Having trouble losing weight? Health experts answer the top weight loss questions, including how many calories to eat, how to avoid regaining lost weight, and how to beat the weight loss plateau.
Weight loss and weight maintenance are top concerns for most of us, but there are so many rumors and fads out there that it's hard to keep track of what really works. We've sorted through the claims by talking to registered dietitians and doctors and reading the most recent studies to give you trustworthy answers to 15 top weight loss questions, including:
How do I conquer a food craving?
Should I cut carbs to lose weight?
Is it true that eating after 8 p.m. makes you put on pounds?
How often should I weigh myself?
Get all the answers here.
Q. Diet programs often say you should eat more slowly. Does this really help with weight loss?
A. It's not clear from studies whether eating slowly helps people eat less food. "It's worth a try, however, to slow down and tune in to knowing when the food has satisfied you -- especially if you are a fast eater," says Anne M. Fletcher, M.S., R.D., L.D., author of Thin for Life, Eating Thin for Life and Thin for Life Daybook (Houghton Mifflin Co.). As with any strategy, if it doesn't help, you can abandon it.
Q. How do I figure out how many calories I should be eating?
A. If you're healthy and you exercise moderately two or three days a week, you can figure out your calorie intake by multiplying your ideal body weight (IBW) by 14.
If you're trying to lose pounds, your IBW is your goal weight; for maintenance, your IBW is your current weight. For instance, if you weigh 135 pounds and you want to maintain that, you need about 1,890 (135 x 14) calories per day. This is a very rough calculation; for a more accurate assessment, have your metabolic rate tested by a fitness professional.
Q. Why is it harder to lose weight each time you gain it back?
A. "Because no matter how you drop pounds -- whether it's through dieting, exercise, or a combination of both -- you will inevitably lose some muscle, and that slows down your basal metabolic rate," explains Jackie Newgent, R.D., a New York City based nutrition consultant. Strength training with weights throughout your weight loss period can help preserve a lot but not necessarily all of it. "Then, when you regain the weight, you'll most likely put on more fat than muscle, which reduces your percentage of lean body mass, leaving you with a slower metabolism than you had prior to the weight loss."
It's the well studied yo yo effect, and the only solution is to maintain your new weight with as much determination and diligence as it took to drop the pounds in the first place. In fact, some experts now contend that keeping your weight consistent -- even if you're carrying around a few extra pounds -- may be more important to preserving your long term health than slimming down. Chronic yo yo dieting throughout your life can cause damage to your heart.
Q. Whenever I change my diet, I'm consumed by cravings. How do I make them stop?
A. "Any dietary change that cuts calories or familiar foods will inevitably leave you vulnerable to cravings, often for whatever's 'off limits.' It's just human nature," explains Jenna A. Bell Wilson, Ph.D., R.D. But there are two things you can do.
First, when you decide to satisfy a craving, take time to enjoy the food and don't feel guilty about it. For foods you can't stop eating once you get started, try having them only in situations where the portion is controlled. For instance, eat them at a restaurant or buy single-serving items rather than a whole package. Most weight maintainers say that they avoid buying highly tempting foods but that if they do have such foods around, they keep them out of sight and therefore out of mind.
Q. I can lose weight in the summer, but I regain it in the fall. Help!
A. To get back on track, try to think about how you lost the weight in the first place. "Whatever worked for you then will probably work for you in a maintenance phase," says Jenna A. Bell Wilson, Ph.D., R.D. If you used meal replacements, try them again, substituting portion controlled shakes or frozen meals for just one meal a day instead of two, as recommended for weight loss.
If counting calories helped you lose the first time, get out your food diary and calculator. "The more you can make your diet strategy second nature, the better your chances of maintaining your weight loss for life," Bell Wilson says. In a recent study published in Nursing Science Quarterly, women who were most successful at weight maintenance closely monitored their food choices, exercised regularly, and had a strong support network. For instance, participants who had used a weight loss group to lose pounds kept attending meetings, serving as mentors to other attendees even after they'd reached their goals.
