It’s January, which means advertisements for diets and diet-related products are everywhere. While it may be tempting to try out the eating plan or supplement you saw on tv that promised that you could lose weight quickly while eating fast food all day and never really leaving your couch, most of these plans and products are too good to be true – and likely not very safe. How can you sort out the good from the not-so-good when it comes to diets and supplements specially-designed for weight loss? Here’s a list of questions to ask yourself when it comes to choosing a weight-loss aid:
- Does it sound too good to be true? Does it promote rapid weight loss or promise results without having to make dietary, exercise, or lifestyle changes?
- Does it involve a pill, cream or patch? Can you continue to eat whatever you want and not exercise and still see results?
- Does it over-emphasize restrictions on what you can or cannot eat? Are certain foods praised or criticized excessively?
- Does it eliminate certain foods or entire food groups? Are you prohibited from eating grains, dairy, or other major food groups or types of food due to the “evidence” against their consumption?
- Does it encourage fasting? Are you supposed to go hours or days with eating little to no food in order to “kickstart” your metabolism?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then the diet or product you’re considering is probably not a safe – or effective – option. The best diets are lifestyle-based, meaning they promote and encourage a balanced diet and regular exercise – without the use of any “extras” like specially-formulated supplements. They also are fairly easy to follow, have a high safety track record, don’t leave you feeling hungry, allow occasional room for foods you enjoy, and result in weight loss of about 1-2 pounds a week. If you’re in search of a better-for-you diet and are unsure of where to start, U.S. News and World Report just released their yearly Top Diet rankings. Whether you decide to look further into any of these diets or not, remember that the best diets are not actually diets at all – they’re lifestyles that you can sustain even after you’ve reached your desired weight.
Mindful eating is the practice of focusing all one’s attention and awareness on the food in front of them. It’s the exact opposite of the mindless eating we so often perform in front of the tv, in the car, at our desks, and anywhere else where our focus is on something other than food. Those who eat mindfully are better able to determine when they’re full, more likely to feel satisfied by the foods they eat, and therefore less likely to overeat. If you’d like to change your habits for the better and start eating more mindfully, here are some easy strategies to try:
- Eat your meals sitting down at a table rather than at your desk, in your car, or standing up.
- Eat away from your computer, tablet, smart phone, or tv.
- Eat in a quiet setting where you can clear your mind and focus only on your food.
- Place your silverware down between bites to help pace yourself.
- Chew your food slowly (ideally 15-20 times) before swallowing.
- Use your senses to fully experience the food you’re eating – smell your food, taste it, and notice its textures.
When you make a conscious effort to eat mindfully, you’ll probably enjoy your food more and end up eating less of it – a win-win situation for those focused on weight loss, weight maintenance, or healthy eating in general.
Thanksgiving’s a week away, which marks the start of what I like to call “holiday eating season.” If you’re like me, your days, nights, and weekends during the next six weeks will be filled with festivities that center around food. While there are plenty of ways to take the focus off of food this holiday season, we all know that sometimes food-centric events are inevitable. However, these events don’t have to mean the end of your healthy eating habits – nor should they be the beginning of a self-imposed regimen of deprivation.
A healthy way to look at all of the parties at work, home, or friends’ houses is as an opportunity to enjoy the season while challenging yourself to maintain your current weight. This means you have room for regular indulgences, as long as you also incorporate time for regular exercise and balance out those indulgences with healthier options. When you embrace the holiday season for all that it is – a time for socialization, good will, happiness, and all sorts of other positive emotions – you’re less likely to get hung up on the occasional “cheat day” and more likely to stick with healthy eating and activity patterns the rest of the time.
So how can you apply the concept of “maintain – don’t gain” during the next six weeks? Here are some easy ways to enjoy the season without doing too much damage to all the healthy habits you follow the rest of the year:
- Play favorites. When you first enter a party, scope out all of the food options available before filling your plate. Once you have an idea of which foods you’d most like to eat, put them on your plate first, making sure to take large helpings of healthy options and smaller servings of less-healthy items. Filling your plate with foods you know you’re going to enjoy helps prevent you from consuming excess calories from foods you threw on your plate “just because” that you feel you have to eat.
