While slow weight gain is typical for weight losers, some manage to maintain substantial weight loss in the long term, as much as 10% of initial body weight for ten years, according to a new analysis of data from a registry of successful dieters. Dr Graham Thomas, a researcher at the National Weight Control Registry, presented the results of the analysis at the 29th Annual Scientific Meeting of the Obesity Society, in Orlando, Florida, last week.

Researchers and practitioners are often asked whether it is possible to maintain substantial weight loss in the long term, but because very few weight losers are followed over the long term, the evidence is thin, and there is a perception that it must be very challenging.

Thomas, a clinical psychologist and Research Fellow at Brown Medical School and the Weight Control & Diabetes Research Center of The Miriam Hospital, and colleagues analyzed data from the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), a prospective observational study of individuals who have maintained a weight loss of at least 13.6 kg (30 lbs) for at least 1 year.

While there are more than 10,000 weight losers registered in the NWCR, for this analysis the researchers only included data on participants who had been followed for ten years, namely 3,133 people who enrolled between 1993 and 2001. The data included demographic characteristics and yearly body weights obtained by questionnaires.

The results showed that annual weight change was not steady over the ten years: weight gain occured faster at the start and slowed down later.

The average change at 10 years was an overall weight gain of 8.0 (plus or minus 0.3) kg, but the proportion of participants who maintained a weight loss of at least 10% of their initial body weight was estimated at 85.6%.

When they examined the demographic characteristics, the researchers found that the participants who managed to keep off the most weight were more likely to be male, have a higher level of education, larger initial weight loss, a lower maximum lifetime body weight, and had been keeping the weight off longer before they entered the study.

Thomas and colleagues concluded that:

“Slow regain is typical for successful weight losers, but most continue to maintain a substantial weight loss of at least 10% of initial body weight even after 10 years.”

According to USA Today, Thomas said at the meeting that people are sometimes “very fatalistic about the chances of losing weight and maintaining the loss”, but the NWCR participants are managing to hold onto the gains.

According to Thomas, the participants are managing to maintain their weight loss because they keep track of the food they eat, for instance they count calories, or count the amount of fat they eat, or use a commercial weight loss program to help them monitor their food intake. They also:

  • Follow a low-calorie, low-fat diet of 1,800 calories a day with no more than 30% of calories from fat.
  • Weigh themselves at least once a week.
  • Don’t skip breakfast.
  • Eat fast food less than once a week.
  • Dine out on average three times a week or less.
  • Regularly eat the same foods and don’t overeat on holiday or special occasions.
  • Spend less than 10 hours a week in front of the TV.
  • Burn calories every day with physical activity: eg a one hour walk or other activity that burns a similar amount of energy.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD