Over 6,000 study participants, who lost more than 50 pounds and kept the weight off more than three years, offer tips to succeed.
About one in five Americans who have lost weight have done it permanently. A recent Cal Poly study using machine learning shows some tips on how individuals may lose weight and keep it off: including perseverance in the face of obstacles, constantly reflecting on their lives before the weight loss, and maintaining a health-focused mindset.
The findings, published today (February 9, 2022) in Obesity: The Journal of The Obesity Society, is the first large-scale study that allowed weight loss maintainers to identify in their own words what helped them succeed. More than 6,000 individuals, all of whom were WW members, had, on average, dropped more than 50 pounds and kept it off for more than three years. They responded to open-ended questions on their reasons (past and present), methods for sustaining weight loss, and the resulting lifestyle changes. Following that, topics were grouped by researchers using machine learning.
“One of the most impressive findings was how weight-loss maintainers described perseverance in the face of setbacks,” said Suzanne Phelan, a professor in Cal Poly’s Kinesiology and Public Health Department, who led the study. “Weight-loss maintainers saw setbacks as part of their successful journey. Setbacks were not described as failures. They were seen as a temporary interruption in their path. Many weight-loss maintainers described getting back on track at the next meal or the next day and measuring overall success based on long-term goals.”
The open-ended study’s findings provided new insights into what drives people to lose weight and keep it off. Health problems including diabetes and heart conditions were often highlighted by respondents. Others mentioned issues with mobility, appearance, suggestions from family or friends, and the desire for change due to frequent exhaustion.
Respondents offered advice to others going through their own health and weight-loss journey. Many said that perseverance was essential in overcoming the inevitable setbacks. They encouraged others to take it day by day, use WW workshops to reset mentally after difficult weeks and embrace long-term goals. Weight-loss maintainers also described consistently tracking food intake as an essential skill within a healthy lifestyle.
The study also demonstrated that weight-loss maintainers:
- Remain motivated to maintain the weight loss mostly by health and appearance, as well as reflecting on past experiences
- Believe that the most important changes include reduced pain, medical status, confidence, feeling more at ease and comfortable mentally and physically, fitness and body image
- Describe the consequences of successful weight loss as challenges related to: the cost of buying new clothes, unexpected criticism from others, sagging skin and the effort needed to keep up a healthy lifestyle
The findings may lead to changing what topics are emphasized when people are counseled on how to maintain weight loss.
“As a lifestyle interventionist and researcher, I’m excited to think about how to promote perseverance, encourage tracking of intake and make changes in medical status more salient during the weight-loss journey,” Phelan said.
Phelan and her co-authors recently published another study that examined food-choice motivations among 4,000 long-term weight-loss maintainers. Their findings, published Dec. 30 in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, found that compared to weight-stable individuals with obesity, those who had maintained weight loss made food decisions based more on health and weight control and less on price. Also, weight-loss maintainers were more likely to consider the future consequences of their current behaviors.
“At WW and throughout my clinical experience, I’ve seen firsthand that someone’s mindset and perspective are crucial to help them build healthy habits and drive sustainable weight loss and management,” said Gary Foster, co-author of the study and chief scientific officer at WW. “We hope that these findings encourage other people going through a similar journey and equip them with the tools that they need to optimize their own success.”
Reference: “In their own words: Topic analysis of the motivations and strategies of over 6000 long-term weight-loss maintainers” by Suzanne Phelan, James Roake, Noemi Alarcon, Sarah M. Ng, Hunter Glanz, Michelle I. Cardel and Gary D. Foster, 9 February 2022, Obesity.
This research was supported by a grant from New York-based WW International Inc. and student fellowship support from the William and Linda Frost Fund at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.
Studies that demonstrated one in five Americans maintain weight loss:
- Wing RR, Phelan S. Long-term weight loss maintenance. Am J Clin Nutr. Jul 2005;82(1):222s-225s.
- Field AE, Wing RR, Manson JE, Spiegelman DL, Willett WC. Relationship of a large weight loss to long-term weight change among young and middle-aged US women. Int J Obesity. Aug 2001;25(8):1113-1121.
- Weiss EC, Galuska DA, Khan LK, Gillespie C, Serdula MK. Weight regain in US adults who experienced substantial weight loss, 1999-2002. Am J Prev Med. Jul 2007;33(1):34-40.