How to lose weight is the number one reason athletes choose to make a nutrition appointment with me. They express frustration they “cannot do something as simple as lose a few pounds.” While few of my clients are obese, their frustrations match those of dieters in the general population.
At a conference presented by Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, and the Boston Nutrition Obesity Research Center (July 13-14, 2011), researchers addressed some of the issues that contribute to difficulty losing weight. Perhaps the following highlights might offer insights if you are among the many athletes who struggle with shedding some unwanted body fat.
Why gaining weight is easy
• To the detriment of our health, we are living in a food carnival. No wonder today’s kids enter adulthood 20 pounds heavier than in 1960! By the time kids are 4 to 5 years old, 60 percent of them have lost the ability to self-regulate food intake.
• Most people believe that obesity is a matter of will power, but it’s not that simple. For example, in obese people, the brain’s response to food odors and flavors is often blunted. Compared to lean people, they need more of a food to experience a positive brain response.
• When stressed, obese people (more so than their lean counterparts) seek high fat foods. Chips, ice cream, fries…
• Impulsivity, a genetic trait, is a risk factor for obesity. That is, obese people (more than their lean counterparts) tend to impulsively eat, let’s say, the whole plate of cookies.
• Food advertisements are designed to encourage impulsive consumption.
• Food advertisers know that marketing “works” — and kids who watch TV are a prime target. The average child sees an average of 13 food ads a day on TV; most of these foods are high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat.
• Research with children who watched TV with four ads for food ate 45 percent more Goldfish Crackers (100 calories more) when exposed to the ads for food as compared to when they watched four ads for games. The kids who liked the taste of Goldfish ate even more calories!
• Foods marketed with a character (such as Scooby-Doo) sell better. Fifty-two percent of preschoolers said the character-food tasted better (as opposed to 38 percent who said it tasted the same, and 10 percent who said food without the character tasted better).
• The standard supermarket diet is rich in sugar, saturated fat, and sodium. It causes obesity in rats. That is, rats fed standard rat chow maintained a normal weight. But rats fed a standard supermarket diet ended up overweight-until researchers took away that food. The rats then lost weight when they returned to eating rat chow. There’s little doubt that fats, sugar, and salt stimulate us to eat more than we need!
• When the calories are listed near a food, as is happening in many fast food restaurants, some people choose the foods with higher calories, believing it will be yummier. That response certainly negates the intention of the calorie campaign!
• People make an average of 200 food choices in a day; all these decisions can deplete our limited mental “resources” that govern self-regulation. That’s one reason why, at the end of a hectic day, you can more easily overeat. You lack the mental resources to say “no” to that tempting cookie.
• The food industry’s bottom line is always profits. When Pepsi started marketing more of its healthy products, sales of the unhealthy products dropped. The stockholders complained-and that puts the food industry in a bind.
Weight loss tactics: So what’s a hungry athlete to do?
Drugs are not the answer. For the past 20 years, no successful weight-loss drugs have been developed and none are in sight in the near future. Drugs that regulate appetite also impact many other regulatory centers and create undesired side effects. Hence, we need to learn how to manage the obesity problem at its roots-and that means prevent excessive fat gain in the first place, starting in childhood. Here are a few tips on how to do that.
• You can reduce your food intake by using your imagination. That is, if you imagine eating a food, let’s say, ice cream, you can end up eating less of it.
• Technology offers a glimmer of hope in the battle of the bulge. A free application for iPhones called Lose It! has created a thriving weight loss community, as measured by 7.5 million free app downloads since October 2010. The web version, www.LoseIt.com, is just as popular. LoseIt! members can conveniently and easily track their food and calorie intake.
• Lose It! includes a social network. Dieters seem to prefer online support from people they do not know, as opposed to involving their family and friends with their dieting progress (or lack there of). LoseIt!’s social groups are created according to goals. Dieters can easily (and anonymously) connect with and get support from others with similar goals. In fact, the best predictor of weight loss success with LoseIt! is having three or more Lose It! buddies.
• Food advertisements are designed to trigger certain pleasure centers. (For example, McDonald’s is associated with happiness.) We now need to learn how to advertise healthy foods. The baby carrot campaign to “eat ‘em like junk food” has boosted sales 10 percent, including a new demand for baby carrots in school vending machines.
• We can change our brain circuits by substituting food with another stimuli, such as exercise. Exercise does more than burn calories to control weight; exercise changes the reward systems in the brain.
• Exercise supports self-control. That is, people who exercise have greater control over what they eat. They also have more control over sticking with their exercise program. Successful exercisers are able to make exercise a habit, and not a choice. Having one less decision to make bolsters their mental resources so they can cope better overall.
A final thought:
Somehow we need to change the perception that eating fast foods loaded with sugar, salt, and saturated fats gives us satisfaction. A few years ago, we changed the perception that smoking is satisfying. Parents stopped smoking when kids came home and said “Mom, Dad, please don’t smoke.” Today, we need kids to start saying “Mom, Dad, please don’t take me to McDonald’s.” Will that day ever come?
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes. Her office is at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners, and soccer players offer additional information. They are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com . See also www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com.