Skip fad diets for sensible lifestyle changes

Ladies and gentlemen, choose your dietary weapons. Would you prefer to eat Southern fried chicken and shrimp creole for breakfast while supping on shredded wheat? If so, see The Reverse Diet by Tricia Cunningham and Heide Skolnik.

Or perhaps you're ready to ditch that regimen Francaise (French Women Don't Get Fat) and go eastward with Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat by Naomi Moriyama and William Doyle. (The authors say that Japanese women have the lowest rate of obesity in the developed world: 3 percent, compared with 11 percent for French women and 34 percent for American women.)


There's also the nondiet diet book called The Skinny by Melissa Clark and Robin Aronson, which promises you'll learn "How to fit into your little black dress forever," and there's the latest installment by Oprah's guru, Bob Greene, The Best Life Diet.

As always, the diet book hoopla at this time of the year is cacophonous, but if you think it all seems a little gimmicky and likely to be short-lived, you're probably right. And if you'd like to be slimmer by the time these volumes hit the remainders rack, you may do better with less-trendy, more-time-proven methods. For that, we turned to a few diet experts.


First, we asked: How can would-be dieters make this year different? If you've tried numerous times and more or less failed to lose weight, how can you make this year stick?

Rita Anderson, a nutritionist in Connecticut, has this advice: "Have the thought in your head that what you are doing has no beginning and no end: It's something that's part of your life, not a diet. It's a lifestyle change."

Anderson said that too often people go out "gung ho and it's all or nothing eating." So they starve themselves in January and by the time they hit February, they "burn out and go back to their old ways."

Anderson suggests coming up with a lifestyle that includes a balance of healthy foods -- all the food groups, fruits, vegetables, carbohydrates and fats -- and she suggests eating smaller meals throughout the day. "This keeps the blood sugar levels steady," said Anderson, so that you don't get ravenous and overeat.

In addition, she suggests exercise. While exercising an hour a day might be the best plan, Anderson said, doing anything is better than doing nothing. "People have the attitude that if they can't do it for an hour, they might as well skip it," Anderson said. However, she said, even a small amount of exercise will get the blood moving and increase the metabolic rate.

Kim Bensen, a self-published cookbook author, has empathy for those who have tried diet after diet without lasting success. For 20 years, that was her experience. Finally, in 2001, she rejoined Weight Watchers and that time it worked. She started at 347 pounds and got down to 135 two years later and has kept the weight off.

Bensen, who is also a leader at her local Weight Watchers in Connecticut, suggests that dieters consider three key points as they develop their own regimen. Make sure it's healthy, Bensen says. "There are a lot of diets that are healthy and a lot that aren't," she said. "Make sure you are eating out of every food group and make sure there is a minimum of 1,000 calories a day."

Secondly, she said, make sure the diet is livable for you. "Livable is the opposite of yo-yo," she said. "Think: Can I do this for the rest of my life? If the answer is no, move on."


Finally, she said, make sure the diet fits your personality and your lifestyle. If you don't like counting calories, don't do a diet that requires this. If you're very busy without much time to cook, you might want a diet that involves buying pre-packaged foods. It also may be important to think about others in your family who have dietary restrictions when devising your own plan. "You want to all be eating the same meals," she said.

For herself, Bensen said, she found that portion size was important. So she looked for lower fat, lower-calorie good tasting recipes that allowed her to eat large helpings. She said she also found that it was very important to plan and prepare ahead. "If you don't sit down in the morning and decide what you're going to make, the chances are so much greater that you'll get off the track," she said.

Bensen said she's also found ways to incorporate fast food into her life. It's within her limits to have the grilled Asian chicken salad at McDonald's (without the nuts and only a third of the dressing packet) with a small vanilla ice cream cone for dessert.

It's also helpful to identify your own pitfalls, Bensen said. For instance, she found that she had a hard time putting away food without nibbling on it. "It was hard to wrap up those last three ounces of meatloaf and put it away," she said.

So she enlisted her family to help. She told them that she would do all the preparations for dinner, but they would have to do the clean up. "Sometimes I stick around and pitch in, but for the most part, I walk away from the table and the spell is broken," she said. "You have to assert yourself."

Pat Oliver, owner of Body Transformers Inc. in Connecticut, lost 100 pounds 16 years ago and kept it off. ("It's nice to be older and weigh less than I did in my twenties," she says.)


She advises clients, first of all, never to start a diet on a Monday. If you do, you wind up dreading it for the entire preceding weekend.

To be successful, she said, people need to give it time and set realistic goals so they don't get frustrated. Think about going down one size at a time, she said, and don't rely on the scale. Weight can fluctuate greatly depending on sodium intake or when you had your last meal. Instead, she said, "Judge by how your pants feel. How about, are you feeling better?"

Rather than thinking about losing weight, Oliver said, think about becoming healthier. "Get to better health and the weight loss will be a bonus," she said.

Like many experts, Oliver recommends eating three meals a day and including all the food groups. "You can't eliminate food groups or your body bites you back," Oliver said.

Oliver also recommends snacks and a low-fat dairy product at night. "It's all about having a healthy balance of calories," Oliver said. "You really do have to eat to lose. ... You have to keep your body metabolizing at a consistent rate so you're not hitting the peaks and valleys."

How do you know whether this year will be your year to successfully lose weight and keep it off?


"Weight loss is something that you have to be at the point in your life where you say: 'I can't take this anymore. I don't feel good,'" Oliver said. "It's not just how you look, it's about feeling healthy. When you feel good, everything else follows."

Bensen also offers advice to those who wonder whether it's worth another try. "No matter how much you weigh, the only way you'll never lose weight is if you stop trying."

Kathleen Megan writes for the Hartford Courant.