By Nicci Micco, January/February 2009
Monica Walsh had tried pretty much every diet on the planet, including a three-week fast that worked—but made her feel “really unhealthy.” But after having a heart attack, the 47-year-old salesperson from Orlando, Florida, swore off fad diets and started looking for a more sensible solution. Jenn Moore, 35, an attorney who lives in Arlington, Vermont, was in the best shape of her life before she got pregnant, but six months after her son was born she was still carrying 20 pounds of “baby weight.” Mark Catalana, 43, a teacher in St. Louis, Missouri, has always loved cooking, but too much of a good thing, and too little exercise, left him 50 pounds above his “healthy” weight.
What do all these people have in common? Answer: They all wanted a better way to lose weight—and they’re not alone. When we issued a call for volunteers to participate in our three-month EatingWell Diet Challenge last summer, we got an overwhelming response: in just one week, we received more than 1,000 e-mails from people telling us why they were excited to try our diet.
After careful selection, we invited nine men and women (including Monica, Jenn and Mark) to join our Challenge. In return, we asked that they share their experiences in this issue.
For 12 weeks, the participants followed the principles and recipes of our cookbook, The EatingWell Diet: 7 Steps to a Healthy, Trimmer You (The Countryman Press). They tracked their calories and exercised. We offered them feedback on what they were eating and helped them troubleshoot their challenges.
“Losing weight isn’t rocket science. If you eat less and exercise more, you’ll lose,” says Jean Harvey-Berino, Ph.D., R.D., chair of the University of Vermont’s Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences and co-author of The EatingWell Diet. “But the hardest part of losing weight is figuring out how to engineer your life so that you’re able to do this.” Harvey-Berino has made a career of teaching people to lose weight by making small daily changes. Through her research, she has helped more than 1,000 people lose an average of 21 pounds in six months. Based on Harvey-Berino’s clinically tested weight-loss principles, the EatingWell Diet has the potential to help you and thousands of others lose weight too.
It’s already helped our Challenge participants. Collectively, over the three months, they lost a total of 112 pounds. Eager to get started? Here’s how:
[header = Step #1: Be Ready]
Most diet plans encourage you to start yesterday—or at least right this very minute. Never mind that your company is going through layoffs and right now, quite honestly, may not be the best time to overhaul your lifestyle. But you heed their calls and you begin. Then you...fail. Again. In contrast, the very first step of the EatingWell Diet is deciding whether you’re actually ready to make a lifelong commitment to eating better and exercising regularly.
One year ago would not have been a good time for Marie Morrissey, 44, to start a diet. The Houston mother of two was entrenched in law school and her days were a blur of classes, mock trials and caring for her family. Marie knew she needed to lose weight but she also knew that she couldn’t commit to making meaningful changes until her life became less busy. Serendipitously, just as she was wrapping up her degree last July, we announced our Diet Challenge. “The timing was perfect,” says Morrissey. “Having just graduated law school, I felt I owed it to myself and my kids to find a sensible way to live.”
When she weighed in the first week of the diet, Marie, who is 5'5", registered 170 pounds—which was both sobering and motivating. “The number on the scale depressed me at first. I haven’t had this much weight to lose since right after I delivered my kids,” she told us. “But the only thing I can do is to work on it.”
And that she did. Because the timing was right, Marie was able to commit fully and lost 13 pounds in 12 weeks. She still has eight pounds to lose to bring her body mass index, or BMI (an estimate of a person’s body composition calculated from height and weight) into the “healthy” range—but having resolved to continue her new healthy habits, she is confident that she’ll reach her ultimate goal in the next few months. “I have given up too many times in the past,” Marie says. “I promised myself that I would take this journey one last time. It may take me longer than 12 weeks but I know this will be the last time I lose the same 20 pounds.”
[header = Step #2: Set Goals]
Ramona Chavez, 29, has struggled with her weight and body image her whole life. Over the years, she has tried all sorts of strategies—from low-carb “fad” diets to strict vegan regimes. Some helped her to lose weight—but eventually the pounds crept back. In the months just before the EatingWell Diet, nothing seemed to be working. “I had become so frustrated. I wasn’t losing weight. I was actually gaining,” she says. Before starting the diet, Ramona’s weight was an all-time high of 165 pounds—a weight that, for her height (5'2"), corresponded with a BMI in the “obese” range.
To bring her weight into the healthy BMI range, she needed to lose 30 pounds.
In the past, Ramona would have set her sights on this number and simply started completely cutting out certain foods, such as meat, fried foods and dairy—a tactic that she says, “just made me want to eat them more.” Eventually she’d become frustrated and give up altogether. It’s a common weight-loss mistake: setting your goals—and expectations—too high. Then, when you eat an “off-limits” food, you feel like you’ve failed and give up completely.
