To achieve your weight loss goals, be consistent.
A new study suggests that slowly but steadily shedding pounds each week can be more beneficial for long-term weight loss than seeing your weight drastically drop, only to rise again.
Developing a stable schedule of healthy eating and exercise can help with keeping your weight management consistent, said Emily Feig, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital. The study was published Monday in the journal Obesity.
"We don't know yet what it is about weight variability that's problematic. It could be reflective of trouble following a diet and exercise plan consistently. But it's also possible that physiologically, some people tend to lose weight more consistently than others, regardless of how closely they are following a diet," said Feig, who conducted the study as a doctoral student at Drexel University.
"My best recommendation for patients, based on this research, is to try to keep their eating pretty similar day to day," she said. "Things like planning ahead, prepping food for the week on Sunday and reducing frequency of eating at restaurants can help with this, since they reduce the chance of making impulsive decisions about what to eat. Building a habit of healthy, consistent eating can help patients reduce weight variability and lose weight more consistently, even if it's at a slow pace."
The study involved 183 overweight or obese adults, mostly white women, living near Philadelphia. For one year, they participated in a weight-loss program in which they were counseled on their diet and exercise.
From the start of the program, their weight was tracked, measured and analyzed weekly. The adults also attended assessment meetings at six, 12 and 24 months.
The researchers found that weight variability each week among the adults, measured at the first six and 12 weeks of the program, was positively associated with less subsequent weight loss at 12 and 24 months.
In other words, higher weight variability measured early in the program predicted which patients would continue to struggle with controlling their weight by the end of the program and one year later, according to the study findings.
Feig said that more research is needed to determine just how significant the link may be between weight variability and long-term weight control. However, studies have showed that the total amount of weight loss in the first few weeks of a program can predict how people do much later on, she said.
"This study goes even further in supporting the importance of early weight changes by showing that weekly variability in weight, above and beyond how much weight is lost, predicts weight loss maintenance up to two years later," she said. "So it seems that both success and consistency in weight loss at the beginning of a program is important for long-term success."
Dr. Zhaoping Li, director at the University of California, Los Angeles' Center for Human Nutrition, who was not involved in the new study, said the findings are consistent with what has been seen in scientific literature.
"Whatever we do for those people to lose weight, if they can do it consistently, that means that particular plan not only physiologically fits the patient (and) that particular individual's body but also is feasible (and) practical for ... a day-to-day life," Li said.
"So, if we now know someone is struggling from the beginning, we need to adjust," she said. "That can be diet; that can be a lifestyle change. Because we know that if we don't do an adjustment, they're going to fail. That's what this study is really showing."
Dr. John Morton, chief of bariatric and minimally invasive surgery at Stanford Health Care, said there were two findings of interest in the new study.
"They found predictive value as early as six weeks. In the shorthand, it says past performance predicts future performance, but it's kind of interesting that they're able to see it that early," said Morton, who was not involved in the new research.
"The other thing I see here is that weight loss doesn't occur in a straight line. You lose weight for a while, then it plateaus, and then you lose weight again," he said. "If you're responding to diet, that's generally how it works."
As for why some people consistently lose weight while others see fluctuations, "I think that that question is still out there" to be answered, Morton said.
Still, the new study came with some limitations. For instance, 81% of the participating adults were women, so more research is needed to determine whether similar results would be found in a nationally representative sample of adults.
Additionally, "the study was correlational, so we cannot conclude that weight variability causes changes in long-term weight control," Feig said.
Another ongoing area of research explores not only how weight variability might be linked to extra weight gain but how it's associated with overall health and potential problems, said Michael Lowe, a professor of psychology at Drexel University and co-author of the new study. Feig was his graduate student while conducting the new study.
A separate study that was presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions last year suggests that intentional weight variability, known as "yo-yo dieting," may increase the risk of sudden cardiac death and coronary heart disease mortality in post-menopausal women.
"Those individuals who have a health problem, very often this is a cardiovascular kind of health problem, who also show more variation in their weight overtime, tend to have their health problems worsened," Lowe said.