Eating Healthy Shouldn’t Be Complicated

It seems like every week there is a new diet to try. Someone is always trying to sell a magic pill promising rapid weight loss with no side effects. According to data from Marketdata Enterprises, Americans spend over $60 billion a year on weight loss products.

There are even TV shows that show dramatic weight loss results with severely calorie-restricted diets and extreme workouts. However, these crash diets don’t work and can be unhealthy in the long term.

A study published in the journal Obesity in May looked at weight loss among 14 contestants on one of these shows. The contestants lost an average of 128 pounds by the end of the 30-week show. However, at the 6-year follow-up, they had regained about 90 pounds.

The authors also measured the participants’ resting metabolic rate, or RMR — the amount of energy your body needs to perform basic functions, even if you stay in bed all day. They found that RMR decreased at the end of the show by 610 kcal per day.

At the 6-year follow-up, RMR still had not returned to baseline. Instead, it decreased to 704 kcal per day below baseline. In other words, participants were burning significantly fewer calories than prior to the start of the show. This caused quite a stir in the media. Many people expressed great disappointment in the findings and felt that achieving long-term weight loss through diet and exercise was hopeless.

But don’t give up hope. Television is designed to entertain. In fact, successful weight loss is a long-term process and weight discrimination, including false stereotypes that obese individuals are lazy or lack willpower, can have a detrimental effect. This form of prejudice does not motivate people to lose weight — often, it has the opposite result. A 2014 study in Obesity linked perceived weight discrimination to increasing weight.

There’s a simpler, healthier way

Let’s talk about a simpler, safer and healthier way to not only lose weight but also lower your risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and even death. This is not a quick fix diet — it’s a long-term lifestyle strategy.

The first part of the strategy is to stop focusing on a single nutrient, such as carbs, fats or proteins. Instead, focus on eating whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and grains. A meta-analysis of 16 studies, including over 800,000 people, found that each additional serving of fruits and vegetables they ate (up to a maximum of five) lowered their risk of dying by 5 percent.

It’s equally important to minimize foods that have been shown to harm your body. These include red meat, processed meats, refined grains and sugar-sweetened beverages. In fact, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified processed meat as a carcinogen and red meat as a probable carcinogen.

After reviewing more than 800 studies, WHO found that eating about 50 grams of processed meat — about four strips of bacon or one hot dog — every day increased the risk of colon cancer by 18 percent.

The second part of the strategy is to get adequate sleep. Most experts recommend 7 to 9 hours daily for adults. Research shows that sleep deprivation leads to a decrease in blood sugar tolerance and insulin sensitivity, increasing your risk for developing diabetes. Sleep deprivation also causes an increase in hunger and appetite by raising levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin and lowering levels of the hormone leptin.

The third part of the strategy is to make exercise part of your daily routine. It’s okay if you can’t make it to the gym. Use every opportunity you can to move: Park a little further away, take the stairs when going up one or two flights, or walk during your lunch break.

Lastly, it is important to reduce stress. A great way to do this is by meditating. You don’t need a lot of time. Even a one-minute meditation can be very powerful. One of my favorite videos is the “One-Moment Meditation” on YouTube. Showing gratitude and spending time with your loved ones is another great way to reduce your stress.

Putting these four steps together, we have what is called the SELF Principle: sleep, exercise, love and food. It is a simple strategy to optimal health that gets away from fads and short-term gimmicks.

You don’t have to be perfect. Start by making small changes following the SELF principle. It’s okay to mess up, and it’s okay to fall down. Just remember the Japanese proverb, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.”


Sean Hashmi, MD, MS, FASN is a practicing Nephrologist and Obesity Medicine Specialist in Southern California. He is founding director of SELFPrinciple.org, a non-profit, non-commercial site focused on evidence based nutrition and health. You can follow him on twitter @SELF_Principle.

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