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Someone once said that youth is wasted on the young. As a registered dietitian, I hear this statement uttered by many of my over-40 patients who are trying to lose weight. “If only I were 20 again, I could lose five pounds in a weekend,” they all say in our weight-loss sessions.
There’s some truth to this, of course. Our 20-something selves have a naturally higher metabolism, more muscle and are generally more active than our 40-plus versions. We lose muscle with every decade of life, starting at the end of our 20s.
But instant weight loss is not a guarantee. Many of my patients in their 20s still struggle with losing and keeping off the extra pounds. After all, your third decade of life is filled with more changes than most. Leaving home, independence, your first job and perhaps marriage and kids. Change can often lead to disruption and abandonment of healthy behaviors. Here are some tactics to adopt (and avoid) for fighting the battle of the bulge in your 20s and beyond:
1. Cut out the liquid calories.
Your 20s are often a time of experimentation. Part of the discovery process can mean more social opportunities and extra helpings in the alcohol department. Aside from some of the obvious reasons why excessive drinking should be avoided, your weight should be a motivating rationale to take a break from alcohol as well.
Alcohol provides empty calories — lots of them — and can contribute to an inability to lose weight. That Long Island iced tea, those fruity martinis and the night of consistent vodka and cranberries can amount to extra fuel your body simply can’t burn. You’ll find similar issues from cola, juices and energy drinks as the majority either have real sugar or fake alternatives. Both options can be the kiss of death for anyone serious about shedding weight.
2. Ditch the “d” word from your vocabulary.
Now is a good time to ditch all things diet, and when I say “diet,” I’m talking about the kind that equates to deprivation, hunger and ultimate failure.
Several studies show diets don’t work; yet young adults are some of its worst victims. A 2018 study found that dieting and skipping meals actually made young adults fatter, not leaner. Further, a 2017 randomized controlled trial found taking breaks from dieting actually led to more success in weight loss. The authors of the study cited the concept of “adaptive thermogenesis” as the reason why diets ultimately fail. Calorie restriction reduces metabolic rate more dramatically than once thought, making it harder to actually achieve weight loss. The more you diet, the more your metabolism may be negatively impacted.
3. Throw out the scale.
Many of my patients have a love-hate relationship with their scale. I often suggest solving this by getting rid of the relationship all together and putting the scale in the trash. Here’s why: The scale provides a number, an assessment of all the “stuff” in you. Muscle, fat, water — all of it. It may not be a great assessment, however, of how you’re doing in the health department.
One study found young adults were more likely to be obsessed with an “ideal weight” number than they were in achieving a healthy weight. Further, the number that young adults had in their mind was often far from what was realistic.
A better option? Save money and buy a tape measure. Studies have shown waist size is a better predictor of health and risk for obesity than BMI (akin to that number on the scale).
4. Focus on quality, not quantity.
Along with getting rid of that perfect number you want to see on the scale, now is the time to eliminate the daily calorie count. Counting calories to lose weight does not work — and there are multiple studies to prove it. Instead of focusing on quantity, now is the time to focus on quality.
A 2018 study in JAMA showed individuals were most successful at weight loss when they stopped counting calories and instead focused more on a whole-foods diet. All calories are not equal — learn this lesson young and your chances of managing a healthy weight throughout your life go up.
5. Set a physical activity intention.
While exercise alone won’t seal the deal for weight loss, adding it into your weight-loss plan alongside a healthy, balanced diet can go a long way. Plus, making regular physical activity a part of your routine when you’re young can help form the habit into a lifetime intention.
Your 20s also are a time when your body is most forgiving, giving you the opportunity to push yourself without worrying as much about the aches and pains that may come later (and often derail our exercise routines).
6. Think long term.
In 2012, a landmark study came out and revealed to us what we most likely already knew: The eating pattern you chose to adopt in your 20s had a huge impact on disease risk once you became middle-aged. Most 20-somethings don’t have cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, cancer or type 2 diabetes on their minds. But perhaps if they did, they would focus more on protecting their health when their cells need it most.
Eat your vegetables, consume lean proteins, healthy fats and whole grains. Take it easy on the booze and stand more than you sit. Good habits today will most likely be rewarded tomorrow.
The thirties are right around the corner, and with them, new challenges will emerge. Take full advantage of that faster metabolism now so that you can get a head start in the next decade.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, R.D., is the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, and the author of "Skinny Liver." Follow her on Twitter @KristinKirkpat. For more diet and fitness advice, sign up for our Start TODAY newsletter.