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Learning weight-maintenance skills first helps prevent diet backsliding, Stanford study shows

Michaela Kiernan

All of us who have struggled with our waistlines over the years know that sometimes losing weight isn't the hardest part. Keeping it off is.

But an approach that sounds a bit odd might be the solution: Before you try shedding any pounds, learn the skills that will help you maintain your weight.

In a study published today in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, researchers at Stanford's medical school reported that women who spent eight weeks mastering weight-maintenance skills before embarking on a weight-loss program shed the same number of pounds as women who started a weight-loss program immediately. More importantly, the “maintenance-first” women had regained only 3 pounds on average a year later, compared to the average 7-pound gain for the immediate dieters.

“Those eight weeks were like a practice run. Women could try out different stability skills and work out the kinks without the pressure of worrying about how much weight they had lost,” lead author Michaela Kiernan, PhD, senior research scientist at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, said in our news release about the study.

Among the weight-maintenance skills the women learned were:

  • Searching out low-fat or low-calorie foods that taste as good as high-fat/high-calorie options to avoid feelings of deprivation.
  • Occasionally eating and savoring small amounts of favorite high-fat/high-calorie foods.
  • Weighing daily to see how their body weight naturally fluctuates from day to day.
  • Identifying a personalized weight-fluctuation range of about 5 pounds to account for common disruptions, such as water gain and vacations.
  • Strategically losing a few pounds before a known disruption (such as a vacation) to minimize its effects.
  • Eating a little more when reaching the lower limit of the personalized 5-pound range.

Kiernan said the maintenance-first approach, though sounding a bit unorthodox, could be a useful tool for those who are trying to slim down and be healthier. “This approach helps people learn how to make small, quick adjustments that can help them maintain their weight without requiring a lot of effort,” she said.

You can also listen to this podcast with Kiernan as she explains the study.

Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

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