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How to be Healthy Without Dieting

Written: 02/20/2008


Though the thought of counting calories and measuring portions doesn't bring smiles to most people's faces, many people succumb to such dieting measures because they believe it will improve their health.

But, according to a two-year study published in the June 2005 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, if you're looking to achieve long-term health improvements, behavior changes and self-acceptance are more effective than dieting any day of the week.

In the study of 78 obese women, aged 30-45, half were assigned to a dieting group, which focused on counting calories and fat content, restricting food consumption and monitoring their weight.

The other half were assigned to a non-dieting group that focused on paying attention to internal body cues about hunger, letting go of restrictive "diet-like" eating habits and working with negative self-image. After two years, the researchers found:

  • 92 percent of the non-dieting group stayed with the study, while 42 percent of the dieters dropped out.

  • Non-dieters maintained the same weight; dieters lost weight initially but regained almost all of it by the end of the study.

  • Non-dieters total cholesterol increased initially, then significantly decreased (including levels of their bad LDL cholesterol), while dieters had no significant change in cholesterol levels.

  • While both groups significantly lowered their blood pressures initially, the non-dieters sustained this change while the dieters did not.

  • Non-dieters reported nearly four times more physical activity, while dieters, although going through an initial increase in activity, had not sustained increased activity by the end of the study.

  • Non-dieters demonstrated improvements in self-esteem and depression, dieters had a worsening of self-esteem, and depression levels remained the same (after an initial boost).

"We have been ingrained to think that large people can only make improvements in their health if they diet and slim down," said one of the study's researchers, Linda Bacon, "But this study tells us that you can make significant improvements in both metabolic and psychological health without ever stepping on the scales or counting calories. You can relax about food and eat what you want."

Dieting Weakens the Immune System

The above study is not the only one to find that dieting is not always the best way to achieve health. According to a study published in the June 2004 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, "yo-yo" dieting, the practice of constantly losing weight and then gaining it right back, may weaken the immune system.

The study found a definite relationship between a woman's immune function and her dieting history -- the more times she attempted to lose weight, the more her immune function decreased.

Other risks of "on again, off again" diets? Studies have found that they may actually increase your risk of heart disease. Yo-yo dieting can lead to lower levels of the good cholesterol (HDL) and, in women who weren't overweight to begin with, increased levels of triglycerides, which is a risk factor for heart disease in women. Plus, frequent changes in your weight can result in high blood sugar, which may increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Dieting and the "Eating Hormone" Leptin

Frequent weight loss and gain may influence a hormone called leptin that influences appetite and eating behavior. It's thought that this effect may explain why women with a history of yo-yo dieting tend to have higher percentages of body fat.

Often, when weight is lost quickly, more lean muscle may be lost than fat (particularly if exercise is not a part of the equation). When weight is regained (usually as fat tissue), the end result can be a higher weight with increasing levels of body fat.

How to be Healthy Without Dieting

So, you may be wondering, "How am I supposed to lose weight and improve my health if I don't diet?' Of course, getting regular physical activity and eating healthy foods is important, but so are the following, often overlooked, components.

The first step is to become aware of your eating patterns; for instance if you tend to overeat when you're stressed about work, then make adjustments based on them. If you know you tend to overeat when you're overwhelmed, make it a point to keep yourself busy with another activity (even something relaxing like reading or taking a bath) during this time.

"When you examine your own weight-loss patterns, you can then identify potential methods and tools that will work for you long term," says Robert Kushner, M.D., medical director of the Wellness Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Next, focus on making small changes in your lifestyle, not on losing weight. For instance, rather than thinking, "I have to lose 30 pounds," think, "Today I'm going to take a pass on the bread and butter and go for a walk after dinner."

"Add one or two healthy behaviors to your regular routine, and you're done for the day," says James O. Hill, Ph.D., an obesity researcher at the University of Colorado at Denver.

And finally, stay positive. Think of the lifestyle changes you are making in terms of the benefits they will bring you (more energy, better health, etc.), not of what they are taking away. Give yourself some credit for every positive step you make (eating fruit for desert instead of a piece of cake, for instance) and try to get your entire family involved in this new, healthier lifestyle.

- Ryan

References:

Journal of the American Dietetic Association June 2005; 105(6):929-36.

Health Orbit May 31, 2005

Journal of the American Dietetic Association June 2004;104(6):903-12

Woman's Day: Stop Yo-Yo Dieting


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