It's been said that losing weight is the easy part -- it's keeping it off that's difficult. A majority of dieters regain about one-third of the weight they lose within a year, and return to their original weight within 3 to 5 years.
But what about the smaller percentage of dieters who actually manage to lose weight for good?
According to researchers, there are a few healthful habits that "successful losers" tend to have in common. So while you can lose weight any way that works for you, when it comes to keeping it off, one size may indeed fit all.
Here are five healthy habits with a proven track record in helping people keep off the weight:
1. Keep Track (of Your Food Intake and Your Weight).
Keeping records of weights, food intake, and exercise has helped members of the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR). The registry is made up of more than 5,000 adults who have maintained a loss of at least 30 pounds for one year or longer.
"Everyone is a little different, but in general, successful losers keep records of what they eat, exercise activities or steps on the pedometer, and their weight," says Jim Hill, co-founder of the NWCR.
Regular weigh-ins are also essential to controlling weight, experts say. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests daily weigh-ins are a great motivator.
"Like brushing your teeth, when you make weighing a daily habit, it creates a mindset for how you approach food choices and fitness each day," says John Foreyt, PhD, a Baylor College of Medicine behavior specialist.
And it's not enough to just weigh in regularly: You need a plan of action for those times when the needle on the scale keeps going up.
"I tell my clients to weigh themselves regularly and establish a healthy weight range," says Cathy Nonas, director of obesity and diabetes programs at North General Hospital in New York. "When they reach the top of the range, there needs to be a detailed plan in place on how they are going to lose those few pounds to get their weight back into mid-range."
2. Follow a Moderate-Fat Diet.
When it comes to keeping weight off, the best diet seems to be one that is calorie-controlled, moderate in fat, and limits fast food. A recent study in Obesity found that most successful losers kept their fat intake to less than 30% of their total calories, with carbohydrates making up 49-56% of calories.
While the ideal number of calories will vary from person to person, calories in must be balanced with calories out, notes Holly Wyatt, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. In other words, the more you exercise, the more you can eat.
Beyond calories and fat grams, healthy food choices and normal portions are essential to a lifestyle that can be sustained long-term, experts say.
"A healthy diet that you can stick with is one that is varied and contains plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy," Nonas says.
3. Eat Breakfast
Some people think skipping breakfast can help them lose weight. But studies indicate they more than make up for the missed meal later in the day.
"Studies have shown that in both teens and adults, when breakfast is skipped, a tremendous amount of eating occurs from the time they enter the house until they go to bed," says Nonas.
Studies have also shown that breakfast eaters tend to weigh less than non-breakfast eaters, and Wyatt reports that 96% of the members of the Weight Control Registry eat breakfast most days.
Breakfast needn't be complicated or time-consuming. What could be easier than starting your day with a bowl of whole-grain cereal, low-fat milk or yogurt, and some fruit?
4. Exercise Daily.
There is no getting around it: Daily exercise is essential to keeping weight off.
"Research shows that you need at least 60 minutes per day, or, better yet, strive for 11,000 steps on your pedometer to make sure you get the activity you need to balance your calories and maintain the lost weight," says Hill, co-author of The Step Diet.
Nonas suggests doing 30 minutes each day of planned, purposeful activity -- like taking a brisk walk -- then accumulating the remaining 30 minutes in short intervals throughout the day, perhaps by doing housework, yard work, or washing the car.
"It doesn't really matter what you do, or time of day -- you just need to do it every day," says Nonas.
5. Get Support.
The people in a recently published article in The New England Journal of Medicine study who were most successful at maintaining weight loss met face-to-face regularly with a group for motivation and feedback.
"Everyone needs some kind of network or monitoring system so they can get help if they get into trouble or need some support," says Nonas.
If you're not the "group" type, you could try buddying up with a like-minded friend or family member.
Nonas suggests checking in with your group, your doctor, or your dietitian at least quarterly, if not more often.
You Can Do It
The good news is that weight maintenance gets easier once you've kept the pounds off for more than two years, according to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Experts say we can all learn something from the research looking at successful losers.
"We are fortunate to have a small sample of people from the NWCR who have been successful at maintaining weight loss," says Hill. "While it is not an exact science, and there are individual variations, most [of these] folks are mindful about certain lifestyle behaviors that allow them to stay within a healthy weight range."