Cal Poly SLO examines how to maintain long-term weight loss



A Cal Poly professor’s study, released Wednesday, offers the “first large-scale study” that allows participants to self-define what helped them lose weight over the long term, according to a university press release.

Cal Poly professor of kinesiology and public health Suzanne Phelan and other researchers studied more than 6,000 Weight Watchers members who lost an average of 50 pounds in weight and maintained that weight for more than three years. The study shows that 20% of Americans who lost weight were able to maintain their lower weight over the long term.

The study was published in Obesity: The Journal of The Obesity Society and funded by WW International Inc. and the William and Linda Frost Fund at Cal Poly.

Weight Watchers changed its brand name to WW, short for “wellness that works,” in 2018 — an attempt to shift focus away from a culture of pursuing dieting and weight loss.

Phelan said in the press release that weight-loss coaches attributed their success to perseverance through setbacks — one of Phelan’s “most impressive findings.”

Weight loss coaches saw setbacks as part of their successful journey,” Phelan said. “Many weight-loss participants have described getting back on track at the next meal or the next day and measuring overall success against long-term goals.”

motivations for losing weight

According to the press release, study participants answered open-ended questions about what motivated them to lose weight and their strategies for maintaining the weight loss. Machine learning then categorized the answers.

Persevering through setbacks, regularly looking back at life before the weight loss, and staying focused on your health were three key factors in success, according to the study.

Some of the participants in the study were motivated by health issues such as diabetes and heart disease. Others maintained their weight loss because of concerns about “mobility, appearance, suggestions from family or friends, and the need for change because they often felt tired,” according to the press release.

Tips from participants

Participants encouraged others to pursue their long-term goals day-to-day and to track their diets consistently. Attendees also used the Weight Watchers workshops to “mentally reset” after inevitable setbacks.

Phelan’s research revealed downsides like the cost of buying new clothes, “unexpected criticism” from people, sagging skin, and the work required to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

However, the “most important changes” for the participants were mental and physical health, confidence and body image.

“I’ve seen firsthand that a person’s mindset and perspective are critical to helping them build healthy habits and drive sustainable weight loss and management,” said Gary Foster, Weight Watchers’ chief scientific officer, in the press release. “We hope these insights will encourage other people to follow a similar path and equip them with the tools they need to optimize their own success.”

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Catherine Allen is an intern at the San Luis Obispo Tribune, covering breaking news and business. She is a sophomore in journalism at Cal Poly.

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