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Neal Barnard, M.D.

Neal Barnard, M.D.

Posted: December 31, 2010 12:11 PM

As the calendar turns to January, many of us resolve to lose weight. But before many more calendar pages have turned, that resolution has fallen by the wayside for a lot of us, and we haven't lost an ounce. The problem is not a lack of will; we honestly did want to trim away those pounds. More often than not, the problem is in the execution. The plans we tried to set in motion were headed in the wrong direction. This year, let's get on a better path. Here are common missteps and how to avoid them.

1. Exercise along with a diet change, not instead of a diet change. Exercise is great in many ways. It improves your cardiac fitness, lifts your mood and makes you feel better. But exercise is not likely to do much for your waistline unless you also change your eating habits at the same time.

The reason is simple. Running flat out for a mile burns only about 100 calories. And losing one pound of fat requires burning 3,500 calories. Do the math: you'll have to run 35 miles to lose a pound. And even then, exercise stimulates your appetite enough to put back on all the weight you've sweated off.

So don't count on exercise alone. Instead, combine exercise with healthful foods that promote weight loss. And what are those "healthful foods?" Hold that thought; we'll come back to that in a minute.

2. Instead of counting calories, let foods do the calorie-counting for you. Every sensible dietitian will tell you that, to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you take in. But don't count on raw willpower to get you where you need to go. If you try to force yourself to stick to, say, 800 calories a day for the next six months, you'll find that sort of diet plan to get old quickly. Most people just give up.

A better way is to let foods do the work for you. If your diet is loaded with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, you'll be getting a lot of fiber. And because fiber holds water, it fills your stomach, so your appetite is naturally satisfied with fewer calories than normal. Research studies show that high-fiber foods can easily trim 300 or more calories off your daily intake, without your even being aware of the difference.

You'll think you're eating as much as before, but in fact you're eating less. So don't cut calories by force of will; let high-fiber foods do the work for you.

3. Don't avoid carbs; choose healthy carbs. Don't skip carbohydrate-rich foods. After all, the skinniest people on the planet -- people in Japan, China and the rest of Asia -- have traditionally used rice, noodles and other carbohydrate-rich foods as daily staples. They didn't start gaining weight until Westernized business lunches and fast food chains put meaty, cheesy fare at the center of the plate.

Besides, carbohydrate is the natural source of glucose, the fuel that powers your brain, your muscles and most of the rest of your body.

So when it comes to carbs, zero in on quality, not quantity. Skip white bread and typical children's cereals that have had their fiber stripped away. Focus on healthful whole grains, beans and starchy vegetables. They provide the power your body needs and plenty of good nutrition to boot.

4. Focus on the doughnut, not the glaze. Sugar may not be the problem you think it is. True, it's not a health food; in theory could affect your weight, and it may also affect your mood. But despite its bad rep, sugar is almost certainly not the cause of your weight problems, and if your weight-loss plan is focused just on limiting sugar, you're missing what really matters.

The fact is, a teaspoon of sugar has only 15 calories. That's trivial. And even the heroic amount of sugar hiding in your 20 ounce soda -- 250 calories' worth -- has a surprisingly small impact on your weight. Most of sugar's calories are used for energy. And if you overdo it on sugar, your body converts the excess to glycogen -- molecules in your muscles and liver that serve as "spare batteries" to power your movements -- rather than to fat. If you really shovel it in, sugar can theoretically turn to fat, but even then the conversion is so inefficient that about a quarter of all its calories dissipate as body heat, rather than turning to fat.

The real problem with sugar is that it lures us in to cookies, cakes, candy bars and doughnuts, which are usually prepared with lots of shortening or butter. And it's the butter and shortening that slides so easily into our body fat, packing on the pounds. Every gram of fat has more than twice the calories of a gram of sugar. So when it comes to sugary foods, the biggest danger is not that sugar coating on the surface of the doughnut; it's all that fat cooked into it.

If you are looking to make a truly healthful resolution, plan to center your diet on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans and all the foods that come from them, while setting aside the animal products and greasy foods. Breakfast might be a bowl of old-fashioned oatmeal with cinnamon and raisins, with veggie sausage on the side. For lunch, skip the greasy meat taco, and have the bean burrito instead. Or, how about veggie chili or a bowl of minestrone or split pea soup? For dinner, we might go Italian, starting with a green salad and fat free balsamic vinaigrette, angel hair pasta smothered in tomato, basil, and mushroom sauce and steamed asparagus on the side. If you want a glass of wine and an espresso, go ahead.

Does this way of eating lead to weight loss? Yes, dramatically so. A 2009 research study published by the American Diabetes Association examined the diets of over 60,000 people, dividing them into five categories. Non-vegetarians were clearly the heaviest group. Semi-vegetarians and pesco-vegetarians (people who eat fish but no other meats) were somewhat slimmer than typical meat-eaters, on average, but were nowhere near as slim as full time vegetarians. And the only group that stayed well within the boundaries of a healthy weight was the vegan group -- people who avoided animal products and based their diets on healthier fare.

Other studies have shown much the same pattern. In the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), which included 37,875 participants, people following a vegan diet were once again the trimmest, meat-eaters the fattest, with fish-eaters and ovo-lacto-vegetarians in between.

In our research studies, we help people who have never tried anything like a vegan diet to give it a whirl. And the results are often life-changing. Not only do people lose weight, but they also cut cholesterol, lower their blood pressure and feel better in countless ways.

Why does a plant-based diet keep people trim? Plant-based foods provide fiber, while animal products don't. Plant-based foods satisfy the appetite before you've overdone it on calories. And most plant-foods are naturally low in fat, which means they tend to be lower in calories, compared with meat, cheese and other fattier foods. It's not rocket science; it's basic biology.

So if I could write a diet prescription that would lead you to the healthiest body weight, I'd encourage you to (1) set aside animal products completely and (2) keep oils to an absolute minimum.

"But wait a minute!" you might be thinking. "That sounds like a pretty tall order. I'm not sure I could do that!" I understand. And that leads us to our final diet tip:

5. Focus on the short term, not the long term. By now, you know that, to achieve lasting weight loss, you need a permanent change in your eating habits. But swearing off favorite foods forever is more than most of us are prepared for.

So take a leaf out of the book of people who have broken other habits, like alcohol or smoking. They follow the "one day at a time" rule until a healthier path becomes established. Now, diet habits are much easier to break than a serious alcohol or tobacco addiction, but you can still benefit from the same short-term focus. I recommend setting the animal products aside and keeping vegetable oils to a minimum for just three weeks or so. Don't burden yourself with what you'll be eating next year or the year after that; just focus on right now. Pretty soon, you'll see results on the scale and in how you feel, and other people will notice, too. And that will help your healthier path to become permanent.

To boost you on your way, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine offers the free 21-Day Vegan Kickstart that gives you recipes, cooking tips, and plenty encouragement from doctors and celebrities. You'll have a chance to try out a diet change that makes such a difference, you'll call it your New Year's Revolution!