`Tis The Season To Shed Some Pounds

Resolutions to lose weight are as much a New Year's tradition as popping corks and flying confetti. And this year, because of stricter weight guidelines for adults released on Jan. 1 by the Agriculture Dept. and Health & Human Services Dept., more people than ever may realize they need to shed pounds.

Unfortunately for baby boomers, the new chart no longer allows a person to put on 15 lb. to 20 lb. during middle age: The change reflects growing evidence indicating that adding a pound or two a year after 18--as most people do--increases the risk of premature death from heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. "It's not O.K. to gain weight as you get older anymore," says Dr. George Blackburn, chief of the Center for the Study of Nutrition Medicine at New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston.

FRUIT AND VEGGIE. Whether you are trying to fall in line with the revised guidelines or keep a New Year's resolution, the best way to start a weight-loss program is to set reasonable goals. Nutrition experts agree that when people establish small, attainable objectives--to reduce by five pounds in a month, for example--they are more likely to achieve them and set new ones. Larger amounts may seem insurmountable and lead to a "to-hell-with-it" attitude, Blackburn says.

Also, it's helpful to view losing weight as a move toward good health rather than good looks, according to Dr. Louis Aronne, director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Center at New York Hospital and the author of Weigh Less, Live Longer ($22.95, John Wiley & Sons). "Progress can be measured by just feeling better or lowering your blood-pressure and blood-sugar levels," he says.

The best diets are those that feature plant foods--with animal protein and fat making occasional guest appearances. This means grocery shopping mainly in the produce department and in the bakery aisle--for whole-grain breads. Meats and dairy products should be thought of as condiments, like relish, and should be eaten accordingly. If a half-pound of relish is too much to season a meal, then so is a half-pound of hamburger.

Above all, eat a variety of foods, says Adam Drewnowski, professor and director of the Human Nutrition Program at the University of Michigan. Variety is important because it exposes the body to a wider range of macro nutrients (protein, carbohydrates) and micro ones (vitamins, minerals), which the body needs to function at its best.

BINGE-PRONE? Also, eating the same thing all the time is not exactly a palate-pleaser. "Consuming food should be satisfying," says Drewnowski. "If all you eat is broccoli, rice, and shredded carrots, for heaven's sake, go out and eat a hamburger and have a milk shake." Studies show that people who observe extremely strict diets are prone to binge eating and are more likely to abuse alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes. "The message is that if your diet doesn't have enough variety to include those things you like, you will pay a psychological price," Drewnowski says.

Of course, fatty treats such as burgers and shakes should be enjoyed in moderation. Fat has the highest calorie count per unit of any food component, and it converts to body fat most easily. Since the trick to losing weight is to burn more calories than you consume, cutting the fat helps. Here are some easy ways to eliminate unnecessary fat: In recipes for baked goods that call for oil or shortening, substitute applesauce or dried-fruit purees steeped in orange juice. Use defatted chicken broth in place of butter on vegetables. And rinse cooked ground beef in a colander before throwing it into casseroles or spaghetti sauce.

Just realize, however, that "fat-free" doesn't mean calorie-free--especially when it comes to packaged foods. "Most fat-free and reduced-fat products are full of sugar and fillers that drive the calories up almost as high as they would be if the product had the fat," warns Deanna Montgomery, assistant professor of biological sciences and nutrition at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. Indeed, Nabisco's Fat Free Fig Newtons and Low Fat Honey Maid Graham Crackers, Keebler's Reduced Fat Fudge Stripes, and Mother's Fat Free Fig Bars all have more sugar and total carbohydrates than their full-fat counterparts. Not only does this bring their calorie count up to within 10 to 30 calories of full-fat levels but also their higher carbohydrate content may increase a person's appetite.

WATER EVERYWHERE. Dr. Denise Bruner, a weight-loss specialist practicing in Arlington, Va., explains that the body releases insulin, which is "a known appetite stimulant," to break down carbohydrates. Thus, the higher a food's carbohydrate count, the more insulin rushes into the bloodstream and the hungrier a person may feel. Bruner says she eats only protein and fruit for breakfast because "carbohydrates like cereal or a bagel will make me hungry again almost before I can get to work." So she recommends, for their morning repast, that her patients eat low-fat cheese, yogurt, or egg-white omelets along with a little fruit. Such high-protein, low-carbohydrate meals "don't stimulate the production of insulin" and are more likely to keep appetites in check until lunch.

Drinking water--before or between meals--can also reduce hunger pangs. Downing eight 8-oz. glasses of water a day makes for a sense of fullness and flushes out bodily wastes, including the byproducts from the breakdown of fat. "If those by-products are not cleaned out of the system, the body slows down the rate at which it burns fat," Bruner says. Without water to wash it away, fat languishes in tummies and thighs longer.

Behavioral strategies help dieters as well. Nutrition experts say it's best to avoid eating when emotionally out of sorts. New York Hospital's Aronne says extreme stress, boredom, happiness, or sadness can prompt overeating. He tells patients to "be aware of their state of mind" and to try not to eat when feelings could cloud their stomach's satiety. Other behavioral tactics include putting utensils down between bites and placing food on plates rather than eating out of pots, pans, or cartons.

One of the most effective strategies is to make a record of every crumb eaten over the course of the day. Says the University of Texas' Montgomery: "People who keep records are genuinely amazed at how much they eat and usually recognize areas where they can scale back." Several software programs, such as Parson Technology's Diet Analyst ($29) and Nutrition Expert by Fitness Software Systems ($60), are available to help track food consumption. Most computerized nutrition packages not only chronicle every morsel swallowed but also tally and graphically display a person's daily intake of calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, and amino acids, along with vitamins and minerals.

GROCERY LIST. Introducing a little organization into meal preparation never hurt a dieter, either. "People plan just about every other aspect of their lives but don't plan what they are going to eat," Montgomery says. Meal planning ensures that healthy ingredients are on hand to prepare that low-fat, high-fiber dinner at the end of a long day when a bag of Oreos might seem easier than a trip to the market.

Finally--exercise, exercise, exercise. Physical activity burns calories, which is, after all, the name of the game. But exercising does not have to involve donning spandex, spastically bouncing in front of a mirror, or running mile after tedious mile on a treadmill. "Vacuuming or raking leaves could do it," Aronne says. Most health-care professionals recommend a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise three days a week. It can be 30 minutes at a stretch or even three 10-minute bouts spread out during the day.

Regardless of the method you choose, a happy, healthy New Year doesn't just happen overnight. Losing weight is a slow process, and keeping it off usually requires a lifetime commitment to improved habits of eating and exercise. But with time and resolution, weight control is a piece of (low-fat, low-calorie) cake.

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