Ten Steps for Successful Fat Loss

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Now that you know how many calories you can eat to lose body fat gradually, you need to learn how to eat those calories appropriately. Here are 10 steps for successful fat loss.

1. Write it down. Keep accurate food records of every morsel and drop for three days, if not more. Research suggests that people who keep food records tend to lose weight effectively. A handy place to keep food records is on the Internet. See Dietary Analysis and Nutrition Assessment in appendix A for Web sites that can help you not only record your food but also calculate calories.

Record why you eat. Are you hungry, stressed, or bored? Include the time and amount you exercise as well. Evaluate your patterns for potentially fattening habits such as skimping at breakfast, nibbling all day, overeating at night because you've become too hungry, entertaining yourself with food when you're bored, or rewarding yourself with chocolate when you're stressed.

Pay careful attention to your mood when eating. Roberta discovered that at times a hug and human comforting could have better nourished her than food did. She acknowledged that eating a tub of popcorn diverted her loneliness or anxiety and distracted her from her problems but did nothing to resolve the problem that triggered her eating.

If you eat for reasons other than to obtain fuel, you need to recognize that food should only be fuel. Like a drug, food should not be abused. Food becomes dangerously fattening when it is eaten for entertainment, comfort, or stress reduction. And no amount of any food will solve your problems.

  1. Frontload your calories. If you eat lightly during the day and excessively at night, experiment with having a bigger breakfast and lunch and a lighter dinner. Roberta was surprised that I thought her diet breakfast of cereal with skim milk was too skimpy. She thought that diets were supposed to start at breakfast. I told her to start her diet at dinner. She needed more energy to get through her active day.
  2. Eat slowly. Overweight people tend to eat faster than their normal-weight counterparts do. Because the brain needs about 20 minutes to receive the signal that you've eaten your fill, slow eating can save you many calories. No matter how much you consume during those 20 minutes, the satiety signal doesn't move any faster. Try to pace your eating time so that you eat less and avoid the discomfort that often occurs after rapid eating. For example, choose a broth-based soup for a first course before dinner at a restaurant. Hot soup takes time to eat and decreases the appetite for the entree. You'll be content to have a lighter meal.

Roberta had the bad habit of inhaling her meals in a matter of minutes. She'd eat nonstop, without enjoying the pleasures of the meal. I encouraged her to put her fork down frequently, taste the food, and eat it mindfully. You should pay attention to what you are eating. Remember, the best part about food is its taste. If you aren't taking time to enjoy the taste of food, you are missing one of the pleasures of life.

Because Roberta had eaten quickly for most of her life, I suggested that she practice slowly eating at least one meal per day and then build that up to two, then three meals. She discovered that lunchtime became more enjoyable once she gave herself permission to relax and enjoy both the meal and mealtime. She felt less tempted to eat dessert because the slowly savored lunch satisfied her appetite.

4. Eat your favorite foods. If you deny yourself permission to eat what you truly want to eat, you are likely to binge. But if you give yourself permission to eat your desired foods in diet portions, you will be less likely to blow your reducing plan. If chocolate-glazed doughnuts are among your favorites, then have one once or twice a week. Simply determine how many calories are in the doughnut, and spend your calorie budget accordingly (many chain restaurants provide calorie information online). When eating this treat, remember to chew it slowly, savor the taste, and fully enjoy it. You'll free yourself from the temptation to devour a dozen doughnuts in one sitting.

Roberta's downfall was chocolate-chip cookies. "I can go for four days without a cookie fix, but then I inevitably end up eating two great big ones." I encouraged Roberta to have a cookie at lunch at least twice per week to prevent those unnecessary binges. When she did that, she discovered that she had less desire for cookies as treats because she did not feel denied or deprived. Eating bigger meals also helped abate the cookie cravings. By preventing herself from getting too hungry, she lost interest in sugary treats (see chapter 5).

5. Avoid temptation. Out of sight, out of mind, and out of mouth. If you spend a lot of free time in the kitchen, you might consider relocating to the den when you want to relax, where food is less likely to be available. At parties, socialize in the living room, away from the buffet table and away from the snacks. At the market, skip the aisle with the cookies.

Roberta used to take walks that went by the bakery. No wonder she'd succumb to temptation. I suggested that she walk down another street. This became the simple solution to what had been a major problem. She also learned to enter her house through the front door and go immediately upstairs to change her clothes and unwind from the day. Previously, she had entered the house through the kitchen door. She would then habitually open the refrigerator and graze for a few minutes while making that transition from working to being at home.

6. Keep a list of nonfood activities. When you are bored, lonely, tired, or nervous, you need to have some strategies in mind that have nothing to do with eating. You might want to call a friend, check your e-mail, take a bath, water the plants, listen to music by candlelight, surf the Web, work on a puzzle, go for a walk, take a nap, play with your kids, or meditate. Food is designed to be fuel, not entertainment, and not a reward for having survived another stressful day.

