At any given time, as many as half of all Americans are on a diet plan or other program to lose and manage their weight. Those who do finally lose weight often struggle to keep it off, and more put it right back on again.
So how do we lose weight sustainably? How do we keep the weight from coming back on again? And what can we start doing today to burn more fat and start getting back in shape?
Welcome to the Weight Loss Plan for Fighting Fat and Getting Back into Shape!
Let’s get started!
Why Do We Get Fat?
The short answer is too much food and not enough activity.
To lose weight you need to increase activity and decrease calories. Theoretical equations sound so easy, don’t they? But if losing weight really were this simple, why does the collective girth of the United States continue to grow?
What’s behind this growth? Two societal shifts — one in employment and one in eating habits — appear to hold the answer. Today, more people than ever work at sedentary jobs. Rows of office cubicles filled with immobile bodies have replaced rows of soil with people digging and planting and fertilizing as they till the fields. Even activity-intense manufacturing jobs, which once amounted to veritable eight-hour workouts, have largely left our shores.
These employment shifts are great for business, but the downside to performing mental work rather than physical work is that our national body has turned flabby. Staying in shape used to be a no-brainer, the happy byproduct of a working life. Now it requires a commitment to an after-hours exercise program, one that steals time away from family and leisure. Shift No. 2 is the country’s ever-increasing reliance on fatty convenience foods, which have all but swept traditional well-balanced meals off the family dinner table. The healthful shape of the Food Pyramid has been replaced by the unhealthful shapes of buckets (from take-out chicken), boxes (from Happy Meals) and bags (from drive-thru windows). Even dinners prepared at home can contain high amounts of fat when folks rely on prepared packaged foods, such as vegetables in cheese sauces and meal-in-a-boil-bag entrees.
When losing means winning
“In this age, which believes that there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest.”
Author Henry Miller said that, and although he wasn’t talking specifically about exercise and wise food choices, his words fit the subject well. By now, most people know that fad diets and get-thin quick schemes don’t last. In the same way that you didn’t become good at your job overnight or a skilled parent by reading a book in a single weekend, you can’t become the healthy, fit person you want to be in an instant. Only long-term change can do that. When exercising becomes as habitual as brushing your teeth, and when thinking about what’s on your plate becomes as automatic as looking both ways before crossing the street, that’s when lasting change will occur.
Why “Fat-Free” Isn’t Trouble-Free
Read labels to make sure you’re eating healthy.
The skinny on fat is simple enough: Americans eat too much of it, and as a result, wear too much of it.
Today we’re eating fewer fatty meats, whole dairy products and other foods rich in saturated fats — the kind that most significantly raise cholesterol, clog arteries and contribute to heart disease and stroke. In fact, Americans are consuming less fat as a percent of total calories than we did 20 years ago. But as a nation, we’re actually getting fatter and eating more overall calories than ever before.
One reason might be our reliance on “low-fat” and “fat-free” labels. Today, 9 in 10 Americans regularly buy lower-fat versions of food products, which sometimes contain more calories (albeit fewer fat calories) than the original versions.
Some “no-fat” or “low-fat” products contain as many calories as their original versions per serving; a handful can even have a few calories more. Many people consume larger quantities of low-fat foods, believing that they are “healthier.” But a 10 or 15 calorie difference per cookie can tip the scales (and not in your favor) if you overindulge. So it’s important to read the entire food label, not just the information on fat.
Until the last few years, more calories weren’t the only concern in low-fat foods. Previously lower-fat versions contained oils that underwent a chemical process known as “hydrogenation,” in which a liquid vegetable oil that’s naturally high in unsaturated fatty acids (and therefore heart-healthier) is transformed to a more solid and saturated form.
Hydrogenation changes oil in two ways: Besides making oils more saturated, it creates trans fatty acids — molecules that get twisted and out of shape during heating. These trans fats can raise the levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), the so-called “bad” cholesterol, sometimes as much as saturated fats do in some people. Meanwhile, trans fatty acids do not increase levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDLs), the “good” cholesterol that is responsive to monounsaturated fatty acids found in olive and canola oils. And some studies suggest that the chemical change induced in fatty acids by hydrogenation also may affect cell function, thereby increasing the risk of cancer.
