Recently a family friend said to me, “Weight loss is so confusing, I just feel like giving up!” Unfortunately I hear that a lot, and I totally get it. The truth is, while some of what you hear is based on new research, many weight loss trends are just that–trends designed to generate buzz, sell products, and keep consumers “tuned in.” In my opinion, the best way to navigate the ever-changing weight loss landscape is to find an expert you trust, to help you sort out fact from fiction and hype from help. That’s exactly what this post is all about. Here’s the real deal about four of the most confusing weight loss concepts I’m asked about often, and my bottom line advice.
You may have heard that when you lose weight quickly, it’s mostly water weight. That’s true, and here’s why: when you step on a scale, it measures not just body fat and muscle, but also bone, organs (like your lungs, heart and liver), bodily fluids, waste inside your digestive system you haven’t yet eliminated, and glycogen (the form of carbohydrate you sock away as a back up fuel, which is stored with water). The last three (fluid, waste, and glycogen) always fluctuate, but can shift quickly and drastically when you change your diet. For example, going on a low carb diet, or cutting your carbs way back, triggers the loss of glycogen and the water stored with it, and if extreme, can also be dehydrating. Just two cups (16 oz) of water weigh one pound, so shedding fluid fast can result in weighing a lot less on the scale. Changes in actual body fat on the other hand don’t happen so quickly. Scientists have always estimated that in order to lose one pound of fat, you have to create a 3,500 calorie deficit. So to shed just one pound of body fat in a week, you need to burn off 500 more calories than you take in every day for seven days, or cut your intake by 250 and burn off an additional 250. Trouble is, your body is much more complicated than simple math, so the formula doesn’t always hold true. I’ve had many clients actually hit weight loss plateaus because they ate too little, exercised too much, and as a result, brought their metabolisms to a screeching halt. That said, even if the formula was spot on, you’d have to spend over seven hours on the elliptical to drop one pound of fat–a much tougher task than what it takes to shed 16 ounces of H2O.
Don’t get too caught up in numbers. While quick loss can boost confidence and stick-with-it-ness, don’t rely on the scale as your only measure of success. Go by how you feel, and how your body looks – regardless of the numbers–and focus on a long-term strategy that allows you to safely and sanely lose fat. And keep in mind that a body that’s leaner (less body fat), more toned, well-nourished and hydrated will weigh more than one that’s thinner but flabby, undernourished, and dehydrated.
Brown vs. white fat
There have been a handful of news items recently about how brown fat may help fight obesity. And while the research is certainly intriguing, there are still many unanswered questions. What we do know is there are two types of fat in our bodies: white and brown. Brown fat has a richer blood supply and is packed with more mitochondria, the tiny furnaces inside cells that burn calories. When we’re born, we have more brown fat to keep us warm. Scientists always thought it diminished with age, but through high tech imaging, researchers recently discovered that adults still have brown fat, some more than others, and carrying just three ounces can burn several hundred extra calories a day. This variation may explain why some people stay slimmer, seemingly without trying. Trouble is, there is no way to find out how much you have, and scientists are still experimenting in mice to determine how white fat gets converted to brown.
I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on this, but right now, there are no published studies about how to boost your body’s brown fat. If there were well-established, research-based diet and/or exercise strategies for upping this stuff, believe me, I’d be all over it. Until then, just stay tuned.
Negative calorie foods
I’ve been hearing about so-called negative calorie foods since before I went to college to study nutrition science. In a nutshell, a negative calorie food is a food that triggers your body to burn more calories than it contains. As a teen, I had always heard this about celery and lettuce, the theory being that you burn more calories chewing these veggies than they provide. Other foods get pegged as negative calorie because they rev up metabolism, like hot peppers or green tea. The truth is, there is some truth to this, but munching on celery and loading up on jalapenos won’t lead to drastic weight loss, and most of these foods don’t quite tip calorie balance into the red.
I love discovering new research about foods that rev up metabolism, or boost weight loss results, and I think we’ll continue to learn more about why not all calories are created equal. But negative calories foods as a sole weight loss strategy just doesn’t pan out.
This old school theory has been interpreted in various ways. Some say set point essentially means that your body has a certain comfortable weight, determined by genetics, and will therefore “fight” to to maintain that weight, perhaps by releasing hunger hormones to resist weight loss, or anti-hunger hormones to prevent weight gain. A great deal of research, including studies on twins raised apart, indicates that there is a strong genetic component to weight. However recent research concludes that the set point theory is at odds with the obesity epidemic – the sharp rise in body weights in both children and adults in many countries since the 1980s. In addition, dozens of studies support that what and how much we eat are largely influenced by our environments (e.g. if a candy dish is on your desk, you’ll eat more than if it’s tucked away in a drawer).
