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When it comes to weight loss, consistency may be key to success

If you're trying to lose weight, it appears a "slow but steady" approach might be your best bet for achieving success, according to new research.

A study published in the journal Obesity found that dieters whose weight fluctuated the most during the first few weeks of a weight loss program were less likely to keep the pounds off long-term, compared to those who dropped a consistent number of pounds each week.

"We previously found that degree of week-to-week variation in body weights among those in the healthy weight range predicted greater future weight gain. In other words, those whose weights tended to vary the most over time were most likely to gain weight 1-2 years later," the study's principal investigator Michael Lowe, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Drexel, told CBS News. "So we wanted to see if a similar effect would occur among obese individuals who were losing weight – and it did."

The study involved183 individuals who were overweight or obese. They enrolled in a year-long weight loss program that included meal replacements and behavioral goals such as self-monitoring, calorie monitoring and increasing physical activity.

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Participants attended weekly meetings in which they were weighed, and then returned for a final weigh-in two years after the start of the program. They were also asked to report certain food-related behaviors and attitudes, including cravings, emotional eating, binge eating, and their confidence in regulating their diet.

An analysis of the data collected showed that people whose weight went up and down the most during the first six to eight weeks had much less success in keeping weight off at 12 and 24 months. As an example, someone who lost four pounds in one week, then regained two the next and lost one the week after that tended to fare worse in the long run than someone who lost one pound consistently week after week.

Lowe cautions that it is still too early to draw causal conclusions from the findings and that the results need to be replicated in future studies.

"However, if there is a causal relationship between steadiness of weight loss and long-term success, it would be better to structure a diet to maximize chances that a person will be able to follow similar eating patterns day after day, week after week," he said. "The strategy of just trying to lose as much weight as possible all the time might not work as well."

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Nina Crowley, Ph.D., a registered dietitian nutritionist and health psychologist working as the metabolic and bariatric surgery coordinator at the Medical University of South Carolina, said the findings highlight that "bigger weight losses are not always better."

"People who follow strict dietary 'rules' and 'restraints' and have an 'all or nothing' mentality towards eating and food might lose weight faster, but we know that 'crash dieting' usually leads to periods of overeating and weight regain," she told CBS News. "This study supports that a small behavior change that can be maintained is better than drastic changes that are short-lived."

However, she notes that paying too much attention to the numbers on the scale can be counterproductive.

"In my work with patients trying to lose weight, focusing too much on the scale and pounds lost – rather than the behaviors that result in weight loss – can discourage people from practicing the daily behaviors that result in the desired outcome," Crowley said.

In the end, she says that weight loss is an individual process and what works for one person may not work for another.

"My take-home is that people vary in their response, like any other medication or treatment," she said.

She notes the study underscores the importance of evaluating your weight-loss plan with a health professional after several weeks and if it's not working, consider trying something different.

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