Given how easy it is to gain weight, and the food temptations that bombard us, how can you avoid gaining weight or lose it if you need to? I suggest a three-pronged strategy:
1. If you aren’t physically active, get moving. If you are, try to increase the level of your activity.
2. Find an eating program that works for you. The strategies oﬀered in this book are a place to start.
3. Become a defensive eater.
I wish I could give you a more precise set of instructions guaranteed to control weight. But I can’t. Chalk that up to the wonderful diversity of the human race. People are as unique as snowﬂakes. They come in diﬀerent sizes and shapes, have
diﬀerent metabolisms, like and dislike diﬀerent tastes and textures. So no single formula can apply to everyone. You need to ﬁnd what works for you and stick with it, using a scale and your waist size as guides.
What I can do is suggest diﬀerent strategies that have worked for others and may work for you.
1. GET MOVING
• Exercise counts most toward good health. Although I have focused on the intake side of the energy balance equation so far, the expenditure side is critically important. After not smoking, exercise is the single best thing you can do to get healthy or stay healthy and keep chronic diseases at bay. Exercise is far more than merely a way to lose or control weight. A report by the U.S. Surgeon General, Physical Activity and Health, says that regular physical activity
• improves your chances of living longer and living healthier;
• helps protect you from developing heart disease or its handmaidens, high blood pressure and high cholesterol;
• helps protect you from developing certain cancers, including colon and breast cancer;
• helps prevent type 2 diabetes;
• helps prevent arthritis and may help relieve pain and stiﬀness in people with this condition;
• helps prevent the insidious bone loss known as osteoporosis;
• reduces the risk of falling among older adults;
• relieves symptoms of depression and anxiety and improves mood;
• helps prevent impotence; and
• controls weight.
• Build muscle, burn fat. Physical activity is essential to weight control for two main reasons: It burns calories that
would otherwise end up stored in fat. And it builds muscle, or at least maintains muscle, an often ignored but absolutely essential ingredient in weight control.
Even when you are sleeping, your muscles are constantly using energy. When you walk, run, swim, lift weights, dance, play tennis, clean the house, or do anything active, they burn even more calories. Physical activity stimulates muscle cells to grow and divide, causing muscles to grow in strength and size. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, even at rest.
• Without exercise, fat replaces muscle. If you live a sedentary life, your muscles gradually waste away. It’s the same kind of atrophy that occurs when you wear a cast on an arm or leg, only stretched out over years rather than weeks so it’s impossible to feel or see. The less muscle you have, the less energy your body uses at rest and the easier it is to gain weight. To make matters worse, lost muscle is usually replaced by fat (see Figure 8). This starts a vicious and tough- to-break cycle. For a ﬁfty-year-old person who isn’t physically active, a ten-pound weight gain over the years may really mean a loss of ﬁve pounds of muscle and gain of ﬁfteen pounds of fat. Unlike muscle, fat uses very little glucose and burns few calories. As the balance between muscle and fat shifts further and further in favor of fat, resting metabolism decelerates even more. And as the body needs less and less energy to take care of its basic needs, more and more food goes into fat stores. The extra weight may also act as a physical or mental impediment to activity, which further reduces resting metabolism. In other words, the shift from muscle to fat makes it easier to gain weight, makes it harder to maintain your weight, and increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Not long ago, a colleague of mine saw her physician for
one of those “big birthday” physical exams. Everything was ﬁne, with one exception—her blood pressure was too high. When her doctor told her she needed to lose thirty pounds or so to get her pressure under control, she shot back, “Where were you when I was putting on those pounds?” It’s a great question. The physical and physiological changes wrought by decreased muscle mass and increased weight are tough to reverse and in some cases may be irreversible.
learn more: Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy!
• Ounces of prevention are better than pounds of cure. Over the last few decades, we’ve been learning that it is far easier to prevent weight gain than it is to lose excess weight. In fact, gaining weight makes your body more receptive to future weight gain and makes getting rid of extra pounds doubly diﬃcult. To make matters worse, some of the eﬀects of excess weight, such as diabetes, heart disease, or stroke, may not fully disappear even with successful weight loss.
The two big questions concerning exercise are these: What is the best kind of exercise? And how much exercise do we need each day?
• Walk for health. Not too long ago, experts thought that vigorous exercise was needed to keep the heart and circulatory system in shape. Recent research has tempered that idea. We are learning that brisk walking oﬀers many of the same beneﬁts as sweating it out in a noisy gym or jogging through your neighborhood.
Among women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study, there is a very strong link between walking and protection against heart disease—women who walked an average of three hours a week at a brisk pace were 35 percent less likely to have had a heart attack over an eight-year period than women who walked infrequently. Vigorous exercise oﬀered similar protection. Brisk walking also substantially cuts the risk of diabetes, while more vigorous exercise is associated with even lower risk.
What, exactly, is “brisk?” It means moving quickly enough
so your heartbeat and breathing speed up, but not so fast that you can’t carry on a normal conversation. It’s moving as if you were late for an important meeting. If you are a counter or measurer, brisk walking is taking around one hundred steps a minute or walking at a clip of three to four miles per hour.
