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A Primer on Obesity

We all know that being over-fat is a problem, but we either do not understand what we are doing wrong that makes us overweight or are only going to be satisfied with the “quick fix.”

Anyone who has watched television at 3 a.m. is well aware of all of the gimmicks and products that promise up to a certain amount of weight loss in a short period of time. The marketers cannot lose with this bet unless you lose more weight than they anticipate and still want to return the merchandise -- yeah right!

What most people fail to assess is why these products make you lose weight and whether it is something you can stick with. One product claims you can still eat whatever you choose if you only take two scoops mixed with water on an empty stomach before bed. The directions actually say that you must not eat for four hours before taking the product then go to bed without eating.

When you consider that a large proportion of people eat the majority of calories snacking in front of the television within that last four hours before bed, of course they will lose weight… Unfortunately, if they have that type of eating pattern, they probably will not be able to stick with the product instructions for long…and even if they do get to their goal weight, it most likely will not be a lasting change because they will resume their old eating habits as soon as they are off their “diet.”

Another product that works your abdominal muscles claims to help you take inches of your waist in a matter of weeks and drop lots of weight to boot. Yes, if you walk with better posture you will look 10 pounds thinner, so tightening your abdominals does help, but the quick weight loss comes from either following a strict diet (which you will never adhere to for a lifetime) or from taking a person who burns no calories from exercise and increasing their activity level by providing them with something that they will do.

Weight loss is not one-size fits all. People are obese because they eat more calories than they burn. Period. Let’s look at why:

(1) they like food, 2) they use food as a stress reliever or “comforter,” 3) they fail to count the empty calories such as in soda, 4) they are misguided by the “serving size” on the box compared with what the food guide pyramid considers a serving size (See “So You Want To Start Eating Healthfully” also by this author), or 5) they have a metabolic disorder. Stop there! Less than 5% of people have a metabolic disorder, so before you run to your doctor looking for another quick fix, assess your other behaviors.

Most rapid weight loss is a combination of water, fat and muscle. You must burn 3500 calories to lose a pound of fat. You must eat at least 1200-2200 calories (depending on your size) to keep from becoming malnourished and making your metabolism slow down. A good goal is to aim to reduce your calories by 500 a day and increase your activity by 300 calories a day (2 20-30 minute foot patrols). Most people can easily do this by switching to lean meats, reducing fried food to once a week, and reducing “empty” calories to one serving per day---these include sugary sodas, coffee with sugar and creamer, candy and chips. By reducing your caloric intake in essence by 800 calories per day, you will lose 1.5 to 2 pounds of pure fat per week. Most people will lose significantly more weight the first two weeks, because the healthier food choices will encourage your body to shed excess water weight as well.

It is tempting to try and follow a severely restrictive diet to lose weight quickly, but you are only getting a temporary fix and actually setting yourself back. Generally when people severely cut calories, they do not get enough protein, so the body breaks down muscle to provide it. Muscle burns calories 24 hours a day, so loss of muscle actually reduces your metabolism. Additionally, when you do not eat enough over a period of time, your body begins to believe there is a famine and your metabolism slows down to “preserve” the fat stores. This is why people stop dieting and resume “normal eating” and gain weight and also why we strongly discourage short term dieting and encourage long-term lifestyle modification.

I have many of my clients keep a food diary for a week including what they ate, when they ate, how much they ate and whether they were hungry when they ate. At the end of the week we review the diary, look for alternate food choices that have fewer empty calories (French bread pizza instead of Pizza Hut or a small order of French fries instead of a large) and how many times they ate when they were not hungry. Most times, a few painless modifications and people can easily cut out 400-500 calories. If you keep such a diary and email it to me I would be happy to make suggestions for you.

The key is to do things you can stick with and not feel deprived.

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