Tag Archives: gaining weight

Are fat-free and sugar-free foods healthy? Maybe not!

Have you ever felt confused by the health claims made about some foods? If so, you are not alone. Nutrition is isn’t always easy to understand and, unfortunately, misleading information on food labels only makes it worse.

There are a great many foods that seem as though they would be healthy choices for weight loss or good health in general. Surprisingly, some of these low-fat and low-sugar alternatives aren’t as healthy as you might think.

This is because, in many cases, the claims on the label only tell part of the story. This isn’t to say that the information is false, but it does require some interpretation to understand whether these foods are really a healthy choice.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week includes two examples of label language that seems to indicate a healthier option, but may not necessarily be the case:

1. Fat-free

Cutting back on fat intake is a good way to reduce calories and is typically recommended for weight loss. It is also a major part of traditional recommendations to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease, although recent research suggests this may not be so important.

In order to meet a demand for lower fat and lower calorie foods, manufacturers have long offered fat-free versions of popular items. Cookies, snack foods, and salad dressings are among the most popular fat-free foods, especially for people who are trying to lose weight.

However, the number of calories in the fat-free foods may be the same as the full-fat versions because manufacturers often add sugar to make these lower fat foods taste as good. This is often the case for cookies, cakes, and other fat-free baked goods.

In the end, these fat-free foods may not really be lower in calories. And common sense tells us that the best way to reduce calories is to eat fewer of these snack foods and dressings in the first place.

 2. Sugar-free

Reducing sugar intake is also a popular way to limit calories in many foods and beverages. Currently, sugar is viewed as a major contributor to obesity and poor health in general, so this also makes some foods appear to be healthier than they really are.

While it is true that sugar-free versions of desserts and snack foods do usually contain fewer calories, the alternative sweeteners used instead raise some concerns. While there is no good evidence that these sweeteners are harmful, they certainly don’t make these foods any healthier.

It is important to note that the concern is with foods that have added sugar, such as packaged or prepared desserts, baked goods, and snacks. Foods with naturally occurring sugars like fruits, fruit juices, milk, and some vegetables are not worth worrying about.

Again, the most reasonable approach to creating a healthy diet is to eat fewer foods with added sugar, not looking for foods that replace added sugar with artificial sweeteners.

The Bottom Line

The problem for most people isn’t that they are eating cookies with too much sugar or salad dressing with too much fat, it’s that they are eating too many cookies and using too much dressing in the first place. Lowering fat or sugar in these foods does little to make people healthier.

The only way to do that would be to limit the intake of these processed foods in favor of more “real” food. Indeed, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and natural oils (like olive oil) are widely thought to be healthful, certainly better than processed and modified alternatives.

When normal isn’t normal.

The typical American is overweight, doesn’t get enough exercise, eats too few vegetables and fruits, too much sugar, and too many calories. Unfortunately, we have come to consider this combination as “normal.” While this situation may be common, it is definitely not normal. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

For most measures of health, a normal value is consistent with good health. A “normal” blood pressure is in a range that is associated with a low risk of stroke, for example. Someone with LDL (bad) cholesterol that is considered “above normal” has a greater risk of heart attack than a person with a normal LDL value.

But for many health indicators, having a normal value is not the norm. According to the most recent recommendations, a normal blood pressure is less than 120/80 mmHg. However, nearly 60% of adults have a blood pressure that is above normal, meaning they have hypertension or prehypertension.

A person who has a body mass index (BMI) in the normal range, between 18.5 and 24.9 kg/m2, is considered to be at a healthy body weight. But two-thirds of adults are overweight, with a BMI above the normal range. Similarly, participating in regular exercise should be considered normal. But it’s not, since fewer than half of adults meet minimum recommendations for physical activity.

The problem is that the term “normal” is frequently used to refer to what is typical, rather than what is healthy. Obesity is so common that a person who is at a healthy weight may look out-of-place. So many people look for ways to avoid physical activity that a person who walks instead of drives is considered abnormal. The person who comes away from a buffet with a less-than-full plate or who has a salad for dinner often gets strange looks. One of the reasons that people get noticed for doing these things is because they stand out from the crowd.

