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Changing Eating Habits

To be successful at losing weight, you need to change your lifestyle. This requires cutting back on the number of calories you eat by eating smaller amounts of foods and choosing foods lower in calories. It also means being more physically active.

Consider limiting portion sizes, especially of foods high in calories, such as cookies, cakes and other sweets; fried foods, like fried chicken and french fries; and fats, oils, and spreads. Reducing dietary fat alone--without reducing calories--will not produce weight loss, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute guidelines.

Choose a healthful assortment of foods. Include bright-colored (red, yellow, green, and orange) vegetables and fruits, grains (especially whole grains), low-fat or fat-free milk, and fish, lean meat, poultry, or beans. Choose foods naturally high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes (such as beans and lentils), and whole grains. The high fiber content of many of these foods may help you to feel full with fewer calories. To be sure that a food is whole grain, check the ingredient list on the food label--the first ingredient should be whole wheat or whole grain.

All calorie sources are not created equal. Carbohydrate and protein have about four calories per gram, but all fats, including oils like olive and canola oil, have more than twice that amount (nine calories per gram).

Keep your intake of saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol as low as possible. All of these fats raise LDL (or "bad cholesterol"), which increases your risk for coronary heart disease. Foods high in saturated fats include high-fat dairy products (like cheese, whole milk, cream, butter, and regular ice cream), fatty fresh and processed meats, the skin and fat of poultry, lard, palm oil, and coconut oil. Trans fat can often be found in processed foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils such as vegetable shortenings, some margarines (for example, stick margarines that are hard), crackers, cookies, candies, snack foods, fried foods and baked goods.

If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation (no more than one drink a day for women, and no more than two drinks a day for men). Alcoholic beverages supply calories but few nutrients. A 12-ounce regular beer contains about 150 calories, a 5-ounce glass of wine about 100 calories, and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits about 100 calories.

Limit your use of beverages and foods that are high in added sugars--those added to foods in processing or preparation, not the naturally occurring sugars in foods such as fruit or milk. Foods high in added sugars provide calories, but may have few of the other beneficial nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals, that your body needs. A food high in added sugars will list a sugar as the first or second ingredient on the ingredient list. Some examples of added sugars are corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, dextrose, honey, fruit juice concentrates, and maple syrup. In the United States, foods high in added sugars include non-diet soft drinks, sweetened beverages, including teas, fruit drinks, and fruitades, sweets and candies, and cakes and cookies.

Avoid 'Fad' Diets

The cabbage soup diet, the low-carbohydrate and high-protein diet, and other so-called "fad" diets are fundamentally different from federal nutrition dietary guidelines and are not recommended for losing weight

Fad diets usually overemphasize one particular food or type of food, contradicting the guidelines for good nutrition, which recommend eating a variety of foods from the Food Guide Pyramid. These diets may work at first because they cut calories, but they rarely have a permanent effect.

A high-protein diet is one fad diet that has remained popular over the years. "High-protein items may also be high in fat," says Robert Eckel, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. High-fat diets can raise blood cholesterol levels, which increases a person's risk for heart disease and certain cancers.

High-protein diets force the kidneys to try to get rid of the excess waste products of protein and fat, called ketones. A buildup of ketones in the blood (called ketosis) can cause the body to produce high levels of uric acid, which is a risk factor for gout (a painful swelling of the joints) and kidney stones. Ketosis can be especially risky for people with diabetes because it can speed the progression of diabetic renal disease, says Eckel.

"It's important for the public to understand that no scientific evidence supports the claim that high-protein diets enable people to maintain their initial weight loss," says Eckel. "In general, quick weight-loss diets don't work for most people."

Tips for Eating Out

  • Ask for nutrition information (for example, calories, saturated fat, and sodium) before you order when eating out.
  • Choose foods that are steamed, broiled, baked, roasted, poached, or stir-fried, but not deep-fat fried.
  • Share food, such as a main dish or dessert, with your dining partner.
  • Take part of the food home with you and refrigerate immediately. You may want to ask for a take-home container when the meal arrives. Spoon half the meal into it, so you're more likely to eat only what's left on your plate.
  • Request your meal to be served without gravy, sauces, butter or margarine.
  • Ask for salad dressing on the side, and use only small amounts of full-fat dressings.

First published on January-February 2002 FDA Consumer Magazine and revised on March 2003, and April 2004.

Adapted by Editorial Staff, July 2006
Last update, August 2008

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