The low success rate of New Year’s Resolutions is common knowledge, and weight loss is the number 1 most common resolution according to DHS. But weight loss is complex and case dependent, which may be one reason why it fails so often. Unfortunately, advertisements claiming groundbreaking science, unbelievably fast weight loss, and diet “hacks” encourage these (often unrealistic) resolutions. Fad diets may help reduce weight in the short term, but tend to have poor long term results.
The American Heart Association published a review of 4 fad diets: Atkins, South Beach, the Zone diet, and Weight Watchers, and found that all 4 led to short term weight decreases, but “these benefits are not sustained long-term”. This study found that only “Weight Watchers consistently demonstrated greater efficacy at reducing weight at 12 months”, which may be due to its focus on lifestyle modification rather than diet alone.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics warns that diets or programs encouraging elimination or severe limitation of foods or food groups can lead to micronutrient deficiencies as well as boring, repetitive meals. Many fad diets emphasize very low-calorie intake which, regardless of macronutrient distribution, will lead to weight loss. Healthy, sustainable fat loss is a slow process, so rapid weight loss means water and muscle are lost as well, which can be dangerous. Furthermore, rigid diet plans are stressful and often require detailed planning; they can cause anxiety in social interactions and are difficult to maintain long-term.
Even so, maintaining a healthy weight is important for long term health, since body composition shifts with age, leading to decreasing muscle mass and increasing fat mass in adults. These changes in body composition pose higher risks for chronic disease like hypertension, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. So, what weight loss strategies do work? The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) collects data from people who have lost 30 – 300 pounds and kept it off for at least a year, with the average time of weight maintenance being 5 ½ years. About half of the participants used a program and the other half lost weight on their own. Almost all reported they altered their food intake, as well as their activity. (In general, increasing activity alone is not very effective for weight loss). The most common strategies for adults who have maintained weight loss per the NWCR include eating breakfast, self-weighing at least once a week, maintaining a low calorie, low fat diet, and exercising for an hour or more per day. The CDC recommends similar strategies for adults already at a healthy weight or who are overweight, including following a healthy eating pattern with appropriate calorie intake, exercising regularly and self-monitoring to prevent weight gain. These are all key pieces for a healthy lifestyle.
If you or someone you know has made a weight loss resolution, focus on small changes that increase overall, sustainable health rather than investing in expensive, rigid programs that focus on short term weight loss. Adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise and a balanced diet has proven effective in people who have maintained a healthy weight long-term. And as always, before starting a weight loss program, consult your doctor or a dietitian.This article was posted in Nutrition News.