Exercising for Weight Loss
You can lose weight with regular exercise. The key is to exercise long enough and hard enough so that your body burns more calories each week than you have put in your mouth.
Most people have the best success at calorie burning with moderate to intense aerobic exercise for 45 to 60 minutes at least five times per week. If your level of exercise has been none or minimal, try this practical weight loss plan to start.
After the 10 weeks you should be ready to up the intensity and duration of your workouts using your heart rate as a guide. Here’s how:
You gauge your heart rate during exercise as a percent of your maximum heart rate. Your max heart rate is 220 beats per minute minus your age in years. So an average 50-year-old would use 170 beats per minute as an initial heart-rate maximum. To qualify as moderate-intensity exercise, your heart rate should remain at 50 percent to 75 percent of your maximum for the duration of your exercise routine. Heart rates above 75 percent of maximum are considered high intensity; above 90 percent usually puts you into an anaerobic mode. A healthy, fit individual may do bursts of anaerobic activity, quickly backing off to recover in an aerobic zone.
You can measure your heart rate by feeling your pulse frequently (it’s best to feel the pulse in your neck) or by wearing a heart-rate monitor (about $50 for a basic model). Many health centers have aerobic exercise machines with built-in heart-rate monitors.
Another common way to make sure that you are staying aerobic is “the talk test,” which is simply the ability to talk while exercising. You may be breathing fast and hard, but if you can still carry on a conversation, you are still aerobic. If you are breathing so hard that you can’t talk, you are more likely to be anaerobic. Failing the “talk test” lets you know that you may be going anaerobic.
Five Tips for Planning and Losing Weight
If motivation is the spark that lights the weight-loss fire, then smart planning is the timber that will keep your desire burning. Lots of folks jump into a new diet or weight-loss plan without giving it much thought. This can lead to disappointment later when results aren’t as stellar as had been hoped and people don’t understand what went wrong.
Losing weight or maintaining a healthful weight brings the promise of feeling great, looking good and decreasing the negative impact that being overweight has on your health. Here’s a rundown of the factors that most weight-loss experts agree will help you succeed.
Draw on internal motivation
Write down your reasons for wanting to lose weight. An honest assessment can go a long way toward predicting whether you will succeed. Knowing why you want to lose weight can also help you focus your efforts more definitively. Play to your strongest internal motivation. In general, internal motivators (getting healthy, feeling better) lead to long-term success. External motivators (fitting into new clothes in time for a friend’s wedding) tend to be powerful but short-lived. Aim for something like climbing stairs without becoming winded rather than trying to fit into that old dress or suit. Specific motivators make powerful inducements. A man who enjoys restoring antique cars finds that because of his weight gain he can no longer slide under the cars to work on them. The desire to recapture the joy of his hobby motivates him to lose weight. A mother with a toddler at home can’t easily get down on the floor to play with the baby. She makes significant changes in her life (and to her weight) based on her desire to share time with her child. A strong desire for change can lead to a very real commitment to action.
You could go it alone, but support makes the job easier and more pleasant. Telling the people closest to you about your intentions announces that you’re serious and committed to your new lifestyle. This doesn’t have to be a media event. Just tell your family and friends that you plan to change some important aspects of your life and that you’d appreciate their support. A caveat: Don’t proclaim, “I’m starting a new diet.” Diets are temporary. You’re making changes for the long haul. Having a support partner works for many people. Together, you can bolster one another’s sagging spirits by offering encouragement. Promising to meet a partner for regularly scheduled gym time is a great way to stick to a workout routine. Other people choose to attend weight-management programs, either alone or with a friend. Putting out money for a program or health club membership turns a wishful idea into a business transaction. “I’ve already paid for this, so I might as well go,” is the mantra of many.
