By Janet Helm, MS, RD
Everyone seems to be searching for the secret to losing weight. Is it low-carb or Paleo? Diet books continue to make the best-seller list, and diet supplements – such as the latest “miracle” pills, raspberry ketones and green coffee bean extract – are still flying off the shelves.
Trouble is, none of these restrictive diets or fat-burning pills really work – at least, not for the long haul. It’s really about your habits. It’s about establishing a new routine, not buying a new product or finding the perfect ratio of protein to carbs. Long-term weight loss comes down to reducing total calories, not a specific combination of foods or a magic formula. It’s about adopting a series of new habits, and that’s why researchers continue to look at the behaviors of successful losers.
One of the latest studies to look at the habits of women who successfully lost weight was recently published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Researchers from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that three habits made the biggest difference: writing down what you eat and drink in a food journal, eating regular meals (no skipping), and cutting down on restaurant meals, especially lunch.
Practicing these behaviors helped women in the 12-month study lose significantly more weight compared to the other study participants who did not adopt these strategies. Specifically, the researchers found that:
• Women who kept food journals consistently lost about 6 pounds more than those who did not.
• Women who reported skipping meals lost almost 8 fewer pounds than women who did not.
• Women who ate out for lunch at least weekly lost on average 5 fewer pounds than those who ate out less frequently.
The study participants were given 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
The women who kept food journals were given a printed booklet to record everything they ate and drank, but a food journal doesn’t have to be fancy, says Anne McTiernan, MD, PhD, the lead author of the study, which was funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Research Resources. “Any notebook or pad of paper that is easily carried or an online program that can be accessed any time through a smartphone or tablet should work fine.”
Eating at regular intervals was another habit that made a difference, and while the specific reasons why are not completely clear, McTiernan believes that skipping meals or fasting might cause you to respond more favorably to high-calorie foods and therefore take in more calories overall. Skipping meals also seem to cluster together with other behaviors, she says. For instance, the lack of time and effort spent on planning and preparing meals may lead a person to skip meals or eat out more often.
When you eat out a lot – another factor in the study linked with less weight loss – you typically have less individual control over ingredients and cooking methods, as well as larger portion sizes. The strongest association was found with lunch, so this may give you even more motivation to brown bag it at work – a habit that will likely be good for your waistline and your wallet.
Another meal that you should pay attention to is breakfast. Eating a healthy breakfast every day is one of the habits that’s consistent with long-term weight loss success, according to research examining the members of the National Weight Control Registry. The 10,000 members have lost 30 pounds or more and kept it off for more than a year. Studying these successful losers helps paint a picture of other habits that are linked to long-term weight loss. Here are some of the behaviors consistent among the group:
• Eat breakfast regularly, often including whole grains and low-fat dairy products.
• Track food intake and reduce portions, although not eliminating any specific foods.
• Limit dining out to an average of three times a week.
• Watch fewer than 10 hours of TV a week.
• Stay active, averaging an hour of exercise every day (mostly frequently walking).
• Weigh yourself at least once a week.
What are some of the habits that you’ve been focused on changing to help you lose weight? Have you adopted some new healthy habits that have made a difference for you?