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Dieting on a budget

Plus the secrets of thin people, based on our survey of 21,000 readers

Last updated: February 2009

With jobs being cut and retirement accounts seemingly shrinking by the day, it's too bad our waistlines aren't dwindling, too. We can't rectify that cosmic injustice, but in this issue we aim to help you figure out the most effective, least expensive ways to stay trim and fit.

Though most Americans find themselves overweight by middle age, an enviable minority stay slim throughout their lives. Are those people just genetically gifted? Or do they, too, have to work at keeping down their weight?

To find out, the Consumer Reports National Research Center asked subscribers to Consumer Reports about their lifetime weight history and their eating, dieting, and exercising habits. And now we have our answer:

People who have never become overweight aren't sitting in recliners with a bowl of corn chips in their laps. In our group of always-slim respondents, a mere 3 percent reported that they never exercised and that they ate whatever they pleased. The eating and exercise habits of the vast majority of the always-slim group look surprisingly like those of people who have successfully lost weight and kept it off.

Both groups eat healthful foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and eschew excessive dietary fat; practice portion control; and exercise vigorously and regularly. The only advantage the always-slim have over the successful dieters is that those habits seem to come a bit more naturally to them.

"When we've compared people maintaining a weight loss with controls who've always had a normal weight, we've found that both groups are working hard at it; the maintainers are just working a little harder," says Suzanne Phelan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of kinesiology at California Polytechnic State University and co-investigator of the National Weight Control Registry, which tracks people who have successfully maintained a weight loss over time. For our respondents, that meant exercising a little more and eating with a bit more restraint than an always-thin person—plus using more monitoring strategies such as weighing themselves or keeping a food diary.

A total of 21,632 readers completed the 2007 survey. The always thin, who had never been overweight, comprised 16 percent of our sample. Successful losers made up an additional 15 percent. We defined that group as people who, at the time of the survey, weighed at least 10 percent less than they did at their heaviest, and had been at that lower weight for at least three years. Failed dieters, who said they would like to slim down yet still weighed at or near their lifetime high, were, sad to say, the largest group: 42 percent. (The remaining 27 percent of respondents, such as people who had lost weight more recently, didn't fit into any of the categories.)

An encouraging note: More than half of our successful losers reported shedding the weight themselves, without aid of a commercial diet program, a medical treatment, a book, or diet pills. That confirms what we found in our last large diet survey, in 2002, in which 83 percent of "superlosers"—people who'd lost at least 10 percent of their starting weight and kept it off for five years or more—had done it entirely on their own.

6 secrets of the slim for your diet plan

Through statistical analyses, we were able to identify six key behaviors that correlated the most strongly with having a healthy body mass index (BMI), a measure of weight that takes height into account. Always-thin people were only slightly less likely than successful losers to embrace each of the behaviors—and significantly more likely to do so than failed dieters. By following the behaviors, you can, quite literally, live like a thin person.

Watch portions. Of all the eating behaviors we asked about, carefully controlling portion size at each meal correlated most strongly with having a lower BMI. Successful losers—even those who were still overweight—were especially likely (62 percent) to report practicing portion control at least five days per week. So did 57 percent of the always thin, but only 42 percent of failed dieters.

Limit fat. Specifically, that means restricting fat to less than one-third of daily calorie intake. Fifty-three percent of successful losers and 47 percent of the always thin said they did that five or more days a week, compared with just 35 percent of failed dieters.

Eat fruits and vegetables. The more days that respondents ate five or more servings of fruits or vegetables, the lower their average BMI score. Forty-nine percent of successful losers and the always thin said they ate that way at least five days a week, while 38 percent of failed dieters did so.

Choose whole grains over refined. People with lower body weights consistently opted for whole-wheat breads, cereals, and other grains over refined (white) grains.

Eat at home. As the number of days per week respondents ate restaurant or take-out meals for dinner increased, so did their weight. Eating at home can save a lot of money, too. See our tips for cooking healthful meals on a budget.

Exercise, exercise, exercise. Regular vigorous exercise—the type that increases breathing and heart rate for 30 minutes or longer—was strongly linked to a lower BMI. Although only about one-quarter of respondents said they did strength training at least once a week, that practice was significantly more prevalent among successful losers (32 percent) and always-thin respondents (31 percent) than it was among failed dieters (23 percent).

