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Nutrition SOS: Lose the beer belly, more

What's the best way to approach a diet? How many servings of fruit and vegetables should we really eat? TODAY nutrition editor Joy Bauer answers these reader questions and more.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Sticking to — or starting — a diet can be tough, but TODAY nutrition editor Joy Bauer is here to help. In her new ongoing series, Nutrition SOS, she tackles reader questions about healthy eating.

Q: My husband and I both need to lose weight. I limit portions according to nutritional guidelines, but he says he’s always hungry. How can we get on the right track? — Christi, New York City

A: It’s great you’re both losing weight and getting healthy together. A few things to know …

First, your husband’s portions can actually be bigger than yours. That’s because men have a genetic advantage: more testosterone, which leads to more lean muscle mass … which typically enables men to burn 10 to 15 percent more daily calories than women.

When it comes to lean protein (steak, veal, poultry, turkey, fish), men can handle eight to 10 ounces with lunch and dinner (the size of about three decks of cards); women should stick with no more than five ounces (the size of about one and a half decks of cards).

When it comes to side starch, men can handle up to two servings per meal, and women should stick with one. One serving of starch equals one cup dry cereal, ½ cup dry oatmeal, one slice bread, ½ cup cooked pasta/rice or ½ potato.

If your husband is still hungry, fiber-rich vegetables and fresh fruit are the way to go!

Q: I can't get started. I am addicted to bread and sugar and fail after the first few days of dieting. I need to lose over 100 pounds … I am desperate and feel like I am looking at an early demise. — Paula Ryan, Merchantville, N.J.

A: Paula, I’m so sorry you’re struggling. You deserve to feel better. If regimented diet plans feel too overwhelming, I encourage you to try this idea: Delete unhealthy items in shifts. For example, in month No. 1, get rid of soda. Month No. 2, get rid of sweets (and continue to avoid soda). In month No. 3, lose the fried food (plus soda and sweets). And so on.

Psychologically speaking, this may be an easier way for you to go. The weight will certainly start to come off and you don’t have to give up all of your favorites at once.

Q: What makes five-a-day the right number of fruits and veggies? And if you have all five in one salad, does it still count? — Mary Ellen, Pittsburgh, Penn.

A: Numerous scientific studies have shown a definitive relationship between an increased consumption of fruits and veggies and a reduced risk of certain types of cancers, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. At the same time, national polls have shown people aren’t even eating five servings of produce a day ... thus, the five-a-day campaign was developed.

However, in 2005 the bar was significantly raised. The current recommendation is five to 13 servings each day. That’s about 2½ to 6½ cups daily.

And yes, every mouthful counts toward your daily allotment and you can pile them on whenever you like. In other words, spread produce throughout the day or load them into one meal (although you’ll probably get a bad stomachache if you go for more than five servings in one sitting).

Look how quickly five servings add up:

Salad entrée made with two cups of lettuce (2 veggies), one cup of mixed raw veggies (cucumbers, tomatoes, shredded carrots, etc.) (2 veggies). Top this with five ounces grilled chicken breast, and dress with a few dashes of olive oil and unlimited balsamic vinegar. Enjoy with one apple on the side (1 fruit).

Q: I am 61 years old and have a "beer belly" that I cannot seem to lose. Can you help me lose this thing? — Len, New Castle, Penn.

A: Abdominal fat is dangerous (much more so than fat around the hips) — so bravo, Len, for wanting to get rid of it. Belly fat seems to trigger a chain of inflammatory reactions and increases your risk for heart disease and dementia.

Contrary to what some diet books and articles preach, certain foods and diet programs cannot magically melt the fat off your belly (or any other part of your body). Where fat tends to settle is typically all in your genetics.

But the good news is this: When you eat less and move more, you lose weight “all over” your body — including your personal problem areas, such as your belly. So lay off the sweets and beer, and hit the gym. You’ll be buying smaller belts and pants in no time.

Q: I've been eating well and exercising the past few months. I feel better, but I’ve lost very little weight. My calorie count is 1,800 daily … when I drop to 1,200 I get hungry and binge. I’m frustrated. Do I need to cut more calories? — Greta, Pleasanton, Calif.

A: Greta, if you’re incredibly active (exercising vigorously, at least an hour each day), 1,800 calories a day may be appropriate for weight loss. But unfortunately, for the vast majority of women, the recipe for weight loss falls somewhere between 1,200 and 1,600 calories per day. That being said, if you’re currently eating 1,800 and dissatisfied with the results — and you know that dropping all the way down to 1,200 calories will set you up to binge — simply trim 200 daily calories and go down to 1,500 for a few weeks. I bet you’ll be happy with the movement on the scale.