2 Science-Backed Strategies to Avoid Long-Term Weight Gain

by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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2 Science-Backed Strategies to Avoid Long-Term Weight Gain

With weight gain, slow and steady is the common pace—we often look back, wondering: “How did I get to this weight?” Long-term weight gain typically happens at a miniscule 1-2 pounds per year, which can snowball into something substantial as we age. Fad diets lure us with the promise of rapid weight loss, but researchers are looking at it from a different angle: Can changing what we eat stop long-term steady weight gain?

What the Science Says

Scientists from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy did a study using data collected from 120,784 healthy, non-obese, middle-age participants in three well-established cohorts: Nurses’ Health Study, Nurses’ Health Study II, Health Professionals’ Follow-up Study. Data was collected at every four-year period for 16 to 24 years.

Researchers were interested in how participants’ diet quality affected their trend in weight gain. Without altering anyone’s food intake, the researchers looked at what participants consumed, with a focus on protein and the glycemic load (GL)—two measures of diet quality. Then, they examined how changes in participants’ weight corresponded to diet quality. Why?

High-protein foods (think meats, dairy, nuts, beans) are thought to help with weight loss because of their ability to promote satiety, spare lean muscle mass, and help offset the slow in metabolism. GL was used because it reveals both carbohydrate quality and quantity. The more popular “glycemic index” (GI) is used to assess how a food will increase your blood sugar, but this doesn’t account for the amount of the food that you eat. GL accounts for both the food’s GI and portion eaten. High GL foods (think refined carbs) are thought to make weight gain more likely because they make your blood sugar rise rapidly—leading to insulin release, which favors fat storage.


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Weighty Findings

Once the data was collected, the researchers could then summarize “associations,” also known as data trends, between certain types of food and weight gain or loss. Here are some of their weightier findings:

  • Not all protein foods are created equal. Certain protein foods appeared to be better than others when it comes to preventing weight gain. Nuts, peanut butter, fish, yogurt and low-fat cheese were associated with weight loss while red meat and processed meat were associated with weight gain.
  • Eggs and cheese aren’t necessarily diet-busters. These foods were only associated with weight gain if the diet’s glycemic load was also high.
  • High glycemic load diets were worse for weight loss. Foods with a high glycemic load (think white bread, potatoes, soda) were associated with weight gain. A diet with a higher GL ranking is positively associated with weight gain. In fact, a 50-unit increase in daily glycemic load (about two bagels) resulted in a 1-pound weight gain every 4 years.
  • The type of protein consumed worked in combination with GL to affect weight. For example, someone who eats a high glycemic load diet plus a lot of red/processed meat would gain more weight than if he ate a low glycemic load diet with the same amount of red/processed meat.

Keep in mind that the results of this study are “associations” meant to show relationships between diet quality and weight gain or loss. This does not confirm that particular diet types cause weight gain or loss. Nonetheless, these relationships are still important, given that we’re looking at a large group of participants over the course of decades.

What’s the Takeaway?

This study confirms that the quality of your diet matters for keeping your weight in check over a long period of time. A balanced diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables will help you maintain a low glycemic load. Choosing lean protein sources like chicken, fish, nut butter and low-fat cheese will reduce the amount of fat—particularly saturated fat—in your diet. Both glycemic load and protein type are indicators of your diet quality, and will affect your weight.

It’s apparent that a calorie is not a calorie in this case, so do calories still count when it comes to weight loss? The answer is a resounding Yes! Even though the study focused on diet quality, this is just one factor out of many that affect our weight. To be successful at maintaining a healthy weight, both the number of calories consumed and the quality of those calories matters.


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  • Chris Nixon

    Trinh,I really appreciate your articles. Science based and well articulated. Well done again. Thank you!

  • sue

    now add in stress… i think that this helps gain weight right?

    • Tina

      Stress puts your body in fight-or-flight mode… which means conserve all calories, shut down unnecessary systems (like the immune and reproductive systems) and prep everything you can for immediate action (i.e. to fight a bear).
      Chemically… it releases cortisol into the system, which then signals the body to do all sorts of other biological changes, which, in the absence of a real fight-or-flight situation (where you’d burn calories without eating more), you’ll gain weight.

  • Alien

    So hiw does eating grains and fruit keep GI low? Just dont eat them. Bananas are high GI so are carbs

    • Denise Batalha

      Glycemic index and glycemic load are two different things. You should be watching for glycemic load and honestly, if you figure out your macros, you can have bananas. So, if you consistently have 3 to 4 meals per day, then per meal, say, your macros would be 30 grams of protein, 25 grams of carbs, and roughly 5 grams of fat, you could have, say, 4 to 5 oz of turkey with a vegetable for a side and have your banana as the carb.

