#200 3 Secrets to Maintaining a Healthy Weight Forever

3 Secrets to Maintaining a Healthy Weight Forever

Most Americans want to lose weight as their New Year’s resolution.  While many are successful, few can keep the weight off forever.  Based on recent research of 10,000 people, who have lost an average of 66 pounds and have kept it off for five or more years, I’ll share the 3 secrets to maintaining a healthy weight for the rest of your life.

Yo-yo Dieting

Liz was the classic yo-yo dieter.  Every year she’d resolve to lose weight on January 1.  And every year, by about April or May, she had gained it all back plus a few more pounds.

Last spring, as Liz’s weight crept ever upward, she started developing shortness of breath and fatigue.  Even the little things, like walking up stairs, made it hard to breathe.

When she went to see her doctor, her doctor noted that her pulse was fast and irregular.  An EKG was done which showed an abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation.

One thing led to another and soon she was in my office discussing next steps in treating her heart condition.  After reviewing the probable cause of her atrial fibrillation, she was ready to try again.

“Doctor, I know I can do this,” she said.

“I know you can too,” I replied.

With that, the weight came off again.  Now, six months later, it is still off.  Fortunately, her atrial fibrillation resolved from weight loss alone.  No medications or procedures were needed.

Our research has confirmed Liz’s experience. Getting down to a healthy weight, and staying there, is the single best thing people can do to beat atrial fibrillation.

Why do 98% of diets fail?

Most people set themselves up for failure.  While losing weight is the number one New Year’s resolution,  studies show that up to 98% of dieters fail.  Is it any wonder why so many people feel discouraged?

Fortunately, 98% of weight loss attempts don’t need to end in failure.  Indeed, the 10,000 people followed in the National Weight Control Registry are living proof that you can keep the weight off forever.

Their secret to maintaining a healthy weight was simple.  Dieting doesn’t work.  Healthy lifestyles do work.

3 Secrets to Maintaining a Healthy Weight Forever

Interestingly, there was no special technique as to how these 10,000 people kept their 66 pounds off for more than 5 years.  Half did it alone while the other half participated in some sort of a weight loss program.  Also, some tracked their food intake while others practiced mindful eating approaches.

How these 10,000 successful people differed from the other 98% who gained their weight back was entirely due to new lifestyle habits. Here are the three secrets to maintaining a healthy weight for the rest of your life based on the published studies of these 10,000 people.

1. Exercise an Hour Daily

The number one factor in maintaining a healthy weight was exercising an hour each day.  While exercise has not been shown to be very helpful in weight loss, it is highly effective in maintaining a healthy weight.

In this study, women reported burning 2,545 calories each week, or 364 calories daily, with exercise.  For men, it was 3,293 calories weekly or 470 calories daily.  To get to these numbers, most people walked briskly for at least an hour each day.

When I share this with my patients, I often hear an excuse as to why they can’t exercise.  Usually, it is because something hurts or a perceived lack of time.

Everyone can do something.  I have patients confined to a wheelchair who are able to maintain a healthy weight simply by doing vigorous arm exercises each day in their wheelchair.  Likewise, I have many patients in their 90s, some of which have to wear oxygen all the time, who are still are able to exercise every day.

If your knees hurt, try a bicycle.  Alternatively, you could do water based exercises like water aerobics or walking against resistance in your local community pool.

If it is a perceived lack of time, try putting exercise equipment in your living room to do while watching TV.  Alternatively, you could use a treadmill or bicycle desk while working on your computer.  These treadmill and bicycle desks don’t have to be expensive, I set mine up at no extra cost with some unused equipment we had in our house.

If my patients in their 90s who have to wear oxygen, or those confined to wheelchairs, can exercise every day then there really is no excuse for anyone.  Resolve to work toward an hour of exercise each day to maintain a healthy weight.

2. Focus on Nutritious Foods

The second secret to keeping the weight off forever is to eat a highly nutritious diet.  In a different study of these 10,000 people, researchers showed that they ate the right foods to give them all the nutrients they needed each day.

Sadly, most people in the U.S. are overfed and under nuourished.  Indeed, studies now show that a micronutrient deficiency, from eating too many processed foods, may be the cause of hunger in obese people.  Thus, if you are always hungry, it is probably because you are eating the wrong foods.

Rather than eating energy dense foods, like sugar and processed foods, these 10,000 people focussed on plant-based real foods.  Unprocessed plant-based foods are highly filling with minimal calories.  In addition, unprocessed plant-based foods are also packed with nutrients so you will likely hit on everything your body needs.

If you only eat nutritious foods, then there is no need to count calories.  You just listen to your body as to when you are hungry.  For example, as vegetables are so low in calories, even if you ate a wheelbarrow full of raw vegetables it still would be next to impossible to come anywhere near these daily caloric numbers.

However, for those readers who want to track the calories, the typical woman in this study reported an average of 1,306 calories each day to keep their weight off long-term.  For men, it was an average of 1,685 calories daily.

Regardless of your eating approach, to maintain a healthy weight resolve now to only eat real foods with an emphasis on vegetables.

3. Daily Accountability

While some people can mindfully keep their weight off forever, without ever having to keep a food journal, use an app, or weigh themselves, most cannot. Indeed, most people need constant feedback and daily accountability to keep them on the right track.  I know that is definitely the case for me.

In this study, half of the 10,000 people weighed themselves daily and a quarter weighed themselves weekly.  However, that left a remaining quarter, or about 2,500 people, who never weighed themselves at all.

I’m still amazed at how 2,500 people could keep 66 pounds off for more than 5 years without having to use a scale.   This finding shows that a mindfulness based strategy can be highly effective for some people.

