Many dieters feel jubilant when they reach their weight goal, only to find that the kilos somehow return after that.
New research may help explain why that is so: the behaviours that help people lose weight don't overlap much with those that help them maintain their new shape, according to scientists from Penn State University.
The team investigated whether two distinct sets of thought patterns and behaviours were associated with weight loss, defined as losing 10% of your body weight in a year, and weight-loss maintenance, keeping that 10% loss off for a year.
Using a random phone survey of 1,165 adults, they found that there was little agreement between the two. Those who used a consistent exercise routine or ate plenty of low-fat sources of protein were more likely to report weight-loss maintenance, not weight loss. And those who reported doing different kinds of exercises or planning meals ahead of time, for example, were more likely to report weight loss but not weight-loss maintenance.
Therefore, the researchers concluded, diet programmes may need to guide participants differently to handle each specific phase.
"They started an important discussion that probably should have occurred earlier," said Alice H. Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition at the USDA Human Nutrition Center at Tufts University in Boston. "I think they address an important point - whether more emphasis should be given to stabilising weight loss than is currently given."
"When you're losing weight, it's kind of exciting. All of these neat changes are happening," added Beth Kitchin, an assistant professor of nutrition sciences at University of Alabama at Birmingham. "When we get to where we want to maintain, the mindset changes. Some struggle with adding more kilojoules back in, and learning how to eat foods that may not have been on their diet plan."
How to lose weight and keep it off
According to study author Dr Christopher Sciamanna, his group created the basis for their survey by recruiting and interviewing people who were successful in their weight-loss maintenance, which was defined as losing at least 30 pounds and keeping it off for at least a year.
The adults surveyed by phone were then asked about 36 strategies they might think about and do to accomplish losing the pounds and keeping them off.
Fourteen of the strategies were associated with either successful weight loss or successful maintenance, but not both, and the overlap between practises was not much higher than expected by chance, the study said.
The researchers found that strategies associated only with weight loss included participating in a diet program; looking for information about weight loss, nutrition or exercise; limiting sugar intake; planning meals beforehand; avoiding skipped meals; and thinking about how much better you feel when you are thinner.
Strategies associated only with weight-loss maintenance included eating plenty of low-fat protein; following a consistent exercise routine; rewarding yourself for sticking to your eating plan; and reminding yourself why you need to control your weight.
The study is published online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Weight maintenance is important
Kitchin noted that the study did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between the practises and weight loss or maintenance, though she praised the research as "a novel way of looking at it".
"We definitely need more research to look at the different methods used by people who lost weight," she said. "We need to look at different strategies to see what works over the long run. We spend so much time talking about weight loss and don't really focus on weight maintenance."
Lichtenstein, also director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Lab at Tufts and a member of the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association, said the study offered useful information but didn't determine which behaviours will benefit individual people.
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