It’s that time of year again — when the mega-billion-dollar diet, fitness, and food industries tell us which miracle weight reduction products and “healthy” foods will make us slim and trim without any effort on our part. What a wonderful opportunity! If only it were true…
As you may know, losing pounds can be a frustrating, confusing undertaking. But I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way. At the same time, I want to make it clear that there is no gadget, pill, cookie, or fad diet that can replace the one-two punch of professional knowledge and personal lifestyle changes. As I like to tell my patients, healthful living is a skill you’ll be learning with me — and that most definitely applies to weight reduction.
Here’s one of my favorite stories; it is a good illustration of how a patient can benefit from avoiding fad-diet nonsense. It was about this time last year that I received a surprise I’ll never forget. I had just finished speaking at a local health club when a lovely lady approached me and asked if I recognized her. I had to admit that, although she looked vaguely familiar, I wasn’t sure who she was.
“I’m Grace,” she said. “You probably don’t recognize me because I only weigh half of what I used to.”
I was stunned, to say the least. I had known Grace for at least 10 years. During that time, she had given birth to three children. Each baby translated into an additional 20 to 40 pounds that Grace was never able to lose. Finally, after baby number three, Grace topped the scales at a tad over 300 pounds and came to see me. She had seemingly tried every diet in existence, without success. Desperate, she begged for suggestions to shed pounds. We talked about measures that I knew worked for other patients. Grace agreed to make some changes, and then she left. Now, months later, here she was in front of me, looking so slim and trim that I did not recognize her. “What happened?” I asked.
Grace confided that, after our weight reduction discussion, she left my office, sat in her car in the parking lot, and cried. “I was just overwhelmed! Giving up the little things that helped me make it through the day — cookies, special coffee, candy bars, fast food. I knew you were right, but I couldn’t imagine doing that.
“Then, one morning a few days later, everything was going wrong — I was supposed to go to lunch with a girlfriend, but the kids were all sick and cranky, the babysitter cancelled at the last minute, and the realtor called to say she wanted to show our house. Of course, the house was a disaster, my husband was out of town, and I was ready to snap.
“But, just as I was reaching for a candy bar, something you said occurred to me. You mentioned stress, and that dealing with it was essential for weight reduction. When you said that, it barely registered, but I looked around that day and realized my life was essentially a stress factory — with three small children, my husband’s demanding job, and selling one house while trying to buy another. Talk about an emotional roller coaster! I never connected emotions to weight, but once I looked at it from that perspective, it really opened my eyes!”
If you’re a regular reader of this newsletter, you may recall that we discussed stress earlier. We all live with some degree of stress, yet most people don’t connect it with physical ailments and issues like weight, even though there is a profound link.
So, if weight gain is stress-related, no wonder dieting doesn’t work. And is it really surprising that so many dieters gain the weight back once they return to their normal eating pattern without learning how to manage stress? As Grace discovered, tackling stress head-on can be a real game-changer.
The Stress-Weight Link
Stress affects us all these days, regardless of job, finances, or lifestyle. We see the impact in the obesity crisis (with two-thirds of the nation overweight or obese), the ever-growing millions of people taking anti-depressants and other mood-regulating drugs, and in the tremendous number of individuals with sleep issues. If you’re stressed, sleep is difficult. And research has shown that if you’re not getting seven or eight hours of high-quality, energizing sleep each night, weight gain — and a host of other health issues — is almost guaranteed.
So, here’s a bit of advice you won’t get from costly diet companies or the trainer at the gym — start dealing with stress-induced weight by getting more sleep! If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, I recommend supplements like l-theanine, melatonin, 5-HTP, magnolia, and magnesium. Combating insomnia with these supplements can help reduce cravings, especially for sugary treats and carbohydrates. Cravings are your body’s way of boosting levels of serotonin, the “feel good” hormone, which can be in short supply if you’re stressed and not sleeping well.
Other excellent ways to reduce stress include being active (more on this next week), learning how to meditate, and practicing deep breathing. Since there’s really no one-size-fits-all health solution for any condition, I encourage you to try different approaches until you find the one that’s right for you. Grace, for example, found that napping with her children enabled her to get the extra rest she needed. “I used to run myself ragged doing housework while they slept,” she explained. “No more! The housework will get done when it gets done. My sleep comes first.”
