Slimming Down

How Shedding Pounds Amounts to Shedding Years

Perhaps no health issue is more emotionally charged than weight gain. We need only to look at the plethora of diet books and the news stories about eating disorders to sense the concern. Ironically, in spite of the abundance of information on diet, nutrition, and the health problems associated with being overweight, the American population has been getting progressively heavier.

Being overweight can provoke many conditions that age your body. It causes high blood pressure, inhibits exercise, and promotes chronic diseases like diabetes. Excess weight is associated with accelerated arterial ageing and the onset of cardiovascular disease; ageing of the bones and joints; diseases of ageing, such as gallbladder disease and gout; increased levels of depression; and increased incidence of cancers, especially breast, uterine, and prostate cancers. Being overweight can make your RealAge as much as ten years older.

Fad diets are not the solution. Losing weight—and keeping it off—is no easy trick. The only way to do it is to change behaviors at the most fundamental level: Weight loss and maintenance of the ideal weight are always tied to healthy eating and exercise behaviors that are practiced for a lifetime. Repeatedly losing weight and gaining it back stresses your body and actually accelerates ageing.

The customary way of calculating your ideal weight is to determine your body mass index (BMI), or your weight-to-height ratio. The BMI reading is one of the best tools for assessing whether a person weighs too much because it accounts for variances in body size, giving a standard for evaluating people at a range of heights. (Although BMI is not the best measure of body fat, for most people, it provides a good general estimate and can easily be calculated at home.)

The average BMI for Americans is 26.3 kg/m2 (kilograms per meter' squared). In terms of Age Reduction, the ideal BMI is 23 or less. As long as your weight is not abnormally low because of some health complication, such as a chronic disease, if you have a BMI of 23 or less, you can expect your RealAge to be as much as eight years younger than if your BMI were at the national average of 26.3.

If your BMI is over 25, you will probably want to consider a moderate weight-loss program that includes boosting exercise and cutting caloric intake. If your BMI is over 27, excess weight is causing unnecessary ageing, and, again, you should consider a safe and gradual weight-loss plan involving exercise and cutting calories. People with BMIs over 30 should consult a physician or weight-loss professional before beginning any diet, to establish a safe and practical weight-loss plan.

Despite the well-publicized health problems from obesity, more than 40 percent of all men over age fifty are significantly overweight. That is, they are 20 percent or more above their desirable weight and have a BMI over 27.8. Fifty-two percent of women in their fifties and 41 percent of women age sixty and over are significantly overweight: they are 20 percent or more above their desirable weight and have a BMI over 27.3. In 1960, fewer than one-quarter of all Americans were significantly overweight; now more than one-third are. From 1980 to 1990, the weight (adjusted for height) of the average American increased by eight pounds.

What is the major factor causing this increase in weight? Some scientists argue that obesity stems largely from our food choices. We choose to eat a calorically dense diet, one that is high in saturated fats and trans fats, rich in sugar, and low in both fiber and nutrients. Others argue that we are genetically predisposed to obesity. Yet others believe that in our sedentary society, obesity is due to the abundance, variety, availability, and palatability of the food we can eat. That is, we overeat. I say it's double trouble; even when genetic factors are taken into account, we eat too much, and we eat the wrong things. In addition, we don't get enough exercise, especially strength-building exercise.

The best way to lose weight and to get younger by doing so is to eat less food and get more exercise. Approximately three hundred thousand people die a year because of weight-related illnesses. Indeed, our society's tendency to correlate thinness with beauty has done incredible harm. Instead of learning healthy eating practices, we crash diet to lose pounds and, in the process, do incredible damage to our bodies. Or else we give up, thinking that because we will never be supermodel thin, we may as well not bother losing weight at all.

How to Spot a Fad Diet

Every year there are new diet plans and lots of hype accompanying them. One year it is the grapefruit diet, the next year the cabbage soup diet. Some of these plans contain reasonable and healthful information. Others encourage bad diet habits or contain information that is just plain wrong—information that can either do nothing for you or, in some cases, cause real harm. The Food and Nutrition Science Alliance gives good advice on how to spot a bad diet fad:

1. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

2 .Don't believe in the quick fix. When it comes to food, there are no overnight miracles.

3. Dire warnings—or raves-—-about one ingredient or regimen are not the answer. The all-tofu diet isn't going to keep your weight down.

4. Don't be tricked by simplistic conclusions drawn from complex studies. View what you read with a critical eye. Look for informed commentary in the health-minded press.

