On any given day, about half the women and a third of the men in America are trying to shed pounds. That's 106 million dieters!
We spend more than $30 billion every year on diet products, programs, and paraphernalia. Yet from the looks of our growing obesity epidemic, we don't seem to be getting our money's worth.
As the population has grown heavier, diseases related to excess weight have also risen. An estimated 300,000 adults die each year from diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and other obesity-related complications, second only to tobacco-related deaths.
On one hand, it's not as if we're not trying to lose the weight. We're caught up in diet crazes, "boot camp" workout programs, and low-fat cookies, but still we let out our belts, notch after notch, year after year.
Where's the disconnect? Experts point to several insidious causes.
First, we live in a society where it's just very easy to get large. Consider the fast-food phrase that's become standard English: supersize. It refers to the way restaurants appeal to our sense of frugality by tempting us with more food for our dollar.
"I think the environment's tougher than it was 10 to 15 years ago," says Gary Foster, Ph.D. All-you-can-eat buffets and the accessibility of cheap, high-fat, big-portion foods make it much more difficult to stay at a healthy weight.
Big servings also rub Mary Friesz, R.D., Ph.D., the wrong way.
"Restaurants never supersize salads or vegetables!" she says. "Who needs a bucket of fries at one time?"
Larger helpings often continue at home when we dish out the same portion sizes we remember from eating out, she says. Your body can only use so much fuel at one time. Eat more than that, and you store it away as fat.
Second, today's society has grown very sedentary. While our ancestors plowed fields and churned butter as part of their workday, nowadays many of us tap keyboards for a living, then go home at the end of the day to watch television, Dr. Foster says.
Countless "labor-saving devices" spare us effort and exercise, he points out. Escalators zip us to the next floor at the mall. Remote controls allow us to change channels from our recliner. Getting too many calories is no problem, but we have to look for ways to burn them off.
Even with the challenges society presents, the "secret" to weight loss is so basic: Burn more calories than you consume. The following pages show how to use your mind, mouth, and muscles to control your weight.
It's a good idea to talk with your doctor if you think you may need to lose weight. Doing so is especially important if you have reached or are near menopause or if you have risk factors for developing a chronic disease associated with overweight and obesity, such as a smoking habit, a sedentary lifestyle, high blood sugar, or abnormal blood fats. Weight loss during menopause may increase the rate at which bone density is lost. So your doctor should be aware of your efforts to lose weight—you may need supplemental calcium.
Gary Foster, Ph.D., professor of medicine and public health and director of the Center for Obesity Reseach and Education at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Mary Friesz, R.D., Ph.D., is a nutrition and wellness consultant and a certified diabetes educator in Boca Raton, Florida.
Joanne Larsen, R.D., designs nutrition software and food and ingredient databases for software companies. She also has a nutrition information Web site at dietitian.com.