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Anyone can lose weight. The trick is to keep it off. Most people have heard the statistic that 95 percent gain the weight back they worked so hard to lose. The odds are probably not really that bad. The failure figure comes from a 1959 survey conducted in a hospital nutrition clinic, where people with severe and intractable weight control problems are more likely to be found. The relapse rate for the general population is probably less. Nevertheless, for most dieters losing weight is only the first skirmish in a long war.
The real winners in the battle of the bulge are those who keep the fat off. Anne M. Fletcher, M.S., a registered dietitian and former executive editor of Tufts University Diet & Nutrition Letter, has made a study of these "masters" of weight control. She located 208 people who lost at least 20 pounds and kept it off for at least three years. Fletcher wrote about her findings in two wonderful books, Thin For Life and Eating Thin For Life, published in 1995 and 1997, respectively.
The average weight loss for Fletcher's masters is 64 pounds. The average lengths of time they have kept off 20-plus pounds is more than 10 years. Fletcher says 30 of her masters have kept off 100 pounds or more!
As you might expect, these people kept the weight off in many different ways. While there is no one right way to lose weight permanently, Ms. Fletcher identified five "food secrets of the masters." Those who have read my books will recognize many of the same techniques I have used over the years to cope with calories.
WANT TO BE THIN MORE THAN YOU WANT TO EAT THE "WRONG" FOODS. People who stay slim have usually experienced an attitude shift. Fletcher says it's as if a switch flips in their head. They come to a point in life, for one reason or another, where it becomes clear that the benefits of keeping the weight off exceed the costs. As one master told Anne Fletcher, "Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels."
The best example of a profound shift in attitude I can remember is a 40-year-old, out-of-shape, overweight dentist who called to arrange a consultation after holding his 5-day-old adopted son for the first time. "I knew I had to make some major changes in my life or I wouldn't be around to see him grow up into an adult," he told me.
Dr. James Prochaska, Ph.D., co-author of Changing For Good, according to Ms. Fletcher, believes the reason many fail to lose permanently is that they act "before they have fully accepted the fact that the long-term benefits of changing outweigh any sacrifices."
When you are truly ready, it's time to move on to the other four food secrets. As you'll see, a firm resolve to keep the pounds off does not necessarily imply a lifetime commitment to hunger and deprivation.
EAT LARGE. The masters focus on the kind of food they eat. Using the words of New York Times health columnist Jane Brody, Fletcher says most of them eat "by concept" rather than "by number." Only three percent of the masters count grams of fat. Many of them told Fletcher they don't know exactly how much fat they eat. (They do know it's not a lot.) What they have learned is how to get the most out of their calories. "They seek out foods that will fill them up but are not fattening," Fletcher explains. In short, they eat large.
The masters have done the homework necessary to learn which foods are high in fat and calories and which are not. They know what to eat and what to avoid. One master told Fletcher he goes by two guiding principles: "First, all foods must be low-fat. Second, I eat lots of vegetables and fruits." (Most masters also eat plenty of whole grains and only a little meat, Fletcher says.) Importantly, this master added, "The simple pleasure of eating natural food in it's basic form is great." As I explain in my books, most foods the way they come in nature, unprocessed and with nothing added or subtracted, fill you up without filling you out.
Fletcher points to an index of food satisfaction developed by researchers from the University of Sydney, Australia, to make it "crystal-clear" why eating large works. They asked subjects to rate foods according to how full they feel after eating them. Two key concepts emerged.
Calorie for calorie, foods high in fat rate low in satisfaction, and foods low in fat and high in fiber and water (vegetables, fruits and grains) were rated more filling. Why? Because low-fat, high-fiber foods take up more room in your stomach and take longer to eat. For example, a plain baked potato or a plate of rice and beans provide much more eating satisfaction, calorie for calorie, than French fries or T-bone steak. (See Ripped 2 for more comparisons.)
