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Admit it: You ate too much over the holidays. So now, riddled with guilt and pinched around the waist, you're going to start cutting calories. It's time for some discipline! Okay, then - just don't expect it to work very well, or for very long.
Oh, bunk, you say. Being stingy with the grub should be a slam-dunk solution. If excess weight is merely the accumulation of excess calories, then losing weight should be a simple matter of eating less - right?
Well, no, actually. It's more complicated than that.
There are several reasons that calorie-counting diets almost always disappoint in the long run. One is that it's hard for anyone to accurately gauge how many calories are in a serving of food, and harder still to keep an accurate measure of all the food consumed throughout the day. Even those with the best information can be tripped up by individual differences in foods, and even those with the best intentions can grossly underestimate how much they eat. You can be wrong, even when you're trying to be right.
Another reason is that it's downright tedious. Be honest with yourself. Are you really going to weigh and measure every meal and snack you eat, every day, for the rest of your life? Those who succeed at first tend to tire of the constant need to count the calories of everything they put in their mouths. And if they happen to be really hungry when faced with the seductive appeal of a bag of chips or a candy bar, they are all the more likely to lose their steely determination to starve.
The hard truth about calorie counting, though, is that we just aren't designed to eat that way. We eat food because it satisfies a metabolic need or a psychological/emotional need, not because it adds up to some magic number. It's uncanny how people with low salt or low iron end up craving foods high in salt or iron. And we all know that downing gut-busting cinnamon buns and tubs of ice cream is much more about soothing our hungry souls than quieting our rumbling stomachs.
So what's the answer?
As with exercise selection, food selection is a matter of prioritizing quality over quantity.
Here's a shocker: Diets of practically identical calorie contents, but vastly different macronutrient contents, produce vastly different effects. With one, you could wither away and suffer depression (see the Minnesota Starvation Study) while, with another diet of equal calories you could remain hearty and hale, and fully satisfied (see the Yudkin University of London study). And, as many befuddled dieters have discovered, it's even possible to get fatter on a super low-calorie diet! If watching your weight were merely a matter of putting in fewer calories than your body could expend, this would not be the case. But it is - because what you eat is just as important as how much you eat.
Now here's an even bigger shocker: Fat in your diet is not necessarily to blame for the fat around your midsection. In a major study carried out recently in Dimona (which reinforced the findings of the studies noted above and many others as well), a low-fat diet was proven to be inferior to a low-carbohydrate diet of similar calorie content in helping subjects lose weight, improve their bad-cholesterol-to-good-cholesterol ratio and decrease fasting glucose levels.
Too many people, caught up in a race to cut fat from their diets, have replaced healthy levels of fats with unhealthy levels of sugars. Inordinate amounts of carbohydrates have overwhelmed their systems - leading to hyperinsulinemia, leading in turn to obesity and diabetes. Reversing the process begins with reducing carbs. Consult a nutritionist about finding the right amount of carbs for you, but definitely consider a reduction in your carbohydrate intake if you're looking to lose weight or are feeling sluggish.
If you're really serious about getting slim and trim, though - and keeping your sanity while doing it! - you'll need a comprehensive diet plan, and you'll need it to make sense for you. A more intuitive way than counting calories is to think of food in terms of the macronutrients (protein, carbs and fats) in it.
For example, you probably won't know how many calories are in a serving of salmon, but you can very easily identify it as rich in protein. You'll know that an apple is a juicy little package of carbs. And you'll know that a plate of humous is a big ol' serving of fat.
You needn't follow some exacting meal plan in an expensive weight loss program. All you have to do is to mix and match to build a solid nutritional base. Whenever you set out to prepare a meal for yourself, or whenever you find yourself poring over a restaurant menu, just choose foods or combinations of foods that give your body the macronutrients it needs.
You'll have to get lots of protein to maintain muscle mass and allow your body to carry out myriad vital functions. Excellent sources of protein include salmon, tuna and other fish; chicken and turkey; lean cuts of beef; and eggs. Dairy products, soy products and nuts and seeds also pack a decent protein punch.
Fat is also essential to numerous bodily functions, but the kind of fat you ingest matters. Trans fats (look for "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" on a food label) that fill junk foods and fried foods are to be avoided, while moderate amounts of the fats in foods like nuts, meats and dairy products are good choices to keep your body running strong.
When choosing carbs, avoid the white breads, cakes and cookies that contribute so many empty calories to Western diets. Choose instead fiber-rich, low-calorie sources such as non-starchy vegetables and fruits. When you do eat grains and cereals, choose whole-grain options and keep portions in check.
Of course, the concept of quality in food extends to the way food is prepared. Fake juice drink syrups are terrible substitutes for real fruit. Processed, formed, coated fish cutlets are meager alternatives to real fish. Chicken or turkey schnitzel has less protein and more fat and empty carbs than actual poultry. And it should go without saying that hot dogs and most cold cuts are atrocious.
The freezer section of your supermarket, also, is a diet trap full of products that contain more filler than food. The convenience of so many microwave pizzas and frozen veggie cutlets just isn't worth the toll on your body - or, for that matter, on your bank account. Choosing fresh foods you can identify at a glance is not only much more satisfying than loading up on the chemical-laden factory stuff, but it keeps your wallet fat, even as your waist becomes slimmer.