Forget dieting, put exercise on menu

Eating Well

April 23, 1996|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Exercise, without the agony of a low-calorie diet, may be the key to happy, healthy, long-term weight loss, according to a study published in April's Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

The study checked the weights of 127 men and women, one year after a weight-loss program, to find out which weight-loss method worked the best in the long run. Participants were 25 to 45 years old, and were at least 30 pounds overweight.

The program lasted a year, and included equal numbers of men and women divided into three groups:

1. The diet-only group went on a well-balanced, low-cholesterol eating plan, individually tailored so each person chose their favorite foods and lost about two pounds per week. They were asked not to change their exercise habits.

2. The exercise-only group developed personalized walking plans, based on how hard the walking seemed to them. They walked vigorously, but not strenuously. Some started with as little as five minutes of walking per session. Their goal was to gradually build up to walking three to five times per week, for 45 minutes or more per walk. They were asked not to change their eating habits during the study.

3. The combination group received both the diet instruction and the exercise training.

Each of the groups met weekly for three months, then tapered off to monthly meetings. Eighty-six people stuck it out for the entire year. Their average weight loss: diet group, 15 pounds; exercise group, 6 pounds; combination group, 20 pounds.

One year later, the 86 were invited back for a weigh-in. Sixty-one returned. Compared to their beginning weights, here's how the groups stacked up: diet group, plus 2 pounds; exercise group, minus 6 pounds; combination group, minus 5 pounds.

Both groups involved in dieting had substantial weight losses during the program, but experienced rebound weight gain in the following year. The exercisers had a slower weight loss during the program, then leveled off and stayed there.

The researchers point to information gleaned from other studies that help explain these results. To summarize:

Exercise, especially when you can set the pace yourself, feels good. The deprivation of dieting feels bad. We're more likely to do things that feel good than those that feel bad. Exercise is energizing. Dieting is fatiguing.

Long-term dieting is hard to maintain because our bodies tend to conserve energy by reducing basal metabolic rate.

Even a healthy diet tailored to our personal preferences requires limitations. Our hopeful expectation at the start of a diet helps overcome our sense of deprivation, but ongoing restrictions can feel like a burden.

Remember, this is only one small study. It adds to our body of knowledge about weight loss, but is not the answer all by itself.

Different approaches to weight loss work for different people. Individual results within this study varied. Two people in the diet group, six people in the exercise group and eight people in the combination group were more than 10 pounds below their original weight at the two-year mark, so whatever they did was still working for them. However, four people in the diet group, one person in the exercise group and three people in the combination group were more than 10 pounds above their original weight at the two-year mark.

If you're a lifelong dieter for whom nothing seems to work, you might build a new plan based on the ideas from this study. If you've been gaining two or three pounds every year while bouncing from one diet to another, give exercise a try.

Start out slowly and build up gradually, but do it. Eat healthfully, including your favorite foods, but don't overeat. Eat when you're hungry, but stop when you're not hungry anymore. Don't clean your plate or empty the bag just because it's there.

And be patient. We've trained ourselves to believe that weight loss should be rapid. Losing six pounds in a year is slow. Most people think they should lose six pounds the first week!

But you could be down six pounds two years from now, instead of up six. That's a difference of 12 pounds, enough to reduce your risks for heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. And it can be one whole dress size!

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant at the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 4/23/96

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