However, if you are like me, accountability to someone or something is needed to maintain a healthy weight.  Accountability allows for early course correction.  Indeed, for the 7,500 people in this study who did use a scale, most were able to make quick course corrections before they ever gained back even five pounds.

Additional Findings of This Study

1. Most were motivated by medical challenges

This study found that to successfully keep 66 pounds off for five or more years required a strong purpose.  For example, if the purpose was to lose weight for a wedding, the weight came right back after the wedding.

For most of the people in this study, their purpose was to lose weight to reverse or prevent a medical condition.  Generally, this was to prevent or reverse a heart problem.

People who lost weight for medical reasons had the very highest chance of successfully maintaining a healthy weight long-term.  This was also the case for me.

2. It gets easier after two years

While it might seem hard at first, this study offers hope.  Indeed, these researchers found that if you can successfully keep the weight off for just two years then the chances of making it permanent go up by 50%.

3. You don’t need an expensive weight loss program

As mentioned, half of the 10,000 people went through a weight loss program and the other half did it alone.  The good news here is that these researchers did not find that an expensive program worked any better than the do it yourself approach to maintaining a healthy weight.

4. Most ate breakfast

Fully 78% of the 10,000 people reported eating breakfast every morning.  Does that mean you have to eat breakfast to maintain a healthy weight?  Absolutely not.

More recent studies show that it really doesn’t matter if you eat breakfast or not.  I suspect the reason why eating breakfast emerged as a possible explanation in this study is that motivated people are more likely to be early risers.

Early risers tend to eat breakfast.  Thus, successful weight maintenance really had nothing to do with breakfast but rather had everything to do with earlier risers, on average, tending to be more motivated people.

Interestingly, the typical breakfast in this study consisted of cereal and fruit.  This is surprising given that most breakfast cereals are merely processed carbohydrates.

As you know from reading this blog, processed carbohydrates are instantly converted to sugar in your body.  I suspect it would have been much easier for these 10,000 people to keep their weight off long-term had they eaten a more nutritious breakfast.

5. Strategies to avoid binging

Another key strategy identified in this study is that these 10,000 people didn’t let a slip up result in a downward spiral of weight gain.  Rather, they had mechanisms in place to either prevent binge eating of unhealthy foods or to get back on track after a binge eating episode.

For example, if there is no junk food in the house then it is pretty hard to binge unless you make a special trip to the grocery store or a fast food restaurant.  Likewise, if you have a trusted friend you can call for help, this friend may give you the strength you need, in a moment of weakness, to prevent a binge eating episode.  For me, knowing that I will record all my nutrition stats on an app each day gives me the willpower I need to avoid binging.

It is simple a fact of life that at some point you will binge on the foods that work against you maintaining a healthy weight.  Rather than giving up, be like the people in this study who had a pre-prepared plan to get back on track.

6. Consistent eating pattern

The 10,000 people in this study ate the same types of food regardless of whether it was a weekday, weekend, or holiday.  This approach goes against the conventional wisdom of many weight loss programs that allow for a “cheat day.”

7. Ate less fat

In this study, the average person obtained 24% of their calories from fat.  Twenty-four percent is less than what most people eat.

I want to dispel a 1980s notion that eating fat makes you fat.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  As long as you are eating healthy fats, like nuts, seeds, avocados, etc., the more fat the better as far as I am concerned.

The reason why I suspect that a low fat diet worked for these 10,000 people is that when most people eat fat they are eating the wrong kinds of fats.  Thus, rather than avoiding fat, studies show that the right fats, like those in the Mediterranean Diet, will improve your health and allow you to maintain a healthy weight.

8. Be happy

The last interesting observation from this study, is that most of these 10,000 people lived in a way that minimized their chances of depression.  Thus, as many struggle with wintertime depression at this time of the year, here are three simple tips from a recent article I wrote on how to naturally beat wintertime depression (blog #198).

Why maintain a healthy weight?

Is it really worth the effort to maintain a healthy weight for the rest of your life?  In this study of 10,000 people, the five main benefits of maintaining a healthy weight were as follows:

1. More energy

2. Able to move easier

3. Happier

4. More self-confidence

5. Medical problems went away

Take Home Message

The take home message of this study is one of hope.  Maintaining a healthy weight for the rest of your life really just boils down to doing three things right.  Daily exercise, healthy eating, and daily accountability is something that everyone can do.

How are you working to maintain a healthy weight?  Please leave your thoughts and questions below.  Also, if you have not yet signed up for my free weekly newsletter, The Longevity Plan, please do so now.  For those of you who like to learn while on the go, may I suggest subscribing to my weekly podcast by the same name?

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    • Hi Joe,

      Unintentional weight loss can be a challenge for some people. I would suggest contacting your physician immediately. There may be a serious medical condition going on which is causing you to lose weight unintentionally.

      If there are no other medical conditions causing you to lose weight unintentionally, then you could focus on healthy foods which are also very high in calories. Some good examples of healthy foods which are calorie dense include nuts, seeds, intact whole grains, some fruits, some vegetables like sweet potatoes, olive oil, etc.

      Hope this helps!


  1. I am trying to exercise an hour every day. I work in a 5 story building and do lots of stair climbing. If it takes me 5 minutes to climb 5 stories and I do it 12 times, does that equal an hour of exercise or is 5 minutes too short to be a proper workout?

    • Hi Kay,

      That sounds like a great 60 minute workout! Indeed, stairs can be a great way for office workers to squeeze exercise into their busy day. This is a strategy that I also employ at my hospital.

      Thanks for reading!