At any time, as many as half of all Americans are on a diet. (And millions of others think they should be.) Those who manage to lose weight often struggle to keep it off.
In an effort to help you maintain a healthy weight, here are some of the most common questions asked of nutrition and weight management 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. Many people, however, are not very clear on portion sizes. That's why you may have to measure and weigh your foods until you can recognize a typical portion by sight. For a couple of weeks, use measuring cups, spoons and a food scale to measure out exact quantities of all the food you eat. In time, you'll recognize what a half-cup of rice or 3 ounces of meat looks like and you can stop measuring.
Where and how you eat are important, too. If you eat while watching TV or talking on the phone, you may be consuming more than you realize. Or maybe you eat certain foods just because they're there, like from those oh-so-convenient vending machines.
A lot of overeating has more to do with habit than hunger. If you're an overeater, it's important to figure out what triggers your eating. Then you can take steps to eliminate them.
Here are some steps you can take to start improving your eating behavior:
- Keep a food diary that includes the following:
- When you eat
- What you eat
- Where you eat
- Plan your meals.
- Eat slowly. Put your fork down between mouthfuls, or at least swallow what's in your mouth before loading up the fork again.
- Have celery and carrots on hand to eat.
- Don't buy "temptation" foods.
- At home, eat only in the kitchen or dining room. (This can help keep you from overeating while watching TV or doing other activities.)
- Say "no" to second helpings and to problem foods.
- Avoid boredom eating. Post reminders on the refrigerator and cupboards of other activities you can do instead of 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.
A good diet provides all the nutrients you need and enough calories — typically 1,200 to 1,800 — to minimize hunger and maintain your energy level. How many calories you need will vary depending upon your level of activities. The diet should also focus on slow and gradual weight loss. About one pound per week is ideal. That's a reduction of about 500 calories per day. (Faster weight loss may be appropriate in some cases, but only do so under medical supervision). Regular moderate exercise should be part of any weight loss program.
To succeed, your plan 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. Avoid developing a special menu for yourself. Modify and adapt your needs to the meal pattern for the rest of the family.
Aerobic exercises (bicycling, swimming, running, dancing, walking) drain body fat reserves while increasing oxygen uptake; they are an important part of weight management. Benefits include 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 pitfall of skipping breakfast, eating little or no lunch and then stuffing down a large dinner. A three-meal-a-day pattern requires retraining for some people, but this will help in weight management.
Commercial weight-loss programs have sprung up everywhere. In addition to national programs such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, smaller, local programs are probably available in your area. Whether these plans deliver depends to some degree on your expectations. Good programs provide support, but you need to do your part. Remember that no 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, ask questions. For example, if payment is required up front, ask about a money-back guarantee for dropouts. Ask about hidden costs. A costly and nonrefundable fee for a health assessment or the required purchase of specific company food can run up the tab far beyond the advertised cost. Ask about the long-term success of participants in achieving and maintaining weight loss.
Also, a good weight management 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
- Give you access to a professional staff experienced in weight control. (Check credentials. Qualified health professionals, such as registered dietitians, should design the program.)
What triggers my food cravings?
Everyone experiences food cravings. 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, the 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. 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 or look for products that are 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 and your doctor may want to consider additional measures, such as starting with a medically supervised, low-calorie liquid diet or a regimen of prescribed diet pills. These measures are not for everyone and are usually recommended for people who are very obese or have developed weight-related medical problems, such as diabetes or high-blood pressure. Liquid diets and diet pills can cause serious side effects and should only be used under the supervision of a doctor.
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. Stimulants and diuretics are potentially dangerous. Some stimulants have been associated with sudden death; diuretics can cause dehydration and irregular heart rhythms. With these products, you may lose weight at first, but you'll gain it back as soon as you stop the pills or the diet drinks if you haven't altered your eating habits.