Four Keys to Success

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

5 min read

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.

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 4,200 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.

Although some people try to lose weight by cutting down on the number of meals they eat, that really isn't a good strategy. Skipping meals often just means that you'll be starving later and wind up overeating. Starting the day with breakfast can help prevent that, and on average, members of the Registry eat breakfast every day. A daily breakfast may also be a sign of the discipline that Registry members bring to how they eat. Being careful about when you eat may also help make you conscious of what you eat.

This is a behavior shared by weight maintainers that runs against common wisdom. Many people have argued that weighing yourself regularly can put too much emphasis on weight rather than fitness.

We don't know exactly why regular weighing is a common characteristic of people who've been successful at maintaining their weight, but we speculate that people use their scales as an early warning system. If a person weighs herself regularly, she'll notice quickly if she has gained a few pounds and can then implement some strategies to prevent gaining more.

Checking your weight less often can mean that you might wake up one morning and discover that you gained 10 pounds. That can be pretty discouraging, and it might cause you to just give up.

One thing that people in the Registry tell us again and again is that weight loss and weight maintenance is not easy: it's hard work. Diet programs that advertise easy or painless weight loss and weight maintenance tend to fail in the long run. A lot of the people in the Registry tell us that they only lost their weight after they gave up on the "painless" methods.

The problem for many people is that they work hard at losing weight but then don't have the skills to maintain that weight loss. We've found that the best way to do that is to exercise and eat carefully for the rest of your life.

That may sound tough, and it is. But when we ask people on the Registry, they say losing the weight was worth it, and that it actually got easier over time. Getting to a lower weight has made their lives better, and it can make yours better, too.