Wednesday 29th January 2020

Lose Weight

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A healthy diet

You think that you are overweight, you don't like the way you look, or you have an obesity problem, and you want to lose weight fast, get slim so you can wear that bikini in the summer or in order to keep your new year's resolution.

The first thing to consider is: are you really overweight? Many people, especially women, who think they are fat are not above normal weight. To find out if this is your case, there is a simple method: calculate your body mass index, or BMI. Skip this if you know your BMI already, otherwise divide your weight in kilograms by the square of your height in metres. Example: 70kg : 1.70m² = 24.22 BMI.

An adult person with a BMI of below 18.5 is considered to be underweight, a person whose BMI falls between 18.5 and 24.9 is a healthy weight, a person whose BMI is between 25 and 29.9 is overweight, and a person with a BMI of 30 or above is obese.

If you indeed have a weight problem and it's not just the skinny models in the magazines and thin actresses in Hollywood movies that give you the wrong idea about your shape, what are you to do?

Being overweight or obese is indeed a health risk, with more likelihood of high blood pressure and developing diabetes and heart disease, but let's first say something that you shouldn't do: don't go on a faddy, fast diet.

Rapid weight loss, a result of what is sometimes called "crash diet", is unsustainable. The weight will probably come back after the diet is finished. And, importantly, rapid weight loss may be dangerous.


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Why a fast diet does not work

Weight is at least in part a simple matter of input and output: you take in the energy derived from your food and you use up the energy required for whatever your body needs; all energy that is not consumed is stored in your body as fat, and the more of it you store the heavier you become. This is basically true, but living organisms are not simple, they can't operate like a physical energy system because of the high number of variables involved in biological functions and mechanisms, which makes things very complicated, unluckily for people who want to slim down.

Unfortunately, gaining weight is too easy in our affluent societies. Technology does all sorts of hard work for us, so our energy expenditure has increasingly diminished, and food has become easy to get, cheap, abundant, ubiquitous and fattier.

Compare that scenario with the environment in which all our ancestors lived, when work was mainly physical and food was not so plentiful and fattening. For that reason obesity has always been rare in human populations until recent times.

Our environment has changed, but our bodies are the same as those of our progenitors, and this is where the disharmony lies, between a species which has remained identical and its entirely altered habitat. Our bodies crave fatty foods because in the bad old prehistoric days, when scavenging for food was the principal, hard way to eat, high calories were a precious thing, and storing body fat was a method to accumulate fuel for the uncertain future.

But, unlike the early men who, by the time they got to eat, had already burnt off a vast amount of calories just searching for food, we store fat and put on weight in a quantity that not only we don't need but is also endangering our very health. We should not follow our body and its istincts and cravings here, but our reason. Our instincts lead us astray because they are adapted to totally different circumstances.

When we decide to go on a diet and restrict the number of calories we take, though, our body goes into calorie conservation mode: it reduces the calories it burns, so we need to restrict our calories intake even more, trapped in a vicious circle. We now have to eat less calories not so much to lose weight but just to maintain our weight. Our metabolic rate has changed, slowed down, and this new rate of metabolism needs less calories.

So our body has reset its metabolic rate in response to calorie restriction. But there is another way in which we can decide to reset it - and that's by exercise. With exercise you can burn off a certain amount of calories that in this way don't need to be restricted, "taken off" your eating regime (diet) so to speak.

Basal (or resting) metabolic rate is the rate at which our body transforms food into energy when we are at rest, or, put another way, the daily calories expended just to keep our body functioning: for heartbeat, blood circulation, breathing and so on. This is the greatest component of the total energy expenditure by the body. On top of that there are the calories we expend for our movements and physical activity.

Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is different in people of diverse bulk and weight, because, all the rest being equal, more calories are spent to sustain a bigger, heavier body. However, not just the body's size but also the proportion of tissues is important, since muscle tissue is heavier than adipose (fat) tissue so it requires more caloric expenditure to maintain. Therefore, people with more muscle than fat tend to have a higher basal metabolic rate than people with more fat than muscle: this explains why exercise increases the BMR.

In losing weight, the speed of metabolism, the rate of transforming food into energy, is a critical factor. When weight is lost, the metabolic rate begins to slow down until eventually it is in equilibrium with the energy intake, and that results in a plateau. A sense of frustration is what prevents,stops dieters from losing weight: they wish to lose the stones as fast as possible, and this is what makes them feel frustrated and very unhappy and put weight back on quickly.

Sometimes a person reaches a "dietary plateau", i.e. a situation in which there is no weight gain or loss. Maybe this person is becoming despondent, or all attempts to diet have been unsuccessful in producing real weight loss. Metabolic rate increases proportionately to your increasing bulk. If it is higher than expected, you may be eating more than you are even aware of.

