The study was published on Feb. 9 in the journal Obesity. It is the work of researchers associated with universities in California, Florida and Pennsylvania.
Sad truth: Most who lose weight gain it back
A long observed and perplexing phenomenon in the weight management game is that most people who are successful in shedding weight are doomed to gain it back. It’s a sad fact of life that for obvious reasons is never mentioned in the marketing of weight management products.
In a way, those marketers are not being deliberately deceptive. Rather, they’re just sticking to what their studies actually show, which for successful ingredients, is slight to moderate weight loss in the short term.
Even the best clinical research on the effects of weight management ingredients rarely includes follow ups for subjects months or years after the end of the study to see if they were able to maintain their weight loss. Including such a follow up in a scientifically valid way would make for a complicated study design and in most cases would be too expensive.
Evidence does exist as to the extent of the problem, however. The authors of the present study stated that, “Modest weight loss can reduce long-term risk of cardiometabolic disease, but these improvements are attenuated with weight regain, which affects most individuals.”
What are common themes among those who succeed?
However, the authors said that about 20% of individuals who lose weight are able to keep it off more or less permanently. To find out what approaches and mindsets were common to this group, the researchers accessed a unique data set to which they applied a machine learning algorithm, which they believed to be the first time this has been done in this field of research.
Past research on successful losers has identified a number of modifiable factors and/or success strategies common to the group of success weight maintainers. Those are: eating a lower-calorie diet, engaging in high levels of physical activity, frequent self-monitoring, problem solving, setting daily intake goals, limiting sitting time, and keeping low-calorie foods accessible.
The researchers said past studies have focused on analyzing the answers to questionnaires. But they said that approach might be too constricting, and might miss valuable clues in how respondents answered open ended questions about their motivations, tips and tricks.
For the present study researchers examined more than 6,000 records of successful long term weight loss from the Weight Watchers Success Registry. By using the machine learning approach the researchers said they believed they could derive statistically valid data from what might on the surface appear to be an overly heterogenous data set.
The researchers analyzed answers to questions such as:
- What prompted you to start your weight loss attempt?
- What currently motivates you to manage your weight?
- What is one piece of advice you would give to help someone succeed at long term weight loss?
Researchers: tracking, promoting perseverance keys to success When analyzing common themes among the answers, the researchers found that, “Weight-loss maintainers described obesity-related memories, health, and appearance concerns as motivating both the initiation and sustainment of long-term weight loss. Perseverance in the face of setbacks and tracking food intake over time were recommended to others seeking similar weight-loss success.”
“This topic analysis suggested that weight-loss maintainers in WW were commonly motivated by health and appearance concerns and that they experienced profound improvements in these and other domains as a result of weight-management efforts. Future weight-maintenance research should include more diverse populations and investigate the importance of promoting perseverance in the face of setbacks, sustained tracking, and making changes in medical status more salient during the weight-maintenance journey,” the researchers concluded.
Brush: Analysis mirrors moves in market
Consultant Marc Brush, principal in Bend LLC and a former editor of Nutrition Business Journal, said the researchers’ analysis should be useful for companies marketing weight management supplements. The trend in the industry has been to psychosocial support as a key pillar in the marketing strategy. In other words, it’s no longer just about trying to find the next miracle ingredient and touting that ingredient’s specific benefits.
"There's a clear shift underway in weight loss as a supplement category, and it's a good one. Sales-motivated fad ingredients have less impact than they once did, and there's more discussion of ‘weight management’ and ‘healthy weight’ as subtle but important shifts for the consumer. Of course this is the better way to approach weight for lasting impact,” Brush said.
"Look at the DTC startups making waves in weight. It's not about fat burners or stimulants, it's about behaviors and lifestyle modifications. Take Noom. The tagline says it all — ‘stop dieting’ — and the tools at play come straight from behavioral science and psychology,” he added.
In their own words: Topic analysis of the motivations and strategies of over 6,000 long-term weight-loss maintainers
Authors: Phelan S, et al.