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Maintaining a healthy weight can be a constant challenge—and potentially more so in a pandemic situation. Many of us are not as active as we were pre–COVID-19. And when times like these call for us to stay home more, that can mean more snacking throughout the day.
So, as we enter 2021, should we add dieting to our list of New Year’s resolutions? The answer may surprise you. With common-sense food planning, an increase in activity and a positive outlook, there’s no need to depend on a restrictive diet that might just end up making you less healthy anyway.
Magic weight-loss pills or diet plans hyped on TV or the Internet are not real solutions. They’re not FDA-approved or backed by science. They’re mostly designed to help you lose money, not weight.
There is only one real path to weight loss: decrease calorie intake and increase calorie expenditure. In other words, eat less and move more.
Look for Sound Advice
If weight loss is one of your goals, choose your guidance wisely. Speak with a credentialed professional: a dietitian or a doctor who specializes in weight loss and management.
Don’t adopt a plan simply because it worked for someone you know. No single approach is successful for everyone. You may not even need to lose weight—not everyone does. Improper dieting can create significant medical issues for people who have underlying conditions. Dieting for the wrong reasons can lead to disordered eating, depression and other mental health issues.
Be smart. Seek sound professional advice that addresses your health and body type.
There is only one real way to shed pounds: eat less and move more. Truly successful weight loss plans include an element of each. Read more from dietitian Ellie Kelsey. @MedStarWHC via https://bit.ly/3hmjw7j.
Back to Basics
Some key fundamentals apply to every weight loss approach:
- Know your numbers. Weight is a numbers game—understand the optimum number of calories you should consume. Everyone’s number is different, depending on size, gender and activity level. The Internet offers many resources to help, such as MyFitnessPal.
- Consume quality foods, in the right quantity. Favor nutrient-dense foods over energy-dense ones. This means more fruits, vegetables, lean meats and seafood, and less fatty meats and processed snacks, like chips.
- Don’t ignore micronutrients, the vitamins and minerals you get from food. Eating fewer calories without increasing fruit and vegetables can lead to deficiency, and supplementation may be needed.
- Exercise is always a great idea, with so many well-proven benefits, not just for weight loss. You can manage weight without it—but it is much harder. Decreasing caloric intake and increasing activity is the formula that works. It also is great for mental, cardiovascular and overall health, regardless of weight.
- Allow yourself to be human. If you have some sweets or chips, don’t hold it against yourself. The feeling of guilt when we have foods we consider “unhealthy” can lead to cycles of restrictive eating and then binging. Allow yourself to have some treats when you want them.
And to maintain weight loss, keep following these guidelines. Many people who achieve their goal weight think, “I’m done.” It doesn’t work like that. If you return to the way you used to eat, the weight will return as well.
Avoid Fad Diets
By my definition, a “fad” diet presents itself as super-restrictive—no carbohydrates, no beans, and so forth. Some of these diets may work, short-term. But longer-term success can be harder to achieve.
A recent example: the ketogenic (keto) diet. It allows almost no carbohydrates, advocating fat instead, much of it from meat. Keto is a legitimate diet, developed to reduce seizures in epileptic children. But it’s not a healthy way to lose weight.
The level of fat it recommends can cause cardiovascular and digestive problems. And eating fewer than 50 grams of carbs per day for the rest of your life is a lot to ask. Most people can’t stick to it—and as soon as they start eating carbs again, the weight returns quickly.
The key to success is sustainability—a plan you can commit to. For example, if you eat a burger and fries for lunch every day, suddenly trying to adopt a meat-free, raw vegan diet will likely not work for you. A successful diet plan is based around an individual’s habits, tastes and tolerance.
Write It Down
Most people frankly don’t have a very good idea of what they consume each day. As a dietitian, I often hear, “I really don’t eat that much.” But when we probe farther, we usually discover the opposite.
A classic example is salad. To make it more appealing, a patient may pile on croutons, bacon, cheese and fatty dressing. Total up those calories, and that “healthy” salad suddenly has more calories and fat than a plate of nachos.
Side dishes can be problematic as well. So can sugary drinks and condiments. Ketchup is mostly sugar; barbecue sauce is ketchup with more sugar. It all adds up.
Journaling can open your eyes to actual calories consumed and can help you reduce your caloric intake.
You can keep a written journal or track what you eat using an app and website, like MyFitnessPal or SparkPeople. I know it works, both from my own experience and that of my patients. I lost 80 pounds in college, and MyFitnessPal helped a lot.
If you do not have access to apps like MyFitnessPal, writing down what you’re consuming can make you more mindful about what you eat and drink and can help keep you on track for the weight loss you seek.