Q. I've read that cutting carbs is unhealthy, but all my friends are losing weight by doing it. Why shouldn't I?
A. "You'll be better able to maintain your weight loss if you don't have to permanently eliminate or restrict a single food group," explains Densie Webb, R.D. Low-carb diets are designed for short stints because your body simply cannot function without carbohydrates for very long. Diets that have this as their weight loss technique are appealing because they promise quick results, but studies show that after 12 months, they provide no greater weight loss benefit than a typical reduced-calorie, low-fat diet. Slow, steady weight loss is much easier to maintain for life, says Elisa Zied, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Q. I always consume fewer than 1,500 calories a day, and I still can't lose weight. Help!
A. Compile a detailed food diary for at least a week. "Most of us underestimate how many calories we consume, so it's possible you're eating more than you think," says Cynthia Sass, R.D., coauthor of Your Diet Is Driving Me Crazy (Marlowe & Company, 2004). If the calorie count is correct, then the wrong exercise program could be to blame. "If you're not strength training while you're dieting, you may be losing lean tissue, and that cuts your metabolic rate," explains Sass.
Most likely, though, you've just hit a plateau, which is a fancy way of saying your body has adjusted to your lower calorie intake. To bust out of it, you need to change your workout by exercising longer or more intensely. "Cutting calories could also work, but it's not advisable to consume fewer than 1,500 calories a day because it's extremely difficult to fulfill all your nutrient needs," Sass says.
Q. I keep hearing how important exercise is for weight control, but when I see the number of calories that exercise actually burns, I feel discouraged. Is it really worth it?
A. It can be discouraging when you look at a chart that says one hour of walking (at a rate of, say, 3.5 miles per hour) burns only 300 calories and that 30 minutes of aerobics burns only about 250. Instead, look at the cumulative effects and how those burned calories add up over time. "For instance, if you walked for one hour five times a week and ate exactly the same as you do now, you could lose about 20 pounds in a year's time without dieting," says Anne M. Fletcher, M.S., R.D., L.D., author of Thin for Life, Eating Thin for Life, and Thin for Life Daybook (Houghton Mifflin Co.). "Exercise also eases stress, anxiety, and depression, all of which can lead to overeating."
Q. Is it true that eating after 8 p.m. makes you put on pounds?
A. Possibly. "You need more calories when you're active and fewer when you're sedentary," explains Jackie Newgent, R.D., a New York City based nutrition consultant. So if you're eating the bulk of your calories while you're sitting in front of the TV, you may indeed store more of them as fat. "However, what matters most when it comes to losing weight is how many total calories you take in and burn off throughout the day, not just within a limited time frame," Newgent says. If swearing off snacks after 8:00 helps you reduce your overall calorie intake, go for it, but don't forget to keep track of the whole day's tally as well.
Q. I hear a lot about "cheat days," when I can eat whatever I like. Does that really help with weight loss?
A. Deprivation is a powerful thing. When you're deprived of something, which is often true on diets, you want it even more, explains Stephanie Karpinske, M.S., R.D. That's where the cheat day comes in. It's a psychological trick to satisfy your cravings for chips, pizza, donuts, and other non-diet foods so that you won't feel deprived. If that satisfaction keeps you on your diet, then yes, it can help with weight loss. But keep in mind that on your cheat days, you're eating more calories, maybe even 1,000-2,000 calories more. That can really slow down weight loss. And the cheat day could backfire -- giving into your cravings may have you saying goodbye to the diet and hello to your old ways of eating.
Q. I spent my 20s drastically cutting calories and fat grams. Have I permanently damaged my metabolism?
A. Not necessarily. "Restricting your calorie intake over a prolonged period of time will likely slow your metabolic rate," says Elisa Zied, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "After a decade of this, your body has probably become accustomed to functioning on fewer calories, so any increase could translate into extra pounds." But the effect isn't permanent.
