On the subject of weight loss, misconceptions abound. Women, for example, think that we men don’t care about our weight. Any one of us can confirm that this is not true. It’s just that we don’t obsess about our weight and don’t go on diets as often as women. We’re rightfully skeptical about food fads. We go to bookstores for Tom Clancy techno-thrillers, not 30-day recipe books. We believe weight loss is something that must be undertaken only when truly necessary, like a military operation. We’ll cut our flab a little slack, but when things really get out of line, we’re ready to take action.
Chances are, the time for action is right now, when weeks of well-deserved, festive holiday indulging and imbibing have left your body with more padding than you’d like. The question is how to lose it with the least amount of bother and fuss. As fad-wary men, we tend to rely on time-honored strategies for dropping pounds. Recently, however, there’s been a lot of new thinking based on solid research about proper food choices and exercise, the two key elements of any weight-loss plan. Think of it as new intelligence in the weight loss war. If you’re using old information, you’ll probably end up working harder than necessary to lose those pounds. Efficiency. Now that’s something most of us can sink our teeth into.
We asked a panel of experts to point out how commonly-held beliefs have changed. What follows is a list of eight weight-loss myths that often influence men, and the truths that have replaced them. Changing these old ways of thinking, our experts say, will make it considerably easier to lose weight and keep it off permanently.
1. Starches make you fat. Not so. In fact, “stick-to-the-rib” fare like potatoes, breads and pasta are the fastest-burning foods you can eat. All are carbohydrates, which provide the body’s main source of ready-to-use fuel. Experts recommend that the greatest share of our diet–60 percent–be composed of this high-octane nutrient. “Only a tiny percentage of carbohydrates are ever converted to fat in the body,” says Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., director of the human nutrition program at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.
Still, misconceptions linger on this score because of studies suggesting that overweight people crave starchy food, which implies that carbohydrates foster obesity. Drewnowski has found otherwise in studies showing that what people really crave is fat, which turns to flab far more easily than either carbohydrates or protein.
It’s easy to confuse high carbohydrate foods with high-fat ones because the two ingredients often appear together, especially in baked goods. “Muffin s are bready, brown and often have raisins in them, so they look very healthy, but they can contain as much fat as you’d want in an entire meal,” says Susan Kayman, Dr.P.H., R.D., a nutrition consultant with the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group in northern California. When in doubt about whether you’re eating mainly fat or carbohydrate, the litmus test is to put the food on a paper napkin, she says. “Anything that leaves a grease stain is fatty.”
High-fat foods that can masquerade as low-fat ones include:
* Crackers. They look wholesome, but some are as fatty as potato chips. Putting cheese spread on them makes them even worse. Lower-fat alternatives include rye crisp or melba toast.
* Croissants. Don’t let a filling of, say, broccoli fool you. Croissants were invented by the French, after all, and every one of those thin layers of pastry is made with a fresh coating of butter.
* Baked potatoes. On their own, potatoes are excellent sources of carbohydrates, but heaps of butter or sour cream tell another story. Choose instead toppings like yogurt, salsa or low-fat cottage cheese.
* Microwave popcorn (or any kind of popcorn you don’t air-pop yourself). Most use a heavy dose of oil as part of their preparation.
2. You need to cut calories drastically to lose weight. Not really. When you cut back too hard on your calories, the body goes into a conservation mode in which your metabolism–the rate at which the body’s calorie-burning machinery turns over– switches to a slower idle. That actually decreases your ability to lose weight.
To keep your body revving, the experts advise that you drop your total calorie intake only a little, while adjusting the fuel mix. “Cut back just on fat, and you can practically eat the same number of calories and still lose weight,” says Kim Galeaz Gioe, R.D., spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. In a study at Cornell University, people who got 25 percent of their calories from fat (as opposed to the 38 percent typical for most men), but ate as much as they wanted of other types of food, lost an average of half a pound per week.
3. Only drastic diets work. We’ll grant that if you eat nothing but grapefruit morning, noon and night, you will lose weight. But if you’re considering a diet like this, we suggest you look in the mirror and say these words out loud: “I will never in my life eat anything but grapefruit again.”
Right. The problem with extreme diets is that they ignore reality–a certain undeniable craving for roast beef that is bound to set in midway through a grapefruit diet. And once you go back to your old eating ways, you’ll quickly gain the pounds back.
To lose weight and keep it off permanently, experts instead advise making small, gradual changes you can live with. We’re talking changes so innocuous, it won’t seem like you’ve started a diet at all.
When ordering last food, for example, get the same burger but tell them to leave off the cheese and you’ll save 100 calories per meal. Drink 1 percent milk instead of 2 percent or whole milk. “Don’t think you’re limited to skim,” says Gioe. “One percent is perfectly consistent with USDA guidelines for a low-fat diet.’
