Weight Loss Anecdotes versus Statistics

I have been doing some informal research on diet and weight loss. So of course I have encountered the statistics which say that the vast majority of people do no sustain long term weight loss.

Yet almost frequently when the subject comes up, people come out of the woodwork to say that they lost a lot of weight years ago and kept it off. Or know people who did.

What explains this discrepancy? Are people lying? Do internet discussions attract an unrepresentative group of people?

My hypothesis is that losing weight and keeping it off is roughly analogous to quitting smoking; that it generally takes a number of attempts before you can get it right. If you took 100 smokers and put them through a quit-smoking program, perhaps 95% would be smoking again within a year. But if each of those smokers keeps trying to quit, his individual likelihood of successfully quitting for good is a lot higher than 5%.

Of course I am not trying to say that successful dieting is as easy as successfully quitting smoking. I am simply saying that it’s not as futile as the statistics might make it seem.

Yes, it’s selection bias. Just like why the fewer online reviews there are for a place on Yelp or something the more likely it is to be negative, because the motivation is stronger for someone with a perceived bad experience (they’ll seek out a venue to vent) than for someone with an ordinary, satisfactory one.

If you Google about weight loss you’ll find mostly people excited about their weight loss, and/or pushing a weight loss program or product that “finally worked!!” for them. What would be practicaly impossible to find are people admitting they tried and failed or have given up. Why would they go out there and post about it? Especially when you’re talking about a “keep it off” timeframe of X years - there are plenty of “Before” and “After” pics of “real customers” next to bottles of pills or frozen dinner lines, but how do you know there weren’t “after after” pictures that they’re not ever going to put out there?

If you want my advice though, it’s really not a difficult concept. It’s common sense advice you can find online, in books, etc., and a lot of what passes for “diet fads” are all about trying to find an easier, faster way than the obvious:

If you want to lose weight, you eat less and exercise more. It takes time, and the fat comes off in the reverse order of how it went on (i.e., if your body type got fat in the tummy first, that fat is coming off last after your arms, neck, legs, etc., have slimmed down).

As far as “eating less”, the key to keeping it off is to adopt a strategy where you change how you eat for good, for life. Do not “go on a diet” - learn to think about eating as something you plan out and budget for. Do not use a drastic, unsustainable short term strategy like only eating grapefruit for a week, or drinking only Ultra Slim Fast shakes for lunch and dinner, etc., to reach a target weight. Because implicit in that goal is that once you reach your target weight, woo hoo, you can go back to normal! But your “normal” is what got you fat in the first place, which is why people tend to gain back so much weight after losing it. It’s the people who manage to change what their “normal” pattern is who sustain weight loss. And admittedly, this is VERY hard to do. We are creatures of patterns and habit.

You asked in another thread about Atkins, and there were people who said they’d kept off the weight they lost via Atkins for the long term. If you read their stories, you’ll see that they also mentioned continuing the low-carb philosophy as an ongoing thing - avoiding sweets, sodas, etc. This is really what is keeping the weight off for them, paying attention to what they eat and avoiding what gets them fat again.

What you probably won’t find people stepping forward to post are stories like this: I know 5 people very close to me who lost a lot of weight, 30+ lbs. for the men and 20+ for the women, in 4-6 weeks on Atkins diets. All of them gained it back within 6 months by celebrating their weight loss, “backsliding” into eating what they like, etc. Two of them (the women) have repeated this yo-yo cycle at least 3 times, “going on Atkins again” to lose weight for the summer and then gaining it all back by year’s end (especially during the holiday period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve). Which they feel is better than a linear weight gain, so I’ve stopped telling them this is a bad thing.

Or even more simply put, the motto should be: try something until you find what works (because different people’s bodies respond differently), and keep doing it until it stops working. Which means whatever plan you come up with for losing weight has to be the same strategy you continue to use to keep that weight off.

