Every analysis of dieting I've read suggest that they are not effective for most people with only a small percentage of people who diet maintaining their target weight a year after the diet ended. The consensus is that, while dieting is difficult, maintenance is *really* difficult.
Several studies have looked at groups of people who have been successful over long terms - usually for more than two years, but sometimes for five or more years and common behavioral signals emerge. Most of these are behind paywalls or are jargon filled, but here is a clearly written article that reinforces what they others find. (pdf)
Holly R. Wyatt, M.D.,1 Suzanne Phelan, Ph.D.,2 Rena R. Wing, Ph.D.,2 and James O. Hill, Ph.D.1
1University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Center for Human Nutrition, Denver, CO,
2Brown University, Providence, RI
The common behaviors are:
• Eat a moderately low-fat diet
• Watch total calories
• Eat breakfast
• Engage in high levels of physical activity
Exercise seems to be extremely important. Almost all of the successful maintainers exercise daily at levels that exceed the recommended levels of exercise by at least a factor of two. The diets tend to be low fat (under 30% of calories come from fat) and are generally not large. Self monitoring and eating breakfast also seem to be centrally important.
Exercise is interesting as it isn't that important for weight loss (it takes a huge amount of exercise to displace enough calories to lose weight). New work suggest people have different responses to exercise - Gretchen Reynolds of The New York Times wrote a brief summary of the subject.
What all of this suggests, Dr. Hagobian of Cal-Poly says, is that “exercise has a definite impact on food reward regions. But that impact may depend” on who you are and what kind of exercise you do.
His group of fit young people, he points out, completed prolonged, strenuous endurance sessions. “It’s likely that, in order to achieve weight loss and weight maintenance, you need to do a fair amount of exercise and do it often,” he says.
For exercise noticeably to dampen your desire for food, in other words, you may need to sweat for an hour. It may also help if you’re already lean and in shape.
But Dr. Hagobian is optimistic that research might help almost everyone to better deploy exercise against appetite control. “There may be doses or types of exercise that are more effective for some people than for others.” Eventually, brain research may help to point people to the exercise program best suited to them.
In the meantime, he says, don’t take to the couch, even if exercise makes you ravenous. “Being fit can have psychological effects,” he says, perhaps increasing your desire to consume a better diet and, in the long term, shed pounds.
“Four or five years ago, it really looked like appetite hormones” controlled what we eat, says Dr. Habogian, who conducted some of the first studies of exercise and the hormones. “But I’m more and more convinced that it’s the brain. Hormones don’t tell you to go eat. Your brain does. And if we can get the dose right, exercise might change that message.”
In my case it is critical to exercise a fair amount. I walk at least an hour a day and usually at least ninety minutes along with five one hour plus sessions of intense aerobic rowing a week. The amount of work involved is still less than many laborers perform and a far cry from athletic training, but it seems to get past my minimal requirement. It should be noted that in counties like Denmark and the Netherlands many people get this level of exercise directly from the way they commute and do errands.
The monitoring aspect has also been critical. While I tend to weigh myself weekly, I do journal everything I eat as well as track my exercise. I find the weigh-ins are redundant and I can predict my weight to about one percent with monitoring alone.