In reality, though, many of the health behaviors we consider to be abnormal—regular exercise, a healthy diet, or a lean physique—are, historically, completely normal. Until relatively recently, most everyone was active much of the day and spent little time being sedentary. Likewise, the consumption of the processed foods that are such a big part of our current diet was rare even a few decades ago.

It is likely that, by considering unhealthy behaviors to be normal, we have created a situation that discourages people from adopting a healthy lifestyle. As anyone who has tried to change their health habits knows, it can be a challenge, especially if everyone else maintains their typical eating and activity pattern. It’s not easy to be “the one” who only eats healthy food or who takes time to exercise every day.

Maybe we need to redefine normal health behaviors to reflect what is healthy rather than what is most common. When walking or biking rather than driving becomes the norm there will be greater incentive to provide safe places for pedestrians and cyclists to travel. When a healthy diet is considered normal it is more likely that restaurants will offer more nutritious options.

In the end, we would all benefit from changing our definition of normal. And a normal diet and activity pattern will go a long way to promoting a normal BMI, blood pressure, and cholesterol.

How to win at losing: What to do when your diet ends.

In the past few weeks several community and fitness center-based weight loss programs have ended. Since many diets and exercise programs last 12–15 weeks, this time of year marks the end of many programs. During this time many people have met personal weight loss goals through individual diets and “biggest loser” type programs. (I have written about competition-type weight loss programs in the past here and elsewhere.)

One of these is the Team Lean program at the Y. This year over 1,600 people from the Aiken and Augusta area participated in this 12-week program that included weekly education sessions and weigh-ins, a strong group dynamic, and monitoring to prevent rapid, unhealthy weight loss. The average participant lost almost 10% of their body weight, which is sufficient to promote improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes.

This level of weight loss is common among people who participate in individual or group programs. But the real challenge is to maintain that weight loss after the program ends. Many people have successfully met their weight loss goal only to gain the weight back later. In fact, some people do it every year, losing and regaining the same 10 (or 20 or 30) pounds over and over.

Losing weight is challenging, to be sure. But maintaining weight loss can be even more challenging. Many people think that they are finished once their diet or weight loss program ends. The truth is that the end of the diet marks the beginning of the next phase: keeping the weight off. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

There is a practical reason why this happens. In order to lose weight and keep it off people need to learn a whole new lifestyle involving what, when, why, and how they eat as well as daily exercise. These lifestyle changes are difficult to make and can take months or years to fully adopt. In many cases, the weight loss program ends before people make lasting behavior changes and revert to their old habits.

While there are literally hundreds of diets and weight loss programs to choose from, “weight maintenance” programs are far less common. The good news is that following the advice of people who are successful at losing weight and keeping it off can help you maintain your weight loss.

The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) is a collection of information submitted by individuals who have succeeded at long-term weight loss. These “successful losers” have lost an average of 66 pounds and kept it off for over five years, with some losing as much as 300 pounds! Best of all, they share the secrets of their success.

It turns out that they lost weight through a variety of diets and programs. Nearly half lost weight on their own and the other the other half followed of some type of program. Regardless, almost all of them increased their physical activity and modified their diet, suggesting that diet and exercise together are important for successful weight loss.

There is also variety in how NWCR members keep the weight off. Most report continuing to maintain a low-calorie, low-fat diet and doing high levels of activity. Almost 80% eat breakfast every day, 75% weigh themselves at least once a week, over 60% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week, and 90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour per day.

Many people worry whether they are following the “best” diet or weight loss program. The specific diet may not be as important as what you do when it ends. Notice that the majority of successful losers still control what they eat and nearly all exercise each day. This suggests that going back to the way you ate before you lost weight is unrealistic. And if you aren’t exercising, at least walking, every day already, now is a good time to start.

Honesty is the best policy

Being honest about your health is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Have you ever justified your weight by saying you are “big-boned?” What about your eating and exercise habits? How often do you really eat out? How many days did you actually get to the gym last month? Are you being honest with yourself when it comes to your health? And are you asking others to be honest with you?

