Don't beat yourself up over that extra flab. To lose weight, you need to know about the everyday factors stopping you from reaching your goals, says Alexa L. Fishback, nutritionist and author of “The Daily Fix.” An excerpt.
You’re young, smart, and well informed. So why is it so tough for you to stay fit and healthy? As a nutritionist, I’ve heard every excuse in the book for packing on pounds. While most of them won’t fly with me, I am sympathetic to some of the challenges you face. Becoming aware of the everyday obstacles that can lead to weight gain is fundamental to your weight-loss efforts. We cannot exclusively blame ourselves for all this extra flab; with approximately 65 percent of American adults overweight, there’s clearly something unhealthy going on in our culture.
Simply put, our environment is “food toxic.” This idea was first presented by Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. He contends that our high-calorie, high-fat, low-nutrition food culture is to blame for our country’s upsurge in obesity. Easy access to cheap fast food, snack food, and soda, and limited convenient, healthy choices make it difficult for anyone to eat right 100 percent of the time. With this in mind, it is not surprising that our food supply actually makes approximately 3,900 calories available for every American every single day (including our babies). Reread my last sentence. This number is pretty outrageous: It is nearly double the number of calories an average female needs, and nearly eight times the amount a baby would need, which means that far too many empty calories are floating around. Regrettably, our food culture has spread around the globe. Recent reports about Japan, a traditionally slim society, indicate a growing public health problem of obesity due to their newfound access to and appetite for Western foods.
For women in our age bracket, I’ve identified four major saboteurs, or ways in which our environment is working against us. It’s important to be mindful of these so that we can avoid and overcome them.
Saboteur #1: The Starbucks cookie effect
Healthy eating can be a daunting task when we are overwhelmed by easy access to excess calories tempting us at every corner. Who needs to pick up a half-pound bag of M&Ms at Best Buy?! I just went in for a digital camera. Sugary snack foods like these are placed unassumingly at the checkouts of most chain retail stores, and can be hard to resist when you’re tired, haven’t eaten dinner, or have worked a long day. Marketing managers call these health bombs “impulse items.” I call it sabotage (cue “Mission Impossible” theme song).
Anyway, back to Starbucks. I find it nearly impossible to go into a coffee shop and order just a plain, brewed coffee — and I’m a nutritionist! Why? Because there is always an alluring display of sweet and gooey (not to mention extra-large) treats taunting me as I stand in line. Empty calories are omnipresent, girls. Becoming more aware of these fat traps will help you avoid falling into them.
Saboteur #2 : Variety is the vice of life
Historically, and even up through the mid-twentieth century, the food supply of grains, fruits, and vegetables was regulated by nature’s four seasons, so choices at any given time were limited. Blueberry pies in December or fresh-squeezed orange juice in February simply weren’t options for most people. But our generation has grown up with easy access to any food at any time of the year due to global trade, technological breakthroughs like refrigeration, pesticides, genetically altered seeds, and the growth of the packaged food industry, which is constantly creating new products (primarily made from corn syrup). Studies have shown that the more variety we have access to, the more we’ll eat.
Consider, for example, Thanksgiving dinner. You may feel completely full from the turkey and stuffing and sweet potatoes and announce to the table: “I am stuffed and cannot eat one more bite!” while discreetly unbuttoning your pants. But once dessert — a new food option — is brought out, you can’t resist sampling three — yes, three — different types of pie ... topped with homemade whipped cream. Of course, once a year, this sort of food fest is okay. But on a day-to-day basis, having too much variety or choice among types of food causes us to overeat. Whether you are choosing from a breakfast buffet or flipping though a six-page diner menu, be aware of the link between variety and overeating.
Saboteur #3: The media’s mixed messaging mess
We are bombarded with food advertisements, diet gimmicks, confusing nutrition research, and blatantly hostile physical critiques of celebrities and models. This is especially pertinent to us, as we are the main readers of gossip magazines, where on one page you find an article about a skeletal star who needs to gain weight and on the next there is a feature about a celebrity who, though she looks tiny to you and me, “can’t quite take off the baby pounds.” Or we read an article about slow, sustained weight loss via diet and exercise that shares a page with an advertisement for diet pills. The messages just don’t add up.
