“A calorie is a calorie” has been a long-standing truism when it comes to diet and weight loss, but today we are discovering that this isn’t accurate. In fact, food quality is critical when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight.
Eat a highly nutritious diet made up of whole foods.
In a review of studies, the Harvard School of Public Health recommends eating high-quality foods — including unrefined, minimally processed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats and healthy protein — and to minimize processed foods, sugar and high-glycemic foods. When it comes to various approaches of eating whole foods, it appears that the type of diet is less important than simply eating real, whole foods. Although in certain circumstances — allergies, disease management, etc. — a highly specific diet may be required, in general, follow one simple rule: Eat real foods found in nature. Outside of special circumstances, diets that tell us to avoid carrots, tomatoes, beets or any food derived directly from nature are unnecessary. At the grocery store, avoid items with ingredients and instead buy ingredients and make those items yourself. Eating a healthy diet made up of whole foods leaves us feeling more satisfied, with reduced or eliminated food cravings.
Limit or eliminate processed foods.
Most processed foods contain some combination of hyper-processed grains; added sugar — in the form of table sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, concentrated fruit juices, etc. — which is linked with increased weight; and the types of fat strongly linked with obesity, such as soybean oil and trans fats. Even “natural” and organic packaged snack foods often contain these ingredients. What’s more, many packaged foods contain chemical additives such as emulsifiers, which have been found in studies to alter gut bacteria, causing intestinal inflammation that can make us more likely to develop metabolic syndrome and significant weight gain.
You may have read a spate of recent articles declaring exercise ineffective for weight loss or weight management. While it is true that our diets are more likely to directly influence weight loss, studies have found that exercise can contribute to weight loss, and is critical when it comes to preventing weight regain (not to mention exercise’s multitudinous other benefits to our physical and emotional health). When it comes to fat loss, studies have found some types of exercise more effective than others — namely, intense, short bursts of cardio, and weight training.
Step up the cardio.
Studies have found high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to be a more efficient and effective strategy for reducing total body mass. In one study published in the International Journal of Obesity, 45 women were broken into three groups: One did steady-state exercise (cardiovascular exercise keeping the heart rate steadily elevated); another did high-intensity intermittent exercises (alternating between bursts of high-intensity work and low-intensity rest periods); and a third did no exercise. Although both exercise groups significantly improved their cardiovascular fitness, only the high-intensity group saw a significant reduction in total body mass, fat mass, trunk fat and fasting plasma insulin levels.
Women who followed a 20-minute HIIT program consisting of eight-second sprints followed by 12 seconds of rest, lost six times more body fat than women doing a 40-minute cardio workout at a constant intensity of 60 percent of maximum heart rate. To do a HIIT workout, simply choose an aerobic activity you enjoy — running or biking, for example — and alternate between periods of your maximum intensity and a low-intensity rest period. For example, sprint on the treadmill for 20 seconds, then walk slowly for 40 seconds, alternating for about 10 minutes. You can also find a wide variety of HIIT workouts online. Try fitnessblender.com for a range of HIIT and other exercise programs, all free.
Increasing our lean muscle mass helps increase our resting metabolism. One frequently cited reason so many dieters regain weight is that resting metabolism goes down as weight is lost and food intake is reduced. Therefore, researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham decided to study the effects of various exercise programs after a group of 100 overweight, sedentary women lost 25 pounds on a restricted diet. The women were put into three groups: One group did a supervised aerobic exercise program (40 minutes of walking or jogging three times a week); one did a supervised upper- and lower-body weight-training program; a third group did not exercise. The women who didn’t exercise burned considerably fewer calories each day than before losing the 25 pounds. Meanwhile, the exercise groups, particularly the weight-lifting group, moved more and saw an increase in the calories burned in activities apart from exercise. Weight training appears to be especially important as we age; in a study reported by Harvard Gazette, more than 10,000 healthy men older than 40 gained less in waist circumference when they increased their time spent weight training by 20 minutes a day, compared with those who increased aerobic activity by the same amount.
Although many targeted “weight loss supplements” are ineffective at best and dangerous at worst, we can support our weight-management efforts with healthful supplements.
Get enough vitamin D.
