Four Keys to Success

Last Editorial Review: 12/22/2004

Four keys to taking weight off, and keeping it off.

By James O. Hill, PhD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

If you listen to a lot of the stories in the media, you might believe that losing weight and keeping it off is virtually impossible. The common wisdom is pretty discouraging. Sure, you can lose weight, but what's the point, since you'll just put it on again sooner or later? And since your body type is determined by your genes, why bother trying anyway?

Well, here's the encouraging news: None of that is true. Regardless of body type or genetics, all sorts of people are successfully losing weight and keeping it off. While it may take some hard work and dedication, you can as well.

The National Weight Control Registry

In 1993, we started the National Weight Control Registry as a way of studying the behaviors of people who successfully lost weight and kept it off. We wanted to see what methods these people had in common, since they could help us discover the best strategies for weight maintenance.

To enroll in the Registry, a person must have maintained at least a 30-pound weight loss for at least a year. However, on average, members of the Registry have lost 67 pounds and kept it off for six years. Those are inspiring figures.

Looking at the data, we haven't seen evidence to confirm the idea that our genes make our destiny when it comes to weight. If people really had a genetic "set point" weight as some argue, why would the average weight of Americans be getting heavier each year? While genes certainly play a role, they don't predetermine what your weight will always be. Instead, they provide a range of weights that are possible depending on your diet and amount of exercise. So you have more control over your weight than you might think.

By looking at the behavior of the approximately 5,000 people in the Registry, we've identified four common characteristics of those who've lost weight and are now keeping it off. These suggestions don't make up a diet program. But if you're looking for ways to keep weight off, adopting these behaviors isn't a bad way to start.

Eat a Low-Fat, High-Carbohydrate Diet

Although a lot of people may think of only pasta and bread when they hear the word "carbohydrates," complex carbohydrates are in many foods, not only grains but also in beans and many vegetables. People in the Registry say they get about 56% of their calories from such carbohydrates, and only about 19% of calories from protein. Fat makes up about 25% of their diet. People in the Registry also say they consume 1,300 to 1,400 calories a day on average, but that number is probably lower than what they actually eat.

Remember that a good diet probably isn't one that makes you outlaw certain types of food. Being too strict can make it hard to stick to a healthy eating plan. The problem for most people is not so much that they're eating the wrong things, but that they're eating too much. Moderation is important.

But what about protein diets? People using protein diets can and often do lose weight. The fact is that you can probably lose weight on any of the major diet plans, and Registry members slimmed down employing all sorts of different approaches.

However, what we've found is that people who are successful at maintaining their weight loss eat a low-fat and high-carbohydrate diet. So while a protein diet may be good for losing weight, it may not be the best for long-term weight maintenance.

Exercise Every Day

Exercise is key to maintaining your weight loss and it's probably more important than diet. On average, people in the Registry exercise between an hour and an hour and a half a day. Yes, that's a lot. But before you despair, it's not as bad as it sounds.

First, many of the people break up their exercise throughout the day instead of doing a single, marathon work-out session. Second, one of the most common methods of exercise is walking, which is easy to incorporate into your day.

If you're just starting out, it's important to begin slowly. Starting too fast can cause pulled muscles and discouragement. Instead, gradually work up to a full hour. Alternatively, you can increase your number of steps. Get a pedometer, or step counter, and record the number of steps you take in an average day. Then slowly increase them.

An hour or an hour and a half every day is a lot of time. But look at it this way: if you could lose weight and keep it off for the rest of your life with just an hour or so of exercise a day, would it be worth it? A lot of people say yes.

Originally published Jan. 30, 2004
Medically updated Dec. 9, 2004

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