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Are strict rules the key to keeping weight off?

People who structure their own systematic rules for eating—and stick to them regardless of feelings of hunger and fullness—are markedly better at keeping weight off compared to those who follow special diets or eat for pleasure and satiety, a small study suggests.

“We see that people who are good at keeping weight off after losing it don’t eat to accommodate desire, hunger, and satiety, or as the result of special diets. Instead, they consider eating as a tool with a higher purpose. Their main aim is weight maintenance.

“Only 4% of people maintain a 10% weight loss over four years…”

“As a result, they devised their own systems for what, how much, and when to eat. The most important thing was to keep weight off, as opposed to feeling full,” according to the anthropologist behind the study, Bodil Just Christensen, assistant professor in University of Copenhagen’s department of food and resource economics.

The study participants who succeeded in keeping weight off after 12 months created systematic routines that fit into their daily lives. To a greater or lesser extent, those who did exceptionally well were subject to permanent routines that they very rarely strayed from. They made practical rules for themselves. For example, that they should eat a small meal every three hours, that main meals must never exceed 500 calories, or that they were only allowed to eat chocolate on Saturdays, and no more than 30 grams.

What mattered most was that they followed these systematic habits precisely. This approach minimizes the number of choices in relation to when, what, and how much they can eat. As a result, the risk of “caving in” goes down radically.

“With regards to obesity, it is important to understand how people deal with weight loss in practice,” says associate professor Signe Sørensen Torekov, who was behind the clinical portion of the study.

“Only four percent of people maintain a 10 percent weight loss over four years, so there is a great need to identify the critical psychosocial factors over time. This study precisely identifies what is important for weight maintenance and what appears not to be. In the long term, the new approaches can be implemented in clinical practice and recommendations. And, we are already using study results to guide participants in a larger weight-maintenance study that we are working on.”

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Another one of the findings demonstrated that there are several circumstances that, when combined, determine if people will succeed in establishing permanent and systematic eating routines that help keep weight off in the long term. In particular, the lack of social support, high levels of stress, and obligations caused participants to regain lost weight.

The study comes from a project that investigated the effect of appetite hormones on weight maintenance. All 42 participants lost weight on a powder diet over a two-month period after which they were encouraged to keep weight off during the next year.

After 12 months, researchers interviewed each of the participants about their eating habits, everyday and family lives, relationships with food, exercise habits, and other relevant factors that may contribute to changes in weight.

Funding came from UNIK: Food, Fitness & Pharma, which is supported by the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation. The study appears in Obesity Facts.

Source: University of Copenhagen

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