En español | Anna is 55, a mother of three, and a new patient of mine who has struggled with her weight for the past 30 years. She's tried just about every imaginable diet — high carb, low carb, high protein, low fat. She may lose a few pounds, but then she resumes her old eating patterns and the weight returns, often with an extra pound or two thrown in.
Sound familiar? About 70 percent of the over-50 population in America is overweight, with about a third classified as obese. Health complications from obesity cost the United States $190 billion in medical expenses each year. Obesity also shortens lives: An Oxford University study found that an obese person's life span is three to 10 years shorter than that of someone of average weight, about the same loss of life associated with smoking.
So why don't Anna and her fellow overweight Americans just resolve to lose weight? As we all know, it's a little more complicated than that. And fair or not, it gets even more difficult after age 50, because of a slowing metabolism, a loss in muscle mass and a decline in hormones, all of which cause your body to store and retain fat more easily.
So what's a midlife dieter to do? That's where the AARP New American Diet comes in. Seventeen years ago, AARP teamed up with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the effects of dietary and lifestyle choices on the incidence of cancer and other diseases among half a million people ages 50 or older.
Over the past few years the study has provided a wealth of information about what we should and should not eat to live a long, healthy life. In short, we know how certain foods affect our bodies, so we can adjust our diet accordingly to stay healthy and lose weight.
Charlie is fairly typical of my patients: He doesn't always make the connection between what he eats and his overall health. On a recent visit we reviewed his diabetes medications, and I said we could take him off the drugs if he lost some weight. His response: "Dr. Whyte, I've been overweight for 20 years, and I've only had diabetes for two years. You're the first person to tell me my diabetes is related to my weight."
Well, I've got news for you. More than 80 percent of all cases of type 2 diabetes are related to weight. One out of every three cancer deaths is linked to excess body weight, poor nutrition or physical inactivity. Moreover, your risk of dying prematurely increases even if you're just 10 pounds overweight.
Anna and Charlie both needed to lose substantial amounts of weight, but rather than put them on a strict eating regimen, I invited them to try the AARP New American Diet. Instead of focusing on calorie counting or eliminating one food group or another, this plan emphasizes healthy, whole foods over unhealthy, processed ones.
I've outlined the basic principles of the diet below — follow these guidelines for just two weeks and you'll not only lose weight; you'll feel more energetic.
Have breakfast every day
Eating a healthy, nutrient-dense breakfast — one that includes protein, whole grains and fruit — will help keep your insulin level steady all morning and prevent you from overeating later on. The National Weight Control Registry, a study of nearly 4,000 dieters who have lost weight and kept it off for up to six years, found that those who ate breakfast daily lost more weight and kept the weight off longer than those who didn't eat upon rising. Two good choices: an egg sandwich with strawberries, or whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk and a banana.
Drink more water
Most of us don't realize how many calories we consume through sodas, juices, alcoholic drinks and other beverages. So I'd like you to try an experiment: Drink nothing except water and coffee for two weeks and just watch the pounds melt away. This includes diet soda. Research shows that diet sodas may increase the body's cravings for sugar-sweetened, high-calorie foods.
Fish is a crucial component of the AARP New American Diet. It has the good omega-3 fatty acids that you need for brain health, is low in calories and contains important nutrients. The omega-3s in fish may also lower your risk of getting certain cancers and may improve some inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, the AARP-NIH study finds. Conversely, eating red and processed meats (think hot dogs and sausages) increases that risk, so eat fewer of them.
Fill up on fruits and veggies
Some fad diets foolishly discourage eating fruit, but the AARP-NIH study clearly shows that incorporating fruits and vegetables into your daily diet will help you live longer. Consuming these antioxidant-rich foods can also result in weight loss even when you're not trying to drop pounds, researchers at Penn State found.
Embrace whole grains
Whole grains are a major source of not only vitamins and minerals but also fiber, and the AARP-NIH study shows they have extraordinary health benefits as well. Regularly consuming whole grains — whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta and brown rice — can cut your risk of heart disease, respiratory illness and some cancers, including colon and breast cancers. Plus, whole grains can help you lose weight, specifically belly fat that's linked to diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.
Include low-fat dairy foods
Dairy foods are a rich source of calcium and vitamin D: Fully 30 percent of women over 50 are deficient in this bone-building vitamin. Plus, consuming low-fat dairy products can lead to weight loss. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that those with the highest daily low-fat dairy intake lost 38 percent more weight than those with the lowest.
Be wary of 'diet' foods
I can't tell you how many patients have actually gained weight on foods labeled as "low fat" or "fat free." Often such products are loaded with sugar, to make up for the taste lost when the fat is removed. Since many "diet" foods are also highly processed, you end up getting fewer nutrients and lots of empty calories. Instead of diet fare, then, eat a small helping of a higher-fat food periodically.
Don't eat out for two weeks
Dining away from home is fraught with potential problems; you don't always know how the food is cooked, and you tend to eat larger portions than you should. Some experts estimate that restaurant portions can be three times larger than a "normal" serving size. So what is a healthy portion? Fruits and vegetables should be the size of your fist; meat should be no bigger than a deck of cards; fish should be the size of a checkbook.
Inspect food labels
Women who regularly read food labels are, on average, nine pounds lighter than those who don't do this, research from the U.S. National Health Interview Study found. You don't need a calculator; just scan labels for calories and other nutrients. Some brands of yogurt, for instance, have as much sugar as a candy bar. If one brand has 12 grams of sugar and another has 20, the choice is obvious.
I told you the AARP New American Diet would be fun. The key is smart snacking. Data show that people who snack twice a day lose more weight than those who eat three large meals. One snack should be between breakfast and lunch; the other, between lunch and dinner. (No eating after 8 p.m.) Snacking helps keep insulin levels fairly constant, which can prevent hunger and overeating at lunch and dinner. Great healthy snacks include a handful of nuts, baby carrots and hummus, or a piece of fruit.
Yes, chewing gum can help keep the weight off. And for a reason you may not have realized: Chewing gum releases hormones that signal your brain that you're full. This activity also helps if you're a "nibbler" — someone who tends to sample food while cooking or watching TV. You should always chew sugar-free gum; the sugared kind promotes tooth decay.
By following the principles of the AARP New American Diet, Anna lost 10 pounds the first month and 20 pounds within six months. Charlie lost 15 pounds and dropped his diabetes medications. "I finally found a diet that works for me," Anna told me recently. "The best part is, it's not really even a diet. It's just a new way of thinking about food."
John Whyte, M.D., is the author of AARP New American Diet: Lose Weight, Live Longer.