Make gradual changes
Dramatic changes tend to disappear dramatically; gradual changes stay with you for a lifetime. Make a list of your long-term goals. They may include reaching and maintaining a certain weight, feeling more energetic or reclaiming a sense of control over your life. Break this list into manageable chunks. Perhaps you’ll say, “Over the course of the next year, I want to lose X pounds.” Divide that number by months or weeks, then plan how you can meet that goal through decreased caloric intake and increased activity. If you’ve been inactive for a long time, don’t start by exercising 30 minutes per session. Ease into it. And when planning your new menu, don’t eliminate all “bad” foods in one sweep. With milk, for example, you can reduce fat content in steps, becoming accustomed to the taste and consistency of each type at your own pace. Switch from whole milk to 2% — which actually has 36% of calories from fat! — then to 1% milk and finally to skim, which has no calories from fat.
Schedule regular activity
Exercise burns calories and makes you feel better. It also may curb appetite. Make exercise an automatic part of your day and pretty soon you won’t remember a time when you weren’t active. On days when a full workout is impossible, you can accumulate activity by squeezing in short bouts of action throughout the day. Park your car far from a building’s entrance and walk. Take a brisk stroll after lunch. Perform desk exercises while you work. Tap your foot to music. Use the stairs. These all can add up to more calories burned than are burned during a workout at the gym, and are a lot more convenient.
Eat smaller, more frequent meals
Smaller meals help stave off feelings of starvation, which can lead to binge eating. It’s also an easy way to get fruits and vegetables into your diet. Keep healthful foods handy so “calorie-dispensing” vending machines or fast food joints won’t tempt you. Stock staples like apples and raisins in a desk drawer, purse or locker. Baby short cut carrots and celery stalks can fill you up while providing lots of fiber. Almost any recipes you currently use can be turned into a mini meal.
How small should these meals be? Aim for snack-like portions of about 100 to 150 calories. Examine typical vending machine snacks and you’ll find most are well over this amount. A small package of cheese crackers with peanut butter filling has about 230 calories. By choosing fruit and vegetable snacks instead, you can easily satisfy your hunger without the extra calories. A quarter cup of raisins, for example, has about 130 calories.
You can eat as often as you feel genuinely hungry. This means not eating out of habit or boredom. Drink a glass of water before you eat anything. You need water anyway, plus it helps you fill up without adding calories.
Measuring Your Progress
You have consulted with your doctor to determine if you need a medical evaluation. You have started your exercise program. And now you can measure just how well you’re doing by counting the number of your workouts each week. An average of four or five workouts per week is excellent. If you’re doing three workouts a week, you’re just squeaking by — and if you’re averaging less than three exercise days weekly, you need to retool your program.
By recording your workouts in a calendar or notebook, you can measure your consistency. Be sure to include the date, a description of the workout, comments on how you felt, as well as any other observations you’d like to make (such as your weight or the weather conditions).
Although many people experience a slow, steady weight loss during the first year of exercising, your cardiovascular condition will improve from regular aerobic exercise, regardless of whether you lose weight. There are several ways to measure that improvement. (The following are options, not standard measures for all sports.)
Take your resting pulse several times a week: You may see a drop of as much as 10 to 15 beats per minute over the six months of your program.
Tip: Take your resting pulse at the same time each day, and try to pick a time when you’re at rest and relaxed (just after waking up, for example, or in the evening before you go to bed).
Take the one-mile aerobic fitness test every three or four weeks, and keep a record of the results. You should see a steady improvement. To take the test, rest one full day, and abstain from food, coffee or tobacco for several hours. Then walk one measured mile at a steady pace, and record your heart rate in beats per minute immediately after stopping.
Pick a favorite two- or three-mile walking course, and repeat it every three or four weeks at a comfortable pace. Be careful to record the exact number of minutes and seconds it takes you to finish. (Try to do this at the same time of day each time.) You should see a steady reduction in your time.
Stopping that Rebound in Weight
Ask U.S. adults if they’re trying to lose weight, and 3 out of 4 say “yes,” polls show. Weight loss is a major industry, from support programs to diet books to special foods. Yet more than 60% of Americans are overweight, and the numbers are getting higher.
