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November 9, 2000

Forget the gimmicks and cut down on the amount you eat if you really want to shed those pounds

The bad news for those trying to lose weight:

* Skipping meals doesn't work;

* Fad diets and diet supplements don't work (and even may be dangerous);

* Gimmicks like "staplepuncture" and "slimming soles" don't work.

The good news is that for the committed person there are sensible steps to take that will result in healthy weight loss, according to nutritionist Leslie Bonci, who spoke on "Fad Diets: The Glitz, the Myths, What Really Works."

Bonci is director of sports medicine nutrition for the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine. She also serves as the nutritionist for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Riverhounds, the Pitt athletics department and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and is a consulting nutritionist for the U.S. Olympic team.

Bonci's Nov. 2 talk was sponsored by the University's Wellness Program, which offers seminars and classes in health-related issues.

Statistics show that Americans generally are getting fatter, mainly due to more sedentary lifestyles and to consuming bigger portions of food. Bonci said about 55 percent of adults and 35 percent of children in this country are over their desirable weight.

Bonci warned that there are no quick fixes to losing pounds, if keeping them off is the goal. Furthermore, there are confusing, contradictory and downright false claims in the world of diet options.

"Successful weight loss is defined as 10 percent loss from the starting weight over a period of six months," Bonci said. "If a person weighs 200 pounds, we're talking losing 20 pounds. That translates to about one-half to three-quarters of a pound a week, which is the best and healthiest way to lose it."

The key to weight loss is limiting the number of calories, not limiting the types of food one eats, diet plan claims to the contrary. "I would never say to anybody there is any food you have to cut out," Bonci said. "Literally, if people would just cut down slightly on the amount of the foods they ate, they would lose weight."

A rule of thumb for measuring healthy daily calorie intake is to multiply weight by 10 to get the number of calories necessary to maintain weight. "So a man who weighs 200 pounds needs about 2,000 calories a day to maintain. Suppose he says, 'Well, I'll eat half that number.' So he eats 1,000 calories a day for three days and by the fourth day his body says, 'Nice try, but I'm starving,' and he ends up eating everything in sight. It doesn't work to do it that way for most people."

A better strategy is to set a reasonable daily calorie count, about 25-30 percent fewer calories than the maintenance level. Bonci recommended that people learn to leave the dining table "feeling about a 5 [out of 10] on the hunger scale. Take a little of everything; but take a little of it. Tell yourself you can go back and get more. Say, 'I could eat a little more, but I'm okay.' Don't eat to the level of discomfort."

Bonci categorized weight loss success as what and how much food you eat combined with your lifestyle habits.

"There are a lot of things that influence whether you eat something or not: being angry, bored, tired, happy. We can't separate out our habits from the food."

Bonci said that merely deciding to diet doesn't make a person ready to be successful at it. "You have to say, 'I've thought about it, I know it's going to be tough work.' If people are going to be really successful, they need to promise themselves at least a six- month commitment. Nothing happens in a week; it's not enough time for the body to change. Six months is an investment in the health of your life, so it's really not all that long." And lifestyle changes, such as eating regular balanced meals, take three months at least to adjust to, she said.

The nutritionist pointed out that successful dieting is not an ever-downward sliding scale. "It's steps, not straight down. You drop a little weight, it stabilizes, then you drop a little more."

And it's a myth to think that will power alone can be enough. "We really need to listen to our body's internal cues: I'm hungry, I'm full, I need to eat now. Saying, 'I'll eat a lot now and then I won't want to eat a lot later,' or 'I won't eat at all now, I'll just ignore my hunger' — that doesn't work for the body."

Bonci critiqued two popular dieting approaches, high-protein diets and high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets. Both kinds of diets are exclusionary, Bonci said, and neither works in the long term. "To say carbohydrates are toxic or sugar is toxic — it's absurd how they categorize these foods. As if, all of a sudden, there are different enzymes and pathways in the body in the United States today."

Food is bad only if a person is allergic to it, if it's spoiled or if the person doesn't like it, she said. "But to group foods as bad — carrots are bad or potatoes are bad — it's absolutely ridiculous."

In a high-protein diet, carbohydrates are kept to a minimum: no fruit and few vegetables. However, the body needs carbohydrates, which produce glucose. "The body still needs glucose, so what it will do is take some fat from storage and create ketone bodies. That means you're burning a little bit of fat, but there are consequences: First, it's not normal. Second, ketosis affects the blood, making it more acidic, and it has an impact on bones, by taking calcium out of the bones, and that is a very scary thing," Bonci said. She said bone-loss results from high-protein diets and research indicates it's irreversible. "So, I'm down 10 pounds, but five pounds of that was my skeleton," she quipped.

In the case of high-carbohydrate diets, the body may not be getting enough protein, calcium, magnesium, iron or essential fatty acids. Moreover, the diet may be too high in sugar content and the body's gastro-intestinal track may have trouble digesting a steady dose of carbohydrates.

"But the major issue of why carbohydrates are bad has to do with the portions. Today, we go into an Italian restaurant and the order comes out in a wheelbarrow," Bonci said.

"Fat-free does not equal calorie-free. And fat promotes satiety. If people cut fat intake too low, they get hungrier sooner, they don't feel full. So adding some fat to your diet can actually help you feel like your body is more in control. Plus it tastes good."

People think that if food tastes good, it must be bad for them. "Ridiculous!" she said. "Like fat-free cheese, it just doesn't taste good. Wouldn't you rather eat something you enjoy the taste of and be willing to say, 'I'm going to eat a little bit less of it?'"

Weight loss supplements are risky for a number of reasons, including potential health hazards, Bonci said. Some, such as chromium, L-carnitine, quercetin, pyruvate and chitosan do not have significant fat-burning properties, and cause water or muscle loss instead. Others, including ephedra and synephrine, are stimulants with potential unhealthy side effects such as migraines, high blood pressure and heart problems.

Bonci said no supplements can substitute for a healthy eating plan. "Whatever you eat really needs to be appealing to you from all the senses. See it, smell it, taste it. If you don't see food your body doesn't have the sense that it's eating. If you sit at your computer with a bag of chips and a while later you're saying, 'Where did the chips go?' it doesn't help at all. Say, 'I'm going to sit down, I'm going to stop doing those other things,' and your body will actually be more satisfied."

Finally, Bonci urged that dieters not be so hard on themselves, especially around the holidays. "Holidays aren't really the problem. You know you're going to eat and it is going to be more than you normally eat," given the effort in the meal's preparation.

"Don't weigh yourself the day after Thanksgiving. Who needs that kind of negative reinforcement? It's what happens after that. Be encouraging to yourself and stick to your plan."

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 33 Issue 6

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