Harvard Researchers Challenge Conventional Weight Loss Wisdom

Posted on July 19, 2011


As we are reminded that obesity is still a problem in America, and the USDA tries again to revise its image, it becomes more important by the day to help people learn how to stop the process of packing on those extra pounds each year.  A long-term study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine challenges the traditional notion of “eat less, work out more.”

We all have a friend (probably several) who has tried to lose weight by strictly adhering to the conventional wisdom or perhaps the latest diet fad without success or lasting results.  I recall being taught (by a bariatric surgeon, mind you) that the long term success rate for maintaining weight lost with conventional diet & exercise is a dismal 5%.  One maxim that has always been true is that the best diet for you is the one you can stick to – many people gain back the weight they lost as soon as they part ways with the diet & exercise routine that got them there.

What I like about this research is that it was aimed at healthy habits – things we can do over the long term to establish lasting results.  Here are some of the findings, summarized:

  • On average, participants gained almost 3 1/2 pounds every 4 years (sound familiar?)
  • Exercise may not be king, but helps – those who exercised most gained 1.76 fewer pounds during each 4 year period
  • Momentum – those who were overweight at the beginning of the study were more likely to gain weight
  • Junk food is bad – researchers listed the following offenders:  French fries (+3.4lbs/yr) > potato chips > soft drinks > processed meat > sweets & desserts > refined carbohydrates > 100% juice drinks > butter (+0.3lbs/yr)
  • Fruits, veggies, and whole grains are still good for you; yogurt and nuts (including peanut butter) may be even better
  • Subjects who ate the most yogurt lost an average of 0.82lbs/yr
  • Lifestyle is important – getting adequate sleep and cutting back on TV time had the effects you’d expect

I have to say, “mainstream” research has been seemingly lacking in this area over the past decade, while there have been more than a few notable studies published by smaller journals that did not receive the attention they deserved.  In many respects, sports nutritionists have been holding philosophies that are leaps and bounds ahead of those held by public health officials and medical doctors (I had been exposed to this material during my time as a personal trainer) – none of this is really news.

My old gym rat buddies must be having a great summer with this research being published along with more evidence that diet soda isn’t so diet and whey protein may help us in our quest to be lean.  I know I am.