Why Diets Don't Work

Before you set your cap on following yet another weight loss regime, consider that 90 percent of dieters who lose weight regain all or part of it within five years. Obviously, "dieting" is not the answer to slimming down permanently. Find out why and what the alternative is.

How Can I Lose Weight? We live in a society of instant gratification. People no longer have to work the fields for food -- we just open a package, zap the contents, and enjoy. Elevators have replaced climbing flights of stairs and cars spare us the trek to work, school or even the neighborhood market. We don't even have to budge for entertainment. We can just sit in front of the television or computer screen and the world comes to us. Convenient? Yes. Good for the waistline? No. Most of us have not compensated for the drastic reduction in physical activity and the increase in rich, processed foods. That may be why about 55 percent of Americans are overweight or obese today compared with 33 percent in the 1980s. Americans' expanding girth is not only a cosmetic concern--it's a major health problem. Obese people are at higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and certain types of cancer.

In their ongoing battle of the bulge, Americans are on a constant search for "magic bullets" to shed excess weight. But fad regimens, like the cabbage soup diet or the nothing-but-grapefruit diet, don't work because they are temporary measures that are impossible and unhealthy to maintain. Sure, any drop in the number of calories you eat will result in weight loss. But as soon as you go back to your normal eating habits, the pounds will creep--or leap--back on. And depriving yourself of food for long periods of time only makes your body hang on to its precious fat stores more stubbornly. The truth is that permanent weight loss takes time and requires a change in eating and exercise habits.

What is a Diet?

The term "diet" has come to mean reducing the number of daily calories by choosing from a special or limited selection of food and drink. The original meaning of the word, however, refers to whatever a person usually consumes. In other words, your daily fare is your diet.

When health experts recommend that everyone adopt a "healthy diet," they're not telling people to starve themselves but encouraging them to create balanced eating habits based on a variety of foods. The best advice--and the easiest to follow--is to plan your meals so that your main dishes are made mostly from vegetables, dried beans and peas, and grain products (i.e. bread, pasta, rice and cereals). Also, eat plenty of fruits. Meat and milk products should be eaten as smaller side dishes. These proportions will help lower your fat intake and increase the amount of fiber in your diet, both of which have been shown to decrease risk for many types of conditions, including heart disease, and breast and colon cancer.

What are Calories?

A calorie is the amount of heat necessary to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree Celsius. When we speak of food calories, we are referring to the amount of food that the body needs to produce one unit of energy. Calories are the energy necessary for life, and the body burns a great deal of them just to maintain its normal functions. Everything from breathing and digestion to moving your finger burns calories.

But, calorically speaking, not all foods are created equal. One gram of fat contains 9 calories, while one gram of protein or carbohydrate has about 4 calories. That's why fatty foods make it easier for people to gain weight. Another reason is that fat is ready to be immediately stored as fat by your body, while carbohydrates have to be converted into fat.

You may have also heard the term "empty calories." This refers to foods, such as alcohol and sugar, that provide calories with little nutritional value. Empty calories are best kept to a minimum since they provide few or no vitamins, minerals or proteins, but do increase your caloric intake.

What is Metabolism?

Metabolism is the method by which your body processes food into energy and then uses that energy. If you imagine that food is like wood and your metabolism is like fire, then calories are the heat that burning the wood produces. The number of calories your body needs to maintain its basic functions is known as your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). You can estimate your BMR by multiplying your current weight (in pounds) by ten for women, 11 for men. For example, a woman who weighs 130 pounds would require 1,300 calories per day just to maintain her bodily functions. In addition, she'll need some percentage of calories above her BMR to provide energy for daily activities (walking, vacuuming, exercising, etc.). That percentage varies widely depending on a person's activity level. Moderately fit and active people might need 30-50 percent calories above their BMR to maintain their current weight. Those who are very fit and exercise frequently might burn as much as 100-200 percent more than their BMR, which means they have to eat about two to four times as much as the average person just to maintain their weight.

What Role Does Exercise Play?

Exercise is absolutely essential to keep body fat down. Simply being thin doesn't guarantee that you are healthy and in good shape. Even slim people can have too much fat and not enough muscle tissue (muscle-to-fat ratio).