      • marta

        how do you figure your macros

        • Harald Øksnevad

          20-30% protein, 30-50% carbs, 25-30% fats
          Carbs adjusted according to the physical activities you do.
          There, I did it for you.

    • ms_leo

      Bananas and grains are awesome and packed with nutrition. Don’t cut them out. But you don’t need to eat a lot either. How you eat that stuff “might effect” how you feel. Teach balance and moderation everyone sounds like they have ED’s from all the bs spread.

    • Are you saying that its better not to eat fruit and grains if you want to lose weight? You didn’t put it in those words but I srsly want to know if you think that would aid your weight loss.

      • Harald Øksnevad

        Don’t get too caught up in this glycemic load stuff. As long as you’re in a reasonable caloric deficit, you’ll lose weight

        • Missy Scorpio

          I can’t even. I’d die of a bowel blockage if I tried to eat my protein requirements from incomplete sources such as grain and vegetables.

  • Jean145

    Alien, a person can benefit from some grains in moderation. Quinoa and Oatmeal can be great for a balanced diet. And not all fruit are created equally either- bananas or dried fruit won’t reap the same health benefits as fresh berries. In any case, any whole grain or fruit is still going to be better than fried or processed foods or candy.

  • Denise Batalha

    Take away from this? Know your macros for weight loss/weight maintenance and eat what you want. This study means nothing, in my opinion. Furthermore, I’d be inclined to see the difference in weight loss/gain with protein rich foods, as opposed to foods like nuts, peanut butter, yogurt that are generally lower in protein (unless you purchase the large Fage yogurt, however, in which one serving equates to approx 23 grams of protein… reading labels does wonders). The problem with society is not enough protein and I’m tired of nutrition “experts” and dieticians, or even doctors (they take ONE nutrition class in their entire academic career) telling people to get their protein sources from those areas. General rule of thumb is 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (whatever your scale says).

    • Denise Batalha

      Want more science, follow someone who knows a wee bit more: Layne Norton, PHD, or biolayne dot com.

      • lala

        absolutely true. sorry, but this article is bullshit and bad science, especially from someone who should know better. calories in, calories out…

        I actually expected in this article a look at that US database with millions of people who have kept their weight for years. That’s where the real insight lies, e.g. weighing yourself at least once a month and logging your food are associated with preventing weight gain long term etc. etc.

        • James Gremillion

          Agree… more antique science from the “eggs are bad for you” days. I am 68. When I was a boy, my mother taught me that eating too many carbohydrates made you gain weight. How that common knowledge disappeared and how (well meaning) “experts” brought us to fat and red meat are bad is a national shame.

      • ms_leo

        If people are not weightlifting (which they should be 😉 they don’t need as much protein in their diet as someone who does. Some people eat way too much.

        • kim

          It should be approximately 1 gram of protein per 1lb of lean body mass per day. So you take your total weight minus the percent of body fat which = lean body mass. This usually comes out to eating more protein that the average American eats per day, but not such an exorbitant amount. So if you weigh 130lbs and have 20% body fat, your body fat in pounds = 130lbs x .20 = 26lbs of fat. Thus your lean body mass is 130lbs – 26lbs = 104lbs. So this person should consume approximately 104 grams protein per day…give or take a few. Almonds, fish, quinoa, chicken, eggs/egg whites, turkey…all good examples of protein sources! Just an FYI!

          • ms_leo

            you dont need that much. its a generic number and typically ppl eat more protein when in a caloric deficit. Do you actually have to??? I’ve done fine on .8%. not trying to lose weight right now no need for crazy I can do just fine with 70-80 grams a day. Probably even less if I cared to test it.

          • Robin Ford

            More protein than your body needs puts extra burden on organs such as kidneys and liver. Unless you are a body builder 1 Gm of protein per pound of lean body weight is excessive

      • Missy Scorpio

        Squeaks ! I love Layne

        • Denise Batalha

          RIGHT?

    • mmmpork

      Thank you!! I left a similar comment basically saying the study doesn’t provide enough information to make any conclusions about macro distribution. I didn’t see information for instance when cheese was removed and GL stayed the same. The study seemed biased on proving GL played more of a role in weight gain than it actually does.

  • Jrandz

    2 bagels a day make you put on a pound in 4 years?! 😮

    • Harald Øksnevad

      HOLY HELL. who cares.

