So you’re finally ready to lose weight. Now the question is: How?
The standard advice — to eat less and move more — isn’t so helpful when it comes to the “how.” You probably know you need to cut calories, but how many? Are you better off getting those calories from low-fat or low-carb foods? And what’s going on with your metabolism, your personal energy-burning furnace? Is it programmed to keep you overweight? Is there any way to fan the flames so you can dream of one day eating a piece of pie without gaining a pound?
Even science is still stumped on many of the basic questions of weight loss.
“Amazingly, in this era of obesity, there are still many things that we really don’t know,” says Robin Callister, PhD, professor of human physiology at the University of Newcastle in Australia.
Here’s what we do know about some of the most persistent mysteries of weight loss.
Do You Have to Cut 3,500 Calories to Lose a Pound?
The idea that dieters need to cut this many calories — with diet, exercise or both — to lose 1 pound of weight comes from an influential scientific paper published in 1958. Max Wishnofsky, MD, a doctor who lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., tried to sum up everything we knew about how calories are stored by the body. He concluded that when the body is in a steady caloric state — meaning it isn’t fasting or starving — extra calories will be stored as fat, and it would take 3,500 extra calories to create a pound of fat. In that same steady state, he also said it would take a deficit of 3,500 calories to lose a pound of weight. For decades, the “Wishnofsky Rule” has been math that determined dieters live by.
The trouble is that it’s wrong.
The 3,500-calorie rule doesn’t work because the body adjusts to weight loss. It quickly decreases the number of calories it needs to maintain its new, lighter size, says Corby Martin, PhD, director of the Ingestive Behavior Laboratory at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, LA. That means weight loss slows down over time. People who expect to drop a pound for every 3,500 calories they cut will soon become frustrated when the scale doesn’t cooperate.
Let’s say a dieter knows they need to eat 2,500 calories a day to maintain their current weight. But they want to slim down. So they decide to shave 500 calories off their daily intake. According to the Wishnofsky Rule, after about a week of doing that, they should lose a pound.
“For the first week or two, the 3,500 calorie-per-pound rule kind of works, roughly, but after the first couple of weeks it doesn’t work,” Martin says.
Here’s why: In 3 or 4 weeks, you need less food to maintain that new, slimmer shape. I know you only lost a couple pounds and if you might only have to lose 10 pounds, you’re going to plateau several times. The problem with this formula is that we don’t have the same food today that we had in 1958. Believe me, I was there, I just started high school. In those days farmers did use pesticides to control bugs but we didn’t chemical engineer our food like we do today. It’s chemical engineered food that will cause food addiction and furthermore cause obesity.
Forget cutting back on the food your eating; you have to go back to eating fresh foods. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, it’s best to buy organic. Ration the red meat your eating; it’s marbled with fat and it’s causing you to increase your body fat. Seafood and chicken or turkey are a better choice. Never eat tube meat or any other processed or manufactured food. If you don’t eat foods that add to your body fat, your body will burn the stored fat you have.
Are All Calories Equal?
Fujioka counsels his patients to pay attention to how alcohol affects their eating.
“Some folks, when they drink alcohol, feel like they have license to eat whatever they want to, and they get into problems,” he says.
If a glass of wine weakens your will to resist that plate of cheese and crackers, it’s not doing your waistline any favors.
But if booze doesn’t affect your eating, then one or two drinks is probably OK, he says.
As for calories from fat, carbohydrates, and protein, this is where one size, or one eating plan, really doesn’t fit all.
There is good science to show that people who have high blood sugar levels — associated with conditions like type 2 diabetes, prediabetes, gestational diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome, and fatty liver disease — benefit from diets that are lower in refined carbohydrates and higher in healthy fats and lean proteins. Examples of this kind of diet are South Beach, the Zone diet, the Mediterranean diet, and the low GI diet.
If insulin levels aren’t a concern, there’s little difference in the amount of weight people lose if they cut their calories from fat or from carbs, says Kevin Hall, PhD, a senior investigator and expert in metabolism at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, MD. But he says protein calories are a different story.
In the lab, researchers have shown that higher-protein diets tend to increase the number of calories a person burns, Hall says. “So in that sense, a protein calorie is not equivalent to a carbohydrate or a fat calorie,” he says.
Protein helps you burn more calories during the day and helps preserve muscle. When people lose weight, they don’t just lose fat — they also lose muscle. The more muscle you lose on a diet, the more your metabolism slows. That can make it tough to keep the weight off down the road. Protein also helps you feel satisfied for longer after your eat.
But people can eat only so much protein without changing their kidney function. U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that adults keep their protein in a range of 10% to 35% of total calories each day. Most diets fall into that range. Atkins, for example, one of the highest protein diets around, supplies 35% of daily calories from protein.
Weight loss is a mystery to some of us because we don’t know how we gain the excess body fat, so we don’t know what we have to do to lose the fat. Most of us think if we can just lose some weight the fat will disappear, but it doesn’t work that way and that’s why most of us give up trying.
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