There are two types of exercise: aerobic and anaerobic. Both play important roles in shedding pounds and maintaining a desired weight. Aerobic exercise--sustained, rhythmic movement for at least 20 minutes--improves the ability of your heart, lungs and blood vessels to use oxygen. Aerobic exercise spurs your body to burn fat efficiently for energy. That is because oxygen is an essential ingredient in metabolism. Jogging, swimming, biking, aerobic dancing and cross-country skiing are all forms of aerobic exercise.

To benefit from aerobic activities it is important to exercise at an intensity vigorous enough to increase your heart rate and breathing. For best results, you should maintain your heart rate within the recommended target zone while you exercise, which is 60 to 75 percent of the maximum heart rate recommended for someone your age (to figure out your maximum heart rate subtract your age from 220). If you exercise above your target zone, your body will stop burning fat for energy and start burning glucose (sugar).

To see if you are within your target zone, take your pulse at intervals during exercise. Count your heart beats for 10 seconds and multiply by six (or for 6 seconds and multiply by ten). A simpler way to tell if you are working out at an appropriate level is to try to talk out loud. You should have enough breath to speak without gasping, but not enough to sing.

Anaerobic exercises, such as weight lifting, sit-ups and push-ups, improve muscular strength. Stronger muscles will help you keep going longer during your aerobic activities, lower your chances of injury, and help support your skeletal structure. Best of all, muscle tissue needs more calories to maintain itself, so the more muscle you have the higher your BMR will be.

How Can I Lose Weight?

If you want to lose weight, you'll have to take in fewer calories than you use up. You can do this either by cutting your dietary intake or by increasing your activity level. A combination of both, with an emphasis on increasing your activity level, is the best choice.

When cutting down on calories, aim for the amount needed daily to maintain your goal weight, not your current weight. Keep in mind, however, that your body is smart and programmed to survive. If you deprive it of the necessary calories, your body will think you are in the middle of a famine and will do its best to keep you from dying of hunger. By going into "starvation mode," the body lowers your metabolic rate (the rate at which you burn calories) in order to preserve energy and your fat reserves. Then it will consume your muscles before it will start on your fat stores because muscle tissue requires the most calories.

The only way to outsmart your body is to lower your caloric intake moderately and increase your activity level as much as possible. Exercising and eating sufficient calories (most health experts recommend that women eat at least 1,200 calories per day, men 1,600) will keep your body burning fat instead of muscle.

Finally, don't underestimate the importance of setting realistic goals. Researchers have found that the body wants to maintain its weight, so drastic drops make it harder to keep the pounds off. Try losing about 10 percent of your body weight and keeping it off for a year. Then lose another 10 percent, and so on until you reach your ideal weight.

These recommendations definitely do not fit into the quick fix category. But think of how great it will be to put an end to the deprivation and starvation that fad diets require and how healthy and self-confident you will feel as the pounds slowly--but surely--melt away.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans

These guidelines, published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, reflect dietary practices that nutrition authorities agree have a positive impact on health:
  • Eat a wide variety of foods.
  • Choose a diet low in fat (less than 30 percent of calories, with less than 10 percent coming from saturated fat) and cholesterol.
  • Use sugars, salt and sodium, and drink alcohol, only in moderation.
  • Eat the recommended number of servings per day of each food group. (See chart below: the smaller servings are for short, inactive women, the larger ones for tall, active men).
Food Group Number of Servings What is a Serving
Breads, cereals, rice and pasta 6 to 11 servings 1 slice of bread; 1 ounce of ready-to-eat cereal; 1/2 cup of cooked cereal, rice or pasta
Vegetables 3 to 5 servings 1 cup of raw leafy vegetables; 1/2 cup of other vegetables, cooked or chopped raw; 3/4 cup of vegetable juice
Fruits 2 to 4 servings 1 medium apple, banana or orange; 1/2 cup of chopped, cooked or canned fruit; 3/4 cup of fruit juice
Milk, yogurt and cheese 2 to 3 servings 1 cup of milk or yogurt; 1-1/2 ounces of natural cheese; 2 ounces of processed cheese
Meats, poultry, fish, dried beans and peas, eggs and nuts 2 to 3 servings 2-3 ounces of cooked lean meat, poultry or fish (a 3 ounce piece of meat is about the size of an average hamburger or the amount of meat on a medium chicken breast half); count 1/2 cup of cooked dry beans, 1 egg, or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter as 1 ounce of meat (about 1/3 of a serving)

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