  • Natasha S. Chowdory

    How do you calculate macros?!

    • Harald Øksnevad

      Depends on your goals really, for the average bodybuilder and of course a healthy individual your macros would be 25-30% protein, 40-55% carbs, fats 25-30%. Higher carb intake the more physical activities you do.

  • ms_leo

    Stop beating up on the potatoes. They are excellent for you. I had a croissant (made them myself and so yummy) every few days lost weight. Bogus. Soda is full of sugar so ya that means extra calories that doesn’t even fill your stomach. Processed meat any gain if not over eating is probably from the sodium. I use to think white bread/white flour was “bad” it’s not bad it just lacks a lot of better things like fiber in wheat bread. So the difference for myself between the two I’m more satisfied with wheat due to that less likely to go hard on wheat. But you have ppl that attack all bread. Eat your bread…in moderation. If you haven’t eaten it in a long time enjoy that process of reintroducing it back. It’s temporary not a sign you are gluten intolerant unless a dr said you were.

    • Larry Bee

      Read a study where cold potatoes had less of weight gain tendency (or were neutral) than warmed or hot tators, Had something to do with carb structure, based on what I remember.

      Studies also show that whole wheat has a similar GL to white bread, not good. But if bread is eaten with a fatty food (butter, peanut butter) it slows down the metabolism and the GL drops. Food combo’s can impact GL.

      But above all, as has been noted elsewhere in the comments, individuals vary. Some people follow all the rules for healthy eating and their blood sugar sky rockets, others can do no wrong.

      • Dirk Nieuwland

        Every pound comes via your mouth, as simple as that.
        The old wisdom of: enough exercise, not too much meat, not too much sugar and fat, enough vegies and fruit, is stil valid. Fill in the details for yourself. Why is everybody tryinh to invent the wheel yet again?

  • Jethro Bodeen

    “fidgeting”! Love it.

    You need to give authors credit at the top of the page. This doesn’t even say if Trinh Le wrote it, we just have to assume. What happened to Journalism?

    • Terra

      They used a boiler plate to provide the credit to the author instead.

  • Denise Batalha

    so, uh, am I to assume either MyFitnessPal, or some numb nut, deleted my comments?? Super helpful comments, no less?? Bite me MyFitnessPal and/or numb nuts.

    What were in my comments that were “offensive”, or otherwise? I posted 2 links to sites that had calculators that your site freakin lacks, not to mention, it helps people figure out their macros. Maybe, I don’t know, have a calculator, as well??

    And one of my comments is pending … another mystery as to why that may be. I guess no one likes opinions here that don’t match their own.

  • Simin

    High glycemic load diets were worse for weight loss. Foods with a high glycemic load (think white bread, potatoes, soda) were associated with weight gain. A diet with a higher GL ranking is positively associated with weight gain. In fact, a 50-unit increase in daily glycemic load (about two bagels) resulted in a 1-pound weight gain every 4 years. I don’t get this part.
    Would you explain by name or made.
    Thank’s

  • CapJohn

    Glycemic Load (GL) is the descriptor I was looking for to describe soluble sugar, insoluble stored sugar,(starch) and flour (made from starch)…..
    This article on GL describes the problem of high GL foods being favouring body fat citing bread (flour) potatoes (starch) and soda (soluble sugar) as the foods favouring body fat…..
    Some diabetic food chart show the proportion of sugar in foods with a bar chart based on sugar as the worst…..
    Many people are realising the idea of GL without knowing its definition……
    They are the people turning to non processed food diets and ‘paleo’ diets…..
    Perhaps it is time for a comparative GL chart…….
    CapJohn

  • Colford Bennet

    Red meat associated with weight gain? But it has conjugated linoleic acid that helps convert fat to muscle — so I’m confused.

    • Raine & Blair

      Probably it’s the growth hormone added to factory cattle to fatten them up that is the culprit. If you only consume organic, hormone free red meat, it likely wouldn’t have the same effect.

      • Rees Tagh

        This is absolutely true in my opinion, I wonder if it messes with our own hormones, some v piggy folk out this way! Srsly tho!

      • luluhoo

        “associated” doesn’t necessarily mean causality. Smoking is associated with low income, doesn’t mean one causes the other.

  • Harald Øksnevad

    I am curious why this article doesn’t mention that the protein in nuts isn’t always completely absorbed.

  • Owen

    I’m a 77 yr old male trying to maintain a healthy weight and rebuild some flagging muscle. Are protein and aa drinks valuable additions to my diet at this age?

