they lose the weight, but they have recorded how they did it, and how they managed to maintain their weight loss. Why should we go to celebrity fitness gurus, authors, PHD's or anyone else when we can go right to people with practical experience to learn their secrets? In this post, I give you their 8 top secrets.
The National Weight Control Registry
The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) maintains information about the habits of people who have successfully lost a significant amount of weight and who have managed to keep it off for several years. It has been tracking information since 1994 and has over 5,000 participants. Numerous publications have analyzed the data that has been collected and have relayed various aspects of how these long-time losers have managed to maintain their weight loss.
One study in particular, published in the journal Obesity does a great job at interpreting the NWCR data in a way that can help those of us who are on our own journey to lower weight and greater health. The study was published in 2012 by a team led by Lorraine G. Ogden. They took 2,228 of the participants, divided them up into four distinct groups and explained the tactics used by each group to successfully keep their weight off.
For the purposes of this post, I will focus on the largest group in the study, representing the most typical participants in the NWCR. These are the people who aren’t currently experiencing large fluctuations in their weight, are generally healthy and who exercise regularly. The average weight loss that they have successfully maintained is 30 pounds for 6 years. Sounds like if anyone would be expert at long-term weight loss, it would be them!
8 secrets to success
So what secrets can we learn from these long-term losers? How did they lose the weight and keep it off? Below I give you their 8 secrets to success.
1. You don’t have to follow a specific weight loss program
56% of the participants lost weight on their own. 24.8% followed a commercial weight loss program, 10.9% were working with a physician, 8.9% worked with a self-help group and 8.3% worked with a personal trainer. So the takeaway from this one is that you don’t have to go out and purchase a weight loss program, do what works best for you. As for me, I fit into the 8.3% that worked with a personal trainer.
2. Incorporate exercise
94.5% of the participants reported that they made modifications to their physical activities in order to achieve and maintain their weight loss. This one sounds obvious, but perhaps it isn’t. Most experts would tell you that weight loss is primarily accomplished through dietary changes. Of course physical exercise is important, but by far what you eat impacts your weight more than how you move. At least in the calories in-calories out equation.
So why the connection to exercise? My opinion on that is from my own experience. I find that exercise and weight loss build on each other. When I exercise, I feel like eating better. And when I eat well, I have the energy to exercise. I also feel more like taking care of my body. Anyone can follow a quick-fix diet program and lose some weight in the short term, but becoming a long-term loser really means that you’re becoming a healthy person. And healthy people eat right AND exercise on a regular basis.
The participants in the study expended an average of 2853 calories per week in exercise, or an average of around 400 calories per day. That’s about 30 minutes on an elliptical machine, or about an hour of walking at 4.5-5.0 miles per hour. Or just a combination of activities, like walking, taking the stairs, gardening, etc.
3. Keep healthy food around
Funny thing, if you have unhealthy food around, you’ll tend to eat it. 96.6% of the participants said that they kept healthy food around the house. Don’t keep soda, potato chips, pop tarts, sugary cereals, and any other highly processed or sugary foods around. If you want to have treats on occasion, do what I do – go out. My wife and I stop at a local bakery each Saturday night and I choose a pastry. I eat it slowly and enjoy it. Then it is gone, I don’t have any more around to tempt me. Plus with children around you want to have good tasting healthy food around for them to snack on as well.
Another statistic showed that 79.8% kept few high-fat foods around. In light of what we now know about fat, we can safely say that the participants were talking about unhealthy fatty foods – like potato chips, Oreos, most fast foods, cake, cookies, pizza, deep fried foods, etc. Of course there are many healthy fats that we should be eating on a regular basis, like olive oil, coconut oil, avocados and nuts. Of course everything in moderation, you still need to be at a caloric deficit in order to lose weight.
4. Weigh yourself regularly
85.5% of the participants weighed themselves regularly. This one is a bit surprising, since many experts tell you to avoid the scale. And it’s true, if you allow your current mood to be influenced based on whether the scale goes up or down it’s hard to maintain your motivation to be healthy. But it does make sense to weight yourself on a regular basis, perhaps once a week first thing in the morning just to ensure that you’re still on track. If you’re not tracking, then it’s easy to let the weight gradually creep back on without noticing.
I typically weigh myself once a week. At the moment I’m actually weighing myself every day. That’s just because I’m doing my own calories-in/calories-out experiment and weight tends to fluctuate by a few pounds each day. By measuring every day, I can average the readings over a week to determine how much I really weigh. But once a week is plenty for most people. Write it down or put it in a spreadsheet so you can track it over time and make modifications if necessary.
5. Live happy and healthy
Harder to actually quantify, but the participants reported that they were satisfied with their current weight and reported low levels of depression and stress. You could argue that the reason they are so happy and content is because they are healthy, and I think you’d be right. There is an immediate benefit to taking steps towards better health. Just eat better for a short time and your body rewards you with more energy, better ability to think and fewer health problems. Couple that with exercise and you have a great recipe for long-term health, lower depression and less stress.
6. Eat more often
The average participant ate 5 times per day. That means breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks. Again your mileage will vary – some people like to eat only three meals, some six. But I think the point is that the long-term losers weren’t skipping meals. They ate a healthy breakfast every day and continued to eat throughout the day. I actually eat 5-6 times a day myself. I tend to not like to get so hungry between meals that I am tempted to overeat.
80% of the participants did experience food cravings, and eating more often can help with this. Not that cravings are bad, it’s just good not to let them get out of control, which could lead to binge eating. Sometimes eating healthy means eating a lot.
7. Don't avoid the carbs
Experts will tell you to avoid carbohydrates and focus more on eating protein-rich foods and healthy fats in order to lose weight. But this group reports that they eat a diet of 54% carbohydrates, 26% fat and 18% protein. I just checked my macros for the last month, and it looks like I’ve been eating 50% carbohydrates, 19% fat and 31% protein. The commonality is that like the long-term losers, I eat about half of my calories in carbohydrates. Of course that includes vegetables, fruit and whole grains. But still that flies in the face of all the low-carb hype you hear these days. Best not to demonize any particular kind of macro or food group and follow good general healthy eating guidelines. Which for me means eat vegetables, fruit, lean meats and whole grains. And treats, but sparingly.
8. Practice self-restraint
70% of the participants said that they didn’t feel like they could eat whatever they wanted and still maintain their weight. And as reported above, they did experience food cravings. So that boils down to self-restraint. For myself, I am lucky enough to have a workplace that provides lunch and snacks every day. Unfortunately, not everything they provide is healthy. On a regular basis I have access to chocolate, candy, cake, bagels, and a variety of unhealthy foods. That’s partially how I ended up gaining 75 extra pounds over time. But through education, learning better eating habits and exercising self-control, I was able to lose the weight and resist the temptation. You’re going to have to live in a world full of tempting foods and you’ll need to learn how to say no…most of the time. And when you say yes it won’t be typically on a sudden impulse, it will be something you’ve planned around. That is self-restraint.
Some of these "secrets" may not have surprised you. But perhaps others did. Regardless, it's great to know that there are some general habits that we should be following if we want to have similar success.
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