New program challenges weight loss messages and healthy dieting concepts

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DURHAM, N.C. -- Our country's battle with the bulge has been well publicized and the message to lose weight has been sent, but some patients still struggle.

Now doctors at Duke University are changing their approach with overweight patients, encouraging them not to lose but simply maintain their weight.

Of all Americans, African-American women are at the highest risk for obesity. Despite this, they're not as likely as other overweight people to develop complications like heart disease and diabetes, as long as they don't become morbidly obese.

"Most of the health risks associated with obesity occur at higher levels of obesity," explains Duke University's Dr. Gary G. Bennett. "So if a woman can maintain her weight and stay at a lower level of obesity many of those later life health risks will be offset and their risk will be reduced."

In the new study researchers divided nearly 200 overweight or obese black women into two groups. One was enrolled into Duke's Shape program, where they are given a health coach and a gym membership.

The other group met with a doctor to discuss weight loss. Tonia Johnson was in the shape program.

"Instead of eating Cheetos and a Pepsi, at work I would buy my vegetable chips and try to drink water," she says.

Doctors explain maintaining weight is easier than trying to lose it. You only need to cut 100 to 200 calories a day.

"So that's usually for most people not consuming a bottle of soda or not having a few extra cookies after dinner," Dr. Bennett says.

The women in the other group gained about eleven pounds over three years, while a majority of those in the program stayed steady on the scale and sometimes lost weight.

Although the study focused on overweight African-American women, the researchers say preventing weight gain is important for anyone who is obese.

They are planning more studies to learn whether maintaining weight can lead to a lower risk for stroke and heart attack.

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