  • Tara Woodruff

    Great Article!! Thank you

  • lisofby

    there seems to be a glaring error!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    “In fact, a 50-unit increase in daily glycemic load (about two bagels) resulted in a 1-pound weight gain every 4 years.”

    if that was the case we should eat bagels, but i think its probably every 4 days, or weeks.

  • Mia

    Saturated fat – good or bad?

    • Chris

      Good if plant based & natural sick as coconut oil. Bad if from pretty much Any other source.

      • Andrej Kováč

        exact opposite, but whatever…

    • Tina

      Tasty = Good.
      I trust in the natural evolution of the taste buds…
      (as long as it’s from a real, whole-food source and not processed)

  • Given the amount of data you have at hand you should be able to tell how quickly people on a maintenance calorie budget can gain weight given the foods they eat. It would be great if you released extracts of your data-sets under an open license for people to study.

    Going back to the article of course high-GI food means more insulin, which means more storage of energy as fat. Insulin is the megaphone of calories, especially given that the vast majority of us is insulin resistant given given the food pyramid recommendations. But more than recommending whole grains (which are only minimally marginally better than processed grains) or singling out any other food-type we should be recommending to balance a plate with carbs, proteins and fats in the right quantities to normalize the insulin response of a meal: leaning on the minimum for carbs, giving most space to proteins and the rest to fat for the filling sensation they give as well as the important micro-nutrients.

    • Paranormal Skeptic

      The only way calories consumed get converted into fat is if you eat more calories than you burn.

      Only excess calories get turned into fat.

  • Eliot

    I have yet to read a “how to lose weight” article that did not contradict another such article. About the only consistent thing I’ve read comes down to “eat less, move more.” Give me a break: 1 pound in 4 years???? Regardless of the sample size, that is meaningless.

    • Tina

      I agree!
      I think there are so many “diet miracles” out there, because each miracle only works for a handful of people. There are too many variables in the human body for all these “rules” to work for all of us.
      The key is to start listening to your OWN body, and do what works for you.
      Eat foods that make you feel warm and energized, and avoid those that make you need a nap (unless you need some sleep, in which case, nosh away).
      Eat a little when you’re a little bit hungry, so you don’t eat a lot when you’re starving. Make a little effort to move a little more doing daily activities…
      It really is the little things that add up to a lot.
      But 1lb a year (or longer)? Right. I fluctuate more than that from one day to the next.

    • Russ Davis

      Did you even read the title? “2 Science-Backed Strategies to Avoid Long-Term Weight Gain”. This is not an article about losing a pound a week or even month. It is about the slow creeping weight gain that tends to occur with age “Researchers were interested in how participants’ diet quality affected their trend in weight gain. Without altering anyone’s food intake,” The article may or may not be accurate but don’t criticize it for not being something that it was never intended to be.

  • Ty C

    So let me get this right…calorie dense, fat filled nuts and nut butters associated with weight loss, while protein packed red meat is associated with weight gain.

    My body and taste buds beg to differ…

  • Tony Jacobs

    I’m a little troubled by one line in the “What’s the Takeaway?” section. The author is correct that a balanced diet is best, but the studies, as summarized, did not look at the amount of fat in the diet. Consequently, the author’s recommendation to reduce dietary fat does not seem to be supported.

    At 53-years old, the dietary guidance for most of my life has been the Food Pyramid which I believe was one of the chief reasons for weight gain in this country. The simple fact is that you gain weight if you consume more calories than you burn over a given period of time. One gram of fat contains 9 calories while one gram of protein or carbohydrates contain 4 calories. Still, the protein and fat have a better effect on satisfying your hunger than do carbs. For me, the author’s line which contains, “will reduce the amount of fat” is reminiscent of Food Pyramid proponents’ insistence on a low fat diet. I have no desire to go back to those hungry days.

  • Paranormal Skeptic

    I’ve found the long-term secret to keeping weight off is to track my calories, and ensure I don’t eat more food than I burn.

    • Goldarn

      I always heard that called “The Physics Diet,” i.e. If you expend more energy than you consume, over time you will have to lose weight. That’s why that guy who ate 1500 calories of snack cakes every day lost weight. Frankly, though, I’d rather lose weight and still have good nutrition, no matter how much I occasionally crave Twinkies. 🙂

  • Andrew Rollins

    When the takeaway section says

    ” Choosing lean protein sources like chicken, fish, nut butter and low-fat cheese will reduce the amount of fat—particularly saturated fat—in your diet.”

