Weight Management Answers
July 18, 2003
At any time, as many as half of all Americans are on a diet (while millions of others think they should be). Even those who manage to lose weight often struggle to keep it off, often because they don't know the answers to successful weight management. There is no shortage of questions, however, and here are some of the most common ones asked of nutrition 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, but you may have to measure and weigh all your foods at first until you can recognize a typical portion by sight. For a couple of weeks, use measuring cups and spoons and a food scale to measure out exact quantities of all the food you eat. After a while, you'll know what a half-cup of rice or 3 ounces of meat looks like and you can stop measuring.
Besides portions, where and how you eat are important factors: Do you eat while watching TV or talking on the phone, or every time you pass the vending machine at work? Maybe you eat certain foods just because they're there. Although triggers vary for different people, they usually have more to do with habit than hunger. If you're an overeater, it's important to figure out the cues that trigger problem eating and then take steps to eliminate them. The following is a list of steps you can take to start improving your eating behavior:
o Keep a food diary that includes when, what, where and why you eat. The diary will help you identify your eating triggers and patterns.
o Plan and eat regular meals.
o Eat slowly. Put your fork down between mouthfuls, or at least swallow what's in your mouth before loading up the fork again.
o Have celery and carrots on hand and ready to eat all the time.
o Save foods from regular meals to have as snacks.
o Don't buy "temptation" foods in the first place.
o At home, eat only in one place, in one room. The best place, of course, is the dining table.
o Practice saying "no" to second helpings and offerings of problem foods.
o Avoid boredom eating by keeping reminders of other activities visible. Keep a list handy of things to do besides 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 in the long run.
A good diet provides all the nutrients you need and enough calories ā typically 1,200 to 1,800--to keep you from getting hungry or tired. Daily energy intake will vary with daily activities. The diet should also focus on slow and gradual weight loss--about one pound per week (a reduction of approximately 500 calories per day, unless medically supervised, when faster weight loss may be appropriate). Some form of regular moderate exercise is an integral part of a weight loss program.
To succeed in sticking to your plan, it 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. Aerobic exercises, including bicycling, swimming, running, dancing or walking are activities that drain body fat reserves while increasing oxygen uptake; they are an important adjunct to weight management. Benefits include suppressed appetite, 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 pattern of no breakfast, little or no lunch and a large dinner. A three-meal-a-day pattern may require retraining for some but will help in weight management. Moreover, avoid developing a special menu for yourself. Modify and adapt your needs to the meal pattern for the rest of the family.
Commercial weight-loss programs have sprung up everywhere. In addition to national programs such as Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and Diet Center, smaller, local programs are probably available in your area. But whether these plans deliver depends to some degree on your expectations. Good programs provide support, but be prepared to do your part. Remember, also, that no one 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, go beyond the brochures and ask questions. For example, if payment is required up front, ask about a money-back guarantee for dropouts and check hidden costs. A steep nonrefundable fee for a health assessment or the required purchase of company food can run up the tab far beyond the advertised cost. Ask about the long-term success of their participants in achieving and maintaining weight loss.
Also, a good 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; and have a professional staff experienced in weight control. (Check credentials. The program should be designed by a qualified health professional, such as a registered dietitian. It's also helpful if the staff has some professional background).
What if I need to gain weight?
If you're 15 percent or more below normal weight for height, you're considered underweight. The first thing you should do is consult a doctor to make sure there's no underlying medical reason for your low weight. The doctor might recommend a weight gain diet and might also suggest cutting down on the amount of your exercise.
To gain weight, add about 500 to 1,000 calories a day to your regular diet. Add the extra calories gradually, however, so you don't upset your stomach. Plan to have regularly scheduled meals and allow enough to time to eat in a relaxed fashion. Snacking between meals can help. Liquid supplements with or between meals add calories without adding a lot of bulk to your diet.
What triggers my food cravings?
Everyone experiences food cravings once in a while. 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 ā 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. But 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 and look for versions 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 may need to take more extreme measures, such as starting with a medically supervised, low-calorie liquid diet or a regimen of prescribed diet pills. But these measures are not for everyone and are usually recommended for people who are extremely obese or have developed weight-related medical problems, such as diabetes or high-blood pressure. Both liquid diets and diet pills can cause serious side effects and should only be started under the supervision of a doctor. Avoid dependence on medications aimed at appetite control.
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. Diuretics can cause dehydration and heart problems. And even though you might lose weight at first, you'll gain it right back as soon as you stop the pills or the diet drinks if you haven't altered your eating habits. Many of these products are dangerous for people with certain medical conditions, such as thyroid disease and high blood pressure. Read the warning labels on the package.