What didn't matter

One weight-loss strategy is conspicuously absent from the list: going low-carb. Of course we asked about it, and it turned out that limiting carbohydrates was linked to higher BMIs in our survey. That doesn't necessarily mean low-carb plans such as the Atkins or South Beach diets don't work. "If you go to the hospital and everyone there is sick, that doesn't mean the hospital made them sick," says Eric C. Westman, M.D., associate professor of medicine and director of the Lifestyle Medicine Clinic at Duke University Medical School. "Just as people go to hospitals because they're ill, people may go to carb restriction because they have a higher BMI, not the other way around." At the same time, the findings do suggest that cutting carbs alone, without other healthful behaviors such as exercise and portion control, might not lead to great results.

Eating many small meals, or never eating between meals, didn't seem to make much difference one way or another. Including lean protein with most meals also didn't by itself predict a healthier weight.

Realistic expectations: A key to dieting success

Sixty-six percent of our respondents, all subscribers to Consumer Reports, were overweight as assessed by their body mass index; that's the same percentage as the population as a whole. One-third of the overweight group, or 22 percent of the overall sample, qualified as obese.

Although that might seem discouraging, the survey actually contains good news for would-be dieters. Our respondents did much better at losing weight than published clinical studies would predict. Though such studies are deemed successful if participants are 5 percent lighter after a year, our successful losers had managed to shed an average of 16 percent of their peak weight, an average of almost 34 pounds. They had an impressive average BMI of 25.7, meaning they were just barely overweight.

One key to weight-loss success is having realistic goals, and our subscribers' responses proved encouraging. A staggering 70 percent of them said they currently wanted to lose weight. But when we asked how many pounds they hoped to take off, we found that their goals were modest: The vast majority reported wanting to lose 15 percent or less of their overall body weight; 65 percent sought to lose between 1 and 10 percent. Keeping expectations in check might help dieters from becoming discouraged when they don't achieve, say, a 70-pound weight loss or drop from a size 20 to a size 6—a common problem in behavioral weight-loss studies.

What you can do

Weight loss is a highly individual process, and what matters most is finding the combination of habits that work for you. But our findings suggest that there are key behaviors common to people who have successfully lost weight and to those who have never gained it in the first place. By embracing some or all of those behaviors, you can probably increase your chances of weight-loss success, and live a healthier life in the process. In addition to following the steps above, consider these tips:

Don't get discouraged. Studies show that prospective dieters often have unrealistic ideas about how much weight they can lose. A 10 percent loss might not sound like much, but it significantly improves overall health and reduces risk of disease.

Ask for support. Though only a small minority of respondents overall reported that a spouse or family member interfered with their healthful eating efforts, that problem was much more likely among failed dieters, 31 percent of whom reported some form of spousal sabotage in the month prior to the survey. Ask housemates to help you stay on track by, for example, not pestering you to eat foods you're trying to avoid, or not eating those foods in front of you.

Get up and move. While regular vigorous exercise correlated most strongly with healthy body weight, our findings suggest that any physical activity is helpful, including activities you might not even consider exercise. Everyday activities such as housework, yard work, and playing with kids were modestly tied to lower weight. By contrast, hours spent sitting each day, whether at an office desk or at home watching television, correlated with higher weight.

Price vs. nutrition: Making smart choices

Although healthful foods often cost more than high-calorie junk such as cookies and soda, we unearthed some encouraging exceptions. As illustrated below, two rich sources of nutrients, black beans and eggs, cost mere pennies per serving—and less than plain noodles, which supply fewer nutrients. And for the same price as a doughnut, packed with empty calories, you can buy a serving of broccoli.

Serving size ½ cup

Calories per serving 114

Cost per serving 

Serving size one medium

Calories per serving 78

Cost per serving 

Serving size ¾ cup

Calories per serving 166

Cost per serving 13¢

Serving size 1 medium

Calories per serving 239

Cost per serving 32¢

Serving size ½ cup chopped

Calories per serving 27

Cost per serving 33¢

Serving size 4 oz.

Calories per serving 142

Cost per serving 50¢

* Clarification:

Sources: Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition, University of Washington; USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.

Stay-thin strategies

Successful losers and the always thin do a lot of the same things—and they do them more frequently than failed dieters do. For the dietary strategies below, numbers reflect those who said they ate that way at least five days a week, a key tipping point, our analysis found. (Differences of less than 4 percentage points are not statistically meaningful.)

Lifetime weight history

Failed dieters. Overweight and have tried to lose, but still close to highest weight.

Always thin. Never overweight.

Successful losers. Once overweight but now at least 10 percent lighter, and have kept pounds off for at least three years.

Downturn diet

It's sad but true: Healthful foods such as fruits and vegetables can be more expensive, serving for serving, than potato chips and candy bars. But that doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to getting fat in lean times. We invited our in-house nutrition experts, other staff members, and visitors to our Health blog to share their best tips on putting together healthful meals for less. Great ideas poured in. Here are 20 of our favorites:

Plan ahead. Make a menu for the week and aim to get everything you need in one or two trips to save on gas (and impulse buying). Watch for flyers or visit your supermarket online to check for sales, and let those drive your menu.

