Here we go again. New year, old resolutions. You're giving up cookies for carrots, fast food for fat-free and have vowed never to eat another rum ball as long as you live.
Don't do it.
That's how people dealt with Januarys in the 20th century. They set unrealistic goals, only to find out what they already knew: They hate step aerobics.
People do need to make changes: Half of all Americans are now considered overweight, an unprecedented percentage in modern history. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which are stressful and sedentary lifestyles, the ubiquitousness of inexpensive food and the enormity of restaurant portions. It's a complex problem that's probably going to take this whole next century to solve.
But in the meantime, the least we can do is start thinking a little differently, maybe even a little heretically. You've heard all the advice about choosing a diet low in fat and about eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. We don't need to tell you that again.
So, in the year 2000, resolve to:
Enjoy your food.
"Let's try to figure out how to make food our friend, not our enemy," says Marion Nestle, chairman of the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University. "It should be cherished and enjoyed and appreciated."
But one need only look at the displays at supermarket checkouts--the intersection of Snickers bars and supermodels--to see why Americans eat with angst.
In recent focus groups conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), not one of the female consumers questioned said she was 100 percent comfortable with her diet. Most expressed considerable discomfort about what they eat, with guilt, worry, helplessness, anger and fear being their primary emotions.
"When you talk about foods being bad, you become a bad person when you love that food," says Susan Borra, director of nutrition for IFIC, an industry-funded group. "Good" food in our society means it's "nutritionally positive," says Borra. "In other countries, it means it tastes good." In fact, in a survey of international dietary guidelines, IFIC found that the United States is one of the few nations that doesn't advise people to enjoy their food. One of Japan's guidelines, for example, says "Happy eating makes for happy family life . . . treasure family taste and home cooking."
Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that the main challenge to improved nutrition is not in improving foods but in improving the way American society thinks about food, pleasure and health.
"We're spoiling our relationship with food for no particular reason," says Rozin, who prefers the French focus on food as an eating experience, rather than the American penchant to see food as a set of nutrients that affect the body. The French eat less than Americans but eat longer, more relaxed meals, notes Rozin. They also have lower rates of coronary heart disease.
Adam Drewnowski, director of the nutritional sciences program at the University of Washington, likewise believes Americans would be better off trusting their taste buds and sticking with smaller amounts of high-quality, high-fat foods. "People can eat a whole bag of Hershey's Kisses," he says. "If you eat a little square of Vahlrona [chocolate], that's about all you need."
Listen to your body, not your beanpole friend Betsy or the latest bestseller.
In "Eating Thin for Life," nutritionist Anne Fletcher delved into the habits of 208 people who had lost an average of 64 pounds and maintained the loss for an average of 11 years. She found about half had gone to various weight-loss centers; the other half did it on their own. They all used different approaches--there was no one right way. "They found something that worked for them," says Fletcher.
To figure out what works best for you, Fletcher suggests making two lists. On one, write down all the things that have worked successfully for you in previous weight-loss attempts: "It helped when I ate breakfast, when I walked with my best friend at lunch . . . " Then on the other list, write down what didn't work: "It didn't work for me to set my alarm at 5 a.m. and go to the Y, to eat cabbage soup, to skip lunch . . . " Says Fletcher: "Use your past weight-loss experiences as a library you can learn from."
Break tradition with breakfast, lunch and dinner.
"Listen to your own inclinations," says Arthur Frank, medical director of the George Washington University Weight Management Program. "Don't be bullied into doing traditional things merely because they're traditional."
Frank is referring to the obligation that many people feel to eat three meals a day at the traditional times and to eat "correct" foods at those meals. In other words, there's no reason why noodle soup and salad shouldn't be eaten for breakfast, says Frank, who ate those dinner leftovers one recent morning.
"Most people who are overweight really struggle only during small parts of the day," he says. "So why spend calories on parts of the day that are not difficult? Put most of your calories into the part of the day that's the biggest struggle for you."
For example, Frank has one patient, a teacher, who has a "terrible time" eating her lunch comfortably when she has cafeteria duty. So she eats a good breakfast in the morning, but lunch at 5 p.m., enabling her to avoid after-work snacking. Then, she eats dinner at 8 p.m. with her family.
Frank has another patient who ate heavily during the evening but also felt obligated to eat during the day. So now he has coffee in the morning, maybe a small snack during the day and then lunch at 5 p.m. He eats dinner at 8 p.m. and breakfast at 11 p.m. Frank admits it's unusual, but "it works."
Think before you eat.
"Humans in our culture do not eat because they're hungry, or stop eating because they're no longer hungry," says Frank. So weight-loss plans that tell people to eat only when they're hungry don't work, Frank maintains. "My patients would say, 'I'm always hungry. I'm always able to eat.' "
John Foreyt, director of the nutrition research clinic at the Baylor College of Medicine, agrees that many Americans have "never experienced hunger" since they're often eating. Still, he thinks that people need to pay more attention to their bodies, realizing that hunger comes from the gut and appetite comes from the brain.
And, of course, many people eat for emotional reasons, for comfort. Colleen Pierre, a Baltimore dietitian, uses an acronym, HALT, to help people focus on why they're eating--before they start. The H stands for hungry. If you're eating because you feel an emptiness in your stomach, go ahead. If you're eating because you're Angry, then yell at your husband or write in a journal "until the page catches fire," says Pierre. If you're eating because you're Lonely, then make a phone call or send an e-mail. If you're Tired, Pierre says, then go to bed.
Stop thinking you should be eating a lot less.
In the early 1900s and in previous centuries, people expended calories just by procuring their food. What with the planting, harvesting, grinding and kneading, think of all the physical labor it took to make a loaf of bread, says Barbara Moore, president of Shape Up America!, an organization founded by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.
Society changed--most of us invest nothing in the growing and manufacture of food other than walking the aisles of the supermarket. Physical activity is no longer obligatory. But the mechanisms that regulate hunger are the same. "We didn't evolve to eat fewer calories," says Moore. "You can't restrict and restrict."
So if you physiologically can't eat a lot less, you obviously have to exercise more. "I'm trying to get people so used to physical activity that if they don't do it, they feel like they didn't brush their teeth," says Moore.
Foreyt of the Baylor College of Medicine has instituted a new program that tackles the pitfalls of caloric restriction. Because low-calorie diets ultimately don't work, says Foreyt, the clinic is advising patients to decrease their daily intake by just 100 calories (use a little less dressing on your salad or butter on your bread), and to burn 100 calories by taking a brisk 20-minute walk. That works out to a 200-calorie deficit a day, which equals one-half pound of weight loss per week, or 20 pounds a year. And, says Foreyt, "you've tricked your body into feeling nothing."
Stop making dietary changes under duress.
"When people come in and their whole world is falling apart and they also want to lose weight, I tell them it's really going to be tough," says Dan Kirschenbaum, director of the Center for Behavioral Medicine at Northwestern University.
In other words, the time you feel the worst about yourself, your life and your weight is probably the worst time to try fitting into last year's jeans.
"I've actually had clients that I've talked out of going on a diet," says Pierre, the dietitian. "They had so many other things going on," Pierre says, such as a dying family member, a wacky boss, a demanding husband.
Pierre says she advises those people to simply start exercising, slowly. Take a 10-minute walk in their office building.
So you see, no matter what the year, it all comes back to this: move more, obsess less.