Diving Into the Diet That Works

You’re one of those folks who plunge into every diet craze.
You find that some of them really do work—until a few months later when
you’re again drowning in excess weight. Here’s how to approach a
weight-loss program that will keep you in the swim.

By Susan Weiner

January 2007

Cathy Barr has the kind of body that turns heads—five feet, seven inches with curves from top to bottom—and she follows a vegetarian diet that many would already consider healthy. Yet, when it came to losing a few extra pounds, Barr threw sensibility to the wind, opting to adopt a strict regimen that purged all fats from her diet, even those that seemed beneficial such as vegetable oils, avocados, olives, nuts and seeds, not to mention coffee and black tea. In just a few short weeks she lost weight, but the diet left her feeling wanting.

“Oddly enough, I didn’t have cravings, but I did feel at times that I was depriving myself,” says Barr, a fundraiser for a non-profit organization in Columbus, Ohio. “While I wanted to learn about better eating habits, I did see a noticeable change in my hip size, and I lost at least one full size.” When she transitioned back to a more practical diet, some weight gain was inevitable. In the process, though, Barr learned several valuable lessons: “I’m much more cognizant of fat grams and what I put in my body. After all, you are what you eat. Just switching from pasta to brown rice was a big step. It’s also about finding creative ways to flavor your food.”

Barr’s experience with what might be called a “fad” diet—a program that promises fast-and-easy weight loss—wasn’t too bad. That can’t be said for many other would-be thin people: Many of them find that, like a game of ping-pong, fad diets result in back-and-forth weight loss and regain.
“Fad diets, yo-yo dieting and weight gain all affect your metabolism in negative ways,” says Thom Ouimette, NASM, personal trainer and founder of The Body Project in Utica, New York. “Your metabolism is the number of calories your body burns a day. If someone continues to lose and then gain weight, their metabolism slows down, their body stops burning as many calories, and weight loss eventually tails off. People on fad diets who don’t establish healthy lifestyle changes almost always end up gaining back the weight they lost, and then some.”

Fad for All

Whether it’s the All-Liquid, Grapefruit (Cabbage Soup, Banana, Hotdog, Chocolate…) or any of the other innumerable weight-loss fads, odds are that your diet is destined to fail. By virtue of “going on a diet” you are setting yourself up for disappointment, since going on a diet implies that you will eventually go off of it. Just ask Ellen Marshall, an East Windsor, New Jersey stay-at-home mom who has battled weight problems for most of her life.

Mother’s Little
Weight-Loss Helpers

It takes awareness, dedication and a proactive attitude to maintain weight loss over the long haul, especially in a world with so many temptations to eat more and exercise less. And while there’s simply no substitute for proper diet and adequate physical activity, many people find the use of supplemental aids helpful (talk to your health care practitioner). A number of herbs and nutrients have been used in the war on flab; the following are among the most popular:

*Calcium: Best known as a bone-building must, this essential mineral has also been found to help promote fat-burning.

*Chromium: A mineral that helps muscles use glucose (blood sugar), the body’s main fuel. This action helps overcome insulin resistance, a prediabetic condition common in people who are overweight.

*CLA: In a recent study, this fatty acid helped reduce fat in the abdomen, where it really poses a hazard, in both men and women; the ladies also enjoyed slimmer legs. CLA also appears to help dieters avoid the weight gain often fostered by excessive holiday eating.

*Forskolin: An extract from a species of the coleus plant that helps boost the development of lean body mass and supports proper thyroid function.

*Green Tea Extract: Scientists believe that EGCG, a key tea component, inhibits fat-cell development and revs up energy metabolism.

“You’re on a diet, you’re doing well, then you cheat and you say, ‘Oh, what the hell! I cheated!’ Then you really go to town,” exclaims Marshall, who says she could write a book on the weight she’s lost and regained on fad diets. “For one summer, I ate salad, tuna fish and chicken. That worked very well. Then I gained the weight back—plus!” Another time Marshall shunned food for water. “Water, water, water—they say that if you fill up on water, you’re not hungry. It worked, but as soon as I started eating it all came back.” She’s not alone: The majority of dieters revert to their initial weight, generally within five years.

According to the Centers for Disease Control a whopping 75% of all Americans will be classified as overweight or obese in 2007—and we already know what that means in terms of increased health risk from threats such as heart disease and cancer. No wonder 33% to 40% of women (and countless men) are trying to lose weight at any one time, with many falling victim to common diet mistakes including limiting caloric intake to less than 1,000 a day, eliminating entire food groups, water fasting for extended periods and purging, which robs the body of valuable nutrients. Do you want to lose weight the right way? Then the first thing you’ll have to change is your approach to eating.

Creating a New You

To gain a sense of perspective, Ouimette likens losing weight to maintaining a financial spreadsheet. “Think of your metabolism as your budget. Your caloric intake is like your paycheck and your caloric output is like your bills,” he explains. “Knowing your metabolism—and how many calories you can consume—makes it easier to lose weight.”