Two steps to boost your metabolism:
1. Increase your activity level. "That will boost your metabolic rate, especially if you combine strength training with cardiovascular exercise," Zied says. Resistance training helps build muscle, which is more metabolically active than fat.
2. Gradually alter your eating habits. Increase your food intake to coincide with your elevated activity. "If you carefully balance what you eat with what you burn, you'll be less likely to gain weight," Zied says.
Q. How often should I weigh myself when I'm trying to lose weight?
A. There hasn't been much research on this, but several studies suggest that weighing yourself more often, rather than less, may help with weight control. Findings published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine on two large groups of people -- one group participating in a weight-gain-prevention study and the other participating in a weight-loss study -- revealed that those who weighed themselves more often were more likely to lose weight or less likely to regain weight over the next two years. The authors of the study say daily weighing is valuable to people trying to lose weight or prevent weight gain.
Similarly, findings from the National Weight Control Registry suggest that most weight maintainers weigh themselves more than once per week, and nearly four out of 10 weigh themselves daily.
"Take into account your average weight loss over time and don't let weighing in make you crazy," says Anne M. Fletcher, M.S., R.D., L.D. "You need to create a deficit of 3,500 calories to lose 1 pound, which doesn't happen on a day-to-day basis." Find what works for you, because daily weighing can be misleading. For instance, if you eat Chinese food, which tends to be high in sodium, your weight might jump the next day because your body retains water when you eat a lot of salt.
"The idea is to use the information from your scale as feedback about your weight management program," Fletcher says, "not as an indicator of self-worth or a determinant of your mood for the day."
Q. Are diet pills and diet supplements regulated?
A. Yes and no.
Yes, there's a law that outlines the regulation of over-the-counter diet pills and other supplements, such as vitamins and herbal remedies, says Stephanie Karpinske, MBA, M.S., R.D. But no, supplement companies don't have to comply with the regulations (they're voluntary). Companies don't have to prove that their products are safe or that they work. Prescription diet pills, however, are considered a drug and have to go through the same strict guidelines and testing as any other prescribed drug.
One over-the-counter drug, known under the brand name Alli, can now be sold without a prescription. It contains a lower dosage than the prescription version and is the only FDA-approved diet pill sold over the counter. As for other diet pill supplements: Buyer beware.
Q. How much weight can I gain each month due to water retention?
A. It depends. A diet high in sodium may bring on bloat, says Elisa Zied, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. The National Institutes of Health recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily.
"You also can gain up to several pounds, depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle," Zied says. Estrogen encourages bloating by stimulating the kidneys to retain sodium. If you're taking oral contraceptives, note that older prescriptions containing higher doses of estrogen can cause more bloating than the new, lower-dose pills. (Some studies show no difference in water-weight gain between a low-dose oral contraceptive and a placebo.)
Q. I've heard that cutting sugar from my diet can help me lose pounds. Is that true?
A. "No one type of food will make you fat or thin," says Densie Webb, R.D. "However, cutting back on sugar when you're dieting is an easy way to reduce your calorie intake."
Sugar contains calories but nothing else, and "empty calories" are the last thing you want on a diet, says Stephanie Karpinske, MBA, M.S., R.D. Sugar is also digested quickly so you're hungry soon after you eat it. It raises insulin levels, which promotes fat storage. Plus, it can be addictive because it raises levels of serotonin -- the feel-good chemical in the brain that helps us relax during times of stress. That's one reason why weaning yourself off sugar is so difficult.
To reduce cravings for sugar, seek out naturally sweet foods such as fruit, which has vitamins, minerals, and fiber. You'll get the sweet taste without the insulin spikes and crashes that come from the refined sugar in candy and donuts. Also, find alternative ways to relax so when stress hits, you avoid heading for the candy drawer.