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Friday, September 29, 2006

Weight-Loss Trick Experts Don't Tell You

by Cabria T. Groccia, R.D.

The low-fat craze has gone too far. In my practice as a nutrition therapist, my clients are not only confused, they feel betrayed: "I'm eating fat-free foods," they say. "Why am I not achieving weight loss?" "I'm counting fat grams instead of calories, but I'm still fat!" "Aren't fat-free products healthier?"

Let's clear up something right away: Most of us aren't gaining weight because we're eating too much fat. In fact, we're eating less fat than ever. Since the 1970s, the proportion of calories Americans get from fat has decreased from an average of 37 percent to 34 percent.

Yet we've increased our collective girth: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 50 percent of adults are overweight. What are we doing wrong?

The Eating Mistake Most People Make

The focus on fat content seems to have backfired: Now we've forgotten all about calories. According to a government study, we're taking in nearly 250 more calories a day now than we were 30 years ago. Meanwhile, Americans are spending over $30 billion a year on weight control, a large chunk of that on diet and low-fat foods.

I can't tell you how many of my clients have made the (mistaken) assumption that because a food is labeled fat-free, they could eat as much of it as they wanted. So instead of replacing high-fat foods with low-calorie fruits and vegetables, they've been bulking up on highly processed foods loaded with added sugars and refined starches, which offer little nutrition other than calories.

Save your money. Fat-free snacks can't substitute for good eating habits. So what should we be doing? For starters, adding back fat.

Eat More Fat

Diets with less than 20 percent fat leave you hungry, unsatisfied and more likely to overeat when your resolve dissolves. If you force-feed yourself celery sticks all day, you'll be more likely to snap and down a whole pint of ice cream later. And did you ever notice that you can polish off a whole bag of fat-free chips and still not feel full?

Fat increases your sense of satiety, so you'll eat less (and take in fewer calories). Fat also makes you feel fuller longer: It stimulates the release of a hormone that slows the rate of food leaving the stomach, so a meal literally sticks to your ribs. The stomach and intestine are lined with receptors that, when stimulated by fat, send signals to the brain that you're full, says Kevin Vigilante, M.D., coauthor of Low-Fat Lies: High-Fat Frauds and the Healthiest Diet in the World.

Fat also makes food taste good, and food has to appeal to your taste buds if you want to stick to a healthful eating plan. "When used properly, fat can be an important ally in helping you lose weight and keep it off," says Vigilante. A study of obese children showed that meals with lots of refined carbohydrates and little fat were less effective in staving off hunger than fattier meals with the same number of calories.

More and more research has been pointing to the fact that when it comes to weight loss, it's the calories that count, no matter what the source. Studies at Penn State University have shown that people on 35 percent fat diets lose the same amount of weight as those on 20 percent fat diets, as long as there is no difference in the total calories consumed.

Cut calories, increase exercise, and weight loss. I wish my advice could be sexier, but that's the bottom line.

How Fat-Free Can Harm Your Health

Weight issues aside, drastic fat cutbacks can be downright unhealthy, increasing your risk of heart disease by decreasing high-density lipoproteins (HDLs, the "good" cholesterol) and boosting blood levels of triglycerides. They may also raise your risk for such conditions as gout and gallstones.

Finally, severely limiting your fat intake to below two percent per day (believe me, I've seen it in clients even without classic eating disorders) causes your body to compensate by making its own, in the form of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase. This increases fat storage in the body and may be more unhealthy than getting fat from food.

Fats provide energy, maintain cell membranes and blood vessels, transmit nerve impulses, and produce essential hormones. Not only does your body need fat to function, it also requires a certain amount in order to absorb other nutrients, including vitamins A, D, E and K (essential for proper eyesight, bone formation and blood clotting). Vitamins A and E are also antioxidants and have been shown to reduce the incidence of heart disease and a variety of cancers.

Lack of dietary fat may also prevent the absorption of the disease-fighting phytochemicals contained in fruits and vegetables. "One of the most unhealthy things you can do is pour a nonfat dressing on a salad," says Vigilante.

Carotenes (phytochemicals that are some of the most potent anticancer antioxidants) bind to fat. "If you don't eat any fat within a few hours of consuming carotenes, you won't absorb them. So the health benefits of that salad are flushed down the toilet," he says.

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