For many people, walking is an excellent alternative to other types of physical activity because it doesn’t require any special equipment, can be done any time and any place, and is generally quite safe. More vigorous exercise such as running or bicycling lets you pack the same cardiovascular workout into a shorter period than you can with walking and also gives you a higher level of physical ﬁtness. Although more vigorous activity than brisk walking may provide some added beneﬁts, you can achieve much in the way of chronic disease prevention with a good daily walk.
• Exercise at least thirty minutes a day. According to the Surgeon General’s report, you need to intentionally burn at least two thousand calories a week to begin reaping the beneﬁts of physical activity. That’s a diﬃcult number to calculate. Most recommendations translate this into time— thirty minutes of physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week. There is no question that this much activity is far better than inactivity. But thirty minutes of activity a day isn’t much when you think about how active our farmer or laborer forefathers and foremothers were. Even someone who runs ﬁve miles a day usually sits for most of his or her other waking hours. So consider thirty minutes of physical activity as a daily minimum for maintaining your health and weight. And keep in mind that most people will beneﬁt from more.
A word of caution here: The intensity of your activity also matters. Sauntering through the mall for ﬁfteen minutes beats sitting, and it may help your bones and mood. But it won’t do much for your heart, lungs, and blood vessels. For an activity to help your cardiovascular system, it must speed up your heartbeat and your breathing.
• Make your day more active. There are many ways to inject more activity into your day. Some people choose to live close enough to their jobs so they can walk, run, or ride a bike to work. Not only does self-propelled commuting improve your health, but it makes a small contribution to others’ health by cutting down on traﬃc congestion and air pollution. Restructuring your day can add small “activity bits” that add up. Possibilities include walking up the stairs at work instead of taking the elevator; parking in a far corner of the lot and walking; getting oﬀ your train or bus a stop or two early and walking the rest of the way; using a rake for leaves or a shovel for snow rather than a leaf- or snow-blower.
• It also helps to have fun. Many people have turned walking
into a social activity, a chance to touch base with a partner or friends several times a week. Others enjoy the challenge of learning new skills, like rowing or tennis, and pushing themselves to improve. If you make exercise a fun high priority, you’ll ﬁnd a way to ﬁt in thirty minutes of activity a day, either in one long stretch or in several small bursts. It might help to consider this outlay of time as a solid investment that will oﬀer an excellent return for your long- term health.
2. FIND A DIET THAT WORKS FOR YOU
If your weight has been holding steady in the healthy range, you are clearly doing many of the right things as far as the amount of food you are eating. Even so, you can probably ﬁne-tune your diet so it’s even healthier. The Healthy Eating Pyramid and information in the following chapters can help you choose the right foods to further improve your health.
However, if your weight has been creeping upward or if you are already overweight, a new direction is in order. Its compass points are eating fewer calories and burning more of them. Many people get lost. Some ignore exercise, a crucial part of losing weight and keeping it oﬀ. Others are overwhelmed by the legions of diets and diet books, have trouble following a particular diet, or try one and it doesn’t work.
• Diets low in reﬁned carbohydrates work best. For years we’ve been hearing that low-fat diets rich in carbohydrates are the best route to weight loss and improved cardiovascular ﬁtness. For many people, just the opposite is true. As I describe in chapters 5 and 7, only people who are lean and active can tolerate a lot of carbohydrates. For others, too many carbohydrates don’t promote weight loss or improve heart health.
The Atkins, South Beach, and other popular diets have you take drastic measures, at least at ﬁrst, and stop eating virtually all carbohydrates. As long as you aren’t gobbling no- or low-carb foods packed with saturated and trans fats,
limiting or eliminating reﬁned carbohydrates is a good step to take. Keep in mind, though, that these “crash” diets overemphasize short-term weight loss when the real goal should be ﬁnding a healthy eating pattern that can help you control your weight for years. The strategies described in this book are aimed at exactly that.
Giving up reﬁned carbohydrates in favor of whole grains, vegetables, and some fruits such as apples will reduce the spikes of glucose and insulin that provoke hunger while also supplying important vitamins, minerals, ﬁber, and other phytonutrients. It can also reduce your chances of developing high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, or heart disease. Avoiding saturated and trans fats and getting more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can improve your cholesterol levels, help prevent blood clots, allow your arteries to work more eﬀectively, and boost your muscles’ response to insulin. Going easy on red and processed meats and eating in their place ﬁsh, nuts, beans, and poultry will reduce the risks for colon cancer, prostate cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, even if total fat remains high.
• A healthy global diet. An eating plan that borrows heavily from the Mediterranean and other traditional diets oﬀers a healthy nutritional foundation . Plenty of vegetables, moderate amounts of whole grains, and relatively little red meat oﬀer reasonably low energy density. The abundance of vegetables and whole grains, as well as the relatively high percentage of fat (30 to 45 percent of calories, mainly from olive and other vegetable oils), makes for mild eﬀects on blood sugar. Just as important, this kind of diet is open to creative interpretation. You can incorporate cuisines from around the world, as well as your own creations, into an eating pattern with enough variety and pleasure to last a lifetime.
