How to Lose Weight – Part 2

How does someone lose weight? Well, as we discussed in our first article, a successful weight loss program depends on your WHY and your WHAT. (If you’re fuzzy as to what these terms are, please check out: “How to Lose Weight—Part 1). Once you have established your WHY and WHAT, you’re ready to learn HOW.

You’ve probably heard the adage, “You are what you eat.” There’s a lot of truth to this as losing weight is probably 80% food and 20% exercise.

For thousands of years, we have known about the health benefits of diet. You may be surprised to learn that the first example of a diet experiment is actually recorded in the Bible. The book of Daniel records how Daniel and his friends performed a nonrandomized, unblinded, small study in Babylon around 600 BC. In the end, they showed that eating veggies and drinking water was a much better diet than the meat and wine the others were consuming. These findings still hold true today!

Now let’s do some simple math. In theory, to get rid of 1 pound of pure fat you need to eliminate 3500 calories by eating less and/or burning more. Let’s put that in perspective: eliminating 3500 calories amounts to fasting for 1.5 days or walking on a treadmill for 9 hours! Obviously neither of those options is going to be a long-term solution for most people.

The weight loss industry is a $60 billion a year machine. Although you may think this translates into some serious weight loss, most programs only average ~10 pounds weight loss a year. Almost everyone I know wants (or needs) to lose more than that.

So what is the best kind of weight loss program? I’ll give you a hint: ‘get thin fast’ programs don’t work in the long term. What does work is slow and steady—think the tortoise versus the hare. The recommended amount of weight loss for sustained loss is 2 pounds per week. That may not sound like much, but over a year it comes out to 104 pounds! Think about it this way: It took you a long time to put it on, it’s going to take some time to get it off. Now back to the math problem.

Keeping in mind the 3500 per pound of fat rule—cutting down one soda a day (about 150 calories) could help you drop about 15 pounds by the end of the year. Think about it—15 pounds—and that’s without doing any exercise! Drop 2 sodas a day you lose 30! You skip that ‘healthy’ granola bar you buy each day (about 200 calories) you’re looking at a 20-pound drop. Get the idea? Small changes add up to big changes over time.

So we all know (mostly by personal experience) that crash or fad diets don’t work in the long term as we all eventually drift back to our old habits or just totally fall off the wagon. Immersion therapy doesn’t work either. The Lifestyle Center of America (LCA) had a program where you went to their facility and over the course of two weeks they taught you how to cook, eat, and exercise. The cost was several thousand dollars! Years ago the LCA did a follow up survey of their clients and found out that 60-70% were totally off the plan that they were taught, even though they had invested significant and time and money into it. What they found out was that the clients said it was ‘too hard’ to remember all that they were taught and ‘too hard’ to stick to the new plan. To their credit the LCA changed gears and developed the Full Plate Diet,[1] which teaches people to make small changes over time and develop healthy eating habits.

This brings up a fundamental problem with most diets: People don’t like to change. Although they can use brute force willpower for some time, once they crack a little bit they often say, “forget it, I blew the diet so might as well forget the whole thing!” In the book, “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,”[2] the authors explain that willpower is like a muscle—the more you use it the stronger it becomes. However, if you overuse your willpower, it will fatigue and fail. This is exactly what happens to most ‘dieter’s. To succeed, we need to utilize and build up some willpower early on, but we can’t rely on it forever.

What we need to do is go through a slow lifestyle change, not an extreme makeover. Instead of eating 3 plates of food, cut back to just having seconds for a while, then cut back to 1 plate. You may start eating honey-roasted cashews, but you can transition to salted, then to the 50% salt version (thank you Trader Joe’s), and eventually to raw nuts. Start off with white pasta, then cook half and half with whole wheat, and then convert fully to whole-wheat pasta only.

Think you can’t give up meat? If you start off with ‘meatless Monday,’ then transition to only eating meat on the weekends, eventually you’ll be able to become a vegetarian (maybe even a vegan). When done slowly, these changes are not such a shock to the system—you don’t have to use up a ton of willpower just to stay on your ‘diet’. The Full Plate Diet[3] is a great pictorial example of how to slowly make your old favorite meals healthier and healthier.

What you are doing by making small changes is harnessing the power of habit. In his book, “The Power of Habit: Why We do What We Do in Life and Business,”[4] Charles Duhigg talks about how small changes can affect even the culture of large companies. Habits are easy, require little to no energy (willpower) to follow and are the building blocks for your next change. How many things do you do each day by pure habit? You’ve made a bunch of bad habits (eating fast food, drinking soda, staying up late) now it’s time to build some good habits to replace them.

In our next article, we’ll look at specific examples of habits you can develop to take the DIE out of dieting.

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Harvey Hahn, MD, FACC

Dr. Hahn graduated from Loma Linda University in 1994. He is currently the director of the Cardiovascular Fellowship Training Program at the Kettering Medical Center in Kettering Ohio.

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