- Health-ify it. Not-so-nutritious meals can be made healthier by adding healthy options alongside them. Aim to include at least one (non-deep-fried) vegetable or fruit to every meal and snack. Is pizza on the menu at your office party? Make sure to accessorize your slices with a heaping helping of salad. Tempted by your Grandmother’s famous pecan pie? Have a small slice alongside a bowl of fresh fruit. Not only will you get the beneficial vitamins and minerals your produce contains, you’ll also be adding a low-calorie, filling option to your plate, which will help prevent overindulging in higher-calorie foods.
- Work it out. Use gatherings as an excuse to recruit other health-minded individuals to burn off those extra calories with you. Go for a family walk before or after your meal or organize a friendly game of touch football. If you’re having fun being active as part of a group, your calorie-burning activities won’t feel like a chore. If group activity isn’t always an option, strike out on your own and incorporate brief walks whenever you can. Take a lap around the office every few hours, get up and talk to your coworkers instead of calling or emailing them, or walk to errands close by instead of driving. Little bouts of activity add up to increase calorie burn throughout the day.
- Try the pie. Let’s face it – most of us look forward to indulging in dessert at the end of a holiday meal. If you want a slice of pie, or a cookie, or whatever else on the dessert table tickles your fancy, go for it. Depriving yourself of a sought-after treat will only make you lose the willpower to make other healthy choices the rest of the day. Remember, however, that you don’t need to eat the whole pie or plate of cookies: It only takes three bites of any particular to feel satisfied, so stick to small portions of your favorite treats.
I often get asked about zero-calorie artificial and natural sweeteners. Many people view them as a way to kick a sugar craving without breaking the calorie bank, but questions and concerns about their safety abound. It’s easy to think that artificial sweeteners were designed for those looking to lose weight, but the truth is that they were actually created for an entirely different population – diabetics. While zero-calorie sweeteners can theoretically help with weight loss due the fact that they’re virtually calorie-free, studies show that people who consume beverages and other foods containing these sweeteners sometimes consume more sugar, and more calories, throughout the day. Artificial sweeteners can actually increase cravings for sugar (when you consume a food/drink containing these sweeteners, your tongue thinks you’re consuming sugar, but your brain knows you’re not and any cravings it has don’t go away) which in turn can increase sugar consumption. These sweeteners can also disrupt metabolism, which may affect the way your body burns calories. The body just wasn’t designed to process anything “artificial;” something similar to a chemistry experiment occurs in your body every time anything artificial is consumed.
That being said, some artificial sweeteners have better safety records than others. Sucralose, commonly sold as Splenda, has been shown to have the fewest side effects and negative health consequences than its counterparts, so it can technically be considered the “safest” of the bunch. Other sweeteners, like saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low) and aspartame (Equal) have been shown in studies to have negative health consequences; aspartame is known to be metabolized into formaldehyde, which seems like reason enough to avoid it. If you’re a diabetic and looking for an alternative to sugar, sucralose is probably your best bet.
Zero-calorie sweeteners that are derived from plants, like stevia (Truvia) and monk fruit extract, have been gaining in popularity due to the fact that they’re considered “natural.” However, these sweeteners were only recently approved by the FDA, and they’re so new to the market that isn’t enough research out there to prove that they’re safe. If you’re looking for a more natural way to sweeten your food and beverages, stick to small amounts of sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, molasses, or agave. Although they do contain calories, they taste sweeter, and keep blood sugar more stable, than regular sugar, so you won’t need to use as much of them to feel satisfied. And if you’re willing to use it in moderation, real sugar only contains 16 calories per teaspoon, so it can still have a place in a healthy, balanced diet.
When it comes to judging the success of a weight loss plan, the number on the scale says a lot – but it doesn’t paint the whole picture, and it shouldn’t be taken as the gold standard for measuring success. When you’ve set a goal to lose pounds, it’s easy think you need to constantly check to see how you’re progressing by stepping on the scale once a day. However, this practice can be harmful – not helpful – for a number of reasons. Daily weigh-ins can lead to developing an unhealthy obsession with your weight – it’s easy to become overly conscious of every calorie you consume and think that depriving yourself of food for a day can help offset the pound or two you seemed to have gained overnight. What a lot of people don’t realize, however, is that our weight can easily fluctuate by 1-2 pounds from one day to the next, and even from the morning to the evening, depending on what we eat and drink. Eating a heavy, sodium-filled meal for dinner can cause water retention, and as a result, extra pounds when you step on the scale the next morning, although this overnight weight gain is usually lost during the next few days as long as eating habits return to normal. So in general, weight gained from one day to the next is typically not something over which to stress – or obsess.
