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Study: Biggest Losers Eat Less Fat and Exercise More

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on April 09, 2012
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April 10, 2012 -- Here's what doesn't really work well if you want to lose weight: "diet" foods, non-prescription weight loss supplements, and liquid or fad diets.

So what does work? Eat less fat, get more exercise, join a weight loss program, and ask your doctor about prescription weight loss pills.

It may seem boring, even a bit old-fashioned. But it works, says a new study in the April 10 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The study set out to find out what successful dieters are doing to shed unwanted pounds and keep them off.

"People actually are losing 5% to 10% of their body weight or more using tried-and-true methods," says study author Jacinda M. Nicklas, MD, MPH. She is a clinical research fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

The study included information on more than 4,000 obese people who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Of these, 63% said they had tried to lose weight. Forty percent said they lost 5% or more of their body weight, and 20% said they lost 10% or more of their excess body weight.

Biggest Losers Trim Fat, Move More

Several trends emerged among the biggest losers. Those who exercised more and ate less fat lost more weight. Those who joined commercial weight loss programs, such as Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig, were more likely to have lost 10% or more of their body weight, the study showed. Use of prescription weight loss medications was also associated with weight loss, but only a small number of people in the study used these drugs.

The study did not include specifics on how much the participants exercised or how they changed their diets.

The results are mostly in line with what Nicklas tells her weight loss patients. She typically advises them to cut calories, but not necessarily trim fat. "I do like them to exercise more, especially for weight loss maintenance," she says. "Joining a program improves accountability and encourages shared knowledge among members."

Different Weight Loss Strokes for Different Folks

Scott Kahan, MD, MPH, says that what works for one person doesn't always work for the next. He is the director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness in Washington, D.C. "The most important thing is to actually look for something that works for you, and this will be different for each person," he says. "Some people do well with low-fat diets because it includes the foods that they love and are satisfying. For other people, a low-carb plan may work better," he says. "It has to be individualized or it is just not going to be sustainable."

The new study "does provide good support to the recommendations of eating less and exercising more," Connie Diekman, RD, says in an email. She is the director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis.

The researchers relied on self-reported information, which isn't always 100% accurate. Still, "the fact that the most commonly used techniques for losing weight were changes in behaviors, not special products or diets, gives inspiration to others who want to lose weight but feel they need something special to do that," Diekman says.

And "another positive outcome of this study is that obese subjects were able to lose weight, a fact that many often feel is not achievable," she says.

Show Sources


Jacinta M. Nicklas, MD, MPH, clinical research fellow, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston.

Connie Diekman, RD, director, university nutrition, Washington University , St. Louis.

Nicklas, J.M. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2012, study received ahead of print.

Scott Kahan, MD, MPH, director, National Center for Weight and Wellness, Washington, D.C.

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