published Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Dieting the healthy way means lifestyle changes

We are fat.

About one-third of adults in the United States are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Obesity is most prevalent in the South, at 29.4 percent. Twelve states, including Tennessee and Alabama, have an obesity rate of more than 30 percent. Georgia is not much better at 29 percent.

Losing weight and maintaining weight loss must be a priority for many in order to retain health. Experts say there are both healthy and unhealthy ways to go about losing weight.

Danielle Mitchell, a sports medicine physician at Erlanger hospital, and Rebecca Hixson, a nurse practitioner at Parkridge Medical Group, weigh in with the following suggestions.

Remember the tortoise and the hare

"Slow and steady does win the race," said Hendrix. "You get more long-term benefits from it, and it tends to stay off if it comes off slower than if you lose really fast."

Healthy weight loss is about 2 pounds a week, said Mitchell. Losing weight too fast, she said, can cause complications from dehydration to eating disorders.

Think long term

Instead of the word "diet," Mitchell prefers the term "lifestyle change."

"'Diet' implies that it's something temporary," she said. "Healthy weight loss is really focused on behavioral modification as it relates to nutrition and exercise."

The health habits used during a period of rapid weight loss are generally not sustainable over a long period of time, and the body reacts accordingly.

Treat yourself

Don't cut out ice cream, pizza or fried chicken entirely. Just don't look to it as a staple of the diet. "When I was growing up, fast food was a treat," said Hendrix. "We didn't have it every day. It was a big deal if we went to McDonald's. Now people are eating fast food two or three times a day."

Avoid fad diets

"Eating a grapefruit-only diet or cabbage diet like people used to do back in the day, that's not the best option," said Hendrix. It comes down to making better choices. Trying to adopt a no-carb diet, she said, is unrealistic. Trying to decrease carbs or eat healthier carbohydrates, in the form of whole grains, is feasible.

Mitchell said a program like Weight Watchers, which emphasizes conscious eating but doesn't forbid any foods, is a realistic choice.

"Those are better options," said Hendrix. "If you deprive yourself of something, it's like you crave it."

Eat

Though fasts can be effective for quick, short-term weight loss, they are neither healthy nor long-term effective, Mitchell said.

"If you're starving yourself, your body is going to metabolically interpret that as starvation and slow down, so you don't burn your calories as efficiently. It makes it easier for you to pack on the pounds because your body is in starvation mode.

Yo-yo dieting and dietary extremes can lead to nutritional deficiencies and metabolic difficulties that can have a lifelong effect.

"You're body's not going to think, 'Oh, it's OK, I'm dieting, and I'm taking in [fewer] calories. Your body is going to think, 'I need to preserve.' "

Remember there's no hard and fast rule for how fast weight should come off

Initial weight loss will be greater in a larger person because their total body water content will be higher.

"Typically, when you're making lifestyle changes, you might see a significantly higher weight loss during the first week or two, and that's related to the loss of water weight at that point," Mitchell said. "The weight loss you tend to see after that is true fat weight loss."

Guidelines like body mass index are not hard and fast, she said. "The ideal body weight is kind of for the average person."

Talk to a doctor

Before beginning any weight-loss program beyond a few simple vanity pounds, consult with a physician.

"If you are looking at losing more than 15 to 20 pounds, you should be consulting a physician, because that is a significant portion of weight to lose," said Mitchell.

Eat the right things the right way

The key to healthy weight loss and maintenance is not just scaling back on unhealthy foods but getting enough of the healthy ones. Certain diets, for example, can cause protein deficiencies if they are not followed mindfully.

"If you decide you want to be vegan, that's great, but there are also risks with that," Mitchell said. "I don't want someone thinking that just because they fast and they lose weight that that's a healthy pattern. That's not healthy. You need to eat. You need to eat responsibly, and you need to eat well."

Exercise, but do it in moderation

When exercise becomes obsessive, or when someone is forgoing social activities to work out, they've entered a danger zone, Hendrix said. "If I'm exercising instead of doing social things I used to do, or I'm writing it down and counting calories, or if I'm missing family events because I have to exercise, it turns negative."

Remember that skinny does not equal healthy

Check other health markers, like blood pressure, cholesterol and vitamin levels.

"There is such a thing as fat skinny," said Hendrix, "people who are at a normal, healthy weight, but even though they're thin, they have horrible cholesterol, their blood pressure is out of control, they aren't careful about what they eat, and so it does do damage to their body."

"Here, especially in America, we're very weight focused and very skinny focused. It's almost like a type of racism against people who are obese."

The obesity epidemic can be faced, she said, by making healthy choices and adopting lifestyle changes.

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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