With all this dieting, why are so many people still unsuccessful at controlling their weight? One reason is that although many people manage to lose weight, they usually don’t keep it off.
Even in medically supervised weight-loss programs, people often regain, says Eva Obarzanek, a nutritionist for the U.S. government’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and project officer of a new study on maintaining weight loss.
“In a period after weight loss, usually about six months, the weight starts going back up,” she says.
Even in the best medically supervised programs, nearly two-thirds of participants are back where they started within 3 years and 80% to 90% within 5 years, says Gary Foster, Ph.D., clinical director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
For people who lose weight on their own, the relapse rate may be even higher.
Why weight bounces back
Why is it so difficult to avoid putting those pounds back on? Biology, environment and the pressures of everyday life all play a role.
- Biology — The body’s metabolism, programmed for survival in times of food shortage, works against dieters. “Your metabolism slows down because it’s trying to conserve energy,” Obarzanek says. “So you get hungry, your body doesn’t expend as many calories as before doing the same things, and you have to reduce calories even more.”
- Environment — “It’s tougher to lose weight and keep weight off now than it was 20 years ago because there are so many incentives to eat more and move less,” Foster says. “The cheapest foods are often the unhealthiest.” Activity is reduced by labor-saving devices, sit-down entertainment such as television, and the growing number of people in desk jobs.
- Life pressures — “Weight control takes a lot of work, hard work,” Foster says. “If life gets in the way — a spouse gets ill, your child is going through behavioral problems — the disposable energy that you have for any project, including weight control, gets diverted.” So you go back to old habits, and you regain weight.
You can Succeed
Is it possible to lose weight and keep it off for a long time? Plenty of highly motivated people have succeeded. Now, research is starting to provide a clearer picture of how they do it.
Some of the most detailed information comes from a national long-term study. The National Weight Control Registry contains information on 3,000 people who have lost 30 to 100 pounds (average, 60 pounds) and then kept their weight stable for at least one year (average, five years).
They lost weight using many different diets or programs, says James Hill, Ph.D., co-director of the study along with Rena Wing, Ph.D., of Brown University. But those who keep it off have several things in common, he says.
People in the weight-control registry, on average, burn up about 2,700 calories a week in physical activity, says Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.
That’s equal to about one hour of moderately intense activity every day — for example, five miles of walking. “I think this is the most important [factor],” Hill says.
It’s not clear if people who lose smaller amounts of weight need to exercise this much. Still, a large body of research agrees that exercise is essential in counteracting the body’s tendency to regain weight.
“Without exercise, the other efforts are simply temporary,” says Harold Solomon, M.D., director of the Weight Loss and Lifestyle Enhancement program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “There are very few people who can lose weight and keep it off without changing the amount of energy they expend.”
Guidelines from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the NIH, make the following recommendations about exercise to prevent weight gain:
- Consult your doctor and start slowly to avoid injury.
- If you have been inactive, start with 10 to 30 minutes of moderately intense activity, such as walking, 3 days a week. Build up to 30 to 45 minutes on most or all days of the week
- Reduce sedentary activities such as watching television. Build more activity into your day by parking farther from your destination, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, gardening, walking a dog, etc.
- Schedule your physical activity a week in advance, budget the time to do it, and use a diary to record the amount of time you spend exercising. Record the type of activity as well as the intensity.
People in the weight-control registry are highly disciplined about this, Hill says. “They weigh themselves a lot and they record what they eat on a regular basis.”
Foster says his own experience with patients also shows that self-monitoring is important because it allows you to notice weight fluctuations early and to take action.
“This doesn’t mean you get crazy about every pound you go up or down,” he says, “but it does mean that this is a chronic problem and when you gain weight what are you going to do about it? The way you reverse small weight gains is to have a specific plan.”
Sustainable, healthy diet
Although people in the registry originally lost weight using a variety of diets, the vast majority kept the weight off by following a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet, Hill says.
