By Rob Saint Laurent, MEd
Despite a nearly 70-billion dollar industry built around it, expanding waistlines in the US and their subsequent health problems (cardiovascular, joint-related, etc.) remain a growing concern.
According to data from the ongoing National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, roughly 33 percent of US adults aged 20 and up are overweight, 38 percent are obese and eight percent extremely obese; while the most susceptible ethnicities are Hispanic, non-Hispanic White and non-Hispanic black. 1
Among nations, the US and Mexico seem to be vying for top honors as the fattest nation in the world, say various surveys.
As explained by the National Institutes of Health’s Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease (NIDDK), contributing factors for weight gain in adults and children include heredity, poor eating, and sleeping habits, and sedentary lifestyle—a primary driver being screen time (computers, phones, TV).2
Additionally, medical conditions and medications, geographic location (which can limit access to healthy food and safe places to recreate) and local culture carry significant weight.2
With the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicting nearly half of all Americans will be obese by 2030, how can individuals avoid becoming a statistic of modern living?3
In a word: lifestyle.
In weight loss, seemingly small changes can confer big dividends. The following are proven ways to accomplish much with relatively little pain:
Break the fast
Studies show regular breakfast eaters have lower body mass indexes and better mental performance whereas those who skip end up eating more throughout the day. (Body mass index is determined by a person’s weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared. While not accounting for body fat percentage, normal weight is considered a BMI of 18.5-24.9, overweight 25-29.9 and obesity 30 or higher.4)
Cut the sugar
An addictive and fattening substance, added sugars are sugar added during food processing (sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, etc.). The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams per day for women and 38 for men; yet, the average American consumes almost 57 pounds annually, or about 71 grams daily—“way too much,” says the University of California San Francisco. Cut back by eliminating common offenders: sugary beverages such as soda, alcoholic mixed drinks (watch alcohol calories in general), and fruit juice; energy and sports drinks, unless diluted or following an intense workout (preferably without food dyes); and low-quality breakfast/snack and protein bars (check the labels for ingredients).
Instead of sweetened beverages, drink more water which is the only true thirst quencher. Moreover, often when we think we’re hungry, we’re thirsty. When we’re not getting enough water, the body can confuse hunger with thirst.
Consider green tea. Studies show that three to five cups daily of green tea can augment weight loss due to its high polyphenol antioxidant content. (Be sure to let the tea leaves/bag steep for five minutes to maximize polyphenol content.) Because green tea doesn’t dehydrate, it can be drunk in place of the equivalent volume of water.
Eat more (healthy) fats, and fiber Fats provide greater satiety that can prevent overeating. Healthy monounsaturated sources are avocados and olives/olive oil (be wary of using too much oil), while healthy polyunsaturated choices are salmon, sardines, and nuts. Similarly, eating whole fruit and fibrous vegetables (including soups), whole versus refined grains, as well as a protein with each meal, can suppress appetite for junk foods.
Consistent, mindful eating
Eating at regular times allows for proper digestion and a healthy colon. Dinner should be the last meal of the day, ideally 8-12 hours from breakfast and no less than two to three hours from bedtime. Experts suggest eating any dessert shortly after supper, then brushing one’s teeth as a reminder not to eat anything more. At the same time, focusing on the meal and not engaging in any other task can help avoid overeating, as can eating slowly to prevent spikes in blood sugar/insulin hormone and allow the stomach time to communicate satiety to the brain.
By sleeping at least seven hours, stress hormones that can make it difficult to lose weight are kept at bay. At the same time, less time awake means less time to eat.
Every step counts
Simple examples of ways to increase physical activity are parking farther away, taking the stairs, pacing while on the phone, and wearing a pedometer with a goal of 10,000 steps per day. Regarding structured exercise, for those motivated, the best type is the one you enjoy most and will do.
Just 100 calories avoided or expended each day with these simple behaviors could add up to double-digit weight loss by this time next year.
Notably, a study in the British Medical Journal found that among 60,000 people, three behaviors were associated with lower obesity incidence and leaner waistlines: a slower eating pace, no after-dinner snacks, and not eating within two hours of bedtime.5
BY THE NUMBERS
While experts say slow weight loss tends to be more permanent, a more structured approach may be desired by those with less patience and greater weight loss needs.
Carson Chow, Ph.D. and Kevin Hall, Ph.D., both senior investigators in the mathematical biology section at the NIDDK, devised a novel approach to determining optimal caloric intake with a simple online calculator called the Body Weight Planner.6 Incorporating complex mathematical data, the BWP can enable a more precise determination of how much to scale back on portions—without giving up one’s favorite foods.
In describing the views of Chow and Hall, dietician Denise Webb, PhD, RD writes: “Both Chow and Hall believe that taking active control of food consumption may be required to limit the long-term increase in energy intake that typically occurs, especially in the face of the dramatic rise in availability and marketing of highly palatable, convenient, inexpensive, and energy-dense foods.”7
Though the BWP has been “validated repeatedly,” weight loss via the tool is still a slow process and requires staying power, say the researchers, especially with a sedentary lifestyle.
Espoused by experts like P.K. Newby, ScD, MPH, MS of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, author of Food and Nutrition: What Everyone Needs to Know®, a plant-based diet is fundamental to good health—a conclusion based on thousands of studies.
Furthermore, a plant-based Mediterranean diet has been shown effective for weight loss when calories are controlled.
If one’s preferred foods are calorically dense (pizza, for instance), one or two “cheat” meals per week in which one may go beyond allotted daily calories can be advantageous, not just for maintaining motivated but also for keeping metabolism from slowing. (Or, adjust for the increase by eating less at other meals.)
It’s important to use the BWP to reassess calorie needs as one’s lifestyle changes (example, physical activity level increases or decreases). The BWP indicates a maintenance caloric intake once a target weight has been achieved.
STAYING ON TRACK
Certainly, eating can be a social occasion, and life often gets in the way. Nevertheless, a degree of self-restraint is part and parcel to a healthy lifestyle.
What are some ways to better self-discipline in a society of abundance?
Environmental (stimulus) controls
Removing sources of temptation is essential, instead of stocking one’s pantry with healthy foods. When eating out, avoid all-you-can-eat restaurants or eat a protein snack beforehand. When at a buffet party, or in any eating situation, it’s advisable to wait about 20 minutes and drink water before considering seconds for satiety signals to reach the brain.
Writing it down
Keeping a food journal, even if just temporarily, can truly help in acknowledging one’s actual intake. Today, apps such as MyFitnessPal can make the process easier by scanning the barcode of foods into one’s phone.
Feeding the hungry
Helping those without enough could serve to keep the giver grounded through better self-awareness of overindulgence.
If you do go off track, it’s important not to get discouraged. For many trying to form new health habits, recidivism is cyclical as they journey through stages of behavior change (pre-contemplation contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance).
With perseverance, a terminal point is eventually reached in which a healthy habit becomes cemented into the psyche and relapsing wanes.
If weight loss goals aren’t being met, however, it’s wise to seek counseling from a registered dietician or other healthcare professional.
3. Kollmeyer, B. (2017, May 29). The US is the most obese nation in the world, just ahead of Mexico. MarketWatch.
5. Hurst, Y. & Fukuda, H. (2018). Effects of changes in eating speed on obesity in patients with diabetes: a secondary analysis of longitudinal health check-up data. BMJ Open, 8(1), e019589.
7. Webb, D. Farewell to the 3,500-Calorie Rule. Today’s Dietician, 26(11), 36.