Your analogy with quitting smoking is interesting. I’ve never smoked, but I have lost a “significant” amount of weight (40+ lbs.) and kept it off for 6 years now. I had made a few diet-based attempts (Atkins, Weight Watchers, diet shakes, etc.) before that, but none of those programs ever “clicked”. (Unlike my friends I didn’t even manage to lose much weight initially on Atkins.) In retrospect, what finally got me to bear down and do it right was a matter of willpower.

I lost 70+lbs almost 8 years ago and have successfully maintained my weight loss. I’m currently pregnant, but feel confident I will get back to my pre-baby weight in the future.

My method was similar to what Robardin just posted. I had failed at permanent weight loss many times. I finally had to accept the way I ate “normally” made me fat and I had to change normal forever. That did the trick.

It could also be how the question is phrased. If you ask, “Have you lost weight and kept it off?” there aren’t going to be many people who will come in and say “No.” There will be some, but most will probably come in in response to other posters or to indicate that they have a medical condition or other problem that prevents them from losing weight (I’m not saying that’s untrue).

Likewise, if you ask, “Have you struggled with weight loss?” you’re likely to get a different set of answers. Truthfully, the way weight is so associated with shame and other emotions, I think it’d be hard to get an honest answer to questions about weight.

And, keep in mind that you are online. People can’t see you; you can’t see them. I don’t think most people feel comfortable outright lying, but many might feel ok bending the truth a bit to make themselves feel better or solicit a better opinion.

I think I’m rare in that I never lost weight and then failed to keep it off. But not in a good way. I got heavy slightly before puberty and was fat into my mid-twenties.

I struggled trying to lose weight most of my life, but I never lost any. So when I say I never gained any weight back, it’s only because I never managed to even lose any.

The vast majority of people are the opposite, they lose weight, gain it back, lose weight, gain it back. If they finally manage to lose it and keep it off, they’re now part of the minority who’re successful at keeping it off. And it’s really difficult, so they’re proud of it and they like to tell people.

But they’re also people who lost weight, and regained it, probably many times. That doesn’t change just because they finally found a way to keep it off for years.

So in short, I think most people who successfully kept weight off actually fit into both categories, albeit, they only fit into the “regained it” category earlier.

(Bolding mine) Congrats!!!

Thanks, needscoffee, 8 weeks to go!

My experience is similar. I lost a great deal of weight after college because I dieted to the extreme. But whenever I stopped depriving myself, I would see my weight begin to creep up. That would usually motivate me to start dieting again, but I knew it wasn’t something I could keep up forever, I knew I would eventually lose all my willpower, and this made me depressed.

Somewhere along the way, I began running, and THAT changed my life for good. Seeing myself get stronger and fitter offset my worries about weight gain. I started eating better so I would feel strong instead of weak. The more I ran, the more I ate, and amazingly, I didn’t pack on the pounds like I thought I would. I started listening to myself and eating when I was hungry, and I slowly lost a taste for all the junk food that made me so fat in the first place.

I agree with others that simply going on a diet for a while will not work. Changing the way you listen to your body, treat your body, respond to your cravings is what makes the difference, as does doing the work of figuring out what type/amounts of foods make you feel best.

brazil84, there are a lot of statistics out there, but the one most quoted - from a study done by F. Goldstein in 1996 - is that in the five years after weight loss, 95% had regained all or more than the weight loss. The just as frequently cited comparison - though I can’t find the study it comes from - is that more people successfully recover from heroin addiction.

Your smoking analogy only goes so far. For one, smoking is not biologically necessary to continue living. Eating is. Therefore, people who have distorted or unhealthy eating patterns simply can’t go “cold turkey”. They try. That’s what all the fad diets are about, but fads are impossible to maintain, and in the meantime, the dieter hasn’t learned healthier eating habits.

For another, multiple attempts at weight loss appear to permanently alter the metabolism, causing the dieter to burn fewer and fewer calories over the course of a day. Weight loss is almost never a matter of multiple tries, especially when most dieters gain back everything they lost and then a few pounds extra. For most people, multiple attempts at weight loss make them gain weight.

