Washington, DC; October 1, 1997 -- For the millions of Americans who have given up on weight loss because of previous failed attempts, Shape Up America! -- the anti-obesity initiative launched by former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop -- has some promising news: there is new evidence that overweight adults can learn coping skills to lose unwanted pounds and to keep the weight off indefinitely.
According to the findings of a new study published today in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, when adults are taught the same coping skills that are now used in treating childhood obesity, they will achieve long-lasting weight reduction. Specifically, this study, which tracked changes in weight, health and the mental outlook of 22 overweight adults who had been taught these coping skills, found that the vast majority of the study subjects -- 82 percent -- lost weight and the weight loss was sustained after two years.
Besides this key finding, what makes this study so significant is the fact that the study participants continued to lose weight even after the actual "treatment" had ended. During the treatment phase -- an 18-week program of group meetings lasting two hours per week -- the study subjects lost an average of 12 pounds. After these sessions ended, the subjects not only kept this weight off but by the end of two years, they had lost even more weight for a total of 17 pounds at the study's end. This is in sharp contrast with published weight loss studies where all the weight loss is achieved by six months and then subjects begin to regain some of the weight from that point on.
The developmental skills used in this study are the internal coping patterns that people learn in childhood if they are raised in a responsive -- rather than a permissive or punitive -- environment. By boosting these skills in adulthood, researchers have charted sustained improvements in the behavior of many overweight people, including eating and physical activity.
According to principal investigator Laurel Mellin, Associate Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine and Pediatrics, University of California at San Francisco: "Although this study is small, the results are very encouraging. It appears that teaching adults developmental skills promotes a modest weight loss without dieting -- a weight loss that, in this sample, was maintained in the long term."
"The results of this study, although preliminary, represent a breakthrough in our understanding of how to design and implement effective weight loss treatment," said Barbara J. Moore, Ph.D., President of Shape Up America! "Because obesity is now so widespread, a study such as this offers hope that there may be practical and cost-effective approaches to obesity treatment that can be used in a variety of settings."
Along with this sustained weight loss, Mellin and her research colleagues demonstrated that teaching adults these coping skills results in an overall improvement in the health and mental status of overweight adults. Specifically, the researchers measured a number of variables -- blood pressure, physical activity, depression, relationships, work coping and productivity, spirituality and substance use -- at both three months and two years, tracking a broad range of beneficial changes. At the two-year mark, 91 percent of respondents felt happier, 86 percent had improved relationships, 86 percent coped better with work, 77 percent felt their health and vitality was improved, and 67 percent had decreased blood pressure levels.
Of the subjects at the start of the study who were moderately depressed using a standardized depression test, none felt depressed at either three months or two years. Further, subjects increased their weekly exercise by 138 minutes at three months and by 189 minutes at two years while 89 percent of those with substance use problems spontaneously used substances less without any formal treatment programs.
The coping skills taught to the study subjects fall into three categories: two "mind" skills described as "strong nurturing" and "effective limits"; two "body" skills called "body pride" and "good health"; and two "lifestyle" skills called "balanced eating" and "mastery living." Each skill is first used intentionally but with training appears to become integrated into unconscious functioning. In the study, these skills were taught by a registered dietitian and a licensed mental health professional through an 18-week program of group meetings lasting two hours per week.
For more information about the study, contact:
Laurel Mellin, UCSF at 415/457-3331
Phyllis Heller at 212/244-6820