Being honest with yourself is essential for initiating health behavior changes and setting good goals. For example, someone who tells themselves they need to lose “a few pounds” may really need to lose much more and may not take their weight loss as seriously as they should. Convincing yourself that you are doing more exercise than you really are may mean that you won’t see the fitness or weight loss results you were expecting.

This type of self-deception is easy to do. Take body weight for example. The current standard for determining if you are at a healthy weight is body mass index (BMI), calculated from your weight and height (kg/m2). It requires a bit of math, so using a mobile app or online calculator is a good idea. A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered normal, 25-29.9 is overweight, and if your BMI is 30 and higher you are classified as obese. To put this in perspective, a BMI of 30 is equivalent to about 25–30 pounds of excess fat.

Let’s say your BMI puts you in the obese category, suggesting you should lose weight. But then you think about an article you read about how BMI isn’t accurate because you can be considered obese if you have excess muscle, not fat. And then there was the story on the news suggesting that it is okay to be obese as long as you are physically fit. So, maybe you don’t need to worry about your weight!

See how easy it is to tell yourself that you don’t really need to lose weight. In reality, BMI is an accurate method of assessing your body fatness; the inaccuracies reported in the news almost always involve athletes or people with lots of muscle mass developed through physical labor. Be honest…is that really you? It’s also true that people who are fit and fat can be healthier than people who are thin and sedentary, but it requires a lot of exercise to reach that level of fitness. Again, are you really that fit?

Probably the best test is to take a good look in the mirror and be honest about what you see. Try to “pinch an inch” of fat around your belly. One inch isn’t necessarily a problem, but take notice if you can pinch a handful of fat. Measuring your waist circumference (or looking at your pants size) can give you the same information. People who have a high BMI because of extra muscle, like athletes, have thin waists. If your waist circumference is greater than 35 inches (for women) or 40 inches (men), you have excess fat.

This honesty also applies to others, including your doctor. Many physicians are reluctant to discuss weight and weight loss with their patients, and many patients don’t want to hear what they interpret as a personal attack. Don’t be one of those patients! Ask your doctor for an honest assessment about your weight and the impact it might have on your health.

This is a real problem. According to one report, only 39 percent of obese people surveyed had ever been told by a health care provider that they were obese.     To help combat this problem, the American Medical Association has developed resources to help physicians better communicate with patients about their weight.

Making changes to diet and activity habits is a difficult process, to be sure. Telling yourself that you don’t need to make them only delays getting started and can lead to poor health in the meantime. When it comes to your health, honesty is the best policy!

Just in time for Childhood Obesity Awareness Month: The completely unauthorized and ill-advised childhood obesity experiment

September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, which is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard today.

Although the causes involve a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, and environmental factors (as this article explains), most cases likely involve too little activity and too much energy intake, particularly added sugars. It is important to note that both diet and activity play a role, and both a targets for prevention and treatment. The same is true for adults, too.

Obesity among children, both young kids and teenagers, is associated with serious health, social, and psychological problems. In fact, obese children, especially those who are inactive, tend to develop “adult” diseases including high blood pressure and diabetes.

And while we know that obesity and inactivity in kids is a problem, I don’t think we realize how bad it is now or will be in the future. That’s because no one has any idea what will happen to an obese 12-year old who develops type 2 diabetes. Adults who become diabetic are at higher risk for an early heart attack; does this mean that a 12-year old will be on the fast track  toward a heart attack at age 30?

We don’t know. But I think we are going to find out. Unfortunately, it’s as though we are experimenting with a generation of children to find out.


My Friend Shannon update: The problem with her new pants (but in a good way)

