May 10, 2016

Strategies successfully reduce weight gain in young adults

At a Glance

  • Interventions that included frequent self-weighing helped 18- to 35-year olds prevent weight gain over an average of 3 years.
  • Further follow-up will be needed to determine whether the reductions in weight gain are maintained.
Young woman’s feet on a bathroom scale Frequent weighing and daily small changes to diet and activity can help prevent weight gain. Rostislav_Sedlacek/iStock/Thinkstock

Most adults gain weight through the years. Young adults tend to gain weight the fastest, averaging 1 to 2 pounds a year. Weight gain at this stage in particular has been associated with increased cancer risk and death.

A team led by Dr. Rena Wing of Brown University and Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, examined the effectiveness of interventions to prevent or reduce weight gain in young adults. The research was funded by NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). The findings appeared online on May 2, 2016, in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The researchers recruited about 600 adults, ages 18 to 35 (78% women, 27% minority), from 2010 to 2012 from Rhode Island and North Carolina. Half of the young adults had normal weights and half were overweight. The tested interventions were based on self-regulation. The participants had a goal weight to maintain, weighed themselves regularly, and then adjusted their behavior to stay on target.

Participants randomly assigned to a “small-changes” group focused on making daily small changes in diet and physical activity to prevent weight gain. They were taught to make adjustments of about 100 calories a day through both their diet (select lower calorie drinks, reduce portion sizes) and physical activity (use stairs, park further away from stores when shopping). They were provided with pedometers and asked to accumulate 2,000 steps a day above their regular activity levels.

Participants assigned to a “large-changes” group focused on losing 5-10 pounds during the initial 4 months to create a buffer against expected weight gain over time. They were instructed to reduce their food intake by 500 to 1000 calories a day, and to gradually increase moderate-intensity physical activity to 250 minutes a week. They then used frequent self-weighing to keep from gaining weight. 

Both intervention groups attended 10 sessions during the first 4 months. They then received information primarily online. They were instructed to weigh themselves daily to keep track of their weight. A control group was provided with basic information about preventing weight gain. 

Over the 2- to 3-year follow-up, control group members gained an average of half a pound. Participants in the small-change and large-change groups lost an average of 1.2 and 5.2 pounds, respectively. During this time, about 17% of control group members became obese, while only about 8% in both intervention groups did.

“Weight gain in young adults is likely related to the many changes occurring—school-to-work transitions and events such as pregnancy,” Wing says. “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.”

Further follow-up will be needed to determine whether the reductions in weight gain are maintained.

—by Carol Torgan, Ph.D.

Related Links

References: Innovative Self-Regulation Strategies to Reduce Weight Gain in Young Adults: The Study of Novel Approaches to Weight Gain Prevention (SNAP) Randomized Clinical Trial. Wing RR, Tate DF, Espeland MA, Lewis CE, LaRose JG, Gorin AA, Bahnson J, Perdue LH, Hatley KE, Ferguson E, Garcia KR, Lang W; Study of Novel Approaches to Weight Gain Prevention (SNAP) Research Group. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 May 2. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.1236. [Epub ahead of print]. PMID: 27136493.

Funding: NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).