Public Release: 

National study shows new ways to stop weight gain cut young adults' obesity risk by half

Miriam Hospital researcher leads effort to identify alternative ways to stop weight gain


PROVIDENCE, R.I. - A new study has identified two self-regulation strategies effective in preventing weight gain among young adults. At the end of the three-year study, researchers showed that young adults taught self-regulation strategies were more successful at preventing weight gain than those in the control group and 50 percent fewer had become obese.

By age group, young adults are gaining weight the fastest - an average of one to two pounds a year - and increasing their risk of becoming obese and developing weight-related health problems such as cancer. To prevent this weight gain, the study taught participants to weigh themselves every day and to use that information to maintain a current weight or implement behavior changes. Some participants were taught to make daily small changes in diet and exercise to prevent weight gain; others were encouraged to lose five to 10 pounds initially to act as a buffer against future weight gain.

The research findings were published online today in advance of print in JAMA Internal Medicine. Lead author Rena Wing, Ph.D., director of the Weight Control & Diabetes Research Center at The Miriam Hospital, sought to examine novel interventions for weight gain prevention. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill served as a clinical site for the study, which was funded by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center was the coordinating center for the trial.

While positive effects of weight gain prevention strategies are often observed initially, few studies have followed participants for as long as two to three years. A total of 599 participants, ages 18 to 35 years old, took part in this study from August, 2010 to February, 2012 in Rhode Island and North Carolina. Half had normal weights and half were overweight. Each was assigned randomly to one of three groups:

  • Self-regulation with small changes in which participants made small, daily changes to their eating and exercise routine to prevent weight gain;
  • Self-regulation with large changes focusing on an initial five to 10-pound weight loss to buffer any weight gain; or
  • A control group that was given minimal treatment

The two self-regulation interventions were delivered through 10 in-person group sessions during the first four months, and then primarily online. All participants were weighed at the start of the trial, after four months and then annually. The study found that both the large and small changes approaches not only reduced weight gain over a three-year follow-up, but both, especially the large change strategy, led to some weight loss.

"We found both interventions to be effective in significantly reducing average weight gain over the three years of follow-up, but the large changes approach was most effective," said Wing, also a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Averaged over three years of follow-up, participants in the control group (who were not given help in adopting the self-regulation approaches) gained approximately a half a pound (0.26 kg). Those using the small changes approach lost 1.2 pounds (0.56 kg), and those in large changes lost 5.2 pounds (2.37 kg). Whereas almost 17 percent of participants in the control group became obese, this was reduced by approximately 50 percent by both the large and small change approaches [where only 8.6 percent and 7.9 percent of participants, respectively, became obese (BMI ? 30).]

"Until now, we didn't have clear guidance on what the message and recommendations should be for preventing weight gain," said Deborah Tate, Ph.D., professor of health behavior and nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina. "This study showed that frequent weighing and either initial weight loss or daily small changes to diet and activity are useful weight gain prevention approaches."

"Weight gain in young adults is likely related to the many changes occurring - school-to-work transitions and events such as pregnancy," said Wing. "This weight gain is a serious health risk, and approaches to prevent or reduce it are urgently needed. These new self-regulation approaches, which can easily and cost effectively be shared to help prevent weight gain in young adults, could have a significant impact on our public health."


Other researchers involved in this study include Erica Ferguson, MSW, also of The Miriam Hospital and the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University; Karen Hatley, MPH, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Mark Espeland, Ph.D., Judy Bahnson, Letitia Perdue, MS, Katelyn Garcia, MS, and Wei Lang, Ph.D., of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center; Cora Lewis, M.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham; Jessica Gokee LaRose, Ph.D., of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine; and Amy Gorin, Ph.D., of the University of Connecticut.

About The Miriam Hospital

The Miriam Hospital is a 247-bed, not-for-profit teaching hospital affiliated with The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University with expertise in cardiology, oncology, orthopedics, men's health, and minimally invasive surgery. It is home to the state's first Joint Commission-certified Stroke Center and robotic surgery program. Its Total Joint Center has earned The Joint Commission's Gold Seal of Approval for its total knee and hip replacement programs. The hospital, which received more than $23 million in external research funding last year, is nationally known for its HIV/AIDS and behavioral and preventive medicine research, including weight control, physical activity and smoking cessation. Named 2015-16 best regional hospital in Rhode Island and the Providence metro area by U.S. News & World Report, The Miriam Hospital has been awarded Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Services five times and is a founding member of the Lifespan health system. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter (@MiriamHospital) and Pinterest.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.