Weight Loss Insights from Successful “Losers”

As many people have sadly found out, losing weight is only the first half of the battle of the bulge. Keeping it off is a totally different story. Yet, it is not impossible, as the participants of the largest ongoing study on successful "losers" have proven.

The 8-year-old project called the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) is the brainchild of Dr. James Hill of the University of Colorado and Dr. Rena Wing of the University of Pittsburgh. What is unique about this research study is that it is not trying to prove that one weight-loss method works over another. The researchers simply ask the participants to tell them how they lost weight and how they have maintained such weight loss over the years. They hope to gather data that will inspire other people to do the same.

Members of the club
There are currently 3,000-plus members of this "losers" club. The only requirement to become a part of the study is to have lost a minimum of 30 pounds and kept it off for at least one year. On average, though, the participants have lost 66 pounds and maintained that weight loss for over six years. Their average weight dropped from 220 to 154 pounds and their average Body Mass Index or BMI dropped from 32 to 25.

How to join the registry
Eighty percent of the current participants are women. Ninety-seven percent are white. So the researchers are looking for more men and minorities to get a clearer picture of how people maintain weight loss. If you have a weight loss story to tell, you can join the registry by calling 1- 800-606-NWCR. There is no fee to pay but there is also no compensation. The only thing you need to do is honestly answer a lot of questions once a year.

How do they know you are telling the truth?
You may have to provide before-and-after pictures and verification from doctors, weight-loss counselors and other reliable individuals to authenticate your success.

What motivated them to lose weight?
According to experts, people have to experience a "psychologically significant event" before they will be motivated to make any major change in their life. This is also true for weight loss.

Nearly 77 percent of the participants reported experiencing a "trigger event" that motivated them to lose weight. Men usually reported a medical trigger like sleep apnea, low back pain, constant fatigue, aching legs, a heart attack, or "my doctor told me to lose weight." Women were more prone to be stimulated by an emotional trigger like "my husband left me and my lawyer said it was because I was fat." Eleven percent said the trigger was seeing themselves in a mirror or photograph. Twenty-five percent had a lifestyle trigger like "I was going to attend my high school reunion" or "it was my 25th wedding anniversary."

What they have found so far, according to Hill, is that the people in the study lost weight "using every way known to man." Whatever method they used (whether healthy or not), 90 percent made significant changes in their diet and exercise habits.

Fifty-five percent joined a formal weight-loss program like Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, etc. Forty-five percent did it on their own. The most common strategy was to eat less of certain types of food. The second most common strategy was to eat all kinds of food but to eat smaller portions.

Twenty percent used low-calorie liquid diets like Slim-Fast; 4.3 percent used weight loss medications (prescription and over-the-counter varieties); 1.3 percent underwent gastric bypass surgery.

If at first you don't succeed, try again
Ninety-one percent of the participants had spent years losing and gaining weight until they finally found what was successful for them. In fact, the average "recycled" weight lost and gained was about 270 pounds. The lesson to be learned here is that instead of viewing yourself as a failure each time you gain weight again after losing it, think like Thomas Edison who said he was not disappointed that he had "failed" 1,000 times in trying to make the perfect light bulb because he had learned 1,000 ways not to do it. Or as Hill observes, the participants "tried all the wrong ways until they figured out the right ways."

Your genes don't doom you to be fat
Although research indicates that genetics plays a big role in whether you will be overweight or not, these people have fought back and won. According to Wing, the participants prove that you shouldn't look at your parents and say: "I'm destined to be overweight and there's nothing I can do about it."

Many had been obese most of their lives. Forty-six percent said they were overweight as children (before 11 years old). More than 25 percent said they became obese between the ages of 12-18.

Forty-six percent had one parent who was overweight and 27 percent had two parents who were overweight.

It's never too late to lose weight
The average age of the participants is 45 years old so don't lose hope if you think you can't lose weight because you are over 40. Half of the participants are between 34 and 55.