5. Recommendations based on single studies should not be believed. Wait for confirmation.

6. Dramatic claims that are disputed by other experts in the field are a clear warning sign. Try to evaluate who is correct.

In most of the discussions about weight, what is forgotten is the relationship between weight maintenance and good health. The point is not to be the skinniest person around, but to be the right weight for your height and build. So far, there are no good and lasting quick fixes. If you are just a bit overweight, you can probably increase your exercise levels or reduce your caloric intake and lose the weight.

Recent studies, such as one just completed at the University of Chicago, have found that the best way to lose weight is to increase exercise. In the University of Chicago's research on overweight women, not only did exercise burn calories, it also boosted the overall metabolic rate. When you exercise regularly, the body burns more calories per minute even when you are not exercising. Strength exercises are especially important because they build muscle, which burns more calories per minute than other kinds of body tissue (see Chapter 9).

New evidence shows that weight gain between the ages of eighteen (for women) or twenty-one (for men) and forty is particularly dangerous. Weight gain during these years can make your RealAge six months to one year older for every 10 percent gain in the BMI. Furthermore every 10 percent increase in relative weight is associated with a 6.5 mm rise in systolic blood pressure, and high blood pressure is one of the major factors affecting ageing.

Why are some people more prone to being overweight than others? Two factors that contribute are genetics and behaviors. 

Certainly, one key factor is heredity. Some of us are born thin, and some of us aren't. Our genes determine all kinds of influences on height, body weight, and metabolic rate, and these influences vary widely from person to person. The study of genetic factors affecting weight gain is a burgeoning field, and scientists have already discovered some genes and gene products that are tied to weight gain. For example, in 1994 and 1995, one of the first hormones tied to fat regulation—leptin—was characterized in the now-famous studies of 'fat mice': Mice with genetically caused obesity were given injections of leptin and lost weight! Despite the initial belief that a magical new weight-loss drug had been found, the discovery of leptin proved how complicated the genetics of food metabolism and weight gain are. Subsequent investigations showed that leptin is just one hormone of many involved in a complicated metabolic pathway. Some people with genetically caused weight problems have leptin-related disorders, but-others don't. Weight regulation is a complex genetic trait: Many different genes and proteins interact to determine body size. We are still years from understanding the interactions. Fortunately, heredity isn't everything.

What should you do to shed extra pounds? First, review this chapter, which contains tips on eating an Age Reduction diet. Then read the next chapter, in which you will learn how to develop an Age Reduction physical activity plan.

Second, don't torture yourself. The dieter's mentality of sacrifice and denial leads to failure. Don't punish yourself for occasional slipups. Instead, try to establish good eating behaviors that will last a lifetime. It makes no sense to go oh a diet for six weeks. Instead, you need to establish routines that will help you keep the weight off for the long term. Don't do anything dramatic or extreme. Use common sense and talk to your doctor. Remember, your food choices are for life: You can keep young by choosing to eat well.

Third, don't go it alone. It's too easy to lose your willpower. Find someone who has a common goal and try to lose weight together. Encourage your spouse or partner, friends, and colleagues to support you or join you. Although a diet sounds like the least entertaining thing imaginable, there are ways of making weight loss fun. For eleven years, I had a running bet with a group of friends. We agreed to lose two to three pounds a month—an achievable goal. Once a month we met for a weigh-in. Anyone who weighed in higher than his or her goal had to pay each of the others a hundred dollars for every pound he or she was over the target weight. Having the penalty be that high gave all of us an extra incentive to meet our goal. In eleven years and 132 weigh-ins, only one of us ever missed our target weight.

Fourth, if you're on a diet, reward yourself. When you lose the pounds you want, treat yourself to a new outfit, a night on the town, exercise clothes, a massage, or whatever makes you feel good—anything except an ice cream sundae! If you know a dieter, help celebrate when his or her weight-loss goal is reached.

Finally, you may want to have professional support. Joining a responsible weight-loss clinic or participating in a program such as Weight Watchers can help you lose extra pounds. These diet clinics and programs can teach you simple tricks for eating healthier, choosing foods that are good for you, and consuming fewer calories. They provide handy tips like what to order in a restaurant when no low-fat options are obvious and how to avoid empty-calorie foods. Also, the social environment really appears to pay off. It encourages a 'we're-all-in-this-together' kind of attitude as you leam how to motivate each other and make healthy food choices together. These groups help you celebrate those pounds-off victories.