No one can eat perfectly all the time: we wanted to help Ramona lose her “all-or-nothing” eating mindset and, instead, focus on setting realistic short-term goals, each of which would bring her one step closer to achieving her long-term goal of losing 30 pounds. We helped by giving her a simple formula:
Your current weight x 12 = calories needed to maintain your current weight
To lose 1 pound/week: Cut 500 calories/day
To lose 2 pounds/week: Cut 1,000 calories/day
Using our formula, Ramona calculated that, to maintain her current weight of 165 pounds, she was consuming 1,980 calories per day. By subtracting 500 calories from this number, she arrived at a daily calorie goal of 1,480 calories. Achieving this calorie target each day would enable her to lose one pound per week. (If your goal is to lose two pounds per week, you would subtract 1,000 from your “maintenance” calorie level. Note: For healthy weight loss, we don’t advise losing more than two pounds per week. Also, if you calculate a daily calorie goal that’s less than 1,200, set your calorie goal at 1,200 calories. Below that, it’s hard to meet your nutrient needs—or feel satisfied enough to stick with a plan.)
Finally, Ramona set “sub-goals” to help her meet her calorie goal, such as limiting snack foods at night—and buying single-serving snack foods.
“Breaking up the goals was a nice way to remind myself of the little habits I need to practice every day to reach my overall goal of losing 30 pounds,” says Ramona, who got down to 156 pounds by the end of the Challenge. “It also makes even small achievements feel like victories.” Her next milestone is to hit 148 pounds, which is 10 percent less than her starting weight. (Research shows that, if you’re overweight, losing just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can improve blood pressure, lower cholesterol and provide better blood-sugar control.)
[header = Step #3: Keep Track]
Once you establish a calorie goal, record everything you consume—and the number of calories in these foods and drinks. “Writing down every single morsel that goes into my mouth forces me to reflect on portions and food choices,” says Lynn Fowler, 43, of Newtown, Connecticut. “Sometimes the idea of writing something down stops me from putting it in my mouth.”
Use a tracking system that suits you. If you’re always on the run, you might carry a small notebook or make entries on your PDA. If you have all-day access to a computer, you could design a spreadsheet, like Lynn did, or use an online tracker. Whatever method you use, be sure to tally the calories as you go. If you wait until the end of the day, you’re more likely to exceed your target.
To help ensure that your calorie counts are as accurate as they can be, measure or weigh your portions, at least for the first week or two. Most people tend to significantly underestimate the calories they consume. In one study, people underestimated the calorie content of restaurant dinners by as much as 956 calories! In fact, if you are eating out, look up the calorie counts before you go to help you to make better choices. For example, at McDonald’s a Premium Southwest Salad with Crispy Chicken and ranch dressing has 600 calories. The same salad with grilled chicken and low-fat vinaigrette has only 360 calories.
[header = Step #4: Be Aware]
Write down not only what you eat but where, how and with whom. “Journaling” this information can help you identify situations and foods that trigger you to overeat. “Once I looked at my journal and saw where the problems were, they were much easier to fix,” says Rebecca Oechsner, 34. Rebecca realized that she had a habit of munching on cookies and potato chips late at night, after her 4-year-old daughter went to bed. Since Rebecca tended to unwind at the end of the day with a snack, she learned to keep healthier ones—such as popcorn—at the ready and to budget for those calories so she could enjoy a late-night snack and still meet her daily calorie goal. Rebecca also noticed that her usual coffee drink contained 240 calories, and this inspired her to switch to a (smaller) “skinny” latte, which satisfied her craving at about half the calories.
On a positive note, when Rebecca reviewed her journals, she saw that making truly satisfying low-calorie meals helped her reach her goals without feeling deprived.
[header = Step #5: Move More]
“Calories in” is only one half of the weight-loss equation. Exercise is equally important. We recommended that, each week, our dieters set a goal to burn 1,000 calories through “programmed” aerobic exercise—such as brisk walking or jogging, cycling or rowing. In addition, we also suggested that they amp up activity in their everyday routines—taking the stairs instead of the elevator, for example.
When it comes to burning calories, what matters most is going the distance. It makes no difference whether you run two miles in 16 minutes or walk them in a half hour. You can assume that you burn about 100 calories for each mile you walk or run—which means that our participants were aiming to put in two miles a day, five days a week. (For cycling, estimate 100 calories for every three miles you ride.) Of course, indoor exercise equipment, such as treadmills, elliptical trainers and rowers, can help track calories for you. Models that ask you to enter your weight are the most accurate but even these machines are only estimating your calorie burn, as everyone’s metabolism is different.
It’s important to keep your “calories in” (eating) and “calories out” (exercise) goals totally separate. Using longer workouts to “buy” brownies will sabotage your success because most people tend to underestimate the calories they consume and overestimate the calories they burn through exercise. Consider this: You can polish off two cookies in just a few minutes but you’d have to run or walk four miles to burn off the 400 calories they contained.