Although new research indicates that low-carbohydrate regimes such as the Atkins diet can produce significant weight loss, very few people in the weight-control registry were following Atkins long-term, Hill says.
Another important rule is to control portion size, Obarzanek says. And, she says, “I still believe that reducing dietary fat is the most efficient way of reducing calories.”
Dr. Solomon, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, says his own patients who are successful at long-term weight control make rules for themselves about eating. Then, he says, they make those rules second nature.
For example, he says, someone who eats a salad every day, but longs for a cheeseburger, at some point will give up and eat the burger. In contrast, people who permanently lose weight often say they don’t do anything special to keep it off because they have made a permanent change in how they think about food, he says.
“They have sort of drummed the cheeseburger out of their minds,” he says. “They have a new reality.”
This is another important element for people in the National Weight Control Registry. “They eat breakfast, so they’re spreading out their calories over the day,” Hill says.
This pattern is important to reduce hunger and bingeing, Dr. Solomon says. “You have to eat breakfast. You have to spread your calories out and eat at least three or four times a day.”
The role of support
It’s difficult to keep weight off, but research indicates that it helps to have some outside support.
“We know that frequent contact with a health provider or some other entity that’s looking after them — that would include a support group — is helpful,” Obarzanek says. “We find in our clinic sessions that people who attend the most sessions lose the most weight.”
“Unfortunately, we don’t know cause and effect. If you force people to go to sessions, would you get the same effect? Maybe people who are successful are proud, so they show up.”
The new NIH study on keeping weight off will explore whether certain ways of providing support are helpful. After participants lose weight, they will be randomly assigned to one of three groups.
Members of the “self-directed” group will meet once with a health counselor and will receive educational materials, but no other support. A second group will receive monthly telephone calls from a counselor and occasional visits. The third group will use an Internet-based program that includes weekly e-mails with messages related to their progress and automated phone reminders to use the system.
The form of support you need may depend on your personality, Foster says. “My sense is that in an attempt to find out what works we generalize too much. Some people are solo dieters and some like buddies. The most consistent data show that consistent contact with a professional improves the long-term outcome.”
But ultimately what matters is individual vigilance, he says. “Maintenance is a very active process. If you go with the tide, you will gain weight.”
Weight Loss FAQ
In an effort to help you maintain a healthy weight, here are some of the most common questions asked of nutrition and weight management experts:
How do I know if I’m eating too much?
A typical daily food plan tells you how much of each food you can eat. Many people, however, are not very clear on portion sizes. That’s why you may have to measure and weigh your foods until you can recognize a typical portion by sight. For a couple of weeks, use measuring cups, spoons and a food scale to measure out exact quantities of all the food you eat. In time, you’ll recognize what a half-cup of rice or 3 ounces of meat looks like and you can stop measuring.
Where and how you eat are important, too. If you eat while watching TV or talking on the phone, you may be consuming more than you realize. Or maybe you eat certain foods just because they’re there, like from those oh-so-convenient vending machines.
A lot of overeating has more to do with habit than hunger. If you’re an overeater, it’s important to figure out what triggers your eating. Then you can take steps to eliminate them.
Here are some steps you can take to start improving your eating behavior:
- Keep a food diary that includes the following:
- When you eat
- What you eat
- Where you eat
- Plan your meals.
- Eat slowly. Put your fork down between mouthfuls, or at least swallow what’s in your mouth before loading up the fork again.
- Have celery and carrots on hand to eat.
- Don’t buy “temptation” foods.
- At home, eat only in the kitchen or dining room. (This can help keep you from overeating while watching TV or doing other activities.)
- Say “no” to second helpings and to problem foods.
- Avoid boredom eating. Post reminders on the refrigerator and cupboards of other activities you can do instead of eating.
How do I know if my weight-loss program is good?
The goal of any diet plan should be long-term weight control, with slow weight loss and no risk to your health. Quick weight-loss diets, such as very-low-calorie diets and diets that restrict certain food groups, can be harmful and won’t help you keep the weight off.
