In today’s non-stop media environment, there’s certainly no dearth of tips, advice, and gimmicks for weight loss. Advertisements tell you how to “Lose thirty pounds in thirty days!” TV infomercials claim that you can “Eat what you want and still lose weight!” And magazine headlines claim it’s easy to “Lose one jean size every seven days!”
But anyone who’s tried to lose five, ten, or one hundred pounds can tell you it’s simply not that easy. There’s no magic pill, it doesn’t (usually) happen super fast, and judging from the myriad plans out there, there is no one diet that works for everyone.
Looking past the outrageous claims, there are a few hard truths the diet/food industry isn’t going to tell you, but might just help you take a more realistic approach to sustained weight loss.
1. New nutrition news is often old.
Recently, I read this headline from a news report about a new study: “Fruit Is Even Better for You Than Previously Thought.” I find these kinds of studies somewhat silly—do we really need another reason to eat fruit? Or for that matter, is the nutrition advice from your grandmother or great-grandmother’s generation all that different from what it is today? Chances are they would’ve advised something along the lines of—eat your fruits and vegetables. Point being is that ebbing with trends and tides of “new” research often doesn’t make long-term sense. When fat was labeled as bad, people eschewed even the good stuff from their diets; when carbs went out of style, people took nutritious foods out with the bad. While new research certainly lends insights into what we should eat, common sense often prevails. When in doubt, eat what you know to be healthful foods—unprocessed, unpackaged, and natural.
2. You have to exercise more than you think.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting at least thirty minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week; this includes things like shoveling snow and gardening. And while this is great for improving heart health and staying active, research indicates that those looking to lose weight or maintain weight loss have to do more—about twice as much.
For instance, members of the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR)—a group of over 5,000 individuals who have lost an average of sixty-six pounds and kept it off for five and a half years—exercise for about an hour, every day.
A study published in the July 28, 2008 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine supports this observational finding. The researchers enrolled 200 overweight and obese women on a diet and exercise regimen and followed them for two years. Compared with those that gained some of their weight back, the women who were able to sustain a weight loss of 10 percent of their initial weight for two years exercised consistently and regularly—about 275 minutes a week, or fifty-five minutes of exercise at least five days a week.
In other words, things like taking the stairs, walking to the store, and gardening are great ways to boost activity level, but losing serious weight means exercising regularly for an hour or so. However, this doesn’t mean you have to start running or kickboxing—the most frequently reported form of activity in the NWCR group is walking.
3. One size does not fit all.
Though most diet plans and advice make it seem as if their plan is the plan for the masses, the truth is that when it comes to weight loss—and essentially, lifestyle—there’s no one plan, exercise, or regimen that will work for everyone. A vegetarian might be lost on an Atkins diet, someone who prefers team sports might be completely unhappy at the gym, and a late riser could never find a morning workout routine feasible. Finding your own rhythm, diet preferences, and exercise types means not ascribing to a one-size-fits-all scheme that many marketers try to push. Don’t force something that’s not natural and you’ll be happier—and chances are you’ll stick with it for the long haul.
4. A half-hour walk doesn’t equal a brownie.
I remember going out to eat with some friends after a bike ride. Someone commented on how we deserved dessert because we had just spent the day exercising; in fact, we had taken a leisurely twenty-minute ride through the park. This probably burned the calories in a slice of our French bread, but definitely not those in the caramel fudge brownie dessert. Bummer.
And while it’s easy to underestimate how many calories something has, it’s also easy to overestimate how many calories we burn while exercising. Double bummer.
Even if you exercise a fair amount, it’s not carte blanche to eat whatever you want. (Unless you exercise a ton, have the metabolism of a sixteen-year-old boy, and really can eat whatever you want). A report investigating the commonly-held beliefs about exercising, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, concludes that although exercise does burn calories during and after exercise, for overweight persons, “excessive caloric expenditure has limited implications for substantially reducing body weight independent of nutritional modifications.” In other words, to lose weight, you have to cut calories and increase exercise.