A more realistic way to gauge your weight loss success is to step on the scale once a week, on the same day, at the same time of day, and wearing a similar amount of clothing each week. This will give you the most accurate picture of how much weight you have gained or lost, and it may help you feel more at ease with your progress.
If you prefer to keep tabs on your progress more frequently, a better way to track success is to think about how you feel every day. Although losing pounds is important, if you feel good enough about yourself, then the number on the scale does not matter as much. Other healthy, accurate ways to keep tabs on your weight loss progress include keeping track of inches lost (from your waist, arms, etc.) and becoming aware of how your clothes fit. Losing inches from the right places, and going down a few pant sizes, are surefire signs that whatever you’re doing to lose weight is working.
A vegetarian diet, which excludes all meat, poultry, and fish (and in some cases, eggs and dairy products) has many health benefits, including a reduced risk of developing heart disease; hypertension; type 2 diabetes; and colon, ovarian, and breast cancers. In addition, people who follow vegetarian diets usually have an easier time controlling their weight. Many animal products are high in fat (particularly heart-unhealthy saturated fat), which is higher in calories than carbohydrates and protein, making it safe to assume that a diet that does not include animal products tends to be lower in calories.
You may be tempted to stop reading this post because, no matter how many calories or how much saturated fat it contains, you love meat and will never give it up. Well, I hope you’ll keep on reading, because I’m not telling you to give up meat, or any animal product, completely. You can still reap the benefits of following a vegetarian diet by doing so part-time.
“Flexible vegetarians,” or flexitarians, still eat meat, but only a few times a week. Although they aren’t completely meat-free, studies show that flexitarians still reap all of the benefits of full-time vegetarians, probably due to two factors: they are still significantly reducing their intake of meat, and the calories and saturated fat that come along with it; and they’re benefitting from the healthy foods they add to their diet in place of meat.
If you’re still hesitant to partially cut meat out of your diet, rest assured that flexitarianism isn’t a diet of exclusion; rather, it emphasizes including a variety of healthy foods that can take the place of the meat you might typically eat as part of a meal. These healthy additions include:
- High-protein meat alternatives (tofu, beans, lentils, peas, nuts and seeds, and eggs)
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Low-fat and fat-free dairy
- Herbs, spices, and other seasonings to enhance the flavor of your meals
Being a part-time vegetarian doesn’t sound so bad, now does it? If you’d like to give this style of eating a try, Dawn Jackson Blatner, a Chicago-based dietitian, has written a book all about it that includes guidelines and recipes. If you would prefer to ease into flexitarianism on your own, without a formal guide, all you have to do is start swapping out one meat-based dish at a time for a plant-based one. Instead of a beef burrito, try a bean burrito. Cook a Portobello mushroom cap instead of a hamburger the next time you fire up the grill. The possibilities – and the health benefits – of being a flexible vegetarian are seemingly endless!
It’s January, which means that New Year’s Resolutions to lose weight are still at the top of many people’s priority lists. I’ve written at length about the best diets (or, should I say, eating plans) out there, but I haven’t given much discussion to some of the worst.
Knowing which diets you should not follow is really just as important as knowing which diets you should. For every good diet out there, there are at least five bad ones, some of which are easier to spot than others. When deciding which eating plan you’ll choose to help you lose weight, beware of any diet that involves the following:
- Cutting out certain foods or food groups
- Fasting or following a strict eating schedule
- “Miracle pills”
- Consuming fewer than 1,200 calories a day
Any diets that include one or more of the above may put you at risk for nutrient deficiency; alter your metabolism in an unhealthy way; cause unwanted, potentially serious side effects; and leave your body without enough fuel to properly function. Cleanse, or detox, diets, about which I am occasionally asked, can contain all four of these diet deal-breakers, despite how healthy they sound.
The philosophy behind “cleansing” is simple – by replacing food with a special juice or water formulation, you will theoretically “recharge, renew, and rejuvenate” your body by clearing it of all toxins. Unlike some of the best diets to follow, like DASH or TLC, the rationale behind cleanse diets isn’t supported by scientific evidence; most of the “evidence” that supports these types of diets is psychological and spiritual, meaning it comes from people who have tried a cleanse diet and claim to have felt much better as a result.
