Weight loss is always high on most people’s New Year’s resolution list. For something that is desired by so many of us, it is surprising how difficult it is to achieve and how controversial or ineffective the proposed methods are.
Half of all Americans ages 20 and over say they’ve attempted to lose weight in the past year. Exercising more and eating less are the two top strategies people use to try to lose weight. Yet so often, we fail.
Our focus needs to shift to healthy living as opposed to weight loss alone. No single diet can be recommended for everyone, because — and you knew this already — what works for one person may not work for another.
Of all the individual diet programs out there, Weight Watchers (now called WW, to move the emphasis away from weight loss) seems to be more effective than others, at least according to US News & World Reports.
Noom is a more recent (and expensive) addition to the behavioral change and app-integrated weight-loss arena.
What these programs recognize is that weight loss is more than just counting calories (or, as is the case in the WW system, points). Weight loss requires behavioral change, community and a lifestyle of eating healthier and moving more.
Though we don’t know enough about the genetics involved in weight loss and weight gain, the observation that some people have to work harder than others to stay thin or lose weight appears to be supported by scientific data.
Apart from genetics, some people’s intestines are 50% longer than others. (Shorter guts absorb fewer calories.) Differences in gut microbiomes can alter how people process food. Cooking increases digestion of food and absorption of calories.
All of this means that just counting calories is not the answer to weight loss.
The old adage calories in, calories out is simply false. That’s because a calorie is not a calorie. If that were the case, a diet of doughnuts alone would be fine. But it turns out the rate your body absorbs calories may be as important as the amount of calories you take in.
In other words, that sugary doughnut hits our bloodstream far faster than calories from more complex carbohydrates or from fat and protein. And, those quickly absorbed sugars are far more likely to create body fat — and make you paradoxically hungrier in the process.
For years, the culprit of the obesity epidemic was thought to be dietary fat. Low-fat, high-carb diets were all the rage. Only recently has it come to light that sugar companies secretly funded studies designed to blame fat for making us fat.
But low-fat, high-carb diets didn’t work; we kept getting fatter. For an entire polemic on the subject, check out ‘‘The Case Against Sugar’’ by Gary Taubes. It is enough to scare anyone off sugar.
That is not to say that we know for certain the extent to which sugar is responsible for the obesity epidemic. Gina Kolata, writing in the New York Times, notes that a number of societal factors may have contributed to the obesity epidemic, from growing portion sizes, the popularity of restaurants and fast food, snacking, the cultural acceptance of obesity and even the decline in smoking. The science is not settled.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t watch what you eat. Keeping a food diary can help you understand what and how much you are eating and the types of calories you are consuming.
A study of nearly 1,700 participants showed the best predictors of weight loss were how frequently food diaries were kept and how many support sessions the participants attended. Those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records.
I wrote about my so-called Bar Code Diet many years ago and that if I couldn’t scan it or enter it into my phone, I didn’t put it in my mouth. That — along with regular exercise with a group of friends, who kept me accountable — did help me lose weight and keep it off.
What can you do realistically on your own and without added expense?
1. Keep a food diary. You may not be aware of just what you consume in a given day. For the technologically savvy, phone apps like MyFitnessPal and Lose It! can be helpful. Remember, some days you may have more success than others. Just keep going.
2. Avoid high fructose corn syrup and sugary drinks, and cut your daily sugar intake significantly. Having an occasional celebratory dessert is fine. But make it a rare and portion-controlled treat, if for no other reason than sugary foods are seductive and lead to overeating.
3. Focus on overall healthy behaviors, eating fewer processed foods, and increasing physical activity as opposed to weight loss, per se. That includes avoiding smoking and excess alcohol intake as well as taking advantage of a host of other preventive, screening and early detection programs. Weight is just a number; health is a lifestyle.
4. Be a part of a community or small group. Accountability — both for diet and exercise — is a great motivator and reinforcer. Fat shaming doesn’t work; encouragement and support does.
Emphasizing physical activity and healthy behaviors at all ages is key to reducing morbidity and improving health outcomes in communities.
Far from ignoring obesity, when we emphasize a lifestyle that includes awareness and adjustment of eating habits and sets exercise goals (such as increasing walking speed, strength gains, etc.), our overall health — and the health of our community — will improve. And you know what? We will lose weight along the way.