Vitamin D deficiencies are linked with developing obesity. Holistic doctor Andrew Weil notes that a recent study at the 2015 European Congress on Obesity demonstrated that correcting vitamin D levels could help weight loss in those with deficiencies. Much of the United States is vitamin D-deficient; while vitamin D is in some foods, the amounts are generally not significant enough to prevent deficiency on their own. In the summer, sun exposure enables our bodies to manufacture vitamin D, but in much of the U.S., light levels are too low from October through March for synthesis to occur. If you are trying to lose weight, have your vitamin D levels tested and start taking supplements if they are low. Seniors are also advised to supplement, because our ability to synthesize vitamin D decreases with age. Weil recommends a daily dose of at least 2,000 IU of vitamin D.
Support your liver and kidneys.
Two of our most crucial organs involved in clearing toxins are the liver and kidneys. These organs process toxins and remove them from our systems, but when they are overworked, they lose the ability to “keep up” with intake, leading to inflammation linked with obesity and hindering digestion (the liver produces bile to help break down food). Likewise, the kidneys assist in moving out and eliminating waste. Exercise, a whole-foods diet and, when possible, eliminating or lowering intake of pharmaceutical medicines (even over-the-counter pain relievers) as well as alcohol will go a long way toward improving liver and kidney health. To provide extra support, consider taking liver-supportive herbs such as burdock, dandelion root and milk thistle seed. For kidney support, consider nettle or parsley root.
Drink apple cider vinegar.
Numerous studies have found apple cider vinegar able to help regulate blood sugar swings and to reduce blood sugar spikes after eating. When blood sugar rises and swings rapidly, it causes a number of effects, including increased food cravings, fatigue and reduced insulin sensitivity — a precursor of diabetes. To find out if those effects directly led to weight loss, Japanese researchers investigated the effects of vinegar on body fat mass in obese subjects in a double-blind trial. At the end of the study, body weight, BMI, visceral fat area, waist circumference and serum triglyceride levels were all significantly reduced in groups ingesting vinegar compared with a placebo group. What’s more, apple cider vinegar has been shown to help increase the nutrition we receive from food. Simply drink a teaspoon of organic apple cider vinegar in a glass of water in the morning, or immediately before or after meals. Some people find this unpleasant, or get a mild stomachache. You can also include an organic apple cider vinegar-based salad dressing in one meal a day.
Kelp is a seaweed packed with essential nutrients and minerals, including iron, copper, zinc, manganese and chromium. Its best-known benefit is its iodine content — iodine is critical for healthy thyroid function, and some experts believe modern Americans are chronically deficient in this mineral, especially as more people avoid iodized salt. Kelp is recommended over plain iodine supplements for a few reasons: It’s a food, so our bodies can integrate it more easily and select the nutrients we need; kelp contains at least 20 trace minerals, offering numerous nutritional benefits; and kelp supplements are often more affordable. Choose a supplement from a manufacturer you trust, as some products marketed as kelp actually contain other sea vegetables. People with hyperthyroidism or a hypersensitivity to iodine should not take kelp.
Experts cite these lifestyle habits as among the most critical elements of maintaining a healthy weight.
Get enough sleep.
Sleep is one of the most critical factors to control weight, because it affects two key hormones: Ghrelin, which triggers our bodies to stimulate our appetites, is increased in sleep-deprived people; while leptin, the satiety-inducing hormone, is reduced. Studies by University of Chicago scientists found that those who slept 6.5 hours a night or less experienced hormonal changes that could affect future body weight and impair long-term health. Lead researcher Eve Van Cauter called sleep deprivation “the royal route to obesity.” If you have sleep issues, including insomnia, sleep apnea, daytime fatigue and more, work to address these issues.
Manage stress and anxiety.
Stress and anxiety can contribute to weight gain in a variety of ways. Many of them are habitual — stress makes us less likely to get enough sleep, and more likely to eat unhealthy food on the run and crave comfort food (often not the healthiest). But other physical reactions to stress directly affect weight. One is the stress hormone cortisol, which is directly linked with increased abdominal obesity, and particularly harmful types of fat that build up around the stomach and intestines. In studies, cortisol has been directly linked with increased appetite, cravings for sugar and weight gain. One of the most effective ways to learn to manage stress is through meditation and breathing exercises. You can also support your body’s stress-management capabilities with herbs. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, ashwagandha root was found to help improve resistance to stress. Ginseng, holy basil and rhodiola are also recommended for stress management.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), one of the most effective tactics for managing or reducing weight is recording what we eat and how much we exercise. “This approach works,” the APA’s website says. “In fact, several studies have found that consistent self-monitoring contributes to about a quarter of weight-control success.” To self-monitor, simply keep a journal and write down each meal, snack and daily exercise. This can help you notice patterns and help eliminate mindless eating and snacking.