Tara Parker-Pope's recent piece in the New York Times Magazine ("The Fat Trap") has unleashed a firestorm of reaction. "Science is uncovering a painful truth about obesity," she writes, "that in the battle to lose weight and keep it off, our bodies are fighting against us." Central to her argument is an Australian study recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine. In a nutshell, researchers found that dieters experienced long-term hormonal and metabolic changes that made it very difficult not to regain the weight that they'd lost through dieting. Although Parker-Pope (who confesses to having her own weight struggles) tries hard to salvage some sense of hope and optimism, it's hard not to come away from her piece feeling that trying to lose weight is simply a waste of time.
But let's take a closer look at the research.
The Australian study cited in Parker-Pope's article was, by any measure, extreme. Each of its 50 patients ate just 500 calories a day. In other words, they suddenly cut their caloric intake by 75 to 85 percent. Is it any wonder that their bodies perceived this as an emergency -- and responded accordingly?
What this research really shows is that dieting is counter-productive -- and that extreme dieting is extremely counter-productive. That doesn't mean, however, that permanent weight loss is impossible.
An Alternative to Dieting
Let's say that you have 10, 20, or maybe even 50 pounds to lose. Forget for a moment about how you're going to lose that weight. Instead, picture yourself at your goal weight and shape. Really picture it! And now, think very seriously and specifically about what sorts of habits and lifestyle someone who spends their life in that kind of body would have. For example, to be a person who maintains a healthy body weight throughout life, you'd probably:
• Limit your intake of sweets, refined carbohydrates and fried foods. (Note: I didn't say "eliminate sweets, refined carbohydrates and fried foods.")
• Avoid eating in front of the television or computer.
• Eat more vegetables and fewer starches. (In other words, gravitate toward foods that fill you up for fewer calories.)
• Eat mindfully, taking the time to notice and appreciate both your food and your appetite.
• Stop at a single cocktail or glass of wine.
• Have fruit for dessert -- or no dessert, much of the time.
• Drink water or tea instead of soda or other sweetened beverages.
• Make time most days for a 20-30 minute walk.
• Make time on weekends to shop and do a little cooking so that you're not as dependent on takeout and prepared foods to get you through the busy week.
The Secret Is to Start at the Finish Line
Can you picture that trim, healthy person? Can you imagine what a typical day looks like? Can you see what's on the dinner plate or in the kitchen cupboards? Good. Because the very same things that you'd need to do to maintain that healthy weight are the things you need to do to get there in the first place. No dieting required! Best of all, no re-gaining and re-losing the same weight over and over again.
To be sure, you probably won't lose the pounds as fast as you would on the latest fad diet -- but this means that your body is less likely to "fight back." Best of all, the whole time you are losing weight (without dieting), you're establishing and reinforcing the very habits that are going to help you maintain that healthy weight for a lifetime.
I've gotten dozens of letters over the years from readers and listeners who say that the small changes and healthy habits I advocate in my Nutrition Diva blog and podcast have led to significant (and largely painless) weight loss. If you've lost weight and kept it off, I'd love to hear from you, too. Now more than ever, people need to hear from others who know that weight loss doesn't have to be a losing battle.
Much of what you hear about weight loss is a myth. Find out the truth in Monica Reinagel's new book "How to Win at Losing: 10 Diet Myths That Keep You From Succeeding," available for pre-order now!
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