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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Win the Losing Game!
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Fariba K. Roughead

Every day, one in every three Americans is on a diet, fighting the "battle of the bulge." And although many may temporarily win the battle, most lose the war.

We have all experienced it or watched someone close to us lose weight, only to gain it all back plus a few pounds. This is called the "yo-yo effect." As the cycle of weight loss and gain--emotional delight and devastation--repeats itself, there are serious physical and psychological consequences.

Crash dieting, when a person eats very little food, can cause loss of muscle and bone. Neither is very easy to regain. Research by Henry C. Lukaski here at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center has shown that the right combination of diet and exercise not only can prevent the loss of muscle but also can increase muscle mass.

Preserving muscle tissue is important because it is a high calorie burner. Losing muscle means having a lower metabolic rate. In other words, a person who has lost muscle on a diet will gain weight on fewer calories. And as the cycle continues and more and more muscle is lost, one gains weight on less food.

Ironically, most people who come off of a diet because of the deprivation they feel tend to binge, eating far more calories than they need. This adds up to quick weight regain, and the cycle continues.

I see two major problems with the common approach to weight management. First, most of us concentrate on being thinner--preferably by tomorrow--rather than healthier. We opt for high risk procedures and try very dangerous diets or drugs to shed a few pounds. Second, we think of weight management as if it were a light bulb: It is either on or off. While we are on, we fast; while we are off, we feast.

Actually, we need to adopt a more flexible attitude toward managing our weight. If we accept that some days we will be closer to the plan than others, we may be able to prevent the feelings of guilt and failure that follows when we indulge, let's say in a piece of cheesecake (lapse), usually followed by another high calorie food (relapse)... causing more bad feelings... more food... until we feel totally out of control (collapse).

For successful weight management be more flexible--and forgiving--and try these strategies:

  1. Get real. Set realistic and achievable goals. Accept that the extra weight did not show up overnight and will take time to shed. The American Dietetic Association recommends a weight loss of about 2 pounds per week.
  2. Get an attitude adjustment. Forget "ideal" weight. Think long term. Focus on being healthy rather than thin.
  3. Get moving. Eat less, exercise more. Exercise does not have to be regimented or all done in one session. Begin by trying to accumulate about 30 minutes of activity into each day. Turn off the TV; take the stairs; park your car farther away; chase your cat! Take baby steps in making these changes. You will retain your muscles and bones by taking it slowly and you will be more likely to continue with your plan and less likely to feel burned out.
  4. Get control. Make sure you include the foods and activities you enjoy in your plan. The less deprived you feel, the more likely you are to succeed.

Remember, weight loss is not a light bulb... there is a lot of room for flexibility, if we allow it.


Last Modified: 10/23/2006