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Weight Wise – Learn From Winners

Source: Diabetes Focus  July-September 2007

Finally a clear way – using both new and time-tested ideas – to lose weight, keep it off and get happier, all at the same time.

WHENEVER I WANT TO LEARN how to master something, I go to experts. A few years ago when I took up tennis, I went to a pro who, by definition, had mastered the tried-and-true techniques for hitting powerful forehands and winning serves. And my game got much, much better.

Well, guess what? The same approach works for weight loss. If you want to improve your weight-shedding skills, take a lesson from the weight-loss masters. They’re found in the National Weight Control Registry, a fascinating database of 5,000 people who are big losers-and consequently winners-at weight loss. Since 1994, the registry has been tracking these folks’ highly successful habits. Established by researchers from the Brown University Medical School and the University of Colorado, this investigation of successful weight loss maintenance is the largest ever undertaken.

To be eligible for the study, a person has to have lost 30 pounds and kept them off for at least a year-though the average member of the study has lost substantially more (60-plus pounds) and kept them off much longer.

What can we learn from these people? Quite a lot. In some 13 years since the study began, four habits have emerged as advantageous. Here’s what the vast majority of the participants do.

1. They eat breakfast. In one analysis of the data, only 4 percent of the participants never ate breakfast. This is very consistent with other studies, which show that skipping breakfast is a risk factor for being overweight.

2. They eat a low-calorie diet, with about 25 percent of calories from fat, though whether this percentage is important or not is highly debatable. What is important is the lower intake of calories: Participants reported an average of about 1,400 calories. (We can assume there was some underreporting, but probably not much.)

For years I’ve said that most women will lose weight and maintain the lower weight on anywhere from 1,250 to 1,450 calories a day, and most men will lose on about 1,800 calories. Yes, this is lower than the Internet calculators say you should be eating, but guess what? Those calculations actually over-estimate the fuel you need! If you’re eating the right foods and cutting out calories-dense desserts, 1,400 calories can be a lot to consume. You probably wouldn’t even be able to finish 150 calories of spinach.

3. They use the scale regularly. This surprises a lot of people who are terrified of weighing themselves, but, as I’ve often said, avoiding the scales fosters denial. It’s a good reality check. Recognize it for the useful thing it is–a tool to keep you honest.

4. They exercise. And exercise. And exercise. I’m not talking 15-minute walks three times a week. I’m talking enough activity to burn an average of 2,600 calories per week for women and 3,400 for men. This translates to about an hour of exercise a day, less if you work out harder. That may sound like a lot, but it’s actually only 6 percent of your waking hours. Do a cost-benefit analysis, and you’ll find it’s an awfully good way to help lose weight. Almost 100 percent of registry members said that weight loss led to improvements in their level of energy, physical mobility, general mood, self-confidence and physical health.


A whopping 89 percent of the registry participants use both diet and exercise to lose weight and maintain the lower weight. Only 10 percent use diet alone. Even more interestingly, only 1 percent use exercise alone. (Hate to be the or to say, “I told you so,” but again, I’ve said for years that exercise alone is not particularly effective for losing weight though it’s great for keeping it off.)

It’s also worth noting that only a little more than half of the participants lost weight through a formal program. The other half lost it on their own.

Many participants reported that a “triggering event” prompted their successful weight loss; often, the trigger is medical, such as a serious warning from a doctor. And a staggering 42 percent reported that keeping weight off was actually easier than losing it in the first place.

Not surprisingly, consistency was a great predictor of success. Those with a consistent diet across the week were more likely to maintain their weight within five pounds over the course of the year.