A good diet provides all the nutrients you need and enough calories — typically 1,200 to 1,800 — to minimize hunger and maintain your energy level. How many calories you need will vary depending upon your level of activities. The diet should also focus on slow and gradual weight loss. About one pound per week is ideal. That’s a reduction of about 500 calories per day. (Faster weight loss may be appropriate in some cases, but only do so under medical supervision). Regular moderate exercise should be part of any weight loss program.
To succeed, your plan has to include foods you like to eat and it must allow you to eat comfortably when you’re away from home. Otherwise, you’ll be discouraged from making the long-term changes that are necessary for permanent weight control. Avoid developing a special menu for yourself. Modify and adapt your needs to the meal pattern for the rest of the family.
Aerobic exercises (bicycling, swimming, running, dancing, walking) drain body fat reserves while increasing oxygen uptake; they are an important part of weight management. Benefits include reduced body fat, increased energy expenditure, maintenance of lean body mass and possibly a lower set point (body setting for the amount of body fat.)
Avoid the common pitfall of skipping breakfast, eating little or no lunch and then stuffing down a large dinner. A three-meal-a-day pattern requires retraining for some people, but this will help in weight management.
Commercial weight-loss programs have sprung up everywhere. In addition to national programs such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, smaller, local programs are probably available in your area. Whether these plans deliver depends to some degree on your expectations. Good programs provide support, but you need to do your part. Remember that no plan is right for everybody. Some people need a very strict regimen; others can handle a program that leaves more control in their hands.
Before plunking your money down, ask questions. For example, if payment is required up front, ask about a money-back guarantee for dropouts. Ask about hidden costs. A costly and nonrefundable fee for a health assessment or the required purchase of specific company food can run up the tab far beyond the advertised cost. Ask about the long-term success of participants in achieving and maintaining weight loss.
Also, a good weight management plan will normally:
- Allow you to choose the foods you eat, while encouraging a nutritious balance
- Not restrict any particular food group or require you to buy special products
- Incorporate nutrition and behavior modification programs to promote long-term changes in eating habits
- Give you access to a professional staff experienced in weight control. (Check credentials. Qualified health professionals, such as registered dietitians, should design the program.)
What triggers my food cravings?
Everyone experiences food cravings. When we do, the foods we crave are usually high in sugar, fat or both. Cravings have been attributed to emotional problems, hormonal changes, brain chemistry and bad eating habits, but no one actually knows for sure why we crave certain foods. Some researchers say that indulging in a craving for sweet and fatty foods triggers the release of endorphins, the brain chemicals that produce a calming sense of pleasure. Others say the body produces different types of chemicals first, and then cravings for certain foods develop. One thing seems certain, however, food cravings have little to do with hunger.
If cravings result in binge eating or weight gain, they should be controlled. Some experts say that if you try to eliminate a particular food from your diet, you’ll only crave it more. The solution: Eat small amounts of the foods you crave on a regular basis, so you don’t feel deprived or look for products that are reduced in fat and sugar.
Are diet aids safe?
If you’re obese, sensible eating and behavior modification may not be enough to kick-start your weight loss plan. You and your doctor may want to consider additional measures, such as starting with a medically supervised, low-calorie liquid diet or a regimen of prescribed diet pills. These measures are not for everyone and are usually recommended for people who are very obese or have developed weight-related medical problems, such as diabetes or high-blood pressure. Liquid diets and diet pills can cause serious side effects and should only be used under the supervision of a doctor.
Most prescription and over-the-counter diet pills, liquid diets and “diet” teas are all short-term solutions that won’t work without long-term changes in everyday eating. Many of these products contain mild stimulants and/or diuretics that cause you to eliminate fluids faster than usual. Stimulants and diuretics are potentially dangerous. Some stimulants have been associated with sudden death; diuretics can cause dehydration and irregular heart rhythms. With these products, you may lose weight at first, but you’ll gain it back as soon as you stop the pills or the diet drinks if you haven’t altered your eating habits.