Taking someone’s word for the effectiveness of a diet without scientific research to back it up is never a good idea. In most cases, the only scientific evidence behind these types of diets shows that they’re not effective, and not safe. What we do know about cleanses is that their proven effects are not weight loss and increased muscle mass but rather elimination of the good bacteria that keep our immune systems and digestive tracts working properly; nutrient deficiencies; low energy; increased muscle loss; and disruption of many of our body’s major metabolic processes.
Instead of depriving your body of the calories and nutrients it needs to function, try cleansing it the natural way by employing the strategy of clean eating, which simply involves eating minimally-processed foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. Think lots of whole fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, low-fat or fat-free dairy, and lean protein, with plenty of herbs and spices thrown in for flavor. By feeding your body the right types of foods, your metabolism will work more efficiently, you’ll experience increased energy, and you’ll actually feel satisfied by what you’re eating. That sounds much more fun than only subsisting on lemon water, doesn’t it?
If you’ve been to any of my weight management Lunch ‘n Learns, you’ll know that this is a trick question. Unfortunately, no magic bullet exists for fast and easy weight loss – there are no reliable studies that prove that pills, creams, and other “miracle cures” work, and most studies that are out there show that all of these fast fixes come with a handful of unpleasant, and often unsafe, side effects.
Many people experience short-term rapid weight loss the first few weeks after beginning new eating and exercise routines. This is due to the loss of water weight, which comes off quickly. There is only so much water weight to lose, and it takes a little bit more time to lose weight that’s due to excess fat, which is the weight that really matters if you want to improve your health. If you are in the process of losing weight, you can reasonably (and safely) expect to lose 1-2 pounds a week after that initial weight loss.
Even though 1-2 pounds a week may not seem like much, sustaining that type of weight loss is a big accomplishment, albeit one that takes a little work. The simplest way to keep losing weight is to make sure you are burning more calories (through exercise and daily activity) than you are consuming (through food and drink). Maintaining a calorie deficit of 500 each day (meaning you burn 500 more calories than you eat/drink) should result in one pound lost each week; a 1,000-calorie deficit should result in a weekly weight loss of two pounds.
Keeping track of how many calories you consume and burn each day isn’t quite as simple, but this becomes easy with practice, readily available tools, and an understanding of how your body works. The easiest way to track caloric intake is by keeping a food journal. This involves reading food labels to determine how many calories are in the foods you eat and the beverages you drink and keeping a log of every bit of food or beverage that enters your mouth. Some people enjoy using a paper food journal, while others prefer keeping track on their computer or smartphone with the help of an app like MyFitnessPal or CalorieCount. It doesn’t matter what method you choose – as long as you are aware of how many calories you’re truly consuming each day, you can begin to plan an activity routine that helps you burn a greater number of calories.
You may have used a calories-burned calculator on the WellMASS portal or other wellness website, and been discouraged by the fact that exercises like walking or yoga only burn about 300 calories an hour. The good news is that you don’t have to walk for 6 hours to burn more calories than you consume, as your body is doing some of the hard work for you without you even realizing it. That’s right – your body burns calories all day long, even when you’re sleeping. It needs calories to perform essential functions like breathing and digesting food. While the only surefire way to determine exactly how many calories you truly burn is to get tested in a laboratory, you can get a rough idea of how many calories you burn each day (factoring in light-to-moderate physical activity) by multiplying your weight by 15. You can then plan your caloric intake accordingly – subtract 500 from this number to lose a pound a week; subtract 1,000 to lose two pounds.
I could talk about weight loss all day, but I will save more of my tips for another time. I will leave you, though, with an insider secret on the one thing that actually has been shown to help achieve faster weight loss: yogurt. Enjoy!
As a nutritionist, I love food – the healthier, the better (90% of the time, at least). That being said, I also think it’s unhealthy to think about food constantly, to the point where cooking, shopping, and eating become chores and are no longer fun. So, right before the biggest food holiday of the year, I thought it would be an appropriate time to help you think about focusing on something other than food!
