Weight, diet: Did the rules change?

Eating Well

September 19, 1995|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Here we are again at the "What should I weigh?" crossroads.

The breaking news last week focused on a study that says thinner is better. Based on the Nurses' Health study, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study found that among healthy, non-smoking women, the thinnest had the lowest risk of dying at mid-life. For a woman over age 35, at 5 feet 5 inches tall, any weight over 119 pounds increased death risk.

The higher the weight, the greater the risk.

Standards published in the 1990 U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggested people over 35 could safely weigh 126 to 162 pounds.

But that's for men and women, not women alone. In fact, the 1990 Guidelines warn that the higher weights apply to men, who typically have more muscle and bone, and the lower weights apply to women. Now even those suggestions are being revamped.

The preliminary report of the 1995 Guidelines has dropped the higher weights for older people, and returned to one-weight-fits-all-ages recommendation. If the preliminary report holds up, the rule of thumb will be 114-150 pounds for everyone standing 5 feet 5, again with women at the lower end and men at the higher.

Balanced against these new findings is another New England Journal of Medicine study from earlier this year confirming the "set point theory," which has been explored for about 20 years.

That study found losing weight permanently lowers metabolic rate, the calories needed for internal housekeeping chores such as heartbeat, breathing and digestion. So a person trying to maintain weight loss will have to eat less than a person who didn't have to lose to get to that same weight.

If the loser returns to normal eating, she will regain the weight. In other words, diets are forever.

That study falls more in line with the findings of the National Institutes of Health's Consensus Conference on Voluntary Weight Loss, that 95 percent of all people who lose weight regain it.

After that conference, dietitian Anne Fletcher went looking for the 5 percent who lost weight and kept if off.

In her book, "Thin for Life," Ms. Fletcher reports on interviews with 160 successful, long-term losers. And they agree. They've had to watch what they eat forever. Many regained five or even 10 pounds when they relaxed their eating habits, but quickly returned to their dieting state to get back to their target weights.

Further confusing the weight issue is the recent discovery of the "ob" (obesity) gene. Some people who carry this gene tend to carry more excess pounds and have more trouble burning fat. This is set point with a vengeance. For these folks, returning to "chart weights" may not even be possible.

But does that mean endless weight gain is OK or even necessary?

The Berkeley Wellness Letter responds to this point. "The increasing incidence of obesity in America cannot be explained by our genes. Our genetic makeup cannot have been significantly altered in just two or three generations.

"We've gone from thin to fat because we eat more and exert ourselves less."

So what does all this mean? And what should a reasonable person do?

* First: Stay where you are. Clearly an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Preventing additional weight gain is easier than losing weight and keeping it off.

Commit to making this your highest weight ever.

* Second: Exercise. No matter what your weight, regular aerobic exercise will improve the condition of your heart and blood vessels, reducing your risks for heart disease. Strength training (weight lifting) will increase your muscle mass, helping you burn more calories all day long. That means you can eat more without gaining weight.

Become more active generally. Walk to the store. Use the stairs. Play with your kids or grandchildren. Plan active vacations where you can walk or cycle.

* Third: Eat light, don't diet. No matter what your weight, focus on eating healthfully in quantities that are right for the weight you want to be.

Avoid starvation diets that lower your metabolic rate. Get some new quick-and-easy cookbooks.

Learn to love the food that brings you health and vitality.

9- Colleen Pierre's column appears Tuesdays.

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