Losing weight is hard. Keeping it off is harder. It’s definitely doable — we’ve written about successes here — but wouldn’t it be great if young adults could prevent gaining too much weight in the first place? A new multi-year study suggests that with daily weigh-ins and a few small changes, you can.
The study is among a growing area of research looking at ways to prevent weight gain, and it’s one of the largest randomized controlled studies on the topic to date. Previous research cited in the study suggests that young adults gain about 1.5 pounds per year. Over a couple decades, that adds up. And with two-thirds of US adults now overweight or obese, the research carries important potential for slowing the obesity epidemic. That, in turn, will play a role in cancer prevention. AICR research shows that carrying too much body fat is a cause of 11 cancers, including postmenopausal breast, ovarian and advanced prostate.
This study built upon prior research about how knowing and tracking your own weight can help with weight control.
Study researchers split almost 600 young men and women into one of three groups: two interventions and a comparison. Ages ranged from 18 to 35 and about half were overweight.
One group was assigned to make small-changes. These included cutting about 100 calories a day through food choices and more activity. The group was given pedometers and asked to up their step count by 2,000 per day, about a mile more.
A second group was focused on weight loss, assigned to make relatively-large changes. For this group, they were asked to cut 500 to 1,000 calories from their diet during the first few months, depending upon if they were already a healthy weight or overweight. They also were asked to get to and keep up 250 minutes a week of moderate activity.
Everyone in both intervention groups was asked to submit their weight daily, via a website, text or email. Then every month they were emailed feedback on their weight that offered strategies and encouragement.
The third group of young adults, the control, was introduced to the different approaches that could help them avoid weight gain during one in-person meeting. In contrast
the intervention groups had 10 in-person meetings over four months, and invited to join online refresher courses over the next couple years.
After an average of three years, the groups who made either small or larger changes to their diet and activity had gained less weight throughout the years than the control. And about half as many individuals in each group developed obesity compared to the control.
Not that surprisingly among a group of young adults signing up for a weight study, all the groups overall lost some weight at the 4-month mark. But then people began to gain it back. Those assigned to make the largest-lifestyle changes dropped by far the most weight in the first few months. At two years, weight change in both the small- and large-changes groups were about the same, significantly less than the control group. By the end of the three years, those making large-changes was the only group that weighed about the same as when they started.
The study suggests that daily weigh-ins, what the authors call a self-regulating approach, can offer a simple and significant effect on reducing weight gain. As they note, more follow-up time is needed to see if these changes stick and which type of changes leads to the best outcome. But because both of these eating and lifestyle changes led to less weight gain than the control, the approach to choose may come down to what each person prefers.
The study was supported by the National institutes of Health.