Maintaining long-term weight loss

Maintaining long-term weight loss

In 2000, the World Health Organisation reported that the number of obese adults worldwide was over 300 million (1). In the UK, data showed that 44% of men and 33% of women were classed as overweight, that is, they had a body mass index of 25 to less than 30 (2). The reasons for these rising statistics are numerous, but one thing is for sure – there is no shortage of weight loss programs, diet supplements, low calorie snacks or dieting information aimed at people that want to lose weight.

Considering the amount of help that is out there, it may seem surprising why such a large number of people struggle to lose weight or if they do, why they fail to keep the weight off. A study in the 1950s (3) showed that just two people out of one hundred successfully maintained weight loss of 20lb or more over a two year period and these findings were substantiated by a more recent study (4).

In contrast, research was conducted in the US on more than 4000 people to investigate the rate of successful weight loss (5).  The researchers defined successful weight loss maintenance as a minimum loss of 10% of body weight, which was deliberately lost and kept off for a minimum of 12 months.


Weight loss statistics were analysed for people on the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), a database of individuals who have been successful at long-term weight loss maintenance.



The biggest predictor of weight regain was the length of time participants had successfully maintained weight loss for. Individuals who had kept their weight off for two years or more had a significantly higher chance of continuing to maintain their weight during the following year.

People with lower levels of depression were more positively correlated with successful weight loss maintenance.

A high level of cognitive restraint (that is, the degree of conscious control exerted over eating behaviours) was observed in the sample and was similar to levels for people that had recently lost weight.



The findings are encouraging as they suggest that if individuals can succeed at maintaining their weight loss for two years, they can reduce their risk of subsequent regain by nearly 50%.

The results also emphasise the importance of emotional regulation skills and control over eating to long-term weight loss. The high figure for cognitive restraint suggests that successful weight loss maintainers continue to act like recently successful weight losers for many years after losing their weight.


Our Comments

The findings suggest that weight loss becomes easier to maintain with the passage of time and this should act as a major incentive for people at the start of their journey to losing weight.

As high cognitive restraint and low levels of depression are both linked to long-term weight loss, individuals that are eager to lose weight and want to develop these qualities could well benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy (usually abbreviated to CBT). As our thoughts (cognitive processes) determine our behaviours, CBT works by changing our ways of thinking, leading to more positive behaviours and it has been proven to help with various issues, such as eating problems and stress.


It would be useful for future research to examine the role of specific factors that might influence weight loss. For example, research has shown that high exposure to idealised beauty images in the media can result in people comparing themselves with such images. This can lead to a more negative body image (6) and thus contribute to people giving up on their weight loss efforts.

The sample in the study came from a registry based on self-selected group individuals (recruited via print media) that have lost at least 30lb and kept it off for more than one year.  Although this sample is not representative of the general population, the research provides a valuable insight into factors linked to successful weight loss.

The researchers also reported findings from other surveys suggesting that 20% of people in the general population are successful at long-term weight loss maintenance. This figure, along with the other findings, underscore the fact that it is possible to achieve and maintain a large weight loss.

Whilst the factors discussed here can make or break weight loss maintenance, there are lots of other things that individuals can do to assist their weight loss goals, such as consuming a greater proportion of protein. Protein is not only more filling than the equivalent numbers of calories from carbohydrates and fats – compare a bag of Walkers Sensations crisps (at 202 calories) versus a 200g can of tuna in water (at 160 calories!), but protein also makes your body burn more calories when metabolising.

Furthermore, research from the US shows that a regular intake of fish oils can aid weight loss as fatty acids help activate the enzymes which are responsible for fat loss, thus increasing the body’s rate of metabolism (7).

Finally, the golden rule for any weight loss goal which is often overlooked by laypersons … calorie expenditure must exceed calorie consumption … which brings us back to that beloved concept of exercise – yep, there’s no better way to expend those calories!


For further reading on losing weight, see the articles below:

–    Dieting Without Losing Muscle Mass

–    Losing Body Fat for Women

–    12 Easy Weight Loss Tips

–    Seven Tips to Ignite Your Cardio


Author: Mandy Johal



1.    World Health Organisation, (2000). Obesity: Preventing and managing the global epidemic, Geneva, World Health Organisation.

2.    The Health and Social Care Information Centre, (2011). Statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet: England, Leeds, National Health Service.

3.    Stunkard, A. and McLaren-Hume, M. (1959). The results of treatment for obesity. Archives of Internal Medicine, 103, 79-85.

4.    Kassirer J. and Angell, M. (1998). Losing weight—an ill-fated New Year’s resolution. The New England Journal of Medicine, 338, 52–54.

5.    Wing, R. and Phelan, S. (2005). Long-term weight loss maintenance. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 82(1), 2225-2255.

6.    Maltby, J., Giles, D., Barber, L. and McCutcheon, L. (2005). Intense personal celebrity worship and body image: evidence of a link among female adolescents. British Journal of Health Psychology, 10, 17–32

7.    Hill. A, Buckley, J., Murphy, K. and Howe, P. (2007). Combining fish-oil supplements with regular aerobic exercise improves body composition and cardiovascular disease risk factors. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 85(5), 1267-1274.

© 2012, Reggie Johal. All rights reserved.