Nearly everyone wants to lose a few pounds. In many cases, more than just a few.
In fact, it’s been theorized that if everyone who wanted to lose an extra 10–20 pounds actually lost the weight and kept it off, the cumulative disappearance of body mass would destabilize the earth’s orbit and send the planet hurtling off into interstellar space. (Actually, no reputable physicist has theorized that at all. I just made it up myself.)
But control of body weight is an important health and diet concern. And it’s a challenging medical issue.
Many try to lose weight; few succeed without difficulty. If that isn’t bad enough, there’s the notorious rebound effect – once you’ve dropped a few pounds, the fat cells take their revenge and you may end up weighing more than ever.
Don’t give up.
Over the past few years we’ve learned a lot about how the body maintains its weight. Though there are no magical secrets to weight loss, you stand to benefit if you make use of the latest knowledge. Here are some questions and their answers to guide you along your path:
Is losing weight simply a matter of reducing the calories you consume and increasing those you expend in exercise?
Yes. Careful research shows that if you cut your calorie intake you’ll lose weight — regardless of what mixture of foods you eat. And if you lose weight, your level of blood lipids and other medical markers of cardiovascular risk will improve, too. The key is to find a diet – any diet — you can stick with.
But not so fast.
Paradoxically, the advice to simply cut calories to lose weight – though technically it’s true – is about the most useless diet advice you can get. That’s because food and our relationship to it is complex.
To begin with, you may have food-related problems apart from your weight, such as poor digestion, bloating, poor nutrient absorption, erratic control of blood sugar, sluggishness, or food intolerances or allergies.
Thirdly, your body’s cells are programmed for life in a food-scarce environment. They want to store a backup supply of nutrients to ensure survival in hard times.
You’ll only succeed in long term weight loss if your strategy to cut calories also addresses these other issues.
What’s better – a low fat diet or a low-carb diet?
Either type of diet can help you lose weight. And the proponents of both approaches have plenty of research fodder to help them make their scientific argument.
But I’ll stick my neck out here and vote for the low-carbohydrate approach to eating. That’s because the main culprits in the American diet are sugar, simple carbohydrates, and foods derived from grain in general.
Five reasons are:
- If you eat too much sugar, the cells of your body become desensitized to insulin. That wreaks metabolic and hormonal havoc on your system.
- Intestinal bacteria of the wrong kind feast on sugars and simple carbohydrates, throwing off your internal ecology.
- Foods derived from grains, such as bread or pasta, provide the building blocks of pro-inflammatory molecules in your body. If your diet is too grain-based, you’ll be predisposed to be in an inflamed state. Inflammation is at the root of modern degenerative diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, and dementia.
- Many people are sensitive to gluten, the major protein of wheat and other grains.
- Sugars and simple carbohydrates are absorbed rapidly into your bloodstream, so it’s easy to generate too high a peak in your blood sugar level followed by a crash.
If you cut back on sugars and grains, your diet is bound to be lower in carbohydrates. Sure, you’ll still be consuming carbohydrates in the form of starchy roots and tubers (potatoes, squash, and the like.) But your total carbohydrate intake will probably be lower.
What about exercise as a part of losing weight?
One benefit of exercise is that you burn calories. For example, a 175-pounder walking 3.5 miles per hour (a fast walking pace, though slow for race-walking) burns about 225 calories per hour. If you do that every day, it will make a significant long-term difference.
But there’s another important reason to exercise. Muscle tissue has a high baseline metabolic rate, so building muscle helps you lose weight. Focus on types of exercise that build muscle, such as resistance training, and the extra muscle will continue to give you dividends even when you’re not using it.
In addition to high intensity exercise that will help you gain muscle, build in as much activity throughout your day as possible. Stand at your desk instead of sitting. Take the stairs instead of the escalator. Park in the parking slot furthest from the store. Take a walk at lunchtime. These small habits, multiplied over the weeks and months, will make a significant difference.
Isn’t it hard to lose weight and keep it off? Don’t most dieters eventually balloon back up again?
Extreme dieting to achieve rapid weight loss usually doesn’t work. Nor does a diet that relies on peculiar combinations of foods that won’t sustain you nutritionally in the long run. If you lose weight with these types of strategies, there’s a good chance your success will be only temporary.
But the odds are good that with a sensible diet plan you can lose about 10% of your body weight and keep at least 5% of the weight off over the long run.
If you’re 40, 50, or more pounds overweight, losing a mere 10% may not seem like much. But it can be an effective initial goal to shoot for.
For one thing, the health value of even a modest weight loss is tremendous. Also, once you’ve proven to yourself you can lose the first 10%, you can continue with your new healthier eating habits to achieve your next weight-loss goal.
What about protein powder shakes to help me lose weight?
They’re a good idea.
Meal replacement shakes don’t have magical properties to help you lose weight, but they can be used effectively. Find a high quality protein powder to mix into a shake and use it as a substitute for one or even two meals a day.
One of the reasons this strategy works is that it’s easy to follow. Research shows that people stick with a diet more consistently if it structures your eating choices for you.
A second benefit to meal replacement shakes is that the extra protein you consume will help build muscle. The more muscle you’ve got, the higher your baseline metabolic rate, and the easier it will be to continue losing weight.
What about weight loss groups?
Group weight loss programs are effective. There are two main reasons.
One reason is that any structured approach to eating is easier to follow and that makes it more likely that you’ll stick with it.
A second reason is the social support. You may be able to create your own social network for weight-loss support by connecting with friends or family members who share your goals or who could serve as your cheering section. Weight-loss support groups are an effective alternative.
Now you know 90% of what you need to know to lose weight effectively and keep it off. The next steps are up to you:
- Make a commitment to a reasonable weight loss goal.
- Take small, consistent steps toward your goal.
- Track your progress.
- Create a support network for yourself.
- Reward yourself as you achieve mileposts (and not with a brownie!)
- Keep learning more about nutrition and your own relationship with food
Deepen Your Body of Knowledge
Suppers Program — social support for those seeking a healthier diet