In one study at Indiana University, people who bought low-fat dairy and meat products put fewer fatty extras on their food and ate fewer fried foods easily dropped the percentage of fat in their diets from 39 percent to 27.
4. You have to give up favorite foods. You don’t. In fact, you can eat anything you want. “The minute you say, ‘I can’t,’ or, ‘I shouldn’t,’ you’re setting yourself up for disaster,” Gioe says. “Instead, you need to turn it around and ask, ‘How can I squeeze in my favorite high-fat foods and still lose weight?'”
Depriving yourself of pleasure from food isn’t fun and it doesn’t work. “There’s something called the Abstinence Violation Effect, which says if you insist on completely avoiding something, human nature makes it likely that you’ll break your resolution,’ Kayman says. “Then you tell yourself you’ve blown it and simply give up. It’s much better to allow yourself enjoyable choices now and then, which makes the real issue how much you have, and how often.”
Take, for example, ice cream, rated in a survey as the favorite dessert among men. You could have it three times a week as part of a low-fat diet, as long as you follow one of two guidelines: either have small, half-cup portions of the real thing or have larger, one-cup helpings of low-fat varieties or frozen yogurt.
Red meat is another food that can readily be part of a healthy diet if you eat small portions once or twice a week. Choosing a lean cut allows you to eat bigger portions. Here’s a simple rule: Anything with the words “round” or “loin” is low-fat. Sirloin, tenderloin and eye of round, for example, all come from muscular, lean parts of a cow. Ribeye and prime rib, by contrast, come from softer, farrier parts, and you should eat less of them.
5. You shouldn’t snack. The right kinds of snacks can actually help you lose weight. The important thing is to take control of your snack supply. You can’t rely on standard fare from office vending machines or company caterers, which provide ample selections of just the things you want to avoid: candy bars, snack chips and rich doughnuts and pastries. Instead, Kayman suggests you bring a bag filled with a variety of food you can nosh on throughout the day. Fruits like apples and bananas are good choices, as are bagels with jam or jelly and small cans of vegetable juice. Snacking on low-fat, energy-rich foods like these will keep you from becoming too hungry and overeating at mealtimes.
6. When you overeat, it’s because you’re hungry. Hunger has nothing to do with it. We overeat for emotional reasons, according to Maria Simonson, Ph.D., director of the health, weight and stress clinic at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore. If you know your emotional triggers, you’ll also eat better.
“One of the major reasons is stress,” she says. “Stress makes you eat more quickly than anything else.” And the foods you want to eat under stress are more likely to be fatty, pleasurable things that are soft or creamy.
These cravings aren’t commands from the body, however. Nor will they continue to torment you until you give in. In fact, they can change as quickly as the emotions that drive them. Cravings follow a predictable curve, researchers find: They build, peak, then subside. The best way to foil a craving is to take your mind off it, preferably by doing something incompatible with eating, like going for a walk.
7. Burning calories demands intense exercise. Not true. Most any exercise burns calories. According to lanet Walberg-Rankin, Ph.D., associate professor of exercise physiology at Virginia Tech, you can lose a pound a week just by ratcheting your activity level up a notch or two. By this she means things like walking, chopping wood, mowing the lawn, cleaning the basement or climbing stairs.
It used to be thought that you needed standard three-times-a-week regimens of intense workouts to pare away pounds. Such workouts are important for improving cardiovascular fitness, but fat burning takes place at lower intensity levels, says Men’s Health advisor Bryant Stamford, Ph.D., professor of allied health at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky. “The exercise doesn’t have to be a killer for weight loss,” he says.
Intensity is a trade-off, Stamford says. The harder you work, the more you’ll burn, but if you find hard exercise unpleasant, you won’t stick with it. Lighter exercise, he finds, pays higher dividends in the long run because it’s more easily sustained.
8. Aerobic exercise is better than lifting weights. You’ll burn more fat during an aerobic workout than you will doing a set of weights, but the benefits from aerobics end shortly after exercising. Strength training, on the other hand, keeps the flab-torching flame alive long after the workout is over. “Weight training is like a salary,” Stamford says. “Aerobics is like a bonus.”
It all has to do with how efficiently your metabolism burns fat. Weight lifting builds muscle fast, and muscle is the most metabolically supercharged tissue in the body. “If you raise your metabolic rate even a fraction, it’s multiplied by 60 minutes, 24 hours a day,” Stamford says. “You lose weight just from being alive.”
He recommends a weight workout that hits all the major muscle groups. Whether you use machines or free weights makes no difference. Aim for two sets of 12 repetitions per exercise. If you can do 12 reps without too much strain, add enough weight to make the last few lifts difficult.
The best part of all this is that, with experts now advocating occasional splurges, you’ll never have to make another New Year’s resolution about what you eat. Next year, when the holidays roll around, consider the festivities a part of your plan. In a word, enjoy.