Weight Loss: What Works?

Welcome to the New Year! As you may have noticed, 'tis is the season when society's interest in weight loss escalates from the slightly obsessive to the barking, raving, shrieking insane.

Everywhere you turn, someone is telling you how to lose a quick and easy 10, 20, 50 or even 100 pounds. Of course, many of these are commercial pitches for dubious exercise devices, pills, fad diets, or low-cal convenience foods, squarely aimed at separating you from your hard-earned money.

Some of these pitches are laughably stupid. But there's also plenty of sensible advice on offer this time of year. It's just that few people want to follow the sensible advice, because, well, it makes sense! It doesn't promise magic. Real weight loss advice is no fun compared to a product we can buy that will miraculously make weight loss pleasant and effortless.

Yes, please sign me up for the diet plan where I get to eat my fill of delicious pizza, pasta, chocolate cake and ice cream while the pounds just melt away! Oh, and can you send me a little barstool I can swivel on for a few minutes at my desk each day that will magically sculpt my entire body and make me lean and muscular? Thanks! Oh wait, on second thought, I don't really feel like swiveling. Have you got something in a pill I could just take? You do? Awesome, let me get my credit card!

Not being clever enough to have any miraculous weight loss products to market myself, I suppose I have to share the boring sensible stuff instead. Which you probably already know! But in the season of jaw-dropping "before" and "after" photos, and "Lose 30 pounds in 3o days" claims, it might be a good time for a reminder about the tedious, obvious stuff that actually works.

1. Focus more effort on adding healthy foods to your diet than to subtracting calories.
I know, this seems backwards. And if you're an old hand at healthy eating and you're just working on portion control, feel free to skip this step.

But if you are eating even remotely like most people in this "modern" age, you are eating far too much processed, fatty, salty, sugary, dangerously tasty crap. You are getting a belly-full of transfats and saturated fats and sugar and refined grains and questionable chemicals. You are being programmed to crave junk and these cravings keeping you in a constant state of insatiable food-lust. And you are probably eating far too few fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, lean proteins, and healthy fats like olive oil. The stuff your body actually needs that will keep you from being hungry all the time.

This not only messes with your weight and your metabolism; it leaves you a handy target for disease and will make your old age miserable, if you even manage to get to old age.

Of course if you're trying to lose weight fast, it's tempting to focus solely on calories or Weight Watcher points, for which you get "credit." Instead of putting healthier stuff in your body, it's easier to plot and scheme about how you can replicate all your favorite treats in 100 calorie portion controlled versions. However, many folks have discovered that this energy and motivation may be better used slowly but surely acquiring a taste for healthier foods.

It takes trial and error and persistence, but you can retrain your tastebuds. Eventually, you may come to crave a spinach, mango, and kefir smoothie in the morning just as much as you used to love a frosted Poptart.

2. Learn to prepare at least a few healthy meals you like to eat.

I hate this advice myself because I don't much like to cook. But no matter how "healthy" a restaurant or take-out place claims it is, you often can't trust that they're not adding extra butter, sugar, salt, etc. to make it taste better. And lets face it, most places don't even pretend to offer healthy ingredients. And "healthy convenience foods" that are truly healthy and don't taste like plastic and overcooked vegetables and sawdust? These are few and far between.

The old standard advice is still good: do some menu planning, get a list together, stock up on healthy staples, and make a big-ass pot of something a couple times a week and freeze extra portions for later.

Looking for recipe ideas? We'll be talking more about that in the next few weeks, but in the meantime, check out This Mama Cooks--On a Diet, or Green Lite Bites, or for vegan ideas, Veggie Going Vegan.

3. Track what you're eating and how much.

Eating mostly healthy foods is a HUGE step towards weight loss. But if you're in the habit of eating for entertainment, or for emotional reasons, you may find you need to account for what you're eating and try to bring it within sensible limits.

This may mean weighing, measuring, tallying, charting, and otherwise holding yourself accountable.

It can be a huge pain in the ass until you get used to it, and it drives many people crazy. If you are someone who rebels in a big way when asked to hold yourself accountable, this may not work for you. But for lots of folks it's incredibly helpful. Knowing that you will have to write down the calories for all 8 "fun sized" Snickers bars you just found in the back of the freezer left over from Halloween will make you much less likely to eat them all in a moment of weakness.

4. Exercise

This is a huge subject in itself and there are lots of tips and tweaks that we'll get to. But a lot of folks seem to feel like this is an optional step in weight loss. It isn't. You don't want to lose muscle along with fat, do you? And virtually everyone who has lost boat-loads of weight and managed to keep it off incorporates plenty of exercise into their daily routine.

Start gradually; and remember any movement is better than none. You know all that advice about taking the stairs and walking on errands instead of driving? Do that stuff! But eventually you'll probably want to also be doing strength training, aerobic conditioning, and stretches. And if all that goes well, you may want to add high intensity intervals, balance training, endurance work, and "functional" fitness moves. Whew! It's exhausting just listing them all! But the more you do, the better you feel, the faster your metabolism goes, the easier it will be to lose weight and keep it off. You may, if lucky, even find forms of exercise you really like! I swear, it does happen sometimes.

Looking for inspiration and some exercises to try? Check out Truth2BeingFit, Weight for Deb, Stumptuous and Mizfit, among other sites I'll be suggesting as well when we get into more specifics.

5. Give up on being perfect.

Aim high, if you want. But don't expect to avoid falling on your face every now and then. You're NOT going to be perfect at this; no one is.

The people who are most successful at losing weight and keeping it off are those who don't freak out when they screw up. They know it's inevitable. They keep moving forward. After several skipped workouts or a big binge, they skip the self-flagellation and instead get all practical and analytical: what were the triggers? How could the situation be avoided or mitigated? What's the fastest way back on track?

If you follow the blogs of people who have lost lots of weight, you will find that all of them suffer setbacks and periods of crappy motivation.

For example, just read some random entries from A Forty-Something's Weight Loss Journey, or The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl, or Jack Sh*t, Getting Fit. None of these bloggers claim to be perfect yet they've all done an amazing job slowly but surely losing weight.

Anyone else have any "basic" weight loss advice that's helped you lose weight and keep it off? Have any favorite web resources to suggest to others?

[Note: this post also appears at the Blogher 10X club because I'm lazy like that when it comes to writing multiple posts. But feel free to come join us and check out the challenges and rewards in the 10X club forum!]

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