Buy in season. That means no strawberries in December in Maine, when you'll pay for shipping from some far-off warm place. Seasonal picks include cherries, melon, peaches, tomatoes, and peppers in summer; snow peas, spinach, and strawberries in spring; and carrots, cauliflower, citrus fruits, and cranberries in fall. For a list, click on "Save at the Supermarket" from the August/September 2008 issue of our ShopSmart magazine, free at

Photo: JupiterImages

Eat beans. They're inexpensive, versatile, and a great source of protein and fiber. Add them to salads, soups, chili, and pasta dishes to increase bulk. Canned beans are the easiest to use, but for maximum economy buy dried beans.

Try tofu. It's a low-cost, nutrient-packed substitute for meat and cheese . Add tofu to salads, or sauté with vegetables and something savory such as chili sauce or tamari and serve over brown rice. If you don't like tofu, experiment with tempeh, a related product with a meatier texture.

For produce, go frozen. Frozen fruits and vegetables, often flash-frozen soon after picking, can be more nutritious than "fresh" items that have sat on store shelves for a while. And you don't have to worry about the frozen variety spoiling before it's eaten.

Choose store brands. Also called "private label," they are often just as good as the name brand and can save you money.

Photo: JupiterImages

Bulk it up. Buy large packages of meats and frozen vegetables at warehouse stores, and repackage and freeze what you don't eat immediately. At the supermarket, buy extra chicken, meat, or fish when they are on sale. Buy large packages of snacks rather than individually prepackaged ones, then re-bag them on your own. Buy apples and citrus fruits in prepackaged bags rather than by the piece.

Go local. Shop at farmer's markets or ethnic groceries, or join a local Community Supported Agriculture outlet, which delivers seasonal produce. (To find a CSA near you, go to

Buy a whole bird. Get a whole chicken and cut it up (or not) as you wish. It's more economical than buying separate breasts, thighs, etc., and you can get a nutrient-packed broth out of it, too (see next item). Freeze pieces that you're not using right away in individual freezer bags.

Use your scraps. Cook leftover vegetables and potatoes into a frittata, even for dinner; eggs are a great source of protein. Use bones, meat scraps, or vegetable trimmings to make broth.

Plant a garden. It requires a little time, but it can have nice payoffs (including exercise). Inexperienced gardeners might want to start small, with fresh herbs or simple vegetables such as tomatoes and chard.

Put meat on the side. Keep meat and poultry portions to the recommended serving size of 3 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards, rather than the larger amounts people usually eat. Then fill out the plate with whole grains and in-season or frozen vegetables.

Shop the perimeter. The sections of the supermarket around the outer walls hold the nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, and low-fat dairy. The inner aisles contain processed and snack foods.

Photo: JupiterImages

Bake a potato. With the right add-ons, it can make a satisfying entrée Add healthful or creative toppings such as cottage cheese, plain yogurt, black beans, low-fat cheese, or salsa. Sweet potatoes can offer even more nutrients.

Use powdered or evaporated milk. It can go in soups, casseroles, mashed potatoes, or desserts, saving your fresh—and more costly—milk for coffee, cereal, or drinking.

Mix a big fruit salad. Then divide it into individual food-storage containers for breakfast or for a snack each day. It costs much less than deli- or store-made fruit salad.

Photo: Jupiterimages

Go back to your school days. That's right: peanut butter and jelly (or PB and honey or PB and banana) sandwiches for lunch. Peanut butter packs a ton of nutrients and is very inexpensive. Use whole-grain bread and pay attention to the serving size. The fat might be healthful, but it's also caloric.

Avoid packaged drinks. Instead of buying pricey teas and fruit drinks, brew your own tea and mix in fruit juice. Dilute juice with seltzer or cold water, which cuts down on calories as well as cost. Invest in a reusable polyethylene (opaque plastic) water bottle and pledge to stop buying disposable ones.

Cook for the week. Set aside one day a week, or a weeknight, to make casseroles, one-pot dinners, and sides that you can reheat and eat all week long, take to work for lunch, or freeze for later use.

Get a slow cooker. They make easy one-pot meals, such as stews, which in turn allow you to use less-expensive cuts of meat. As a bonus, using a slow cooker is more energy efficient than cooking a meal using stovetop burners and an oven. Our recent tests found a number of good models available for $50 or less, including a Rival Crock-Pot and a Hamilton Beach Stay or Go.

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