I recently watched a couple episodes of The Weight of the Nation on HBO. I was fascinated that so much research is being done on obesity, yet people in this country are still extremely overweight and it's getting worse. How can this be? What I have come up with is a bunch of what I call, "Yes! But...s" which take some overly simplified generalizations about weight loss and dissect them a little bit further. The truth is, almost everything you have read about weight loss online, or in magazines is probably true on some level, but utlimately we have to look back at anatomy and metabolic functions - the EMPIRICAL data - to figure out how to lose weight. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but all of them relate to one-on-one conversations I've had with several people over the past couple of months. Will this article help you? Yes! But...you actually have to read it. Ready?
1) Losing weight is all about calories in, and calories out.
YES. We burn a certain amount of calories per day based on our metabolism, age, weight, activity level (including exercise), genetics and climate. If you eat fewer calories than you burn, you are in what we call a "caloric deficit" and you *should* burn off fat.
BUT, how come so many people try to simply eat less and don't lose weight? Because not all calories are created equal. While the national campaign against diabetes and obesity (as reflected in HBO's documentary The Weight of the Nation) focuses on eating less and avoiding fatty foods to lose weight and exercising to keep it off, there is an equally proven, yet less scientifically discussed theory that our body's insulin response is more linked to obesity than simply the amount of calories. Insulin is an anabolic hormone, which means it STORES energy. If you finish a workout and have depleted sugar stores, insulin will spike when you eat or drink something that has sugar and be stored in your muscles as glycogen. This is why weight lifters often using a recovery drink after the workout, which helps the muscles repair and rebuild. However, any other time of day, eating the same sugary substance will result in the same insulin spike, but if you don't use the energy within about 30 minutes, it will be stored directly as fat. If your insulin levels are like a rollercoaster, you increase your chance of diabetes and your obesity snowballs.
Simple sugars cause this rollercoaster-like spike in insulin, while complex carbs, proteins, and fats sustain a more gradual rise in insulin. Worst of all the sugars is fructose, which is mostly metabolized by liver cells, and can directly lead to fatty deposits in your liver, adding pounds of "invisible" weight (as opposed to flab) on your insides and is extremely pesky to get rid of. In general your body doesn't look for fat stores in the liver to break down for energy. A fatty liver is one of the main reasons people develop insulin resistance and diabetes. This is further reason to avoid foods with high-fructose corn syrup, especially sodas!
So yes - portion control is extremely important and still a major factor in losing weight, but controlling sugar is the ONE major thing you can start working on now to get healthy.
2) Eating 5-6 small meals a day is the best way to diet, because it revs up your metabolism and you are constantly fueling your body!
YES! Especially for those of us doing athletic workouts, one thing you want to avoid is a major caloric deficit. Looking at 24-hour blocks (otherwise known as "days") to rate our diet is our habit, but we really need to be thinking hour by hour. "Starvation mode" isn't just about the total calories in and out during 24 hours, but if you go several hours without proper nutrition, you will have "mini-starvation modes" throughout the day, which means potentially teaching your body to store energy as fat, and burning up muscle during the deficit periods. This means, skipping breakfast or going hungry late into the day are no-no's!
BUT, a lot of people misread "5-6 small meals" as "eat constantly." I was passed on a great article by one of you this week that talks specifically about this, and the fact that our snacks tend to be food lacking fruits and vegetables, like protein bars or crackers. If you are eating all day, but constantly grabbing protein bars or processed food for your snacks, it can safely be said that if you instead eat 3 balanced, healthy meals at regular intervals during your day, at the end of the day you might be doing yourself a greater service. I would still suggest a post-workout snack of some sort, but for those of you doing the 5 meals a day thing and not seeing any results, maybe it's time to change it up and try the "old-school" 3 meals a day approach that earlier, healthier generations lived by. It's at least worth a shot to add some change to your diet!
3) Eating red meat can lead to heart disease.
YES! Foods full of saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, and high sodium (a factor in the way many steak houses prepare their meat) are typically thought to be the major causes for cardiac disease. When we think of clogged arteries, there is always a picture of a burger somewhere nearby. Red meat has naturally more fat concentrated and marbled into all tissues, even the lean tissues, than pork, poultry, or fish and therefore you are naturally ingesting more saturated fat per weight when eating red meat.
BUT, the counter culture for heart health are grains. Think about all of those cereal boxes, like Honey Nut Cheerios, that say "heart healthy." Decades ago the FDA really focused on foods that are low in fat and cholesterol as the foods we should be eating - just look at the food pyramid. Little did you know that in Honey Nut Cheerios nearly 50% of the calories are from sugars, which, once again, is in my mind the number one cause for obesity in America. The truth is, the amount of fat ON your body, not in your food, is the number one determining factor as to how well your circulatory system is working. You can just as easily clog your arteries and strain your heart by putting excess fat on through over-consumption of sugars than you can from over consumption of fats. And in general, fat invokes a more gradual insulin response and takes hours longer to digest than sugars. The only thing you have to worry about with fat are the hydrogenated trans fatty acids, like margarine, which are directly linked to raising your LDL's, and to of course take all fat consumption in moderation, as it is a more calorie-dense nutrient than sugar.
4) "Cheating" on my diet is a good practice to reduce cravings.
YES! Well...first of all I hate the word "cheating," it's so negative. I prefer the term "living" a little. FYI - with food you can say that, the same justification doesn't work with relationships! But, trying to be 100% good ALL the time is near impossible and will likely lead to a food binge at some point when you are weak. Having a small taste of food that you crave isn't the end of the world, and may actually help you control your cravings down the road. In general, if you "cheat" or "live" during one of your snack periods, but your 3 big meals are balanced and nutritious, you won't see a big negative impact on your results. Finding savory food that is under 100 calories is key, and not grabbing that 400 calorie pastry.
BUT, many of us turn this into "cheat days," one day a week where you just don't think about diet. Let's think about what you are doing here - you are literally planning to fail. You are planning a day that your hard work doesn't matter, putting it on your calendar, and honoring it as a reward for your hard work the week before. If you have one dinner out with drinks and bad food, you could potentially be adding over 1,000 calories that you wouldn't otherwise have ingested if you hadn't promised yourself a cheat day. Don't believe me? Let's say a normal, healthy dinner is 400 calories; you can easily ingest 1,400 calories by eating an entree at Olive Garden, plus a couple glasses of wine, and an appetizer. A large milk shake treat can be over 2,000 calories! Some diets depend on the "cheat day" as a kind of incentive, so we can still have our Saturday night out on the town. Yes, you can probably do it and still see results if you are good the other 6 days, but just imagine, what if you were healthy for 7 straight days? Could you do that? Could you, at least some weeks, have a perfect week? Maybe you had a cookie on day 5, but you didn't have an Olive Garden blowout on day 7, now that cookie doesn't look so bad!