Skip the Stimulants
One of the simplest stress-reduction tactics involves eliminating as much caffeine and sugar from your diet as possible. Both caffeine and sugar are stimulants — and favorites for people who are running on stress-induced fumes. With too little sleep, many people look for easy ways to jump-start energy. Caffeine and sugar will do the job, but at what cost? Too much caffeine can cause heart palpitations, indigestion, jitters and insomnia, while sugar ends up as extra pounds in places where few people need them.
Quitting caffeine cold turkey can cause withdrawal symptoms, usually in the form of a nasty headache. So, I suggest substituting green tea for coffee. You’ll still get some caffeine, but it comes with a hefty dose of L-theanine, a recognized relaxant. Green tea also has significant health benefits, including boosting weight reduction. I like to have a cup or two every afternoon, to ward off an after-lunch slump.
Avoiding sugar can be challenging for a couple of reasons. One, we love sugar! So, don’t be surprised if your first few sugar-free days are not fun. Fortunately, after several days, living sugar-free becomes easier.
The second challenge has to do with food processors’ insistence on putting sugar in nearly everything. Check out labels on things like spaghetti sauce, salad dressing, bread, crackers, and so on, and you’ll find sugar, sometimes hiding in one of its many disguises (look for ingredients ending in -ose, such as fructose, sucrose, mannose, and similar names). Then there is the notorious high fructose corn syrup — something to avoid whenever possible.
My recommendation: start by banning easily identified sugars, such as those found in soda, take-out coffees, sweetened cereal and desserts. After eliminating those foods, spend a little time locating “hidden” sugars (the ones mentioned above ending in “-ose”). And whatever you do, do not fall into the artificial sweetener trap. Studies have shown that artificial sweeteners are linked to weight gain. Use maple syrup or a non-sugar sweetener like stevia if you must have a little something sweet.
In an earlier newsletter, I mentioned that it’s easy to mistake thirst for hunger. So, I urge my patients to stay thoroughly hydrated by drinking the number of ounces of water equivalent to half of their body weight each day. That’s especially important in winter months, when dry, overheated indoor air can be very dehydrating.
Another way to increase water intake — and tame an overly demanding appetite at the same time — is by eating more water-rich fruits and vegetables. Start lunch and dinner with soup and salad, for example, then add several servings of vegetables to the main course. Remember, a serving is only a half cup, so we’re not talking about a great deal of food. A number of studies have examined the effect of increasing intake of water-rich foods on weight reduction — the results have been consistently impressive.
Making the Most of Macronutrients
Food is usually classified into one of three macronutrients, better known as protein, carbohydrate, or fat. We need food from all three categories, but making smart choices in each area can give weight reduction a big boost. Here are some ideas on how to do that:
- Protein: Eat a small portion at every meal, preferably at the beginning. I recommend limiting protein intake to 8 to 12 ounces daily. So, for example, a piece of meat no larger than a deck of cards or a 4-ounce can of salmon is ideal for one meal. Healthy protein sources include lean meat, beans, eggs, fish (preferably wild caught), and protein powders. Beans are excellent because they contain fiber, another element that helps keep us feeling satisfied after a meal. They’re also low in calories and inexpensive.
- Carbohydrates: Avoid refined carbs (white sugar and flour found in most processed and prepared foods) like the plague. Processing robs these foods of nutrients, leaving behind empty calories that are not your friends. Stick with complex carbs found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Fats: Like fiber, fat slows the digestive process, so you feel full longer. But let’s be clear — all fats are not created equal. No doubt you’ve heard plenty about “trans” and saturated fats and how they ruin our health. By contrast, “good fats” have a positive impact on health. Good fats include olive, grapeseed, macadamia nut, and avocado oils. These should be the only types of fats you consume.
A final few words: Do yourself a favor and banish the word “diet” from your vocabulary. Diet equals deprivation, and you should not feel like you’re being forced to give up things you enjoy. You are making changes that will stay with you for years to come. As Grace told me, “I have a life again! I’m not embarrassed to go out in public. And I can finally keep up with my kids. I’ll never go back to the way I was living before. Losing all those extra pounds has been a godsend!”