5. You do have time to exercise.
If you have time to check email, watch a sitcom or two, surf the Internet, have drinks/coffee/dinner with friends, go clothes shopping, and on and on, then you have time to exercise. Yes, sometimes you have to sacrifice sleep, TV, or leisure time to fit it in. Yes, sometimes you have to prioritize your exercise time over other things. But your health and the feeling you get after having worked out is well worth it.
6. Eating more of something won’t help you lose weight.
The food industry is keen to latch onto weight loss research and spin it for their sales purposes. A prime example is the widespread claim that eating more dairy products will help you lose weight. However, a recent review of forty-nine clinical trials from 1966 to 2007 showed that “neither dairy nor calcium supplements helped people lose weight.”
This idea—that eating more of a certain type of product will help you lose weight—is constantly regurgitated on supermarket shelves (think low-fat cake, low-carb crackers, high in whole grain cookies, and trans fat-free chips), but is in direct opposition to the basic idea behind weight loss—that we have to eat less, not more.
7. Calories in = calories out?
There is a fair amount of controversy over the basic question of how people gain weight. Is it simply a matter of energy intake being greater than energy expenditure or is there more to it? Do the type of calories we eat matter and can avoiding certain types help to lose or prevent weight? The low-fat, low-carb, and glycemic index advocates can’t seem to agree on which it is.
However, most can agree, and logical sense would tell us, that drinking 500 calories of soda is not equal to eating 500 calories of chicken and broccoli. One is simply “empty” calories—those that provide no real nutritional benefit and don’t do much to combat hunger. Whether you ascribe to the simple idea of trying to burn more calories than you take in or focus on avoiding certain types of calories, you want to minimize intake of empty calories, and maximize nutrient-dense calories.
8. Your body is working against you.
Most people have noticed that it’s hard to lose weight, but easy to gain it. This is a relic of harder times, when food was not as abundant as it is today. Our genetic taste buds made energy-dense food desirable because it was necessary to pack away calories so we could make it through the thin times. We feasted when we could, in preparation for the famine.
But now that we live in a time of abundance, that system predisposes many of us for weight gain and retention. And for obese dieters, this system is even harder to overcome; after weight loss, they become better at using fuel and storing fat, making it harder to keep weight off. However, this isn’t to say that many haven’t lost weight and kept it off successfully. It just means you have to be diligent.
9. Our cultural environment is also working against you.
Let’s face it, American society does not make it easy on those trying to eat healthfully and exercise. According to Linda Bacon, associate professor of nutrition at UC Davis, “We get a tremendous amount of pressure to eat for reasons other than nurturing ourselves, and over time, people lose sensitivity to hunger/fullness/appetite signals meant to keep them healthy and well nourished. It’s hard for people to come to a healthy sense of themselves given the cultural climate, and nutritious and pleasurable options for healthy food are not as easily accessible as less nutritious.”
That doesn’t mean this can’t be overcome, but it does require maybe putting other parts of your life on a “diet.” TV would be the biggest culprit, since many food advertisements, especially for children’s junk food, come during this time. Other areas to put on a “diet” are chain and fast food restaurants (where portion sizes are distorted), a bad-influence friend, or driving, which may help increase walking and biking.
10. Maybe you don’t need to lose weight.
Some feel that the medical problems associated with excess weight are exaggerated. Gina Kolata, a New York Times science writer questions the notion that thin is a realistic or necessary objective for most. In her book, Rethinking Thin, she asserts that weight loss is an unachievable goal for many, and that losing weight isn’t so much about health as it is about money, trends, and impossible ideals. Recent research also challenges the idea that being overweight is bad. A study in JAMA found that being twenty-five pounds overweight did not increase the risk of heart disease and cancer, and may even help stave off infections.
It’s true that people can be fit and healthy and not necessarily be thin, just as it’s true that thin people may not necessarily be healthy. Good health, rather than weight, should be our focus, but too often, it’s not. Striving for an unhealthy level of thinness may be detrimental to our health, but understanding the health repercussions of obesity is also critical.
11. This is not a diet; this is your life.
The diet industry would have us all think that we can lose weight fast, and that’s that. But most people who maintain their weight understand that eating and exercising are not temporary conditions, to be dumped once a pair of jeans fit. Instead, they are lifestyle choices, and ones we should make for the long haul.
Updated April 18, 2011