• It has to work for you. One ﬁnding buried in the latest diet trials is that individual responses to weight loss strategies vary widely. In the overall results, low-carb participants lost an average of ten to ﬁfteen pounds. That average hides what really happened. Some people in both the low-carb and low- fat groups lost more than twenty-ﬁve pounds each, some saw smaller changes in weight, and others didn’t lose any weight at all. These diﬀerences, which are probably due to a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological or social factors, are actually good news. Such individual diﬀerences are one reason why this book doesn’t deﬁne healthy eating by a rigid breakdown of calories into percentages from protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
If you are one of the lucky folks who have successfully
controlled weight with the ﬁrst diet you try, thank your genes, your psyche, or your family. But if you try a diet and it doesn’t work, don’t give up! It may not have been right for your metabolism, eating habits, or social situation. Experiment with other weight control strategies, as long as they emphasize healthy sources of fat and protein and include regular physical activity. You should be able to ﬁnd the one that’s right for you.
learn more: Building a Better Pyramid
3. PRACTICE DEFENSIVE EATING
Most people in our relatively sedentary society need to watch their calories as they age to avoid gaining weight. This involves more than just selecting certain types of foods or a particular kind of diet. It also means learning how to avoid overeating, which I call “defensive eating.” Here are some suggestions that may be helpful:
• Practice stopping before you are stuﬀed. Recognize that we are victims of our culture, one that gloriﬁes excess.
• Be selective. Don’t eat things just because they are put in front of you.
• Choose small portions. In restaurants, realize that portions are often oversize and that a single meal can contain your daily caloric allowance. Consider sharing entrées, or order two appetizers instead of an entrée.
• Beware of desserts. A single slice of the Cheesecake Factory’s Original Cheesecake packs almost eight hundred calories and an incredible 49 grams of fat (28 of them saturated, or 50 percent more than is recommended per day). And many people down that after eating an entire meal. If you want to order a rich dessert, skip the entrée altogether, or try sharing the dessert four ways. Better yet, have a healthy meal and ﬁnish it oﬀ with a piece of fruit or other lower-calorie option.
• Slow down and pay attention to your food when you eat.
When you wolf down food, you eﬀectively bypass the intricate set of “I’m full” signals that your digestive system is designed to generate. Eating at a moderate pace gives your stomach and intestines time to send these messages to your brain.
• Be creative with low-calorie options to show you really care. Don’t love your family and friends to death with calories they don’t need
• Keep track of the calories in the foods you eat. I don’t mean for you to formally count calories, just be aware of what you are eating and drinking. Sugary sodas and fruit drinks, for example, can be a big source of invisible calories that you can easily cut from your diet. A small glass of juice in the morning is perfectly good for you, but drinking several glasses during the day can add hundreds of extra calories. Keep in mind that you would have to eat two oranges to get the same number of calories as you do from a glass of orange juice. Soda is worse because it gives you nothing but calories.
• Spoil your appetite. Have a snack or appetizer before
eating a meal. Remember the dreaded line “It will spoil your dinner!” that your mother used to utter when you asked for a cookie or some popcorn late in the afternoon? She was right (of course). So use this principle to your advantage.
• Minimize temptation. Many of us ﬁnd it hard to ignore chocolates, cookies, chips, or other goodies when they are sitting on a shelf or in the refrigerator. Out of sight doesn’t necessarily mean out of mind. Out of the house or apartment, though, usually oﬀers a great deterrent. In their place, keep a supply of low-calorie snacks such as apples, carrots, or whole-grain crackers on hand for when you really want to munch on something.
• Be vigilant. Don’t forget that much of the food industry, because its goal is to sell more food, is out to exploit your weaknesses and destroy your defenses. You will need to be smart to avoid their traps.
• Try keeping it simple. Here’s a truism from animal research: Rats fed “rat chow” or monkeys fed “monkey chow” don’t weigh as much as animals that get to pick from a variety of foods. The same is probably true for humans. Think back to the last time you wandered through a cafeteria with great choices and you’ll probably picture a tray piled with more food than you usually eat. There’s no question that we need variety in our diets. Diﬀerent foods oﬀer diﬀerent nutrients that are essential for good health. At each meal, though, simplicity may be a better strategy for some people. You may eat less if your entire meal is a chicken dish and vegetables than if you prepare several tempting dishes. Such simpliﬁcation runs counter to trends in the marketplace, as the food industry oﬀers an ever growing and ever beguiling variety of foods. But it may help reverse the ever expanding trend of your waistline.
Weight control isn’t impossible, nor does it need to mean deprivation or a boring, repetitious diet. With conscious eﬀort and creativity, most people can successfully control their weight long term with an enjoyable but reasonable diet and near daily exercise.
Why bother? There are several good reasons. You’ll be in control of your body’s machinery. That alone can give you a sense of accomplishment and determination that could pay oﬀ in other areas of your life. Watching your weight with a
healthy diet and exercise can give you more energy. Finally, the trio of a healthy weight, healthy diet, and healthy exercise oﬀers the safest, most eﬀective way to prevent disease and live longer.