For weight loss, exercise is the greatest tool but, since the more people weigh the less likely they are to exercise and it's when people lose weight that they tend to become more active, you can start by losing weight through eating less and this will automatically make you start taking more exercise.

What's the answer to that? Not diets.

The US National Institutes of Health compiled statistics showing that 95 to 98 percent of diets fail within 3 years, and that over 90 percent of diets cause further weight gain. An NIH report says:

"Data show that many individuals regain one-third to two-thirds of intentionally lost weight within 1 year and regain the rest of the weight within 5 years...

"Kramer and colleagues (1989) found that less than 3 percent of subjects were at or below posttreatment weight on all followup visits. Other researchers have documented similar findings (Graham et al., 1983; Stalanos et al., 1984). With respect to obesity treatment in adolescents, Rees (1990) reported that 85 to 95 percent of patients regain at least as much weight as they lost and Stalonas and colleagues (1984) found evidence that patients regain even more weight than the initial weight lost."

Of all the statistics about success rates of diets, the most optmistic are those contained in a 2001 study published in the Annual Review of Nutrition, which unambitiously defines "successful long-term weight loss maintenance as intentionally losing at least 10% of initial body weight and keeping it off for at least 1 year". Even with such modest goal of 1-year weight loss maintenance, the study says that the success rate is "perhaps" about 20 percent.

The only way to achieve and maintain weight loss is through a change in lifestyle. Dieting may be the quickest way to lose fat, but it is the worst way to keep it from coming back.


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How to achieve long-term weight loss

For effective and long-lasting weight loss the best advice is a combination of balanced nutrition and exercise.

It should be seen not as a short-term, quick "solution" which is not a solution at all because you'll have the same problem recurring again and next time probably worse, but as a moderate, gradual, at-your-pace (and, importantly, at your body's pace), permanent change in your lifestyle, in the way you live as far as health is concerned.

When I was a teenager I was a skeleton. No joke. I was very skinny, and that's not healthy either. It was difficult for me to put on weight. When I decided to solve this problem, I started by keeping a sort of calorie diary, in which I recorded each of my meals and snacks with the breakdown of the calorie count for each. I had a target of how many calories a day I should approximately eat. Then I applied some simple strategic changes. For example, here and there I replaced an ingredient or a food with low calories with a similar, high-calorie one.

Sometimes these measures can be really simple to think of and easy to do (implement), and they can be unexpectedly effective. All you have to do is stop and think. In that way, in a few months I gained weight to the point that I could look at myself in the mirror and be happy. I even got to the point when boys were looking at me in the street rather than my friends, whereas before it was the other way around (but don't tell them). I know that losing weight is probably a bit more complex than gaining it, but the principles which I describe here are the same.

And also, when some years ago I got to 80 kg (my height is 1.70m), I applied similar principles and quite painlessy reached my current weight of 64kg, which is OK.

The principles are those of graduality, long-term thinking, not sacrificing health for the sake of a faddy fast diet, creativity and imagination in finding little steps that go a long way, determination, self-discipline, rationality over your body's whims and tantrums, insistence, perseverance. Don't overdo it: a healthy rate of weight loss is about 0.5-1kg (1-2 pounds) per week.

Start on both paths: better eating and exercise.

For the latter, begin with things like climbing the stairs rather than taking the lift (elevator), walking instead of taking the car whenever you can, and maybe walking around the block each day. Then build up gradually on these, by taking more and more forms of exercise at your pace. Preferably do something that you enjoy, because you're more likely to maintain it.

You may love swimming, and that burns 500 calories in 1 hour. Or you may like joining a walking group on Sundays, and if you walk vigorously for 1 hour 600 calories will be lost. Perhaps gardening is your thing: think of all those lovely roses that will be produced by your work, and don't forget that 1 hour of gardening will take care of 300-400 calories. Dancing is certainly a popular way to have fun, and 1 hour of knees-up burns 450 calories. One hour of cycling means spending 450-600 calories. Skipping with a rope for 1 hour will get rid of 700 calories. One hour of playing football expends 400 calories. There must be something out of all these activities that suits you.

With eating, replace high-calorie foods and ingredients with similar but low-calorie ones. If you make spaghetti bolognaise, use soya (or soy) mince instead of meat for the sauce; if you're worried about the taste, don't, because it actually tastes better, and taste is very much a question of habit. Change your eating habits for the better and healthier, and your taste will change. Don't put butter on bread. Replace meat and cheese with quorn, soya products, tofu. Replace whole milk with skimmed milk or even better with soya milk. Tea is practically calorie-free if had without milk. Find here other healthy slimming tips.

The meat that we eat is very, unnaturally rich in fat, because it comes from animal species that don't exist in a natural state: they have been created and fattened by humans as "livestock" for food consumption. The animals that our ancestors early men used to eat when they managed to kill them were lean, like gazelles, wild fowl, antelopes; early men also ate carcasses of dead animals when they found them, as well as insects.