Yes, Thanksgiving does mark the start of a month-long period of get-togethers that center mainly around eating. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I encourage you to attend these get-togethers and eat the foods you enjoy there. What I don’t want you to do is obsess over everything that you eat, or feel like your whole world revolves around food for a month straight. While the holidays are a great excuse to gather together over a big meal, they’re also the perfect time to engage in non-food-related activities with your family and friends. Like most families, mine chooses to celebrate holidays with lots of turkey, mashed potatoes, and pie; this year, however, we’ll also be creating some new traditions that don’t involve food. Here’s what’s in store for my family this holiday season; maybe you can try some of these ideas with your own family or friends to make holiday gatherings a little less food-centric:
- Turkey Trots and Holiday Hustles. My husband has recently gotten into distance running, and he’s already signed up for a few holiday-themed races. On Thanksgiving morning, the first thing on his mind won’t be turkey and pie; rather, he’ll be thinking about the five miles he’s about to run in the Feaster Five road race. Not a runner? Most local races allow walkers to participate as well. It doesn’t matter how fast you run or walk; all that matters is you’re moving, and enjoying a holiday event that actually burns calories!
- Getting Crafty. Dessert is a big part of holiday celebrations in my family. And while we’ll still be enjoying dessert after our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, we won’t be making a big deal of it. This year, instead of gathering together for a full day of cookie-baking, the women in my family will be harnessing our creativity to make our own Christmas wreaths. Getting the family involved in a holiday craft is a great way to get in the spirit, foster togetherness, and create something that won’t have an effect on your waistline.
- Giving Back. My sister is passionate about volunteering, and she is looking forward to helping out at a local food pantry this holiday season. While serving those in need does involve food, it’s in the most selfless sense. Taking the time to think about what others don’t have, and all of things that you do have, is a great reminder of what the holiday season is really about.
Have you ever thought about the foods you eat when you’re stressed? There’s a good chance your eating habits are different when you’re under stress as opposed to when you’re relaxed and calm. If you notice that stress triggers cravings for comfort foods that are high in sugar, salt, or fat, you’re not alone – and there is science to back up why you eat the foods you do.
Stress causes an increase in the production of cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone.” Cortisol sends signals to our brains that tell us we need three types of foods in order to feel better: foods that contain sugar, foods that contain salt, and foods that contain fat – in other words, junk foods. These cravings are hard to resist, and oftentimes we easily give into them in the hopes of reducing our stress levels, or at least feeling better temporarily. If you’re constantly under stress, you may notice that your eating habits are not the only aspect of your life that’s changing – these new, unhealthy food choices, along with other cortisol-induced mechanisms that are beyond your control, can lead to unwanted weight gain.
It goes without saying that eating too much junk food that’s high in (empty) calories can cause you to gain weight. It’s rare to see someone eat healthier when their stress levels are high, so many people under constant stress gain weight due to their poor eating habits alone. However, even if you’re able to control your cravings under stress, the excess cortisol in your bloodstream may still cause you to gain (or have a hard time losing) weight. Cortisol has been shown to slow metabolism, so even if you’re eating the same things you were before you were stressed, thanks to cortisol, you won’t be burning calories as efficiently as you used to. You may be surprised if you gain weight without changing your eating habits, but you can probably blame stress, and cortisol, for the unwanted extra pounds.
Cortisol is a sneaky hormone – not only does it change our metabolism, but it changes where excess fat and weight are accumulated. Studies show that cortisol leads to an increase in abdominal fat by diverting any extra pounds we gain to our midsections. Abdominal fat is bad news – having excess weight around your waistline puts you more at risk for developing heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes, regardless of how much you weigh. Women with a waist size greater than 35 inches, and men with a waist size greater than 40 inches are considered “high risk;” having too much stress in your life may make it difficult to meet these cutoffs.
So can you do anything to prevent stress-related weight gain? Yes you can, by practicing healthy diet and exercise habits. You can still give into your stress-related food cravings in a healthy way by choosing natural sources of sugar (low-fat dairy, fruits, veggies); eating salty foods in small quantities; and sticking to heart-healthy unsaturated fats (avocados, most nuts, peanut butter, oily fish). You can help speed up your metabolism by exercising regularly. Although exercise may seem like the last thing on your mind when you’re under stress, it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself. Exercising for as little as ten minutes of a time (walking counts!) helps your body produce endorphins, feel-good hormones that directly counteract the effects of cortisol. Exercise also burns calories, so the more you move, the better.
Stress in life may be inevitable, but stress-related weight gain doesn’t have to be!