More than one-third of American adults are obese, and many times the problems with weight begin during adolescence. In an effort to prevent weight gain among young adults, teams of researchers from University of North Carolina and Brown University’s medical schools tested two different diet strategies that required self regulation. Their findings, published in the JAMA Internal Medicine, revealed the most successful approach to weight gain prevention cut the risk of becoming obese in half.

For the study, researchers recruited nearly 600 participants between the ages of 18 and 35, half of whom were of normal weight while the other half were overweight. The participants were randomly assigned to follow two approaches to prevent weight gain. One challenged the participants to exercise self control by making small, daily changes to their eating and exercise routine. The others were asked to implement larger changes designed to help them lose five to 10 pounds in the beginning of the program with hopes they’d maintain their weight loss. A control group was asked to do little outside of their ordinary routine.

When researchers followed up after three years, both self-regulation approaches were found to be effective in reducing weight gain. Those who changed their habits to a greater degree to lose five to 10 pounds early on, however, reaped greater benefits. Participants using the small change approach lost 1.2 pounds, while those who made large changes wound up losing 5.2 pounds. Not only were they better at keeping off the weight over the course of the experiment, but 50 percent fewer had become obese compared to the control group.

"Until now, we didn't have clear guidance on what the message and recommendations should be for preventing weight gain," said the study’s co-author Deborah Tate, a health behavior and nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina, in a statement. "Frequent weighing and either initial weight loss or daily small changes to diet and activity are useful weight gain prevention approaches."

Waiting until middle age to prevent obesity-related risk factors like cardiovascular disease may be an ineffective approach because there could already be irreversible damage to the body, according to the funders of the study, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Instead, avoiding excess weight gain during early adulthood could be “pivotal” to lowering the risk of obesity-related diseases, making it important to establish healthy habits in adolescence and early adulthood key to perpetuating a cyclical healthy lifestyle for the next generation to follow.

"Weight gain in young adults is likely related to the many changes occurring — school-to-work transitions and events such as pregnancy,” said the study’s lead author Rena Wing, a psychiatry and human behavior professor at Brown University’s Medical School, in a statement. “This weight gain is a serious health risk, and approaches to prevent or reduce it are urgently needed. 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."

Source: Wing R and Tate D. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2016.