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 recently asked 21,632 Consumer Reports subscribers about their lifetime weight history and their eating, dieting and exercising habits. The answer: People who have never become overweight aren’t sitting in recliners with a bowl of corn chips in their laps.
In CR’s 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.
The always thin, who had never been overweight, comprised 16 percent of CR’s sample. Successful losers, defined as those 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, made up an additional 15 percent. 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 didn’t fit into any of the categories.)
Secrets of the slim
Through statistical analyses, CR was 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.
• Watch portions. Of all the eating behaviors CR 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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 takeout meals for dinner increased, so did their weight.
• 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).
One key to weight-loss success is having realistic goals, and CR’s subscribers’ responses proved encouraging. A staggering 70 percent of them said they currently wanted to lose weight. But when asked how many pounds they hoped to take off, 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 percent and 10 percent. Keeping expectations in check might help dieters from becoming discouraged.