You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted statistic that 95 percent of overweight dieters won’t lose weight and of the ones who do lose, most will regain the weight. What is rarely noted is the source of this conclusion. It comes from a study done in the 1950’s where the overweight participants were given a printed diet and told to go home and just follow it. There was no support, no discussion of unhelpful eating behavior, no exploration of possible emotional factors that could trigger eating, just a list of foods to eat and foods to avoid.
Despite the obvious shortcomings the conclusions from this ancient study often provide a rationale for being pessimistic about the possibility of losing weight. More current research suggests that, while the “ideal” body is not universally obtainable, many people can lose weight, decreasing their health risks and improving their psychological well-being. For example, a recent study found that of half of the more than 65,000 Americans who participated in TOPS (Take off Pounds Sensibly) lost a significant amount of weight (five percent or more of their starting weight) in a year. A five percent weight loss is clinically significant resulting in decreased health risks even if the resulting weight is less than ideal.
TOPS is a low-cost group weight loss program that includes weekly meetings with private weigh-ins, information about fitness and nutrition, weight loss contests and access to the program website. Unlike other programs that gradually reduce the frequency of meetings, TOPS participants who reach their goals continue coming to Keep Off Pounds Sensibly (KOPS) meetings. Research has shown that after 7 years participants who maintained their membership lost eight percent of their starting weight.
Clearly, there’s no magic in the TOPS and KOPS program but these findings illustrate that the dismal 95 percent failure rate is unjustified. While there may be genetically determined limits on the amount of weight loss that’s possible it’s not hopeless; small losses within genetic limits can be beneficial. Like diabetes and other chronic illnesses, treating obesity might require a life-long commitment to habit change and ongoing group support can help to maintain the necessary motivation.
Busko, M. Most who lose weight stay with low-cost program, keep it off Medscape. May 23, 2016.
Abramson, E. E. (2016). Weight, diet and body image: What every therapist needs to know. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing & Media.