At this point, the only workable solution for permanent weight loss is bariatric surgery - basically, permanently altering the way the body digests food. There is still a failure rate. People can defeat what the surgery does and regain weight, sometimes all of it. But, the failure rate is much, much lower than even the best diet can offer.

Me too.

I’m 45. Twenty years ago I was well over 200 pounds, which (at 5’ 6") is very heavy for me. I had just graduated from college, had a *very *slow metabolism (still do), and was fat and out of shape. So soon after graduating I made some changes in my life, and for the last 18 years I have hovered around 160 pounds. I’m pretty stocky, so this weight feels good for me.

So I’ve “kept the weight off” for 18 years. I have maintained my weight by adhering to a fairly strict diet. The name of this diet is Eat Less and Eat Better. I plan to be on this diet for the rest of my life.

If I ate a “normal” diet – like most of my friends and coworkers do – I would (again) be well over 200 pounds. They constantly make fun of my diet. But they’re all fat and out-of-shape, so I get the last laugh.

I agree with phouka—bariatric surgery the only long-term solution for many, many people. Some of us are just born with a thrifty gene, and yo-yo dieting just causes it to get thriftier and thriftier.

Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve probably lost around 800 pounds—and gained back a thousand. But 9 years ago I had a duodenal switch, and finally I can not only lose the weight, I can keep it off.

That may be, but it’s reasonable to expect that a decent number of people in the 95% learned from their failure and tried again successfully.

Agreed, and I pretty much said as much in the OP in this thread.

I’m very skeptical of this claim . . . do you have cites for it? Cites which do not rely on peoples’ self-reporting of their diets.

People do not maintain weight loss because our bodies are not designed to process carbohydrates and sugars like they are designed to process fats. Keep carbs to 1/3 of the USRDA - it’s around 300 grams, IIRC, and people should consume about 100

Fat Head

I wonder if the % of people who keep the weight off goes down as the % of their body weight was lost goes up. I lost weight 6 years ago and have kept it off without much effort, but it was only 8-9% of my (then) body weight.

brazil84 here are two article subjects that people don’t normally think of when talking about diet, exercise and fat loss.
The Truth about Glycemic Index, Potatoes, and “WhiteFoods”
The Shocking Truth about Dietary Fats & Saturated Fat
These two subjects have made all of the difference for me.

I lost 25 pounds in two weeks when I became a diabetic; a couple years later, before they put me on insulin, I lost another 25 pounds in two weeks. I’ve kept the weight off, mostly because I’ve been so broke I couldn’t afford to buy enough insulin to cover the carbs I wanted to eat. And, I couldn’t afford the extra food, either.

I think Robardin nailed it. I tried dieting I can’t tell you how many times. Ten years ago I hit 281 lb and my blood sugar hit about 120. My doctor told me I was headed for diabetes and suggested the zone diet as the most sensible (basically balanced, portion controlled, no calorie counting). In a year or so, I was down to 250 and then over a couple more years edged up to 259, but suddenly the blood sugar was about 146. My doctor put me on metformin and I had the common side-effect of losing weight (for reasons that have never been clear to me) and I stabilized around 240. Then a bit over two years ago, I decided to act. Since eating is a habit, I realized that it was eating between meals that was keeping my weight up. I had kept up the portion-controlled meals, but gradually snacking had entered in a big way. So I stopped snacking cold-turkey two years ago and have very largely kept it up. My weight has stabilized at 195 and hasn’t changed in the last five months.

But if you said that 95% of my diets failed you wouldn’t be far off.

What I’ve found to often be true among people who lost weight and “kept it off” is that they lost a lot of weight and gained some back, but still ended up with a net loss.

To put it in concrete terms, I went from a size 12 to a size 0 to a size 4. Does that count as keeping it off? Probably not to a statistician. But it probably does count to a lot of friends who don’t know the specifics, but know that I look smaller than I did ten years ago.