Spring is upon us and with it thoughts of shorts — and swimsuits. If you feel unprepared for baring some skin, you’re not alone. Two out of three American adults are now overweight or obese, and the health effects are grim. And the typical prescriptions for losing weight aren’t much cheerier: eat less, exercise more, read labels, and the like. They’re all good advice, but they don’t inspire anyone because they sound like drudgery.
But what if you could trick yourself into losing weight? That’s a practical joke we’d all like to play on ourselves.
By and large, we gain weight because we take in more calories than we burn. Unfortunately, eating more than we need to maintain a healthy weight has become too easy. Bigger is better these days; plates, portions, and packages are all heftier than they were even a decade ago. For the most part, we’re not aware that we’re consuming many more calories, so we eat up, clean the plate, empty the package, and pile on the pounds.
We may not be much better off if we cook at home.
Current editions of cookbooks contain recipes with larger servings and more calories than those published in the past, notes Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab in Ithaca, N.Y. and author of Mindless Eating. In the beloved standby, The Joy of Cooking, for example, “Calorie counts for recipes that were common in all the editions have ballooned by 44 percent per recipe from 1937 to 2006,” he says.
“So even before you serve the dish, cut it in half and put half in the freezer,” Wansink advises. “Then, serve all your food from the countertop or stovetop. People can still go back for seconds or thirds but they have to think twice. This leads them to eat about 30 percent less over the course of a long dinner.”
To save even more calories, set out tall, slender glasses for soda, juice, or alcohol and use your short, squat tumblers for water. We tend to pour more liquid into tumblers than into tall glasses that hold the same amount.
Calories consumed in liquids such as sugared sodas, juices, and lemonade have another drawback: We don’t compensate for them by doing without the same number of calories of solid food. “Liquid calories slip under the body-weight regulating system,” says Harvard University endocrinologist David Ludwig, M.D., director of the Optimal Weight for Life clinic at Children’s Hospital in Boston.
In an effort to save calories, many people switch from sugar-laden soft drinks to artificially sweetened ones. It’s a tactic that may not pay off. One study revealed an association between drinking artificially sweetened beverages and weight gain, and raised the question of whether these drinks might be fueling rather than fighting the obesity epidemic. It didn’t explain why this happened, and it may have been that men and women who were gaining weight switched to diet drinks.
Ludwig notes that there has not yet been a long-term human study of diet drinks and body weight. “I have some potential concerns about the effect of diet drinks,” he says. Among other problems, artificial sweeteners may eventually sabotage weight loss by distorting the systems that keep our appetite and body weight in balance. “They may also change our taste preferences so that we seek highly sweet, processed foods and refuse to eat less sweet foods like fruits and vegetables.”
Although artificial sweeteners are safe, it doesn’t mean that they’re good for us. “Until we have more data, I don’t think we can comfortably recommend drinking a lot of diet drinks over the long term,” Ludwig says. Exercise is good for your heart, blood pressure, and mood, but when it comes to losing weight, cutting calories wins hands down. Exercise is important role to prevent regaining weight after you’ve lost those unwanted pounds.
“When you exercise in an effort to lose weight, you make yourself hungrier and compensate for it by eating more,” says Lawrence Cheskin, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in Baltimore. “To lose weight, it’s more important to control the number of calories you eat rather than to try to burn calories after overeating.”
“Weight control begins with the brain,” says William Sears, M.D., of the University of California, Irvine, author of Prime-Time Health. “Tell yourself you have to do this.”
Or, better yet, fool yourself into losing weight by using these 10 easy strategies.
Any Way You Slice It
Calories do count when it comes to controlling weight. Shaving just 100 calories from what you eat each day can add up to a 10-pound weight loss in a year, notes Lawrence Cheskin, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. Look for the food you won’t even notice is gone. Half a bagel? A slice of bread? A piece of cheese? A cookie? Do without those extra few calories each day until it becomes a habit; the reading on your scale will reward you.
Downsizing Pays Off
To whittle away your waistline, try downsizing your dinner plates. The size of dinner plates and the amount of food they hold has steadily increased over the years. Not too long ago, dinner at home came on a modest 10-inch plate. Today you’re apt to find one that measures a beefy 12 inches. The standard restaurant dinner plate used to be 10 1/2 inches; now you can find them as large as 12 1/2 inches.
Use a smaller plate for dinner at home—you’ll eat less but your plate will seem full.
Could We Split That?
When you eat out, share an entree with a dining partner. Researchers at South Carolina’s Clemson University questioned 300 chefs about how much food they dished up. Three out of four chefs thought they served regular portions, but the amount of steak and pasta they heaped on plates was two to four times more than the recommended serving sizes. The chefs based their decisions on how the food looked on the plate and what the customers expected. But if you ask the waiter to split the entree onto two plates, you may not even notice you’ve got less than that giant portion—especially if you order a hot soup first. Studies have shown people eat less when they eat soup before a meal.
Add some zing to your food with hot peppers. Capsaicin, the natural substance that gives a spicy kick to hot peppers, revs up metabolism and helps the body burn calories. In one laboratory study, researchers found capsaicin actually prevents fat cells from developing.
Drink your water iced. “Your body has to spend energy to warm the water,” notes physicist Rebecca Thompson-Flagg of the American Physical Society, “so you’ll burn some extra calories.” How many? About 8 calories for an 8-ounce glass of water. Not all that many, but still . . .
It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to get the message that you’ve had enough to eat. If you race through your meal, you’ll chow down extra calories while your body is figuring out whether it’s still hungry.
To slow down your eating pace, William Sears, M.D., author of Prime-Time Health, suggests using chopsticks instead of a fork. Not only will you most likely eat more slowly, you’ll also take smaller bites.
Chew on This
You’ll probably snack less if you chew gum more. When a group of men and women were offered lunch on two different days and later allowed as much snack food as they wanted, they shaved 40 calories from their afternoon treat on the day they chewed sugarless gum in the three hours between lunch and snack.
How Sweet It Isn’t
To save the calories packed in a can of sugar-sweetened soda, people often switch to diet soft drinks. But those drinks may be playing a trick on you: Some research suggests that quaffing diet drinks is linked with putting on weight. David Ludwig, M.D., of Harvard University recommends using diet drinks as a short-term transition from highly sugared beverages to minimally sweetened ones, such as a cup of coffee or tea with a teaspoon or two of sugar.
Play a Step Guessing Game
Slip on your sneakers and start walking—but first clip a pedometer to your waistband. This simple fitness tool can motivate people to walk more. “Men and women who wear a pedometer and keep track of how much they walk take an additional 2,000 steps each day,” says physiologist Barry Franklin of William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. Most people believe they walk a great deal more than they do, so before you start, estimate your daily steps. Then use the pedometer and log your number in a notebook each evening. Work up to 10,000 steps each day, about five miles.
Life in the Big City
People who live in cities tend to weigh less than those in suburbs or the country. One reason, health experts say, is all the walking they do in their daily lives. So pretend like you’re a New Yorker—walk to the farmer’s market, stroll to the movie theater, take a stylish walk with the dog.
Nissa Simon writes about health issues and lives in New Haven, Conn.