Mr. Fat, I have tried to get rid of you on my own, but you’re too clingy. I’ve never seriously tried to lose weight—I’ve just tried eating less, but to no avail, so I turned to my friends for help. They started throwing out words like The Master Cleanse and Beyoncé’s diet and Atkins. Overwhelmed, I decided I needed professional advice. That is where Joan Blake, a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor from Boston University, was able to help.
To check if fad diets are nutritionally unsound, Blake said you should see if they are “blaming a whole food group, like saying stay away from bread because bread makes you fat, or telling people that it is guaranteed to keep your weight off. These are all red flags for fad diets.” For a normal female teenager, the recommended calorie intake per day is around 2200-2400, depending on physical activity level—the more sedentary you are, the fewer calories you need.
“When it comes to losing weight, all it really is, is a matter of math,” Blake said. “You have to eat less calories than you need. Anything lower than 1600, you’re not going to be able to meet your nutrient needs.”
The issue with most people, however, is that they don’t usually keep track of their daily caloric intake—or they (rightfully) despise having to calculate every calorie. So for an easy approximation of healthy weight loss, Blake refers to the 10 percent rule.
“A beautiful formula, a realistic formula, is that you should lose 10 percent of your body weight over 6 months,” she said. It’s quick, easy and applicable to anyone, whether you are 120 or 200 pounds. For instance, 10 percent of 120 pounds over six months means 2 pounds per month, which is reasonable and doable.
Now that you know how much to lose at a healthy rate, the real question is, is the weight loss even necessary? Maureen Bligh, a registered dietitian who also manages a nutrition education website for the Dairy Council of California, said the “first thing that I would recommend teenagers do is check their body mass index (BMI). Find out, ‘do I even need to diet?’” You might think you do, but not all fat is bad—our body needs insulation to provide warmth and cushioning, since many important blood and nerve vessels pass through fat to get to our organs.
If your body’s ideal BMI indicates that you do need to lose weight, make sure you are doing it correctly. As Bligh pointed out, “If you really look at legitimate science-based research, we don’t need to detoxify our bodies—we already have kidneys, we already have a bladder, a liver.” A good way to lose weight is to learn from consistently fit people who aren’t celebrities dieting for an upcoming movie or job, since long-term healthy weight loss is the goal. The National Weight Loss Registry, an ongoing study that has kept track of how thousands of individuals have been successful at weight loss maintenance, is a great resource. Their research finds that eating breakfast and lower-fat foods, plus exercising at least for an hour each day, has helped people the most.
Unfortunately, one thing people don’t know about dieting is that if done unhealthily, as with fad diets, it can paradoxically lead to weight gain. As Blake warned, “In adolescents, skipping breakfast can increase the risk of obesity,” because if they’re “overly ravenous,” they will overcompensate and eat more later. Dieting can also turn into a vicious roller-coaster cycle. “Don’t deprive yourself,” Bligh said. “If you get into the deprivation mode, it can start a really bad yo-yo dieting thing, where you’re on a diet, then you’re off a diet. It’s worse than if you never started dieting at all.”
If cutting calories only makes you hungrier, the solution is simple: listen to your appetite. One way to control your appetite is to trick your body through portion control. Blake’s personal mantra is to eat more satiating foods that will “fill you up before they fill you out.” Meat, fish or poultry for any given meal should be about “the size of the palm of your hand,” approximately a quarter of the size of the plate, whereas half of the plate should have vegetables. She also recommends making “fruits and vegetables your snack. You’d be surprised how that will displace other high-calorie snacks and inadvertently cut calories.”
It’s no coincidence that I’m now snacking on grapes instead of my usual late-night Pringles indulgence. I’m not much of a workout type, so changing eating habits is my secret to long-term weight loss. But then again, when I calculated my BMI with a calculator, it turned out I’m actually considered healthy. So I guess, Mr. Fat, you aren’t supposed to leave me after all. We were meant to be together and I’m just going to have to learn to love you sooner or later.
For a list of registered dietitians nearest you, visit www.eatright.org
Full disclosure: Joan and I are working together on a new medical student/dietetic intern peer-match program.