To get started, set a realistic goal; you didn’t gain that weight overnight, and you’re not going to lose it that quickly. Instead of shooting for the stars and fitting back into your size-8 wedding dress or high-school wrestling singlet, set an initial goal to lose 5% to 10% of your current weight. It helps if you keep track of what you eat and drink. A small pocket pad, masquerading as a food diary, can work wonders, shining a light on how much you’re actually eating. Even if it seems insignificant write it down, since small noshes and drinks can add up to big calories.

Once you reach your goal, aim higher. After all, breaking weight loss into manageable chunks makes it more likely that you’ll reach your objective. Keep in mind that slow and steady often wins the race, so at first just cutting out that can of soda or snack each day and adding a brisk walk can bring weight loss faster than you can say, “Pass the carrot sticks.”

In the face of plenty, it helps to have a “defensive eating” strategy. Since food is everywhere—at the drugstore checkout line, the gas station, the ballpark, the mall, not to mention holiday get-togethers—temptation is ongoing. In addition to resisting the pressure of family and friends to have one more slice of Aunt Betty’s cobbler, it helps to remember a few key techniques: Be selective about what you eat, choose smaller portions, eat more slowly and don’t wait until you’re stuffed to stop eating. After the meal, beware of desserts—a single slice of cheesecake can pack nearly 800 calories and up to 50 grams of fat! Try “spoiling” your appetite beforehand with a healthy snack or appetizer so that you eat less at the meal.

The Temptation Is Endless...

60% Americans who diet at least occasionally
25% Will order dessert in a restaurant even if concerned about calories
33% Will try to order the healthiest dessert on the menu
84% Those who still eat dessert

Source: Caravan® survey, Opinion Research Corporation, 7/06

Ouimette believes that emotional encouragement makes the journey to a thinner you all the more attainable. People who weigh themselves daily and meet regularly with others who are also trying to lose or maintain weight are, indeed, more successful in reaching their goals, according to Brown University professor Rena Wing, PhD, co-founder of the National Weight Control Registry, a “club” of more than 5,000 adults who have dropped more than 30 pounds and kept them off for one year or longer. As it turns out, the registry members’ “secret” to weight loss is really no secret at all: In addition to meeting with others, they burned an average of 400 calories a day—the equivalent of about one hour of brisk walking—and consumed fewer calories.

Whole Foods Help

Of course, the banquet of life would be pretty boring if it only featured steamed vegetables and whole grains. That’s why it’s important not to eliminate entire food groups or deprive yourself of an occasional treat. Don’t be afraid of good fats like avocados, nuts and olive and canola oils, which can help you feel full and eat less overall. Eat them instead of unhealthy saturated or trans fats and highly processed carbohydrates, like those found in white flours and rice, as well as cookies, muffins and cakes—foods that make blood sugar and insulin levels shoot up and crash, ultimately contributing to weight gain.

To avoid maxing out blood sugar, switch your attention to foods with a lower glycemic index, such as yummy whole grains including steel-cut oats, wheat berries, quinoa, barley, millet, wild rice and air-popped popcorn. Whole-grain breads and pasta, as well as beans, lentils, nuts, fruits and vegetables, will also tame blood sugar while filling you up with the right nutrients.
When you’re thirsty reach for water, since juice and sugared soda can add hundreds of calories a day to a food plan, adding up to pounds of weight gain (and many alternative practitioners question the safety of diet drinks, which rely on artificial sweeteners). If water pales, flavored club soda is another option.

Walk It Off

The more you work your muscles, the more calories you’ll burn, even when you aren’t active, which means that there’s simply no excuse for not upping exercise levels. Even simple changes—like parking your car at the far end of the lot, walking at lunch or taking the stairs—add up to increased activity. Gradually increase the amount of time you walk each day to 30 minutes or more, and invite neighbors and friends to enlist. Once you start exercising, energy levels will jump, leaving you wondering how you managed without.

Aerobic exercise, such as walking, is one part of a lifetime weight-loss plan; strength training, generally in the form of weight lifting, is the other. Many of Ouimette’s clients yo-yo dieted for years before contacting him, so he was left with delivering the bad news: “In order to gain your metabolism back, you have to gain weight, and no one wants to do that.” Yes, you read that correctly—gain weight while losing fat (and inches). “Muscle gain equals weight gain and it’s a lot harder to gain muscle than lose weight,” says Ouimette. “That means a healthy caloric surplus in combination with strength training, which is one of the best ways to increase your metabolism, since muscle is a natural fuel burner that burns more calories than fat.” In other words, since muscle raises metabolism, you can eat more calories and maintain or even lose weight, notes Ouimette.

Changing your habits for good may seem daunting, but a focus on exercise and decreasing daily calories is the only tried-and-true strategy to lose—and keep off—excess pounds. So skip the fad diets...and finally make that tiresome annual New Year’s resolution stick.

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