Preventing Long Term Weight Gain

Did you see the Harvard study on long term weight gain? It was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on June 23, 2011. It was a remarkable study and is worth taking some time to look at. The study spanned 20 years and looked at more than 120,000 U.S. men and women. It was made up of three studies: the Nurses' Health Study (NHS) and the Nurses' Health Study II (NHS II), which followed women; and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS), which followed men. The study looked at the participants every 4 years for 20 years. The participants in the study were all healthy and not obese at the start of the study. It is a well established fact that, on average, most adults gain 1 pound a year as they age. But because it is such a gradual weight gain, it is difficult to point at a cause for that gain. This 20 year study was able to pinpoint some foods and activities that contributed to long term weigh gain. The study found that every 4 years, the study participants gained an average of 3.35 pounds. And at the end of the study, most had gained an average of 16.8 pounds in 20 years.


The numbers are for per serving, per day over 4 years.

Increases weight:

  • Potato chips- ↑ 1.69 lb
  • Potatoes- ↑ 1.28 lb
  • Sugar-sweetened drinks- ↑ 1.00 lb
  • Unprocessed red meat- ↑ 0.95 lb
  • Processed meat- ↑ 0.93 lb
  • Sweets and desserts- ↑ 0.41 lb
  • Refined grains- ↑ 0.39 lb

Decreases weight:

  • Vegetables- ↓ weight by 0.22 lb
  • Whole grains- ↓ weight by 0.37 lb
  • Fruits- ↓ weight by 0.49 lb
  • Nuts- ↓ weight by 0.57 lb
  • Yogurt- ↓ weight by 0.82 lb


Increases weight:

  • Alcohol: ↑ 0.41 lb per drink, per day
  • TV watching: ↑ 0.31 lb per hour watching, per day
  • Smoking: former smokers over the long range ↑ 0.14 lb, new quitters over the short term ↑ 5.17 lb
  • Sleeping less than 6 hours and more than 8 hours: ↑  more weight increase

Decreases weight:

  • Physical activity: ↓ 1.76 lb

The important things to remember about this study:

  1. Little changes add up over time. You may not see the weight gain, day to day, but if you are making bad food choices and lifestyle choices, the weight gain will add up. On the flip side, you may not be seeing it on the scales by marked weight loss, but if you are making healthy food choices, getting between 6-8 hours of sleep a night and being active, you will slow the gradual weight gain that occurs over time. Make smart choices today and in 20 years you will be thankful that you did.
  2. Quality over quantity. All food is not created equal. 150 Calories of nuts is not the same as 150 Calories of Potato chips. It is important to fuel your body with the best fuel. That is what is going to keep your body the healthiest in the long run. We can't live just for today. We have to think about the future too. How are the choices that you are making today affecting your life in the future?