Weight Loss Myths Blasted

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The onset of bathing suit season has a way of resuscitating our No. 1 New Year's resolution: Lose Weight.

Beach-bound or not, it's a worthwhile goal, since excess weight not only increases our risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer, but also compromises our psychological welfare: Being overweight lowers self-esteem and heightens vulnerability to anxiety and depression. And with more than one of every two U.S. adults considered overweight, one in five of them obese, health officials have declared the problem an epidemic of crisis proportions.

One reason Americans can't slim down? We have fundamental misconceptions about how to do it. Test your weight-loss IQ by labeling the following statements TRUE or FALSE, then learn the truth from the experts.

  1. You can't lose a lot of weight and keep it off.
  2. Your "set point" determines how much you weigh.
  3. Poor willpower is to blame for excess weight.
  4. The best weight loss regimens incorporate structured exercise three to five times a week.
  5. Losing just a small amount of weight has significant health benefits.
  6. You should eat only low-fat and no-fat foods.

Answers

  1. FALSE. Congressional hearings, diet books and the media have for many years bred hopelessness among dieters by quoting the statistic that 95% of people who lose weight regain it—and then some—within a few months or years. But that figure is based on a 1959 study of only 100 people and, say obesity experts, cannot be considered a universal truth. The National Weight Loss Registry, launched in 1994 to get a more accurate picture of long-term dieters, offers signs of encouragement. Researchers Rena Wing, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh and the Brown University School of Medicine, and James Hill, M.D., of the University of Colorado, were surprised at how easy it was to find people who have achieved major weight loss goals. The project's 2,800 respondents have maintained an average 67-pound weight loss for five years, with up to 14% of them staving off a more than 100-pound weight loss. Wing and Hill are now compiling profiles of successful dieters to learn just how they did it.
  2. FALSE. The set-point theory holds that we all have an internal weight regulator, like a thermostat, that adjusts our metabolic rate up or down whenever we gain or shed pounds in order to return our body to its predetermined weight. Undoubtedly, some controls do exist or we would all be obese, or, alternately, wasting away, says Roland Weinsier, M.D., chair of the department of nutrition sciences at the School of Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. But studies show that when we lose weight, our metabolism actually shifts to a normal rate for that new weight, independent of individual differences. People nevertheless embrace the theory to blame their bodies, rather than their own behavior, for their weight-loss failure, says Weinsier. "It offers comfort to those who refuse to accept the fact that weight control requires a commitment to a physically active and calorie-conscious lifestyle."
  3. FALSE. Being overweight is not a simple problem of willpower or self-control but a cocktail of genetic, metabolic, biochemical, cultural and psychosocial factors, according to Joseph Riggs, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Medical Association. While there are some exceptions, he says, most people are overweight because societal changes over the last 20 to 30 years have increased easy access to delicious, high-fat foods and decreased opportunity and motivation for physical activity. When it comes to stopping overeating, exerting willpower can't hurt. But to lose weight and keep it off, an active lifestyle is the most important step.
  4. FALSE. While pursuing a physically active lifestyle is the best way to maintain weight loss, you don't have to live in the gym to do it. Two studies published in 1999 in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that everyday physical activities, such as simply walking for 30 minutes most days of the week, are as effective over the long term at lowering body fat and blood pressure and boosting aerobic fitness as traditional, structured exercise performed three to five days a week.
  5. TRUE. Even small weight changes can have a major impact on your health and quality of life. The American Medical Association published results of a four-year study in which overweight women who lost as few as five pounds completed everyday activities more easily and complained of fewer aches and pains. The effect is most pronounced among the obese. A 12-year study published by the International Obesity Task Force, an agency working with the World Health Organization, showed that weight loss of only 10 to 20 pounds among overweight women with obesity-related diseases led to a 20% drop in total mortality, a 50% reduction in mortality from obesity-related cancers, and a 40% reduction in diabetes-related deaths. It also improved their depression, anxiety, psychosocial functioning, mood and quality of life.
  6. FALSE. Lower-fat foods may promise smaller waistlines, but not when you eat a whole box of them in one sitting. Many people avoid fatty foods only to overeat foods billed as "low-fat" or "fat-free," leading, paradoxically, to extra pounds. "You end up getting more calories from a bunch of low-fat cookies than you would have with one or two regular cookies," says Deborah Galuska, Ph.D., author of a study sponsored by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Research by the American Medical Association confirms that reducing fat intake is only effective if we reduce calories as well.

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