Four common behaviors
Even though the participants took many roads in their journey to lose weight, they have four similarities in the way they maintain their weight loss.

* Eating a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet.
* Exercising for one hour every day.
* Eating breakfast almost every day.
* Close self-monitoring.

Low fat, high carbohydrates
The researchers were surprised to find out that no matter what type of diet the participants used to lose weight, the overwhelming majority used a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet (on the average it was 24 percent fat, 56 percent carbohydrates and 19 percent protein) to maintain their weight loss. Less than 1 percent reported using a high-fat, low-carb, high-protein diet to keep the pounds away.

Carbohydrates were defined as high fiber foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. More than 60 percent reported eating smaller portions and eating more fruits and vegetables.

Consumer Reports did its own survey of 8,000 people who lost at least 10 percent of body weight and kept it off for at least one year (half the participants kept the weight off for five years) and the majority were eating high-fiber grains like whole-wheat bread, oatmeal and brown rice.

Based on their findings, Hill says, "It is possible to maintain weight loss without physical activity but it is rare." Only 9 percent of the participants did not exercise regularly. Ninety-one percent engaged in some type of regular exercise to keep their weight under control.

On the average, they burned about 2,800 calories a week (the men burned about 3,500 a week while the women burned 2,700). This is about 400 calories a week or one hour of brisk walking daily. If you feel you don't have the time to do this, be encouraged by the fact that many reported breaking their exercise time into smaller increments like doing several 10-minute walks throughout the day.

Seventy-seven percent used walking as the preferred means of exercise though on the average, they burned 1,000 calories a week by walking and the rest by doing other activities like bicycling, aerobics, stair climbing, weight lifting, step aerobics and running.

If you feel you need to go to the gym to lose weight, think again. Ninety-two percent of the participants reported exercising at home. About 30 percent said they exercise regularly with a group or with friends (walking, swimming, dancing and playing sports).

Eating breakfast
Breakfast is the meal that people who want to lose weight usually cut out first because they think that they can save calories this way. Well, not the successful losers. Almost 90 percent said they eat breakfast on most days of the week (four or more days). Nearly 80 percent report eating breakfast every day. Only 4 percent reported not eating breakfast.

Interestingly, there was no significant difference in the number of calories consumed throughout the day between the breakfast eaters and the non-breakfast eaters. In other words, the non-breakfast eaters made up for the calories they didn't eat in the morning during their other meals.

What about their other meals? The participants reported eating five meals a day. The majority of these meals were prepared and eaten at home. They reported eating in non-fast-food restaurants two to three times a week and in fast-food restaurants a little less than once a week.

To keep in control of their hard-earned weight loss, the participants used some type of self-monitoring method like weighing themselves or writing down what they ate.

Weighing themselves was the most common method. Seventy-five percent weighed themselves at least once a week.

Attitude changes
The researchers wanted to find out if the participants were living happier and more fulfilled lives. After all, what's the use of losing all that weight but you are miserable in having to maintain it.

Happily, the participants felt that all their weight-loss efforts were worth it. Ninety-five percent felt that the overall quality of their lives was improved. Ninety-two percent said that their level of energy was greater. Only less than 1 percent said their lives were worse because of what they had to do to maintain their weight loss.

And speaking of the difficulty of weight maintenance, one-third of the participants described maintaining their weight as hard, one-third said it was moderately easy and another one-third described it as easy. Forty-two percent said that maintaining the weight was actually easier than losing it.

What about those who gained weight?
As long as you can maintain a 30-pound weight loss, you can remain in the study. So if you originally lost 50 pounds but gained 10 pounds when they followed you up one year later, you are still considered a "loser." There are lessons to be learned from those who regained some of their weight. Here are the most common denominators:

* Increased fat intake.
* Decreased physical activity (an average of 800 calories a week).
* Reduced amount of self-monitoring activities.
* They had a history of bingeing and depression.

Next week: Practical tips from successful "losers"

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