Weight regulation is incredibly complex. We now know that it’s influenced by sleep, stress, hormones, even chemicals in food and the environment, but don’t give up! In all my years in private practice, I’ve seen people achieve incredible results, and even reach their lowest adult weights after having children, and well past 40 or 50. That said, it’s important to be realistic about your body. Sometimes a client will bring me a photo of a celebrity and say, “I want to look like this,” and aside from completely different genes, the celeb will have an entirely different body type. So while we can’t all look like Gisele, genetic predispositions are no reason to abandon healthy eating and an active lifestyle.
What’s your take on this topic? Do you feel confused, overwhelmed, or frustrated when it comes to weight loss? Please tweet your thoughts to @CynthiaSass and @goodhealth
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches. Connect with Cynthia on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Health World
Monthly Archives: August 2013
Just when I think I’ve seen it all, another quick fix weight-loss method pops up. Over the years I’ve heard about weight-loss lollipops, diet chopsticks, even slimming sunglasses (designed to change the color of food and make it unappetizing). There will always be silly and trendy get-slim-quick tricks, but what really worries me are approaches that are invasive, extreme, and downright dangerous. Here are seven I hope you’ll never, ever try:
Plastic tongue patch
Created by a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, this yet-to-be FDA-approved patch is sewn onto the tongue with six stitches in about 10 minutes, at a cost of roughly $2,000. The device and sutures make eating solid food so excruciatingly painful, patch wearers are forced to adhere to a liquid-only diet, which supplies about 800 calories a day.
When I first heard about this trend, I was speechless. To lose weight quickly, women, including many brides-to-be, are opting to have a feeding tube inserted through their noses, which travels through the esophagus into the stomach, remaining in place 24 hours a day. For 10 days, eating is avoided completely, and a high protein, low carb formula is fed through the tube, delivering roughly 800 daily calories. The medical procedure, which costs about $1,500, is normally used to nourish people who cannot eat due to illness or injury.
Drunkorexia is a relatively new term for the overlap of binge drinking and disordered eating. The pattern can involve behaviors like: restricting calories to "save them up" for alcohol; drinking excessively to the point of throwing up as a way to purge; overexercising before drinking or the following day; or starving the day after a night of binge drinking. The potential side effects of combining alcohol with undereating and/or purging are serious, including trouble concentrating, and difficulty making decisions, in addition to a weakened immune system, and a greater risk of injuries and acute alcohol poisoning. This is a trend I’ve noticed not just in college students, but also among women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.
While possessing tapeworms is illegal in the U.S., I regularly hear about people seeking them out for weight loss. The sad reality is that many people who unintentionally become infected with tapeworms in the United States suffer from serious dangers, including digestive blockages, organ function disruption, brain and nervous system damage, and even death.
Your body is like an engine that’s always turned on – from head to toe, every cell needs a constant source of fuel to perform its job. In addition, your structure is in a continual state of repair, healing, and regeneration, so your cells needs a steady supply of “building blocks,” including protein and healthy fats, to maintain your tissues. When needed fuel and essential raw materials don’t show up for work, or you consume less than your body requires to support a healthy weight, the deficits trigger a cascade of side effects. Even semi-starvation (less than about 1,000-1,200 calories per day for most women, depending on height and frame size, or more if you're active) can lead to fatigue, depression, the breakdown of muscle, organ and bone tissue, suppressed immunity, hair loss, hormone imbalances, sleep disturbances, and an increased injury risk.
I wish this wasn’t the case, but I have had clients tell me they took up smoking specifically to lose weight, fully knowing the unhealthy consequences. It is true that smoking dulls taste buds, suppresses appetite, and slightly increases metabolism. But the health risks are so great that experts estimate they’re equal to gaining 100 pounds (not to mention the impact on aging your skin).
Throughout my years specializing in weight loss and disordered eating, I’ve seen many women and men fall into the trap of using stimulant drugs to lose weight, then becoming addicted, and ending up in rehab, or worse. And even without dependence, over-the-counter, prescription, or illegal stimulants are risky, with potential side effects ranging from poor judgment, impulsivity and mood swings, to dangerously high blood pressure, seizures, and stroke.
Bottom line: in our weight-obsessed culture, it’s easy to understand the temptation to gamble on a quick fix, but no loss of inches and pounds is worth risking your health. And while it may take a little more time and patience, clean eating and exercise do work – while also keeping you safe and healthy. Remember, YOU are more important than the number on a scale.
What’s your take on this topic? Do you have a healthy weight loss success story to share, or have you overcome unhealthy atempts? Please tweet your thoughts to @CynthiaSass and @goodhealth
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches. Connect with Cynthia on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
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