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Note to journalists and editors: This column was written by Melissa Wdowik, PhD, RDN, FAND, an assistant professor at Colorado State University in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and director of the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center. This will be the last Wdowik nutrition column until early May.
Americans gain an average of 3 pounds per year, but tend to not pay attention until they are 15 to 20 pounds above their usual weight. What causes that gradual creeping up of weight? More time sitting and less time being physically active. Extra calories taken in. Too much stress. Too little sleep. Together, these factors create the perfect storm of imbalanced hormones, cravings, overeating and weight gain.
In this chemical environment, weight loss is challenging, and in our societal environment, weight loss is even more daunting. While there is no simple approach that works for everyone, there are six significant changes you can make to start this important journey.
The six changes
- Decrease intake of simple sugars and processed carbohydrates. Cut back on sweetened beverages (soda, coffee drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened fruit blends) and white bread products like bread, buns, and donuts as well as white rice and pasta. Rather than feeling deprived, concentrate on the benefits of water and the carbs you can have – whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and dairy.
- Focus on eating protein throughout the day, with every meal and with every snack, if you snack. Dietary protein causes a smaller increase in blood insulin than carbohydrates. A surge in insulin after simple carbohydrate intake can cause a drop in blood sugar that triggers cravings and overeating, a cycle not usually seen after protein intake. This does not mean you should use protein supplements or eliminate all carbs, either; instead, eat a palm-size portion each of a protein and a carb food, such as a chicken thigh with a half cup of wild rice. Fill the rest of your plate with vegetables.
- Eat fewer calories. Start by leaving some food on your plate at every meal. Then begin serving yourself smaller portions, being sure to serve it on a plate, not eat from a container. You can feel satisfied with this smaller intake by drinking water, eating slowly, and filling up on low calorie, high fiber vegetables.
- Replace some of your meat and noodles with legumes, such as beans, peas or lentils. I cook chicken breast with black beans, turkey with lentils, and shrimp with peas. This technique helps meet the first three goals, because legumes contain complex carbohydrates rather than simple, they are a good source of protein, and they have enough fiber to fill you up and leave you satisfied.
- Work on your stress and sleep management. Stress can cause overeating and fat storage thanks to the hormone cortisol, while inadequate sleep increases hunger due to the hormone ghrelin.
- Get physical activity every day. Even without a gym membership, you can be active walking, exercising with an app, or even doing jumping jacks while watching TV.
While weight loss is neither quick nor easy, you have to start somewhere and sometime in order to protect yourself from diabetes, heart disease, digestive disorders and other ailments. Take the first step of your journey with a positive attitude, and watch for tips from this column throughout the year.
Melissa Wdowik, PhD, RDN, FAND, is an assistant professor at Colorado State University in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and director of the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center.