    FACEPALM. Article was doing so well, then somehow old junk science gets thrown in the conclusion?

  • Camille

    Very, very good group to study! I usually don’t read studies unless done on nurses over 50 yrs old and/or nuns.

  • Aubrey Gruen

    Can my fitness pal be upgraded to help show the glycemic load?

  • Tina

    Red meat is good for you, especially if you are a woman, keeps your iron going the natural way without pills! So who thought this up is a liar! We have our teeth to show for it, incisors for tearing the meat. But in reality all food that you overeat is bad for you, keep it within limits and no weight gain /loss! Fancy eating and dieting never works, you just pile it back on when you get sick of always watching what you eat, it becomes natural when your body had enough you cant eat another spoon full! That comes from moderate manners after a while, perservere!

    • luluhoo

      “incisors for tearing meat”

      just like lions huh

  • A. Mooers

    I also am confused. During 8 months of chemo therapy I have lost 25 lbs. of muscle (and am now stable at around 170 lbs.} and the only advice I seem to find for keeping weight on is to eat lots of deserts, ice cream, big macs and junk foods which doesn’t sound right to me.

    I’m also under the assumption that eating red meats in conjunction with moderate exercise will help build muscle and hence weight. Does this sound correct?

    Does anyone have any tips to help with this problem? Thank you.

    • Alan Marcero

      “lots of deserts, ice cream, big macs and junk foods” will keep weight on, but it will be fat, not muscle.

  • Gina M. Coon

    I had gestational diabetes with my fouth child and had to go on a diabetic diet for several months. It was the best diet I had ever tried. I lost then maintained a healthy weight, felt full and consummed more calories than before the diet change. Several keys: protein with carb at every meal or snack, also, smaller more balanced meals, along withsmall snacks between each and at bedtime, NO white foods -bread, rice, potatoes, instant anything, etc., nearly all carbs were high fiber. I learned to read labels, particularly on bread type foods, avoided anything processed, used only 100% peanut butter. There are only a few thjngs I would change, since I am not diabetic, but otherwise, this is my go-to plan when I want to drop a few pounds.

  • Bodine Favor Porter

    Saying that red meat and processed meat promote weight gain is very misleading.
    If it is conventional red and processed meat , then “yes” it promotes weight gain ,it is full of antibiotics, growth hormones and other nasty things. On the other hand , grass fed red meats are about as healthy as you can get . They are full of CLA and the perfect omega3 ratio to omega6. By eating grass fed meats 3 to 5 times weekly I have maintained my perfect weight and very good health.

  • Carole

    is this for real i mean come on only two things to do wow

  • Missy Scorpio

    Yeah, no. Protein is differentiated only by its sequencing of amino acids. Whether you eat red meat or cheese: if the intake is equicaloric, and all factors are accounted for, there is no difference in impact on potential weight gain. You don’t magically gain weight from red meat.

  • luluhoo

    Also, other excellent sources of protein are tofu, tempeh, beans, and seitan.

  • Z

    So basically dont drink soda and don’t eat white bread. Wow i totally did not know that sugar water and refined flour could possibly make me gain weight. Stupid article.

  • mmmpork

    All this study is saying is when people ate more they gained weight, when they ate the same, they maintained, and when they ate less, they lost it. Nothing new here. Regarding the emphasis on carbs, carbohydrate rich foods contain more calories per serving than foods like cheese and chicken breast. So naturally replacing a serving of pasta with a serving of zucchini means you eat less calories. It’s hard to avoid a calorie surplus when you’re drinking several 150 calorie cans of soda a day, so if you removed the soda from the equation you would stop gaining weight. The study reports that “increased cheese intake was associated with weight gain when GL increased, with weight stability when GL did not change, and with weight loss when exchanged for GL (i.e., decrease in GL)”. What about when you remove the cheese and keep the GL the same? In this study they are so focused on GL being the bad guy that they missed a logical path. While the study reports that GL foods were associated with weight gain, they were not able to prove why that was the case and therefore any conclusions you would draw on that are merely speculation and would need to be proven. Thanks for another half-baked blog entry from My Fitness Pal!

  • Texan99

    “a 50-unit increase in daily glycemic load (about two bagels) resulted in a 1-pound weight gain every 4 years”–that’s pretty surprising. I could treat myself to 2 bagels a day and after 4 years would only have to diet for a week to take off a single resulting pound?

    • Sarah

      YESSSS!!! Bagel time!!!! =)