Look at foods with low calories, find among them the ones that you like and eat them more at the expense of other, high-calories high-fat foods and ingredients. Remember that how a food or ingredient is cooked makes an enormous difference to the end result in terms of taste and enjoyment of the meal.

Low-calories, healthy foods include most fruits and vegetables. Grapes, cherries, peaches, apricots, strawberries, melons, water melons, oranges, coconuts, mangos, papayas, pineapples, lemons, bananas, pears, clementines, grapefruits, apples, berries in all their different varieties: don't tell me you don't like any of this sweet, delicious stuff. These are all the things that you like in cakes, desserts, cocktails, jams, ice creams, drinks of various sorts: why not eat them in their original form?

And tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, yellow, red and green peppers, aubergines, courgettes, broccoli, chillies, leeks, artichokes, cauliflowers, beetroots, onions, green beans, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cucumbers, salad onions, lettuce, potatoes, sweet potatoes, garlic, parsnips (tasty, sweet, with a nutty flavour), turnips, swedes, radishes, spinach, rocket, cabbage, squash, pumpkin, celery, basil, parsley. Have you tried fennel? It tastes like anise. Have what the French call crudités and Italians call pinzimonio: sticks of celery, fennel, carrot or any other vegetable that you like in a heavenly dip. Vegetables are satiating due to their high water content, which increases the bulk of food, and hot chillies are thought to suppress hunger. Virtually everybody likes tomatoes, but rather than have them as tomato ketchup on top of a hot dog eat them in a less fattening recipe or form.

Instead of using pre-prepared tomato or other pasta sauce, make it yourself simply with a can of chopped (crushed or diced) tomatoes, garlic, herbs and seasoning: this is an effortless, low-fat, low-calorie, scrumptious, homemade sauce, that you can use as it is or make more elaborate.

Pasta is another tasty, filling, healthy, low-calories food, as are other wheat and grain products, like rice, bread, grissini, pizza, millet, oats, noodles, porridge, corn (maize). Obviously you have to take care that what you eat them with are not fat and high-calorie sauces, casseroles, curries, dips, fillings or toppings, but low-calories ones.

Pulses are another godsend for people who want to lose weight. Peas, beans, lentils, red lentils, black-eyed peas (not the group), yellow and green split peas, white kidney beans (or cannellini beans), mung beans, calypso beans, Swedish brown beans, rice beans, azuki beans, red kidney beans, black beans, borlotti beans, flageolets, scarlet runner beans, rattlesnake beans, navy beans, lupini beans, soya beans, fava beans, butter beans, brown speckled cow beans, chili beans, pinto beans, chickpeas are very nutritious, having a protein content as high or higher than that of meat and animal products. It's best to eat them with grains, like bread (baked beans on toast - no butter - is an appetizing, healthy dish), rice or pasta. Pulses are very filling, eaten with grains are ideal meat substitutes, and really versatile, in that they can be cooked in hundreds of ways.

Nuts. You may think that nuts are high in fat, and they are, but those are mostly unsaturated fats, which are actually good for you, like the fat in olive oil. And nuts are high in protein, can replace meat and other animal products when eaten with grains, and can fill you up very quickly. A typical peanut butter sandwich is less fattening than a burger, and is a lot better for your heart and arteries. Strictly speaking, a peanut is not a nut, but a pulse. Almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashew nuts, Brazil nuts and all the other yummy nuts are liked by almost everyone. People who consume them are less hungry and eat less because the fibre and fat contained in nuts renders these foods very satiating.

Tofu is also a good, low-calorie food which is well-suited to prepare many exquisite dishes, as you can see from its use in Chinese, Thai and Japanese cuisines. But it can be employed in numerous other non-exotic fashions, with equally mouth-watering results.

Sea vegetables, or seaweeds, are also a lot used for weight loss. Add them to soups and casseroles, and they will make you feel more satiated. They make food move more slowly in the digestive system, and the slower the digestion, the less you eat.

Other generally low-calories foods and drinks are quorn, soya products, soups, sugar-free muesli, fat-free yogurt, breakfast and granola bars, pickles, mustard, vinegar, fat-free hot chocolate, sugar-less and milk-free tea (as explained above, but you can add artificial sweeteners, lemon or soya milk), coffee, herb teas, green tea, water, sugar-free drink mixes, sugar-free sodas, sugar-free chocolate, and many others.

Go for foods that are nutrient-dense, so that you'll make every calorie count. You've heard of the expression "empty calorie food": since you have to fulfill all your dietary requirements within a certain limited number of calories, you have to increase the proportion of nutrients in relation to the calories. Empty calorie foods do the opposite: high calories, low nutrients.


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