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Lose Weight Fast or Slow to Keep it Off?

When it comes to weight loss, does slow and steady win the race, or does a speedy approach lead to success? A study from the University of Florida suggests that the key to long-term weight loss and weight maintenance is to lose weight quickly, not gradually, but I don't think that's the whole story.

There have been studies to show that losing weight slowly from the start results in continued weight loss and a smaller chance of gaining it back. But in obese people, it's also been shown that a bigger weight loss splash from the start can lead to more total weight loss long term.

In the new study, scientists tracked obese women who followed a six-month lifestyle program that encouraged them to slash their calorie intakes and up their activity levels to lose about one pound per week. For a full year they received support that included twice a month group sessions, telephone contact or newsletters.

Researchers split the women into three groups according to how much weight they lost within the first month. The ladies in the FAST group lost over 1.5 pounds per week; those in the MODERATE group lost between 0.5 and 1.5 pounds per week; and the SLOW group lost less than 0.5 pounds per week in that first month. At 6 and 18 months out they found that FAST losers lost more weight overall, maintained their weight loss for a longer time, and were less likely to gain it back compared to the more gradual losers.

In fact, those in the FAST group were five times more likely to hit the "clinically significant" mark - a loss of 10 percent of their total weight - by 18 months (so a 20 pound loss for a woman who started at 200 pounds).

I've been counseling people for weight loss for a long time, and I find this study to be extremely interesting, but I think the real key to long term success lies in how you lose weight. In my experience, when women or men lose weight fast using a method that isn't very sustainable, they tend to regain most, if not all of the pounds. But if a person loses weight quickly and can sustain at least most of the behaviors that led to the loss, I have seen good long-term success.

For example, I've had many, many clients who lost a lot of weight on a low carb diet, but gained it all back because they loathed every minute of what it took to get the weight off that way - from not being able to eat fruit or oatmeal (not to mention bread or pasta) to feeling tired, constipated or suffering from bad breath.

In comparison, I've had clients lose a lot of weight fast by going on a raw vegan diet, and even though they couldn't stick to it 100% long term, they were able to continue about 50-75% of the changes they made compared to they way they were eating before. And that's what helps keep the weight loss snowball rolling and keep the weight off down the road.

In general the more weight you have to lose the more pounds you drop in the beginning of a new program, but even among people who start in the same weight range, I think two key questions supersede speed:

How does your method of weight loss make you feel?

Can you realistically see yourself sticking with it?

Before I graduated college to become a registered dietitian I tried a lot of diets (check out more in my previous post). Back then I never thought of a "diet" as a way of eating for life or an opportunity to learn about nutrition, metabolism and health. My approaches were always quick fixes, always felt awful, and I always quit. Today I'm happy to say that I've maintained the same weight and size for many years, because I approach healthy eating as a way of life, not as a means to a short term end (learn more in my post called What a Nutritionist Eats for Breakfast). 

Tell me about your track record. What weight loss approaches have you tried that you chucked (and gained everything back)? And what tactics have you put into practice that have helped you keep losing, keep the weight off and change the way you eat for life? Please share!

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