The Weight-Loss Trick the Experts Don't Tell
The low-fat craze has gone too far. In my practice as a nutrition therapist, my clients are not only confused, they feel betrayed: "I'm eating fat-free foods," they say. "Why am I not losing weight?" "I'm counting fat grams instead of calories, but I'm still fat!" "Aren't fat-free products healthier?"
Let's clear up something right away: Most of us aren't gaining weight because we're eating too much fat. In fact, we're eating less fat than ever. Since the 1970s, the proportion of calories Americans get from fat has decreased from an average of 37 percent to 34 percent. Yet we've increased our collective girth: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 50 percent of adults are overweight. What are we doing wrong?
The Eating Mistake Most People Make
The focus on fat content seems to have backfired: Now we've forgotten all about calories. According to a government study, we're taking in nearly 250 more calories a day now than we were 30 years ago. Meanwhile, Americans are spending more than billion a year on weight control, a large chunk of that on diet and low-fat foods.
I can't tell you how many of my clients have made the (mistaken) assumption that because a food is labeled fat-free, they could eat as much of it as they wanted. So instead of replacing high-fat foods with low-calorie fruits and vegetables, they've been bulking up on highly processed foods loaded with added sugars and refined starches, which offer little nutrition other than calories.
Save your money. Fat-free snacks can't substitute for good eating habits. So what should we be doing? For starters, adding back fat.
Diets with less than 20 percent fat leave you hungry, unsatisfied and more likely to overeat when your resolve dissolves. If you force-feed yourself celery sticks all day, you'll be more likely to snap and down a whole pint of ice cream later. And did you ever notice that you can polish off a whole bag of fat-free chips and still not feel full?
Fat increases your sense of satiety, so you'll eat less (and take in fewer calories). Fat also makes you feel fuller longer: It stimulates the release of a hormone that slows the rate of food leaving the stomach, so a meal literally sticks to your ribs. The stomach and intestine are lined with receptors that, when stimulated by fat, send signals to the brain that you're full, says Kevin Vigilante, M.D., coauthor ofLow-Fat Lies: High-Fat Frauds and the Healthiest Diet in the World.
Fat also makes food taste good, and food has to appeal to your taste buds if you want to stick to a healthful eating plan. "When used properly, fat can be an important ally in helping you lose weight and keep it off," says Vigilante. A study of obese children showed that meals with lots of refined carbohydrates and little fat were less effective in staving off hunger than fattier meals with the same number of calories.
More and more research has been pointing to the fact that when it comes to weight loss, it's the calories that count, no matter what the source. Studies at Penn State University have shown that people on 35 percent fat diets lose the same amount of weight as those on 20 percent fat diets, as long as there is no difference in the total calories consumed.
Cut calories, increase exercise, lose weight. I wish my advice could be sexier, but that's the bottom line.
How Fat-Free Can Harm Your Health
Weight issues aside, drastic fat cutbacks can be downright unhealthy, increasing your risk of heart disease by decreasing high-density lipoproteins (HDLs, the "good" cholesterol) and boosting blood levels of triglycerides. They may also raise your risk for such conditions as gout and gallstones.
Finally, severely limiting your fat intake to below two percent per day (believe me, I've seen it in clients even without classic eating disorders) causes your body to compensate by making its own, in the form of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase. This increases fat storage in the body and may be more unhealthy than getting fat from food.
Fats provide energy, maintain cell membranes and blood vessels, transmit nerve impulses, and produce essential hormones. Not only does your body need fat to function, it also requires a certain amount in order to absorb other nutrients, including vitamins A, D, E and K (essential for proper eyesight, bone formation and blood clotting). Vitamins A and E are also antioxidants and have been shown to reduce the incidence of heart disease and a variety of cancers.
Lack of dietary fat may also prevent the absorption of the disease-fighting phytochemicals contained in fruits and vegetables. "One of the most unhealthy things you can do is pour a nonfat dressing on a salad," says Vigilante. Carotenes (phytochemicals that are some of the most potent anticancer antioxidants) bind to fat. "If you don't eat any fat within a few hours of consuming carotenes, you won't absorb them. So the health benefits of that salad are flushed down the toilet," he says.
