Forget the gimmicks when it comes to dieting

There's no easy way to shed pounds, but eating foods high in fiber or protein instead of cookies is a start.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted March 30, 2009

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More than half of the American population is dieting each year, Susan Roberts, PhD, director of the Tufts University Energy Metabolism Laboratory in Boston, told congressional staffers at a recent briefing. And nearly all dieters regain their lost pounds in short order.

In fighting the obesity epidemic that has swept the nation and brought with it soaring levels of diabetes, physicians are being called upon to help patients lose weight. But which diet, if any, can be recommended? Roberts had some advice.

She related her tips at a March 11 briefing sponsored by the Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus. This group provides a forum for members of Congress and their staffs to interact with researchers. The briefing was hosted by the Coalition for the Life Sciences, a Maryland-based alliance of six nonprofit professional organizations that focus on basic biological research.

Not only are extra pounds taking a toll on health, but the diets they inspire are painful to the pocketbook as well, Roberts noted. Consumers are spending an estimated $35 billion a year on weight-loss products and services.

As a first step in determining a solution, Roberts explored how the extra pounds came to settle on the nation's bellies and waists. Since the mid-1970s, the number of calories the average person has consumed each day has increased by about the equivalent of an extra meal, she said. And the two food ingredients that account for most of the added calories are high fructose corn syrup and oil. Flour, cheese, shortening and edible beef tallow each contribute a bit more.

What has not increased is the consumption of beef, seafood, candy, chocolate and chips. Consumption of ice cream and frozen desserts actually fell by 13%.

Boosting the amount of energy burned by the body is a good way to shed extra pounds, but to maintain weight loss, food intake must drop permanently, she said. And no weight-loss program can work overnight, despite advertised claims, Roberts stressed. "Losing significant amounts of fat is a long-term project."

Individuals need to have realistic expectations, she noted. Weight loss of about 1 to 2 pounds per week is the maximum that can be expected.

"There is no magic bullet for belly fat. Energy intake needs to be reduced for a long time to lose weight, and then permanently decreased to keep weight off."

Roberts recommends consuming foods that help satisfy "basic hard-wired biology." For example, hunger is one pressing need that should be satisfied with high-fiber, high-protein foods rather than cookies and chips. The desire for variety can be met with salads, soups and fruit.

Often, "we eat it because it's there," she said, citing a study in which people opted to eat the larger bucket of stale popcorn rather than a smaller amount of freshly popped kernels.

Society also needs to get involved. Consumers must take charge of their food environment to make it easier to lose weight, and parents should play a role in the types of food served to their children at school, she advised.

The American Medical Association also has made the effort to combat obesity a priority and has called for societywide involvement that includes schools, public health and medical education.

Additionally, Roberts would like the media to reject advertising for untested diet gimmicks and scientists to continue to research what works best from the biological perspective.

She also recommended a federal junk-food tax. But at least one congressional staffer indicated that was not likely to happen anytime soon.

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