For many years, says Penny Muir, the scales ruled her mood. But after 3 1/2 years on a program called HUGS that helps women change the way they think about weight, she no longer lets her thoughts about food control her life. "There isn't a moment when I reach for something to eat and think, 'I shouldn't do this,'" Muir now says.
Many other people, however, don't have such an easy relationship with food. Food and weight always weigh heavily upon them. In a recent survey of 107,804 American adults, the CDC found that 64% of the men and 78% of the women surveyed were either on a diet or keeping close tabs on what they ate so as not to gain weight.
Many weight-loss experts say they believe that such "chronic" dieters run the risk of ruining their health. "Dieting disrupts the internal cues to eat," says Bernadette Latson, MS, RD, assistant professor in clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. "When you diet, you're taking external control and applying it to a normal function, the appetite."
Constant dieting can lead to eating disorders, says Latson, especially in susceptible teenage girls, which is one reason Latson strongly discourages parents from talking about dieting in front of their children and making self-deprecating remarks about their own bodies.
"When you diet, you generally eat very little during the day. Then by evening, you're ravenous so you eat uncontrollably. Then you feel guilty and start all over again the next day," says Latson. "Pretty soon you're into a binge-starve cycle -- and may move on to purging."
Latson discourages dieting per se but advises those who want to lose weight to pay attention to what they eat -- but not so closely that it takes over their life. "Rather than 'going on' a diet, look over your usual intake of food, then select one or two items that you may be willing to eliminate and see how that goes."Just replacing a cinnamon bun with a bagel for breakfast, for example, can save 250 calories, says Latson. In 6 months, that adds up to 8-10 pounds. "Six months may seem like a long time, but with just small changes like that, you can achieve the effect you want."
Chronic dieting does both physical and emotional harm to the body, says Linda Omichinski, RD, president and founder of HUGS International Inc., and author of Staying Off the Diet Roller Coaster. Losing and regaining weight is more harmful to your body than staying at the same weight, even if that's a higher number than you're comfortable with, says Omichinski. "The ups and downs of dieting can put you at higher risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease," she says.
Someone who is constantly watching his or her food intake may find that the scale becomes an emotional "mood indicator." If the numbers go down, says Omichinski, you're in a good mood. If the numbers creep up, your day is ruined.
That's no way to live, says Omichinski, who suggests that people get rid of their scales altogether. "Look at changing your way of thinking ... as an indicator of your progress. Detach your self-worth from the number on the scale."
Not everyone is meant to be thin, Omichinski says. "When you eat when you're hungry, when you do physical activity for the enjoyment of it, not for how many calories it can burn, if you're genetically meant to lose weight, you will."
The goal should be to become more fit and healthier, if not necessarily thinner, says Omichinski.
If we don't watch our weight, however, says Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, director of the UPMC Health System Weight Management Center in Pittsburgh, those unwanted pounds will indeed add up.
"Biologically, we will gain weight decade after decade if we don't change our eating habits and our activities," says Fernstrom. "Everyone needs to manage their weight."
Chronic monitoring of what you eat is not the problem, Fernstrom continues. Having unrealistic expectations is. Formal diet plans that tell you how much to eat, what to eat, and when to eat, just set you up to feel like a "food victim," says Fernstrom, and a victim is automatically set up for failure. "If you think of it as a healthy eating lifestyle and not a diet, then you can't fail ... you can't fall off the wagon because there is no wagon. Formal diet plans won't work because they have been planned by someone else, not by you," Fernstrom.
What will work, she says, is the personal barter system: If you have a piece of cheesecake for dessert at lunch, just have a salad for dinner. If you have a second glass of wine, walk an extra hour on the treadmill.
And go easy on yourself, says Fernstrom. "Sometimes food is just food. We all like a treat now and then. There are no bad foods, just bad portions. When you have control over what you eat, it takes the pressure off and gives you a mindset for success."