Slimmers who set ambitious targets lose more weight, study finds

For years public health guidance has suggested that slimmers set themselves a 'realistic' target of losing 5-10% of their starting weight. However, weight loss experts are calling on this to be revised to encourage patients to aim for their ‘dream weight’ as new research found that those who set their own ambitious goal lose almost twice as much weight in 12 months.

Slimming World Woman of the Year 2016 Hollie Barrett - Before 1 - February 2015

Slimming World Woman of the Year 2016 - Hollie Barrett - after

A study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics looked at the impact of target setting in 24,457 Slimming World members with a BMI in the obese category (BMI >30kg/m²), who were all attending weekly group support sessions. It found that the more ambitious the target, the more weight people lose* – regardless of their starting weight.

The 12 month study found that slimmers who set relatively modest weight loss targets of less than 10% of their body weight do typically achieve their goal, losing an average of 11% – equivalent to 1st 11lbs for someone who weighs 16st. However, those who set higher targets lose more weight; with those setting the most ambitious targets losing almost twice as much weight overall – an average of 19% in a year, or 3st 1lb for someone weighing 16st. These results allowed for variations across BMI, gender and age. They also fell within NHS Choices’ recommendations for a safe weight loss of 1-2lbs per week.

In the UK, around a quarter of people have an obese BMI, meaning that their weight could be seriously affecting their health, and millions of people are expected to set themselves the target of losing weight this January.

NHS Choices’ advice to the public is that they aim to lose 5-10% of their body weight if they are overweight or obese. While public health guidance for health professionals from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recognises that the more weight people lose the greater the health benefits, it also focuses on the advantages of losing ‘5% or more’ and so suggests that as a benchmark for patients. The traditional approach to setting ‘realistic’ targets is thought to be based on the thinking that ambitious goals are less likely to be achieved, which could result in disappointment, decreased effort and people giving up on their journey.

However, the new research of Slimming World members suggests that rather than trying to protect them from disappointment, health experts should instead be encouraging slimmers to ‘shoot for the moon’ and get support to achieve their goals, as people who set the highest targets were found to lose the most weight overall. As a result, Slimming World is calling for a review of the current guidelines based on these findings.

“January is the most popular time of the year to start a healthy weight loss programme and so it’s really important that people have the information they need to maximise their chances of success,” says study author Amanda Avery, Nottingham University Academic in Nutrition and Dietetics and Consultant Dietitian in Weight Management for Slimming World.

“We know that current NHS and NICE advice around realistic weight loss targets is designed to protect slimmers from disappointment. However, suggesting that people place limits on their weight loss aims could stop people from seeing what they’re capable of. It’s important that people have aspirations and can visualise themselves achieving success.

“This research shows that, when it comes to losing weight, it’s best to inspire people to set the weight loss target they would personally really like to achieve. This will help with their motivation as, if it is really their dream weight, they’ll be far more committed to achieving it.

“Setting a target is really only the beginning, though, and it’s vital that people also get regular support to make healthy changes to their eating and activity habits and to help them stay focused, committed and encouraged. Working together with others to share experiences and solutions to challenges and to celebrate successful weight loss and behaviour change can keep people motivated to achieve long-term success.

“It’s great that the NHS and NICE already encourage people who want to lose weight to set a target, as our study found that people who set their own personal target – as most of our members choose to – were 10 times more likely to be successful. The next stage is for them to look more closely at how encouraging patients to aim for their dream weight can increase their chances of success, as long as they’re also getting support along the way.”

Case study

Hollie Barrett, 30, from Blunderston in Suffolk lost 8st 6lbs after her Slimming World Consultant encouraged her to set the Personal Achievement Target she really wanted. She explains:

“I was 17st 11lbs at my heaviest and my confidence was really low. I felt like my weight was holding me back in every aspect of my life, especially when it came to doing things with my children.

“Even things other mums might take for granted, like taking the children swimming, seemed off limits because I felt so self-conscious. I once chased my daughter, Imogen, up the stairs to bed and was so breathless I couldn’t speak properly to read her a book – it broke my heart. I didn’t want them to be bullied at school because their mum was so overweight either.

“My whole life I’d wanted to be a size 8 but I never really believed I could be. I remember when I first joined Slimming World and was setting my target weight on my first night. I told my Slimming World Consultant that I was ‘never going to be one of those girls who’s a size 8’. Without missing a beat, she said ‘Why not - if that’s what you want you can totally do it!’

“That really helped give me self-belief and stretched my idea of what I thought was possible. I thought, ‘If she thinks I can do it and I’ve seen other people do it then maybe I can!’ I’d been so nervous walking through those doors and had been worried I’d be the biggest person there, however the warm welcome I got from the Consultant and the group and the belief they showed in me was amazing. I instantly knew there was no need to be scared and that the people in the group really understood and cared.

“I set myself that high target, committed to following the plan 100% and in my first week I lost 9½lbs! From there I haven’t looked back.

“Before this I had always tried to lose weight following strict diets, so it was amazing for me to be able to lose weight enjoying normal everyday foods like fruit and vegetables, pasta, rice, potatoes, fish and lean meat. I haven’t been hungry once! My partner Thomas is a great cook and we all enjoy the same healthy meals as a family now. Salmon and wild rice and BBQ pulled pork are a couple of our favourites and we still eat out regularly as well.

“We’re also a more active family – we love going on long walks and enjoy more active holidays. I used to find the idea of being active really intimidating, but since losing weight my feelings have changed completely. I walked 40 miles in four days and climbed a mountain when we went away recently. I’ve started jogging and even had the confidence to put on a swimsuit and take my children swimming for the first time since losing weight, which was an amazing experience. Thomas loves my new figure and new-found confidence too!

“I do think the way my Consultant made me feel on the first night was important in giving me the belief that I really could achieve my dream weight. I knew what I wanted to achieve but before then I had thought I wouldn’t be able to get there and so had never bothered to set a proper target before. To be encouraged to go for my dream and be given the support, encouragement and love I needed to get there has undoubtedly made a huge difference.”

* Table showing that the more ambitious a person’s target the more weight they lose

Level of target set

Mean weight loss over 12 months

No target set

10%

Modest target set (less than 10%)

11%

Medium target (10-16%)

11%

Higher medium target (16%-21%)

14%

Stretching target (21-26%)

16%

Ambitious target (27%+)

19%

You can see the full results of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5111772/

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