Want to maximize weight loss? Let someone else pick your diet

Fruits and vegetables

You’d think getting to choose among proven weight loss plans would help patients lose weight -- after all, won’t you be more likely to stick with a regimen if you likes what you’re eating? A new study suggests the answer is no.

(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Sticking to a diet is key for losing weight. So it stands to reason that letting would-be dieters choose a weight loss program that seems relatively tasty and palatable would help them lose weight.


Possibly not. When a group of researchers recently tested it out, they found the opposite was true: Obese clinic patients at a Veterans Affairs medical center in North Carolina who were allowed to choose a diet plan lost less weight than obese patients who were assigned a diet to follow.

“Providing a choice of diets to patients does not enhance and may actually hinder weight loss,” wrote Dr. William S. Yancy of Duke University and the Durham VA Medical Center and coauthors in a study released Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.


The team recruited 207 participants for its study between May 2011 and June 2012 from clinics affiliated with the VA medical center. The average age of the dieters, who were required to have a body mass index of 30 or more, was 55 years old. About three-quarters were men, and about half were African American.

Of the subjects, 105 were assigned to a so-called choice group and were allowed to pick whether they wanted to follow a low-carbohydrate diet or a low-fat diet. The remaining 102 were assigned to a “comparator” group that was assigned to one of the two diet plans by the study organizers. 

Both groups received group and telephone counseling over the course of the 48-week study; people in the choice group additionally were allowed to switch their diets at the 12-week mark if they were unhappy with their first pick. Only five opted to make the change.

After 48 weeks, members of the choice group had lost about 12.6 pounds (or 5.6% of body weight) on average, while members of the comparator group had lost about 14.7 pounds (6.2% of body weight) on average.


The researchers speculated that people who chose a diet that included more foods they liked may have been more likely to overeat, or that dieters might have experienced something like a “personal trainer effect,” in which they were more likely to follow the regimen if someone else directed them to do so.

“Future research might examine matching patients to their optimal diet on the basis of other characteristics (such as metabolic profile or genetics) instead of their preferences,” the researchers wrote.

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