It used to be that there was only one kind of fat: bad. Now research is showing that not all fats are created equal. While saturated fats (found mostly in red meats and butter) raise blood cholesterol levels and thus the risk of heart disease and perhaps colon cancer, there are some fats that you should eat more of. The two basic types of good fats:
Monounsaturated fatsare found in olive oil, olives, canola oil, peanut oil, flaxseed oil, most nuts (including almonds, cashews, pecans, pistachios and peanuts), peanut butter, and avocados. Studies have shown that monounsaturates lower your total cholesterol as well as your low-density lipoproteins (LDLs, the "bad" cholesterol), while increasing heart-protective HDLs. The ongoing Harvard Nurses' Health Study found that women who ate five or more servings of monounsaturated oil per week decreased their risk of heart disease by 50 percent. The American Heart Association recommends that 15 percent of your daily calories come from monounsaturated fats.
Omega-3 fatsare plentiful in fatty fish — salmon, anchovies, sardines, rainbow trout, bluefish, caviar, white albacore tuna — as well as in green leafy vegetables, walnuts, walnut oil, canola oil, flaxseed, flaxseed oil and tofu. If you're not crazy about fish, experts say fish oil capsules are an option. The most recent research raves about omega-3 fatty acids in the prevention of heart disease and stroke. In many cultures with high cold-water fish intakes, like that of the Eskimos, heart disease and stroke are almost nonexistent. Omega-3 fatty acids may even ease the symptoms of a range of conditions, from manic depression to PMS. Although there is no recommended daily allowance for omega-3s, studies have shown that eating cold-water fish two to three times a week increases HDLs and decreases overall cholesterol levels.
To modify the amount and type of fat you eat, you have to know the major players:
Monounsaturated fats:Good in moderation
Peanuts, avocados, olives, olive oil, and canola oil are storehouses for the monounsaturates. Diets high in these fats — such as those in Mediterranean countries — are associated with lower rates of breast cancer and coronary artery disease.
Polyunsaturated fats:Good in moderation
Also known as essential fatty acids, polyunsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils, salmon, and mackerel. Since your body cannot manufacture these fats, you have to eat them. For optimal health, you need to eat 10 to 15 grams a day or you can develop nutrient deficiencies.
Saturated fats:Mostly bad
Found in meat, butter, milk, cheese, ice cream, chocolate, and coconut and palm oil, saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature. Saturated fats raise blood cholesterol in most people; excessive consumption increases your risk of coronary heart disease and obesity.
Trans fats:Mostly bad
These man-made fats are found in margarine, shortening, and most packaged baked goods, crackers, and candies. The label tip-off: "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" appearing before any oil or fat. They are similar to saturated fats in their effect on the body.
All fats are high in calories — nine calories per gram. To avoid gaining weight as you eat more beneficial fats, use them in place of heart-damaging saturated fats. To get you started:
- Hold the pepperoni(4 g saturated fat per 3 oz.) and order your pizza topped with anchovies (1 g omega-3 per 3 oz.).
- Pick surf over turf:Instead of sirloin steak (6.4 g saturated fat per 3 oz.), try salmon (1.2 g omega-3 per 3 oz.).
- Forget the cheddar cheese and crackers(6 g saturated fat per oz., 1.2 g saturated fat for six crackers) and celebrate with caviar (1 g omega-3 per Tbs.).
- Skip the feta cheese(4.2 g saturated fat per oz.) and top your salad with walnuts (1 g omega-3 per oz.) or avocados (4.5 g monounsaturates per oz.).
- Instead of pouring bottled blue cheese dressing(1.5 g saturated fat per Tbs.), make your own with olive oil (10.3 g monounsaturates per Tbs.) or walnut oil (1.5 g omega-3 per Tbs.).
- Stop sauteéing in corn oil(9.8 g saturated fat per Tbs.) and use canola oil (9.1 g monounsaturates per Tbs.).
- Don't gobble a turkey sandwich(O.5 g saturated fat per 3.5 oz.) for lunch; pack tuna (0.5 g omega-3 per 3.5 oz.).
- Better than butter(7.1 g saturated fat per Tbs.) is bread dipped in olive oil (10.3 g monounsaturates per Tbs.).
- Ditch the sour cream dip(1.6 g saturated fat per Tbs.); instead, eat celery and carrots with peanut butter (4 g monounsaturates per Tbs.).
- At the sushi bar, skip the teriyaki chicken(0.9 g saturated fat per 3 oz. of breast meat) and savor the shrimp (0.3 g omega-3 per 3 oz.).
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