Study Finds Three Best Strategies to Lose Weight

Keeping a Food Diary Found Most Helpful Habit to Lose WeightA new study published July 16 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has isolated three specific behaviors or strategies that were associated with the greatest success in losing weight among a group of overweight or obese postmenopausal women.

The study found that (1) faithfully keeping a daily food journal, (2) not skipping meals, and (3) not eating out (especially at lunch) were the three most successful techniques for losing weight.

The study, by Anne McTiernan, M.D., Ph.D. of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and colleagues from the National Cancer Institute and the Universities of Washington and Minnesota, is published online in the July 16, 2012 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

This is “the first study to look at the impact of a wide range of self-monitoring and diet-related behaviors and meal patterns on weight change among overweight and obese postmenopausal women,” according to a news release issued by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“When it comes to weight loss, evidence from randomized, controlled trials comparing different diets finds that restricting total calories is more important than diet composition such as low-fat versus low-carbohydrate,” said Dr. McTiernan, the lead author of the study. “Therefore, the specific aim of our study was to identify behaviors that supported the global goal of calorie reduction,” she said.

Study Methodology

The study was based on data collected from 123 overweight-to-obese, sedentary, Seattle-area women, ages 50 to 75, in an on-going year-long dietary weight-loss intervention study. The 123 women included those randomly assigned to two groups of the on-going study: diet only and exercise plus diet.

The study participants filled out a series of questionnaires to measure their dietary intake, certain eating-related weight-control strategies, and other self-monitoring behaviors and meal patterns. They also completed a 120-item food-frequency questionnaire to assess dietary change from the beginning to the end of the study.

All the participants were asked to record the foods they ate every day in seven-day diaries provided every week by dietician counselors.

At the end of the study, participants in both groups had lost an average of 10.7% of their starting weight, or 19 pounds, which met the goals of the study.

When the researchers analyzed the specific behaviors and food-strategies reported by the participants, they found that three specific behaviors or habits were associated with the most weight loss.

Findings – The Three Habits Associated with Greatest Weight Loss

Specifically, the researchers found that:

  1. Women who kept food journals consistently lost about 6 pounds more than those who did not.
  2. Women who reported skipping meals lost almost 8 fewer pounds than women who did not.
  3. Women who ate out for lunch at least weekly lost on average 5 fewer pounds than those who ate out less frequently (eating out often at all meal times was associated with less weight loss, but the strongest association was observed with lunch).

1. Keeping a Daily Food Journal – the Key Habit that Helps Most.

“For individuals who are trying to lose weight, the No. 1 piece of advice based on these study results would be to keep a food journal to help meet daily calorie goals,” said Dr. McTiernan, the lead author of the study. “It is difficult to make changes to your diet when you are not paying close attention to what you are eating,” she said.

“Knowing what you eat and controlling the portion sizes is key to any weight-loss diet,” said Dr. McTiernan. Strategies such as food journals are “about accountability,” she explained.

As noted, women in the study who kept food journals lost about 6 pounds more than those who did not.

In the study, dietician counselors gave study participants the following tips for keeping a food journal:

  • Be honest – record everything you eat
  • Be accurate – measure portions, read labels
  • Be complete – include details such as how the food was prepared, and the addition of any toppings or condiments
  • Be consistent – always carry your food diary with you or use a diet-tracking application on your smart phone

“While the study provided a printed booklet for the women to record their food and beverage consumption, a food journal doesn’t have to be anything fancy,” Dr. McTiernan said. “Any notebook or pad of paper that is easily carried or an online program that can be accessed any time through a smart phone or tablet should work fine.”

Keeping a daily food diary, however, requires some discipline. The authors reported that less than 5% of the study participants actually completed a food journal entry every day for the first six months of the study, as the researchers had instructed.

2. Don’t Skip Meals – Second Key Habit.

The researchers found that the second most helpful weight-loss strategy was to eat at regular intervals and avoid skipping meals. The women in the study who reported skipping meals lost almost 8 pounds fewer than the women who ate regularly and did not skip meals.

“The mechanism is not completely clear, but we think that skipping meals or fasting might cause you to respond more favorably to high-calorie foods and therefore take in more calories overall,” Dr. McTiernan said.

“We also think skipping meals might cluster together with other behaviors. For instance, the lack of time and effort spent on planning and preparing meals may lead a person to skip meals and/or eat out more,” Dr. McTiernan explained.

3. Avoid Eating Out – Third Key Habit.

Eating out frequently may be a barrier for making healthful dietary choices. As reported, the women in the study who ate out for lunch at least weekly lost on average 5 pounds fewer than those who ate out less frequently. Eating out often (at all meal times) was associated with less weight loss overall, but the strongest association was observed with eating out weekly for lunch.

“Eating in restaurants usually means less individual control over ingredients and cooking methods, as well as larger portion sizes,” the authors wrote.

The problem is lack of awareness and control over what you’re eating. You can’t control what ingredients go into restaurant dishes or how they’re prepared, and you also lose control over portion size.

Other Helpful Behaviors

Besides the three key habits for losing more weight described above, the researchers also found that consuming fewer calories from fat and carbohydrates and weighing and measuring food portions were associated with more successful weight loss.

Conclusions; Implications

“These findings suggest that a greater focus on dietary self-monitoring, home-prepared meals, and consuming meals at regular intervals may improve 12-month weight loss among postmenopausal women enrolled in a dietary weight loss intervention,” the authors wrote, in conclusion.

“We think our findings are promising because it shows that basic strategies such as maintaining food journals, eating out less often and eating at regular intervals are simple tools that postmenopausal women – a group commonly at greater risk for weight gain – can use to help them lose weight successfully,” said Dr. McTiernan, the study’s principal author.

More Information

See related HelpingYouCare™ reports on:

How Do People Lose Weight & What Can Be Done About the Obesity Epidemic?

Calculate Your Body Mass Index (BMI)

Which Foods Are Linked to Highest Weight Gain Every 4 Years?

Study Finds Inaccurate Calorie Counts on Restaurant Menus

US Government Provides Free Publications on Exercise, Diet and Weight Management

Smart Diet Tips & Tools

New Reports Document High Costs of Obesity in America

New Study Finds a Commercial Weight Loss Program More Effective Than Standard Care Programs

Medicare Recommends Coverage of Seniors for Intense Obesity Counseling

National Nutrition Month – Resources on Eating for Prevention & Wellness

Harvard Proposes Its Own Healthy Eating Plate Instead of USDA’s MyPlate

MyPlate Icon Replaces Food Pyramid

New Dietary Guidelines for Americans Issued by USDA and HHS

For more information on diet, exercise and other healthy lifestyle factors that promote wellness and help prevent diseases, see the HelpingYouCare™ resource pages on Wellness/ Healthy Living for Seniors & Caregivers, including:


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