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Writing Off Extra Calories

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Paper weight.

A new study suggests that a piece of paper -- and the willingness to record your eating habits on it -- could be what stands between you and a healthier weight.

That's one conclusion from a report released today by a team of scientists at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Portland, Ore. The group recruited 1,685 men and women aged 25 and older. All were overweight or obese and had high blood pressure and elevated blood cholesterol, two common health complications of extra pounds. Nearly half the participants were African Americans.

"There is a common myth that most people have trouble losing weight and can't lose enough weight to make a difference," said Victor J. Stevens, a senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente and a co-author of the study, which appears in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. "This study demonstrated that most people can."

About two-thirds of participants lost weight during the study, which was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. On average, they shed 12 pounds, far less than what most dieters dream of but enough to reduce their blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

What helped them succeed was attending weekly group meetings where nutrition and behavior change were taught, plus keeping a daily record of food and physical activity with paper and pencil.

"This is pretty simple," Stevens said. "It doesn't have to be high-tech." Tracking how much food they ate helped participants learn to eat less, a key step in shedding pounds.

"A lot of people will say, 'I was thinking about eating something or other, but I didn't want it on my food record,' " Stevens said. "The next day, they are never sorry that they avoided that extra cookie or fast food."

That's what happened to Julie Satterwhite, 46. As a finance manager at the Housing Authority of Portland, Satterwhite spends hours a day in a sedentary job. "I was a classic yo-yo dieter," she said. "I lost 10 pounds only to gain 20. I'd lose 20 and then gain 30."

Despite trying everything from the Atkins diet to SlimFast, Satterwhite said that she had never kept food or exercise records. "I took the instructions to do this very seriously, recording food seven days a week," she said.

Her family, including four children ages 17 to 24, also encouraged her efforts. But it was the idea of having to record what she ate that really helped Satterwhite put the brakes on runaway eating. She lost 30 pounds during the first four months of the study, then shed 25 more.

The low-tech approach worked well but became tedious, she said. Other participants shared that sentiment. "Whenever they would talk about [keeping diaries] in the program," Satterwhite said, "they would say, 'I hate them, but they work.' "

After losing 55 pounds, Satterwhite stopped keeping track of what she ate. "That was ultimately a mistake," she says. "I gained a little of the weight back."

So she has returned to recording what she consumes but has traded in paper and pencil for an online system -- CalorieKing ( http://www.calorieking.com) -- that does the math for her. The cost is $55 for a year's membership, with a seven-day free trial. (Find free options below.)

The pounds are coming off, and Satterwhite has found a compromise she can live with. "I keep recording what I eat for at least several days a week," she says, "to keep that awareness of what food I am eating and what not to eat."

It's that kind of accountability that Stevens says makes a difference in the long term. "We are encouraging people to make relatively modest changes," he says. "They need to start to eat in a way that they can maintain forever."

Here are some Web sites where you can record your food and physical activity online for free:

· http://www.fitday.com

· http://mypyramidtracker.gov

· http://www.nutritiondata.com

· http://www.sparkpeople.com

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