A client once told me she read that eating “lukewarm” food was “healthiest” and asked me to do some research. Obviously highly skeptical (but as a nutritionist, never cynical), I checked into it for her and confirmed that there is nothing scientific about this. My client had fallen victim to yet another confusing gimmick invented to make an article about nutrition sound cutting-edge. As nutrition fallacies and the obsession with weight loss continue to drive media headlines, many of us are left feeling confused. Make sure to read your favorite magazines with an informed eye and enjoy them for their entertainment value, not as a source of education.
Saboteur #4: The I-don’t-want-to-run-into-a-cockroach-on-the-sketchy-staircase effect
Both indoors and outdoors, our infrastructure is just not set up for pleasant physical activity. In some suburbs, there are no sidewalks, making it difficult to get anywhere without a car. In many cities, bike lanes and running trails are nonexistent, unsafe, or hard to access. And, much of the time, the staircases in our apartment and office buildings are just too risky. They are dark and damp, can be infested with pests, and are clearly not engineered for daily use (I often wonder if I will be able to exit the stairwell once the door closes behind me). It is overwhelmingly convenient to buy a king-sized candy bar, but it is nearly impossible to bike to work or even simply take the stairs. What a conundrum.
Because most American adults do not meet recommended levels of physical activity, attention is being placed on our “built environment” and its effect on human activity patterns. A relevant report by researchers from Rutgers University calls for America to take note of European laws that support pedestrian and bicycling safety via updated urban design, restrictions on motor vehicles in cities, and regulations protecting non-motorists. On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I became convinced of the merits of this system: The bike lanes and walking paths were superb. Another research paper reviewing environmental interventions to promote physical activity encourages the upkeep of stairwells so people can and will use them. We could be doing far better, not only with our food culture, but also in terms of how our environment is set up to promote physical activity.
These four Saboteurs illustrate how our culture facilitates our addiction to a less-than-healthy lifestyle. It is important to realize that we are up against a whole lot. Just being aware of these obstacles will empower you to make more informed — and ultimately healthier — decisions. Walk past that icing-drizzled muffin in the case at Starbucks, read your favorite magazines without getting bogged down in health trend hype, and say “yes” to taking the stairs at work (though maybe bring a buddy the first time).
Environmental obstacles that are clearly not your fault are one thing; excuses are another. You didn’t think I was going to let you off the hook altogether, did you? One excuse I hear over and over again from clients and friends alike is that their weight gain is due to “bad genes.” At times, there is some validity to this, but I like to point out that there was no obesity epidemic in the United States even thirty years ago — and human genetics have not radically evolved in that timeframe. What has changed is our food culture, and consequent eating and exercise habits. While your shape may be genetic, chances are your size is not. In reality, only about 10 percent of adults have an inherent predisposition that makes it difficult to lose weight. “Okay,” you think, “then why is my whole family overweight?” Typically the reason is because you have all been raised in the same environment with similar food and physical activity habits, not because you all have a gene that makes it harder to lose weight. And you folks who do hold that unfortunate gene can also benefit from healthy habits, so read on.
Beyond genetics, the core of most of the bad excuses I hear from my clients is logistical, revolving around scheduling and time management: working too much to care about anything but work, lack of time to eat three meals a day, eating on the run, not planning snacks ahead, no time to exercise, too much booze at night, and midnight binges. As tough as our culture makes it to stay slim, you do have the power to take good care of yourself by investing some time in organizing your daily routine to include smart eating choices and physical activity.
I find it interesting that it is often the high-functioning women who hold great jobs and sustain healthy relationships who do not take the time to plan ahead and actually think about what to eat, when to work out, and how to fit themselves into the craziness of the day. Why should our health take a backseat to work when eating and exercise are the fuel that will keep us productive? If you are eating well, are on a routine schedule, and are working out regularly, you will feel better, look better, and be more competent at work. You will not face the day groggy and irritable, rather, you will be prepared for whatever is thrown at you. Remind yourself that your health and well-being should always be your first priority.
Excerpted from “The Daily Fix: Your Guide to Healthy Habits for Good Nutrition” by Alexa L. Fishback. Copyright (c) 2008. Reprinted with permission from Rodale Books.