Oh, why bother? Sure, there are hundreds of diets that will help you lose weight, but as soon as
you relax the rigid controls, the ounces and pounds creep back on, right? Even after a dramatic
weight loss, within a year or two, you’re right back where you started, or worse.
Or are you?
The conventional wisdom seems to say so. Longitudinal studies of subjects in controlled weight-
loss studies have tended to show that no matter how people lost their weight in the first place,
by five years out, virtually everyone had gained back virtually all of their original weight, and
then some. Anti-dieting and fat-acceptance groups often seize on these data to show that people
should simply accept whatever size they are.
And most overweight people have their own frustrating experience that backs up the research. We
lose and regain, lose and regain, over and over until some of us just give up trying. We hear
those depressing statistics and look at our own history and figure, “Why would it be any
different for me?”
Except that we sort of intuitively know that it can’t be true that nearly every diet fails
virtually everyone all the time. It simply defies logic. And we hear about people who succeed at
losing weight and developing a healthier lifestyle that keeps them slim. Sure, most of those are
testimonials for some product or program, so we’re skeptical. But most of us do actually know
someone who has lost a good deal of weight and kept it off. So why don’t they show up in the
True data, false picture
The truth is, they do, but not very frequently, and it has to do with who gets studied and how.
The best, most trustworthy science is that which can be tested and scrutinized and reproduced for
veracity. That means careful control of the variables. Hence, most of the weight loss studies
that produced those regain rates tended to be conducted in university or hospital-based settings
where it’s easy to control the variables.
And there’s the rub. While those studies might have produced really good, clean, data, they may
not apply to the general population very well. Folks who participate in those programs and
studies really don’t represent the majority of people who are trying to lose weight. They tend to
be heavier in general and also to have a higher incidence of eating disorders along with their
obesity, as well as other features that make them—as a group—different from the general
population of overweight folks.
“Thus,” write the authors of one study, “there is reason to believe that the nearly exclusive use
of clinical populations in studies of the long-term effectiveness of weight-loss treatments may
be producing overly pessimistic conclusions.”
I could have told you that.
We help people lose weight and keep it off. They come, they lose, they go on with their lives,
and they keep in touch, or we run into them around town. They’re still maintaining. So we know
that it can be done. But if you relied on the clinical statistics on maintaining weight loss, you
might think these successes were such exceptionally rare cases that there was no point in you
even trying, and you’d thus deny yourself all the benefits of improved health and function that
come from even a 10 percent reduction in body weight.
Assessing commercial programs
Considering how many people use them for their weight-loss efforts, there really aren’t much data
available for commercial weight loss programs. That’s because those are businesses. They’re
developed to make money, not to study the mystery of obesity. They succeed very, very well by
relying on promotional techniques, by making emotional appeals to people’s vanity and health
fears. They don’t need to invest money in researching the outcomes of their programs to convince
anyone to try them. The hope they hold out is enough, so their promotional techniques work.
And as it turns out, so do their programs. At least for some people, some of the time, and
certainly more than the statistics from controlled studies would seem to indicate. For instance,
compared to the grim outlook those offered, a study of one national program showed that at five
years after initially reaching their goal weight, nearly 20 percent were still within five pounds
of that goal.
But get this: they were part of the 42 percent who were “at or below” goal weight at five years
out, meaning that some continued to lose weight, even after they reached their original goal. And
whether at, below or shy of their goal weight, fully 70 percent of the participants were still
below their original starting weight. And that’s an improvement, by nearly any measure.
Take note that this wasn’t a study conducted or commissioned by the program, but rather, by
researchers who have devoted their careers to studying obesity.
Rounding out the picture
Another long-term study, called the National Weight Loss Registry, started in 1994 gathering
information about people who had lost 30 pounds or more—all kinds of people, from all kinds of
programs. You must have lost more than 30 pounds and you must have kept it off for at least two
years to participate in the registry.
Over time, using various data compiled from registry members, it is showing that a lot of people
truly are able to reduce their weight and maintain at or below their goal weight over a long
period of time. The researchers have also rounded out the picture of who gets that excess off and
how they keep it off, discovering some interesting insights into what people are doing to keep
their weight off, parsing out trends in eatings habits, activity levels, social interactions,
dietary makeup. That’s fodder for another column, or two or ten, but the bottom line is that it’s
providing more evidence to help us understand what we already know: that it’s not pointless, and
there is hope.
And it’s also verifying what hundreds of studies have already shown: that less excess is better,
that even when people can’t reach their ideal goal weight, less is still more. Less weight equals
more energy, better heart function, better sexual function, better social function, greater
self-esteem, longer life expectancy.
And that’s really the point.
Through Thick and Thin:
Don’t believe those depressing statistics that say everyone regains whatever they lose. That’s
information that very likely doesn’t apply to you. When you see people who have succeeded at
losing their extra weight and keeping it off, it’s not that they’ve worked miracles, it’s usually
just that they’ve done the necessary work.