Plan Ahead, Shop Smart
Effective weight management takes planning. I try to cook enough smart meals on the weekend to last me through the week. If you have to think about menus, shopping and cooking during a busy or tiring day, you’re more likely to quickly grab something that’s potentially unhealthy.
I don’t recommend starving yourself. Eating when hungry is a healthier approach. But planning is key; if you portion out healthy snacks—like fruits and veggies—in advance, you’ll have an easier time avoiding chips and crackers. Skipping meals or “saving” all your calories for one meal is also a bad option as it often leads to overconsumption later and sometimes binge eating.
Plan your grocery shopping, too. Make your list and stick to it. Don’t shop hungry. And shop around the perimeter of the store, where the produce stands and refrigerators are stocked with healthier choices. Avoid the snack aisles. If you don’t buy it, it can’t tempt you.
Healthy choices are often more expensive choices, but there are ways to save. For example, there are services that specialize in food rescue—selling good food that supermarkets don’t want, almost always for purely cosmetic reasons. They can deliver healthy foods right to your door.
And remember, for a weight loss plan to be effective, quantity is as important as quality. If you eat too much, you’ll gain weight. Healthy calories are better than unhealthy calories, but your body doesn’t discriminate. It will convert either to fat. French fries may be vegan, but that doesn’t mean you can eat all you want.
Some Weight Loss Trends
Here’s a little background on some weight loss approaches that attract popular attention:
- Paleo: Paleo is based on what early cave dwellers may have consumed, and can be a healthy choice, depending on how strictly you follow it. It limits beans, dairy and grains but is rich in fruits and vegetables, so you’ll get the micronutrients you need. It’s sustainable, as long as you can do without the foods it doesn’t include.
- Whole30®: This approach calls for 30 days without sugar or sugar substitutes, dairy, beans or alcohol. It can be problematic nutritionally: many people get all their protein from meat when they are following it. As an occasional 30-day reset, it can be a helpful way to train yourself to eat less sugar and consume less alcohol. But repeating Whole30 regularly is probably not the best idea for your health.
- Vegan: A vegan plan can be healthy, especially for people with cardiovascular issues. Vegans need good sources of vitamins D and B12 and protein. With planning, a vegan approach can be low in saturated fat, high in fiber and high in nutrients, and is a great option for anyone who wants to reduce their animal product intake for environmental or animal rights reasons.
- Intermittent fasting: We’re still not sure of the efficacy of this approach. Certain people may lose weight, like talk show host Jimmy Kimmel who says he dropped 70 pounds. But we don’t know for sure if the fasting has a metabolic effect or simply reduces intake. Fasting can be problematic for patients with certain medical conditions, especially diabetes, as well as those prone to disordered eating. And it’s not for people who feel sick or cranky or get headaches when they don’t eat.
- Juice cleanse: If you like green juice, add it to your diet. But consuming it exclusively won’t do you much good, and it won’t rid your body of toxins. Your body has a built-in detox system, your liver, which does an excellent job. Unless you have a medical condition, a juice cleanse won’t hurt you. But any weight loss will mainly come from water weight, and you will regain it quickly when you resume eating.
- Mediterranean: People who live in the Mediterranean tend to live longer than the world average, and their diet is thought to be a major contributor to this longevity. Based on fish, whole grains, fruit, vegetables, oils and nuts, it is balanced and doesn’t cause nutrient deficiencies. It’s a common-sense and healthful approach to eating that’s good for most people, and the approach I recommend most often.
Do What You Can
Staying positive is a daily commitment. Like anything else, if you do it every day, it becomes a habit and gets easier.
Before COVID-19, I worked out every day. That’s more challenging now. It would be easy to get frustrated, focusing on what I cannot do, so I concentrate on what I can. I can’t go to boxing class. But I can run, walk the dog or do yoga in my house.
The same goes for eating—consider what you can do:
- Drink water or seltzer instead of sweet drinks.
- Grab fruit or carrots instead of crackers or chips.
- Choose turkey over beef for your burger, but be sure to check sodium content, as turkey substitutes often have more sodium than their beef counterparts.
- Have egg whites or eggs instead of pancakes.
- Make your own salad dressing; it’s tastier and healthier than the bottled ones. If you like one with zing, try my recipe. It can be kept in the refrigerator for a few days.
Ellie’s Healthy Dressing: Mix ½ cup olive oil, ¼ cup balsamic vinegar, 2–3 teaspoons of Dijon mustard, some pepper, and a VERY small pinch of salt. Add any of your favorite herbs and spices as well.
I’m not a fan of the words diet and lifestyle. I prefer the term mindful, knowing where all your calories and nutrients come from. It takes work to educate yourself about the foods you love and your triggers, and to find healthier choices when necessary.
Healthy eating is mindful eating.