Thinking Thin: Recipe for Success

People who have lost weight and kept it off owe their success to long-term changes.

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on January 27, 2004
3 min read

There's no lack of people willing to sell you on the newest and best way to lose weight. But let the true experts -- ordinary people who have lost weight and kept it off -- share their recipe for success. Then you can take the first few baby steps to being and "thinking" thin.

Thinking thin is all about small, simple changes you make on a daily basis, not about dropping 20 pounds by year's end.

"Thinking thin in a world that would have us be fat as barrels is no easy task," says Catherine Fitzgerald, RD, director of the health promotion division in the University of Michigan Health System.

"Food is everywhere, so you have to develop a personal lifestyle, sooner rather than later in life, that is compatible with your long-term weight goals. People should focus their efforts on weight loss as a means of staying healthy, not reaching some unreachable ideal of beauty that our culture puts out there."

The University of Colorado's National Weight Control Registry set out to examine everyday people who have achieved long-term weight loss. Set up by professor James O. Hill and his colleagues nearly 20 years ago, the registry includes information about more than 3,000 people who have, on average, lost more than 60 pounds and kept if off for more than five years.

After studying the registry's participants, Hill identified four common behaviors among those who have successfully maintained their weight loss:

  • Eat a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet.
  • Eat breakfast every day.
  • Closely monitor progress; keep a journal of what you eat and weigh yourself every day.
  • Get high levels of physical activity, about an hour a day.

Most weight-management experts would counsel against weighing yourself daily because it may be counterproductive and could lead to disappointment. And yet it works, according to the registry researchers.

Here's how the participants said they maintained their weight loss:

  • 92% limited their intake of certain foods.
  • They consumed an average of 1,400 calories per day -- largely following a low-fat diet consisting mostly of carbohydrates -- 24% of calories from fat, 19% from protein, and 56% from carbohydrates.
  • They ate five times a day, on average.
  • They burned an average of 2,800 calories a week through exercise (an equivalent of about 400 calories day).
  • 75% weighed themselves at least once a week.
  • About one-third described weight maintenance as hard, one-third as moderately easy, and one-third as easy.
  • 42% reported that maintaining their weight loss was less difficult than initially losing the weight.

Fitzgerald says that a major part of keeping a focus on weight loss or weight management is as simple as staying positive.

"It's always better to go with what we can do, rather than what we can't do," she says. "Make reachable goals, like eating an extra serving of fruits or vegetables. You also can make healthier choices."

Many fast food restaurants are including healthier items on their menus. For example, Burger King's vegetable burgers and Wendy's salads, Fitzgerald says.

"A healthy choice is just as easy to make today as an unhealthy one," she says.

What role does your family play? If you come from a family with a history of weight problems, does that mean you are fighting a losing battle?

"Genetics plays a role in increasing your susceptibility to becoming obese, but genetics alone does not determine whether your body does or does not store fat," says David Schteingart, MD, professor of endocrinology and director of the obesity rehabilitation program at the University of Michigan. "In particular, there have been a number of studies that have shown that a person's weight and manner of fat storage is most closely linked to that of his or her biological mother."

Still, a family history of obesity can't be used as reason to give up.

Most of these studies show that genetics is responsible for only 25% of your risk of being obese, says Schteingart. "The other 75% then includes many facets, such as cultural influences, personal lifestyle, and availability of food, among others."

"Behaviors and lifestyle can be extremely difficult things to change, especially as we age," says Schteingart. "But simple steps maintained over time are what works."