I haven’t given an update for some time, but My Friend Shannon is still going strong on her remodeling project.
I received an email from her recently with the intriguing subject, “Women’s clothes are liars!”  I thought it was worth sharing:
I have a hard time finding jeans that fit me properly.  A few years ago, I discovered that Old Navy jeans are the best fit for my body.  They have 3 different styles, The Sweetheart, The Flirt, The Diva.  The Flirt fit me the best because it was a low waist, fuller thigh, straight leg.  Hate the name, love the fit.  
At the time I think I was a size 10 in most all pants.  But, of course, in Old Navy jeans, I was a size 8.  What really made me mad was that I knew they did it on purpose so women would feel good about being a “smaller size” in their jeans and would keep buying jeans from them.  But even knowing that, I still felt good about being in a size 8.  UGH!
Fast forward to present day.  I went shopping on Labor Day to get some new jeans since my old ones are too big now (Yay!).  I now wear a size 2 Diva.  Divas are narrower in the hips than The Flirts.
Have I lost weight? Yes.  Do I really think I’ve lost enough weight to go from a size 8 Flirt with roomier hip to a size 2 Diva with a narrower hip? Of course not! Women’s clothes lie!!!   But I still felt good so I apparently don’t care if they lie to me as long as they tell me what I want to hear.
Despite appearances to the contrary, this is not a conspiracy on the part of Old Navy to deceive customers into thinking they are a smaller size than they really are. It is actually a conspiracy on the part of most women’s clothing manufacturers to deceive customers into thinking they are a smaller size than they really are. It is called “vanity sizing.” But what seems like a harmless marketing ploy may actually be contributing to weight gain and obesity.
[Proof that vanity sizing has gotten out of control: Some women’s clothing comes in a size 0 or 00. What’s next, negative sizes?]
Imagine that Shannon wears a size 6 jeans. The changes in sizing mean that she could actually gain weight, requiring a larger size (say, an 8). But when she goes to buy new jeans she finds that the old size 8 is now called size 6. Of course Shannon is thrilled that she still wears the same size jeans and her fears of gaining weight were unfounded! In this case, Shannon has lost an important cue—needing to buy larger jeans—that she has gained weight. And missing cues like these allow people to gain weight over time without noticing it.
It could be worse. Some pants can make you fat! Many men’s pants include an expandable waist that allow up to 2 inches (or more, in some cases) of  “stretch.” It is possible that a man could gain several inches around his waist but still wear the same pants size.

Good advice for college students. And everyone else.

This came to my attention recently. It’s an infographic about how college students can stay active, get fit, and avoid the dreaded “Freshman 15.”

This is good advice for the rest of us, too. Replace dorm room with living room and cafeteria with kitchen and you have a simple and effective way to improve your health.

The Best Regimen for College Fitness

[The Best Regimen for College Fitness via The Best Colleges]

By the way, studies of weight gain during college show that it isn’t really the Freshman 15. Research shows it’s more like the Freshman 4.6. But that doesn’t have the same impact, does it?

What is one portion?

I think everyone knows that we have become accustomed to large portion sizes. And large portion sizes can add up to too many calories which can add up to weight gain.

Unless you have read a food label and carefully measured out one serving you may not realize how big your “normal” portions really are. This video will show you:

When you are done with that one, check out this video that shows what 2000 calories, the “typical” recommended daily intake, looks like coming from some of your favorite foods:



Using a physical activity time machine to explain the obesity epidemic.

What caused the current obesity epidemic? Is it that we are eating more now? Or are we less active than we were? Most likely, it is a combination of both. And although the typical American diet is given plenty of blame for causing people to gain weight, a low level of physical activity deserves attention, too.

One way to answer this question is to look back at what life was like about 100 years ago, when obesity was uncommon. Unfortunately, no one thought to make accurate measures of daily activity back then. But there is a way to go back in time and assess the diet and physical activity that was common 100 years ago.

In my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week I wrote about an interesting study that essentially took researchers back in time to measure physical activity. The results show that we are much less active today, which certainly plays a big role in the obesity epidemic.

You can learn more about the study I mentioned here.

Fat but fit, Santa is ready to go!

He may not look it, but Santa probably hits the gym regularly to work on the strength, endurance, and flexibility he needs for his job. Since Santa tends to keep to himself, he hasn’t come to my lab for a fitness test. But I tried to make a good guess as to what he does in the “offseason” to stay in shape in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard.

It’s a good thing he keeps himself in shape, too. Since he is overweight, good fitness is essential for reducing his risk of, among other things, a heart attack or stroke. In fact, Santa is probably healthier than some people who have a “normal” weight, but don’t exercise.

He should watch his weight, though. An ABC News report suggests that Santa is getting fatter!