Body of Evidence


The scientific approach to weight loss might contradict everything you thought you knew about fat, carbs, and exercise.

For years, diet book authors, weight-loss gurus, and talk-show hosts have proposed a dizzying array of methods for shedding pounds.  There are juice fasts, raw-food programs, and hypnosis techniques; you can eat like a Frenchwoman or a caveman; and according to one book, you can even binge one day and fast the next!    So much for the commonsense approach…

Weight loss happens in two stages that require two different approaches.  First, there’s the losing stage.  That’s all about food restriction.  There is no particular diet that seems to be more effective than another; it has more to do with individual preference—what you can stick with long-term.   The weight-loss stages last an average of three to six months.  We use 10 percent of body weight as a reasonable goal.  After six months, if you get there, you’re a success story.  If you haven’t lost all of the weight you want to lose at six months, it’s best to take several months to maintain the weight you’ve shed, then try another six-month diet.

Exercise has many health and emotional benefits, but it doesn’t make a huge difference when it comes to weight loss.  You can restrict your food intake by 500 or 1,000 calories starting tomorrow, but you have to work out for a very long time, or at a very high intensity, to burn as many calories. Most people overestimate the number of calories they’ve burned during a workout.  Maintenance is when exercise becomes more important.  By burning a few hundred calories each day, you can eat a little bit more, which makes the diet tolerable and easier to maintain.  Exercise helps you find a healthy balance between calories you consume and calories you burn.  Successful dieters typically exercise a lot: 60-90 minutes per day.  They prioritize daily, vigorous exercise.

Other habits of successful dieters include the tendency to weigh themselves on a regular basis to help stay on track.  They also keep food diaries or count calories.  These monitoring techniques help them stay on track and develop solutions to situations that hinder their success.  And these folks are seven-day-a-week breakfast eaters.  Eating a meal first thing helps to better manage hunger.  The typical pattern of obese individuals is to skip breakfast, have a light lunch, and eat a lot from late afternoon on.  Another habit of those who are successful is they don’t ‘drink’ their calories.  Over the past 30 years, Americans have added about 217 calories per day to their diets in fluids; we consume around one fifth of our calories from beverages.  And we don't cut our food intake to compensate.  People are consuming sports drinks and vitamin waters and think they’re getting healthy, but all they’re doing is getting fat.  Most vitamin-enhanced drinks are essentially high carbohydrate fructose and sucrose water.  You don’t absorb most of the vitamins, and the ones you do absorb, like vitamin C, are plentiful in our diets anyway.   You’re better off eating an orange. 

The diet industry has everyone believing that the fat in our diets was making us gain weight, but it’s extra calories, no matter the source, that add the pounds.   People who eat a lot of fatty foods tend to weigh more because fat is more caloric, ounce for ounce, than other foods.   But this is a portion-control issue.  You can’t overeat any food and expect to lose weight.  Weight loss does take effort, but as with any project, it also takes a plan.  You can set yourself up for success.  For example, if you’re starving when you get home and go right for the refrigerator, have a snack in the car on the way home and then when you arrive go for a walk.  And only keep healthy foods on hand at home:  if it’s not there, you can’t eat it!

The biggest misconception about dieting is that you can be any weight you want.  The average weight loss is 5-10% of body weight.  Weight is regulated by a complex set of systems in your body, and those are difficult to change.  Every person’s body is geared to be a certain weight, within a range of 20 pounds or so.  Usually the lowest weight you were as an adult is a good indication of your low point.   We’re now beginning to understand how stress, genetics and medication affect insulin resistance and other factors predicting our success with weight management.  More to come!

Source:  Ginny Graves