Shedding light on weight loss

Behavior: You won't lose that many pounds on a diet, a professor says, so you should concentrate on weight maintenance

Health & Fitness.

August 22, 1999|By Art Carey | Art Carey,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Diets that focus on weight loss don't work.

If you're among the 99 percent of women who are trying to get or stay thin, you already know this. But it's one thing to deduce it from your own bitter experience, quite another to have it confirmed, in unequivocal terms, by an obesity researcher.

His name is Michael Lowe. Officially, he's a psychology professor at MCP Hahnemann University in Philadelphia. His specialty: dieting behavior. In other words, he makes his living studying how folks react to victory and defeat in the battle of the bulge.

Truth to tell, there are mostly defeats. In fact, most folks on a diet can reasonably expect to lose only about 10 percent of their starting weights, says Lowe.

How does this translate in real life? If you're a woman of a certain age whose fondness for Doritos and vanilla-fudge ice cream and contempt for exercise have caused you to grow rather zaftig since your cheerleading days (when you were a 120-pound sprite), and you now tip the Toledo at, say, 170 pounds, you're a dreamer if you think you're going to be able to pare away much more than 17 pounds.

Sure, you may dip below 150 -- briefly -- but every fat cell in your body will be on the brink of mutiny, clamoring to be fed. And you'll give in.

Within a year, most folks gain back about a third of what they lose. Within five years, nearly everyone gains it all back, and then some.

Thanks for letting us know, professor. But why do the pounds always come back?

Three reasons:

As we age, we lose muscle, and muscle is "metabolically active" -- that is, it burns calories even when you're at rest.

When you diet, you don't lose your fat cells. You just shrink 'em, and they can shrink only so far.

When you lose weight, your metabolism slows down, because, in Lowe's words, "your body is reacting defensively to the caloric deprivation." Eventually, your metabolism rebounds, but the furnace never gets as hot as it once was. Reason: Of the weight you lost, about three-quarters was fat; one quarter was muscle, and muscle is active (see the first reason, above).

Pretty discouraging. Yet, Lowe, 48, is pumped about his work. In fact, he's about to launch a study that could bring new hope to those struggling with dieting and weight control, or at least shift the emphasis so that folks are happier with the results.

Lowe believes that most diet programs are backward. They put too much emphasis on dropping pounds and not enough on keeping them off.

His idea is to move the accent -- to speed up weight reduction with the help of liquid meals, then devote most of the time and attention to weight maintenance.

His chief tool: cognitive-behavioral therapy -- changing the way people not only eat, exercise and go about their lives but also think about food, their bodies and the inevitable setbacks and failures of dieting.

Task One: Realistic expectations. You're not going to lose an unlimited amount of weight. You're not going to look the way you did when you were 21.

A modest weight loss of 5 percent to 10 percent won't dramatically alter your appearance, Lowe concedes, but it can substantially improve such obesity-related health risks as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. And that is truly something to take comfort in and be proud of.

Task Two: Prepare to fail and be disappointed. Says Lowe: "The trick to weight-loss maintenance is not to eat 2,000 calories each and every day, but to try to eat that amount most days, and learn how to manage the slip-ups and get yourself back on track."

During the study, Lowe hopes to catch people when they blow it -- then help them put it in perspective, to rally, so they don't spiral into reproach and self-loathing, which can lead many dieters to chuck the whole thing.

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