As anyone who’s ever been on a diet knows, dropping pounds is the (relatively) easy part. It’s maintaining weight loss that’s difficult.  

Losing weight slows down your metabolism a bit,” says Corrine I. Voils, Ph.D., professor of surgery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “and afterwards, people stop engaging in weight maintenance behaviors, such as weighing themselves regularly.”

Now a new study by Volis and her colleagues published in Annals of Internal Medicine shows that having a post weight-loss plan in place may be the key to long-term success.

About 220 obese men and women who had lost an average of 16 pounds in a 16-week weight loss program were assigned to either receive regular follow-up phone calls from dietitians for about a year, or have no contact with professionals.

The purpose of the calls was to provide individualized support to help participants refine and practice strategies to help them maintain weight loss. At the end of the 56 weeks, the group that received the support regained about 1 1/2 pounds on average, while the other group regained about 5 pounds.  

During each call, the discussion focused on four strategies to help maintain weight loss. They included recalling the good things that have happened as a result of weight loss; setting a schedule for stepping on the scale and sticking to it; making a plan for coping with situations that could trigger old habits; and identifying family members and friends who could offer support, and determining what they could do that would be most helpful.

"Weight loss and weight maintenance are different processes," says James O. Hill, Ph.D., director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado, who was not involved in the study. “The important takeaway from this study is rather than just focusing our efforts on weight loss, we should be trying to better understand how to help people keep off the weight they lose.”  

DIY Weight Loss Maintenance

“This study shows that you do have to maintain your focus on your body and your behaviors even once you’re off the diet,” says Martica Heaner, Ph.D., adjunct associate professor of nutrition at Hunter College in New York City, who was not involved in the study. “Keeping yourself accountable and developing healthy new behaviors are the keys to lasting success.”

Voils says, “Our study did not allow us to say which component was the most effective. And there may not be a magic bullet.”

However, she says, whether you’ve lost 10 pounds or 100, you can put some of the strategies tested in this study to work yourself in lieu of a formal support program:

Weigh yourself often, and use sticky notes or calendar alerts to remind you to step on the scale.

Set a warning weight. If the scale creeps up by more than a few pounds—they used 3 pounds in the study—examine how your habits may have changed. Address those changes, or go back to the strategies you used to lose weight in the first place.

Know your triggers. Identify in advance any situations, such as parties or eating out, in which you’re prone to overeat and make a plan ahead of time to reduce your risk.

Ask for help. In the study, having a support person was important, but since support looks different to different people, let those around you know what you need to help you maintain weight loss.