DEAR DR. BLONZ: What are your thoughts about personal qualities that might determine who will be successful at losing weight? -- S.O., Los Angeles
DEAR S.O.: An instructive paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (November 1990) comes to mind, which examined three different types of women. The first group lost weight, but then regained it; they were called the relapsers. The second group lost weight and kept it off; these were the maintainers. The third group was the control group, who remained at the same “non-obese” weight.
The researchers looked at the subjects’ weight histories -- including prior attempts at dieting -- and their childhood food experiences, meal and snacking patterns, emotion-related eating, and how they typically handled troubling situations. The paper revealed some interesting differences that address your question.
The relapsers were more likely to take appetite suppressants and participate in formal weight-loss programs. More relapsers skipped breakfast, and they often went on restrictive diets that denied them many of the foods they enjoyed. In comparison, most maintainers did not seek help from support groups, diet partners or health professionals. If using the same approach to weight loss, relapsers adapted their lifestyle to the program, while maintainers usually tailored the program to fit their lifestyle.
During the weight-loss period, both maintainers and relapsers reported stressful events involving family or careers. Maintainers tended to confront and solve problems, while relapsers often resorted to avoidance behaviors such as eating, sleeping and/or drinking more, or merely wishing that the problem would go away.
Another significant finding was that 90% of the maintainers, versus 34% of the relapsers, engaged in exercise at least three times a week. Studies often report that the body decreases its baseline metabolic rate (the rate at which calories are burned at rest) when weight is lost. This unfortunate decrease can slow the rate of weight loss and help explain why it is hard to keep pounds off. Regular exercise helps counter this decrease, in addition to burning more calories.
These findings suggest that personality can be an essential determinant for long-term success with weight reduction. It also tells us there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet plan. Most commercial programs suggest their methods and products work for anyone, but their main accomplishment may only be a short-term loss of pounds. People seeking treatment for a weight problem should be screened and guided into a program that suits their personality.
One hopeful message here is that a relapser can become a maintainer. Some maintainers in this study had been relapsers at one time. New habits and behaviors had to become established for that switch to occur. For example, no longer would working out be a chore only done to lose weight; rather, it was understood and internalized as a fundamental element of a new, more healthful lifestyle.
While reflecting on this, it’s essential to appreciate that realistic goals are a part of the process; you may never drop you as low as you want to go. Healthy people often carry some extra weight. Likewise, simply because someone happens to be thin is no guarantee that they are better off.
Health is as health does, and this holds true at any weight. Society-imposed pressures to achieve a particular body type do little to promote our physical and mental health and well-being.
Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.