[header = Step #6: Get Support]
It used to be that if Jenn Moore was having ice cream, so was her husband, Troy Hermansky. “I would fill up a giant coffee mug and hand it to him—because I wanted a giant mug myself and it made me feel better if he was having one too,” says Jenn. “He’d say he didn’t want it, but then, since it was there, he’d eat it anyway.” Now if Jenn wants ice cream, she portions out a small dish for herself. “I may ask Troy if he wants some but I don’t automatically bring him a big cup anymore,” she says. “I know he’s trying hard to lose weight, too, and I don’t want to sabotage him.”
Recognizing that losing weight is easier if you have someone to support you, Jenn and Troy decided to do our Diet Challenge together. Jenn still had to lose 19 of the 54 pounds she’d gained while pregnant with their son Jude, now 1. Troy was eager to shed the 30 pounds he’d gained after a career change and divorce a few years earlier. “My blood pressure is already high. I don’t want to set myself up for the host of [other] health problems that come with being overweight,” he told us at the start of the diet. By the end of the three months, Jenn and Troy had each lost 17 pounds. Doing the diet together was helpful for many reasons. They conquered and divided when it came to planning healthy meals (Jenn shopped; Troy cooked). They exercised as a family. They split entrees when they went out to dinner. “When you have a partner, that person can be an enabler in a lot of ways,” says Troy. “Just being on the same page really was the secret to our success.”
But not everyone has support at home. In fact, a few diet participants—we won’t name names!—mentioned that, at times, their partners were “diet saboteurs,” suggesting caloric cocktails or hearty breakfasts at moments of weakness. The participants eventually figured out ways to outsmart these situations: they’d sip one glass of wine then switch to seltzer or they’d decide what to order at breakfast before they got to the café so they wouldn’t be enticed by the aromas of bacon and baked goods. And, luckily, friends stepped in as supporters. Rebecca, for example, turned to a co-worker for exercise motivation. “We work in a building that has nine flights of steep stairs,” she says. “We decided to climb up and down all nine flights at least once a day, sometimes twice a day.”
[header = Step #7: Get a Life (Plan)]
Weight management is a lifelong journey, not something you do for a few months and then move on. And if anyone knows this, it’s Bryan West, 40, who owns a food-service management company in Columbus, Ohio. “Every day is difficult for me—truly,” says Bryan. “I work in the food industry so there are options—distractions—around me all the time. Additionally, I have a very active social schedule. Food is always at the center of these events.” About five years ago, Bryan’s weight hit 245 pounds. It was a real wake-up call, says Bryan, and since then he’s been steadily working toward a healthy weight. But after losing 35 pounds, he hit a plateau at 210 last summer and wanted to re-energize his efforts. So he decided to try the EatingWell Diet. He lost six pounds and dropped a pants size, despite a hectic work schedule that included travel nearly every week.
His ultimate goal is to get down to about 180 pounds. “I actually find it hard to believe that my final weight goal is in reach,” he says. But Bryan knows that to achieve this—and even to keep the weight he’s lost from creeping back—he’ll need to remain vigilant. To that end, he’s outlined a plan, which includes tracking calories daily, scheduling exercise into his calendar at the start of each week and revisiting his goals each month. He’ll also rely on some of the specific strategies that have helped him in the past with his biggest challenge, eating out. In his own words:
• “I will take more time reading the menu and consider combinations like a side salad plus an appetizer instead of a full meal.”
• “I will ask how dishes are prepared. I’ve been surprised several times by fried items on salads.”
• “I will ask for salad dressings to be served on the side.”
• “I will end my meals with a cup of fresh coffee while others are enjoying dessert. I don’t drink much coffee so I enjoy a good cup—especially in nice restaurants.”
[header = Secret Weapon: Delicious Recipes]
So often, weight-loss programs call for prepackaged meals or, at best, bland dishes like plain baked chicken and steamed vegetables. But once you learn the right tricks (replace fat with flavor from spices and herbs) and realize that a little butter can taste as good as a lot, you can enjoy delicious, flavorful recipes and still shed pounds. For Monica Walsh, who lost 16 pounds during our diet, incorporating new recipes that were low in calories and high on flavor was the easiest part of the entire Challenge. “I love to cook,” says Monica. She pulled her boyfriend, Jim, into the diet, too, and he also lost about 15 pounds. (Next, she plans to help her 70-year-old mother follow the diet’s principles.) “We knew whatever EatingWell recipe we made, it would be a nice meal. Of course, we did like some recipes more than others.” The recipes in The EatingWell Diet emphasize lean sources of protein, low-fat dairy and vegetables—all foods that, research suggests, may help you feel full on fewer calories. Many meet the criteria for our healthy-weight icon: they contain 350 calories or less, and have less than 20 grams of total fat and less than 5 grams of saturated fat.
In the end, the nine people who took our EatingWell Diet Challenge lost well over 100 pounds simply by eating delicious, healthy recipes, getting regular exercise and connecting with their supportive families and friends. Making time for cooking and exercising took commitment, prioritizing and a little bit of problem-solving but all our dieters agreed that such efforts yielded big returns: health, happiness, a smaller number on the scale—and the confidence to keep it all going.