Secondly, protein-rich foods produce "more sustained feelings of fullness" than foods high in fat or sugar. "The message," says Anne Fletcher, "is that your meals are likely to stay with you longer if you include small portions of a low-fat protein food," such as chicken, fish, lean beef or reduced-fat dairy products.
FIX YOUR FULL BUTTON. My Dad used to say he never let being full stop him from eating more. I'm the same way. Like the comic strip character Hagar, my only limit is that I never eat anything I can't reach. Many masters are the same way. Eating large solves the problem to a degree, but Ms. Fletcher found that the vast majority of her masters "take important steps to place limits on the amount of food they eat."
Masters are careful about portion sizes. Most of them have learned from long experience to gauge portion size by eye. But if their weight starts creeping up they go back to weighing and measuring portions, especially foods which are higher in calories, such as meat or dairy products. When I'm preparing for photos, as I am at this writing, I weigh or measure portions and write everything down in my training diary. This gives me a handle on how much I'm eating and allows me to adjust my diet as necessary to achieve peak condition.
Masters plan their meals. Fletcher says many of them plan meals up to a week in advance. But most importantly, "before they start eating, they decide how much they will serve themselves."
I began using this simple technique about 20 years ago. It has saved me from eating many thousands of excess calories. As I related in Ripped 2, the only food I put on the table is the food I intend to eat. This keeps in check my inclination to eat everything in sight; I rarely want more than I serve myself initially.
Masters eat consistently. Many told Fletcher they "go out of their way to eat regular meals and avoid skipping meals." Personally, I never miss a meal. That way I don't come to any meal ravenously hungry and out of control; I stay on track and almost never eat haphazardly.
You'll find other techniques for aligning your "full button" with your actual calorie needs in Ms. Fletcher's books and in mine.
IF YOU WANT IT, HAVE IT. Most masters "never say never" to fattening foods. In place of hard - and sure to be broken - rules, Ann Fletcher says, "They have control systems for tempting foods so they don't go overboard." They have an escape valve, so to speak, to prevent the buildup of cravings that can easily get out of hand. "Because I don't have any forbidden foods any longer," one master told Fletcher, "I really don't have any problem foods."
I agree completely. In my books I urge an occasional splurge. When my son Matt was a youngster, one of our favorite father-son activities was an occasional trip to Swensen's Ice Cream Shop. I'd have the biggest, gooiest sundae on the menu and enjoy every bite. But I didn't keep ice cream around the house, and I rarely ate dessert. If I was going to have dessert, I made it a point to have it out where I'd be embarrassed to order more; at home I know I might have seconds - or worse. Now that Matt is grown and living in another city, my main indulgence is a big chocolate bar when Carol and I go to a movie. Both when Matt was a kid and now, I'm happy to go back to my regular eating pattern the next day.
Registered dietician and author Nancy Clark summed it up nicely in Runner's World: "Keep in mind that only those who deny themselves their favorite foods respond to this denial by binge eating."
Follow the masters. Allow yourself treats. But be smart. Do it in moderation.
DON'T LET THE TOUGH TIMES GET YOU DOWN. Everyone's weight control efforts get sidetracked from time to time. I pig-out at family dinners on major holidays and other special occasions. Others may have problems on vacation or at social events, or at major turning points such as pregnancy, divorce or the death of a loved one, or after quitting smoking. Perhaps you've tried to lose weight repeatedly - and failed time after time. Fletcher's masters have encountered the same problems. In fact, nearly 60 percent tried to lose weight a least five times before they successfully took it off and kept it off.
You can read Ann Fletcher's books to learn the many different strategies used by the masters to overcome difficult circumstances. For our purposes, however, the important point is that the masters didn't give up. They used "past" failures as learning experiences, stepping stones if you will, on the way to successful weight control. They picked themselves up and started all over again - each time better equipped to manage the next bump on the road to permanent leanness.
As the old saying goes, "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again." That's what Fletcher's master's did. Learn from them. You'll succeed as well.
(Anne Fletcher's books are available in bookstores. For information on my eight books, click on "Products" below)
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