Published on 12/20/06

Wait, set reasonable goals for diet after holidays

By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia

Many holiday overindulgers rush into fad diets, intent on shedding the pounds they've gained. Other new-year penitents simply starve themselves. Either approach is wrong, says a University of Georgia expert.

Even if you didn't hold back in your holiday eating, use restraint in your postholiday diet, said Connie Crawley, a Cooperative Extension food, nutrition and health specialist with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

"Go back to your normal, healthy eating habits," Crawley said. "Eat three moderate meals a day and allow time for rebalancing your diet."

After a week or more of your normal lifestyle, you'll get a more reliable count of the pounds you've gained. "Then you can decide what little things to do to get the weight back off," she said.

Little cuts

Don't skip meals or cut out broad groups such as breads or fats, she said. Make little changes, such as cutting out the chips or extra margarine.

"The problem is that people want to cut out whole food groups," she said. "But you always need a balanced, healthy diet of foods in all groups."

Many dieters focus on fats. And trimming dietary fats can be important. But don't try to eliminate them. "A totally fat-free diet would not be good for you," Crawley said. "Fats make fat-soluble vitamins available to you, and they make your diet more satisfying."

Americans tend to eat too many fats, she said. The general rule is that fats should be no more than 30 percent of the calories you eat. "But that percentage varies from person to person," she said.

What's 'ideal'?

Crawley isn't a stickler for the "ideal weights" on height-weight charts.

"That's probably not the best way to determine your ideal weight," she said. "A healthy weight for you is whatever you weigh when you eat a healthy, balanced diet and exercise regularly."

The healthiest choice, she said, is to monitor what you eat, not what you weigh. "Food diaries are the No. 1 way to keep your weight down," she said.

The so-called ideal weights from charts sometimes lead people to set unrealistic weight-loss goals, Crawley said. "Studies have shown that dieters are most successful in losing only 10 percent to 15 percent of their preloss weight," she said.

"Unfortunately," she said, "another study asked dieters how much weight loss would make them happy, satisfied or disappointed, and the most common 'disappointed' response was 15 percent or less."

Once dieters have lost 10 percent to 15 percent, though, most are satisfied. "They feel better, and they realize how hard that weight loss was," she said.

Best goal

A reasonable weight-loss goal, she said, should be no more than 15 percent of your preloss weight. If you want to lose more than that, make 15 percent your goal anyway. Once you lose that weight and stabilize there, then you can re-evaluate. Don't try to lose more than 1 to 2 pounds per week if you want to maintain muscle mass and keep the weight off.

"Setting too high a weight-loss goal leads to discouragement," Crawley said. "It makes you put off changes, such as buying new clothes that fit. But weight loss is difficult. You need to reward yourself with things that aren't food. No diet will be successful if you don't feel good about yourself."

Physical activity is a critical part of weight loss. "Include weight training, aerobics and stretching in your regular activities," she said. "To lose weight, you need to be active five to seven days a week."

Crawley said the body's natural appetite controls don't work if you're inactive. "Your body doesn't know when to stop eating," she said. "If you want to be a healthy weight, you have to move and get off the couch and out from in front of the computer."

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.