WASHINGTON _ When it comes to weight loss, too many of us are looking for an easy way out. But according to experts, the only thing you'll lose quickly on a fad diet is your money.
Last year, Americans paid $30 billion to the weight loss industry. That's about as much as the yearly profits of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken combined.
This diet spending hits some groups harder than others. More women than men are dieting, and the 35-49 age group had the most dieters overall, according to a recent Gallup Poll sponsored by the Wheat Foods Council.
And Americans may be getting fatter because they don't know what causes weight gain. Most would-be dieters turn to friends and the media before consulting a dietitian or doctor, according to the poll. And only one percent polled said that both overeating and lack of exercise cause obesity.
This confusion about healthy living has created a boom market in fad diets that sacrifice entire food groups. Cutting out sweets is the most popular weight loss tactic, with bread and grain foods coming in second place.
That's not enough, say experts.
“People need to learn there's no quick answer,” said Johanna Vanarsdall, program administrator for the American Association of Lifestyle and Fitness. “Studies show that people who eat well over a lifetime are healthier.”
Why are fad diets tempting?
“Dieters like a novel approach to losing weight,” said Liz Applegate, nutrition editor of Runner's World magazine. “If you say, just eat your regular foods in moderation, it doesn't sound new enough and it almost doesn't sound punishing enough for a diet.”
But, experts say, watch out for any diet that advocates:
- Rapid weight loss of more than two pounds a week.
- No exercise.
- Results with little effort.
- Bizarre quantities of foods.
- Rigid menus that limit your food choices or exclude entire food groups.
- Going against conventional wisdom.
- A particular product is necessary to get full benefits of the diet.
Also, most of these fad diets are simply impossible to follow in the long run because they don't allow enough flexibility, experts warn.
So if you're looking to break free from fads, these traditional – – and non-traditional – – hints might get you going:
- Cut yourself some slack.
It's O.K. if you eat a slice of pie. But don't eat the rest of the pie just because you feel guilty about it.
If you can eat low fat, healthy foods 30% of the time, then 20% of the time you can eat whatever you want, said Vanarsdall, the lifestyle and fitness program administrator.
“Look at it as more of an everyday thing,” she said. “It's more gratifying to work over time to reach a goal.”
- Stop suffering from “eating amnesia.”
Keep a food diary for a week to uncover how much you really eat outside your basic three meals.
“We don't remember what we eat if we're not sitting down at the table,” said Feeney, the California-based food consultant. “We forget all the snacking.”
- Learn how much, or little, food makes up one serving.
As American waistlines grow, so do restaurant portions. More people eat out regularly, and are getting used to everything “super sized” or “all-you-can-eat.” Because America is a value conscious nation, rather than ordering less, we try to get the most for our money — and eat it all in one sitting.
“You can't find anything in a normal size anymore,” said Feeney. “We are a value oriented society. We'll order the extra-large portion, but we don't want to take anything home with us, so we eat it.”
But if you can control your portions, it may be a lot easier to stick to your diet.
“Every food that you like fits in your diet in moderation. Go ahead and eat sinfully, but keep it in moderation,” said Applegate, of Runner's World magazine.
- Climb the food guide pyramid.
The food guide pyramid is an outline of what to eat every day in order to stay healthy. It suggests the recommended servings per day for the five basic food groups – grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat, eggs and fish.
To get this variety of foods, once a week pick a new dish to try. You can search for meal ideas by ingredients, fat content and other key words at http://www.mealsforyou.com. They even give you a store list for virtually effortless shopping.
“It's pretty much thinking at every meal you want to try to get something, a fruit and vegetable,” said Applegate. “And no fair counting green M&M's or the purple jelly in a donut.”