For the estimated 50-million Americans going on some diet every year, there certainly is no shortage of plans to select from. Some sources estimate there are more than 30,000 diets available.
Not surprisingly, there are many conflicting stories on weight-loss solutions, from eating cabbage soup to taking this or that pill before going to bed. But no pills, diet patches, special drinks or fad food choices are going to magically whisk away the pounds, never to return.
The most difficult part with losing weight is not so much losing it but keeping it off.
"With few exceptions, people who manage to lose significant amounts of weight, and keep it off, don't follow extreme diets," says Rena Wing, Ph.D., a weight-loss expert and professor of psychiatry at Brown University. "They reduce fat, decrease calories and increase their physical activity."
One principle suggests following the "80/20'' option: Make those "good, healthy" choices 80 percent of the time and then allow more freedom for the remaining 20 percent of your food intake. This way, you aim for consistency in your choices, not perfection.
Here are a few common weight-loss myths:
• Never eat after 8 p.m. The idea behind this concept is that you will burn up calories by being more active during the day than you would be at night, so the "night-time calories" more readily turn into fat.
Reality check: Eating at night does not have to lead to weight gain. According to Mary Flynn, a research dietitian at the Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I.: "Your body digests and uses calories the same way morning, noon or night." It is not so much when you consume the calories that matter, but rather how many calories you consume.
• Carbohydrates will make you fat. This inaccurate advice lingers from years past.
Reality check: Carbohydrates, per se, are not fattening. Weight gain generally results from overindulgence in any of the food groups: carbohydrates, fats or proteins.
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reviewed data from nationwide surveys of what people eat and what they weigh. On average, adults who ate the most carbohydrates were slimmer than those who ate the fewest. The reason: High-carb diets tended to be lower in calories and energy density, defined as the number of calories per ounce of food. (To read more, see Health, January/February 2004.)
• Skipping meals can help you lose weight.
Reality Check: We all need hundreds of calories daily just to exist. The brain alone requires an estimated 365 calories per day.
A basic daily intake for most everyone is at least 1,200 calories. "When you cut calories to the point of depriving your body of the energy it needs, it can go into starvation mode, slowing your metabolism and making those pounds even tougher to shed," says Jenna Bell-Wilson, Ph.D., licensed dietitian and certified specialist in sports dietetics.
So just what is the right number of calories for you?
Here is an easy formula, a favorite of cardiologist Thomas Lee, editor in chief of the Harvard Heart Letter:
Multiply your weight by the number indicating your activity level, using the chart below. The result will be the number of calories you need to maintain your weight. If you want to lose some pounds, eliminate 250 calories a day. With exercising you could lose more.
If you exercise (pick your level), then multiply your current weight by:
Almost never, multiply by 12
Lightly, one to three days a week, multiply by 13.5
Moderately, three to five days a week, 15.5
Vigorously, six to seven days a week, 17
Vigorously, daily, and you have a physical job, 19
Calorie reducing tips
Read food labels to get a general idea of your daily caloric intake; become aware of the saturated fats, trans fats and salt content.
When dining out, order salad dressing and toppings on the side — you get to decide how much to use.
Instead of frying foods, bake, broil, grill or lightly saute them.
Buy chicken and turkey without the skin, or remove skin before eating.
Buy an air popper for your popcorn.
Select marinara instead of alfredo sauce for your pasta — much less fat.
Replace mayonnaise or butter on sandwiches with mustard or a light butter spread.
Buy lean cuts of meat, trim any visible fat.
Saute food with olive or canola oil; avoid cooking with solid fats.
Use low-fat or nonfat cottage cheese and yogurt, and drink nonfat or 1 percent fat milk.
The best protein choices, which have the least amount of saturated fats, are lean meats, fish, poultry, low-fat dairy products and tofu.
Carbs such as whole grains, fruits and veggies are a healthier choice.
A pound of well-conditioned muscle burns more than three times the calories as a pound of fat, says Wayne Westcott, Ph.D. and author of Get Stronger, Feel Younger.
If you are 50 or older and have not been exercising, check with your physician before beginning ANY exercise program. Sally Anderson, a trainer, is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. Write her in care of LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.
This month's exercises are demonstrated by Barbi Bozich, 51, left, of St. Petersburg, and Lauren Chalu, 54, of Clearwater, at Gold's Gym in St. Petersburg.
Wall squat: (Left) Strengthens thighs. Standing with back against the wall, place feet hip-width apart and about 18 inches in front of you. With your weight centered over your heels, bend knees and slide back down the wall until thighs are almost parallel to floor. (Beginners do not have to go this low.)
Hold while counting to four, then push back up the wall to original position. Repeat 8 to 10 times.
Tip: Do not allow knees to go beyond toes.
Ball push-ups: (Below left) Strengthens arms and chest. Standing a few feet away from wall, extend arms in front of you, placing ball against the wall, just below shoulder height. Slowly bend arms at the elbows, bringing chest toward ball. Keeping elbows pulled in toward your sides, contract abdominals and chest muscles as you straighten arms and push back to original position; avoid arching back. Repeat 8 to 10 times.
Tip: Select a ball that will not slip.
Side leg lifts with ball: (Below) Strengthens hips, outer thighs and obliques. It also strengthens upper body as it supports and balances you.
Lean your side into ball, forearm resting on ball. Contract abdominals and extend leg to the side (knee facing forward). Exhale as you lift leg to level of hip, inhaling as you lower leg. Repeat 8 to 10 times on both sides.
Arm-leg extension with elbow to knee: (Shown on facing page) Strengthens lower back and abs. Begin on hands and knees, placing hands under shoulders and knees under hips. Extend arm shoulder height and opposite leg hip height. Bring elbow and leg together. Return to original position, repeat 8 to 10 times on both sides. Tip: Do not lock elbows.