When Roberta felt tired and stressed, she would treat herself to food. I encouraged her to ask herself before indulging, "Am I hungry? Or am I tired and stressed? Does my body need this fuel?" If the answer was that she was tired, she talked herself into going to bed early. If the answer was that she was stressed, she learned to recognize that no amount of food would resolve the stress, so she shouldn't even start to eat. Making a phone call to her best friend or writing a page in her journal became her slimming alternatives.

When you overeat because you are stressed, you are only trying to be nice to yourself. Food alters your brain chemistry and may put you in a happier mood—for the moment, that is. In the end this inappropriate coping skill will leave you even more stressed and depressed from the weight gain. Learning how to manage stress without food is the obvious solution.

Instructors from the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston suggest taking three deep, slow breaths—breathe in peace, breathe out stress—to dissipate stress. Meditation can also be helpful. Calm your mind by sitting in a comfortable position and focusing on the word ocean. Slowly inhale on "O" and exhale on "cean." Soon the calm vision of ocean waves will help soothe your nerves . . . and perhaps save you some calories.

7. Make a realistic eating plan. You don't have to lose weight every day. Rather, every day you can choose to lose, maintain, or even gain weight. For example, if you face a hectic schedule and wonder how you will survive the stresses of the day, give yourself permission to fuel yourself fully and have a maintain-weight day. You'll need the energy to cope. If you are going to an elegant wedding and want to enjoy the full dinner, go right ahead. A gain-weight day from time to time is part of normal eating. Your body will simply be less hungry the next day, and you'll be able to compensate by eating a little less. (Note: Do not "save calories" for a big dinner by skimping on daytime food; doing so tends to backfire, and you'll inevitably end up seriously overeating in the evening.)

Roberta had always considered a diet to be a nonstop event that would last for weeks or months until she reached her target weight. I invited her to see weight reduction as being a daily choice that depends on the stress level of the day. I also recommended that she plan on a treat once a week. Just as people need a day off from work, dieters need a day off from dieting. Roberta acknowledged, "Knowing that I can enjoy going out to eat on Friday night helps me stay with my reducing program the rest of the week."

8. Schedule appointments for exercise. If you are a serious athlete who is trying to lose weight, you likely have a regular training program. But if you are a fitness exerciser who has trouble following a consistent exercise program, you might be helped by scheduling the time to exercise in your appointment book. You want to exercise regularly to tone muscles, relieve stress, and improve your health, but you should not overexercise. If you exercise too much, you will likely end up injured, tired, and irritable.

As I mentioned before, exercise should be for fun and fitness, not simply for burning off calories. Be sure that you enjoy yourself.

Roberta would sometimes punish herself with extra-hard workouts— more time on the stair stepper or longer, faster walks to burn more calories. Although she did expend 500 to 600 calories per session, she'd end up so hungry that by the end of the day she would inevitably replace those calories, plus more. I encouraged her to stop using exercise as punishment for having extra body fat. She should exercise to improve her health and performance. Remember, exercise only contributes to weight loss if it culminates in a calorie deficit at the end of the day.

My clients commonly ask, "How much exercise is enough?" Enough for what? Enough to lose weight? You can lose weight without exercising; you just need to eat fewer calories. Enough for overall health and fitness? The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM 1998) recommends accumulating at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week (about 150 calories per day, or 1,000 calories per week). The classic Harvard Alumni Health Study found that the lowest death rates from cardiovascular disease occurred among those who burned more than 1,000 calories per week (Sesso, Pfaffenbarger, and Lee 2000). The Institute of Medicine recommends 60 minutes each day of moderate physical activity (2,000 calories per week) to prevent weight gain and optimize health (Couzin 2002).

  1. Make sleep a priority. Getting too little sleep can make you feel hungrier. When you are tired, the signals to your brain to stop eating are very quiet, and the signals to eat more are very loud. Roberta often found herself tired and hungry at the end of her long day. She learned to go to bed earlier and reminded herself she needed to "snooze to lose." She knew if she started eating, she would have great difficulty stopping.
  2. Think fit and healthy. Every morning before you get out of bed, visualize yourself being fitter and leaner. This picture will help you start the day with a positive attitude. If you tell yourself that you are eating more healthfully and are successfully losing weight, you will do so more easily. Positive self-talk is important for your well-being.

Roberta constantly reminded herself that she'd rather be healthier and leaner than allow herself to overeat. She took smaller portions. She made a daily eating plan and stuck to it. On her way home after work, she visualized herself eating a pleasant (but smaller) dinner, chewing the food slowly, savoring the taste, relaxing after dinner with a book rather than cookies, and successfully following her food plan. By practicing this scene before she arrived home, she discovered that she was better able to carry through with her good intentions.

Roberta also reminded herself that when she ate well, she felt better and exercised better. She also felt better about herself. After years of unsuccessful dieting, she liked feeling successful, perhaps even more than feeling thinner.

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