AltHealth: Holiday Indulgences

The holidays are bearing down on us fast. It is a time full of mouth-watering morsels and open bars. Throw in a heavy dash of gift guilt, family expectations and spiraling depression, and you have the perfect setup for over indulgence. Come on, it’s only once a year! Besides, we’re all going to start over after the New Year, right? Right. But before you dive in, here’s a few things that you should know.

Some of the news is good: Despite the long-held myth that the average person gains five pounds during the holidays, the truth is, it’s more like one or two. The bad news? Despite our heart-felt resolutions, most of us never take those pounds off. It just isn’t as easy to do as it is to say, and most of us have misconceptions about weight loss that make the job harder. This one is a bit of a shocker.

We all want to believe that our new gym membership/exercise equipment/workout resolution will make losing weight easier. Surprise – they won’t. There are a great many excellent reasons to exercise in terms of both physical and mental health, but it just isn’t the magic diet pill those TV ads hawk it to be. Scientific fact: Our total energy expenditure versus food intake is what determines weight loss, and exercise accounts for only a fraction of daily calorie burn. According to research at the National Institutes of Health, our basal metabolic rate (the energy used for basic functioning when the body is at rest) accounts for between 60% and 80% of our total energy expenditure; the energy used to break down food in digestion accounts for about 10%. That leaves about 10% to 30% for physical activity, of which exercise is only a subset. So, while your food intake accounts for 100% of the energy that goes into your body, exercise burns off only 10% to 30% of it. If a 200-pound man adds 60 minutes of medium-intensity running, four days per week for 30 days, and kept his calorie intake the same, he might lose five pounds. But there’s also a chance that he could gain. This is where things get tricky. Humans have compensatory mechanisms that adjust for change, and they are so reflexive we don’t even notice them. 

Maybe you’ve had this experience: You work out like a maniac 5 days a week, and the scales won’t budge. You are not alone. A comparison study showed that even though the percentage of people who engaged in physical activity rose noticeably between 2001 and 2009, the obesity rate not only didn’t go down, it went up. How is this even impossible? Well, exercise stimulates the appetite – and most of us unconsciously compensate for the calories we burn during workouts by upping our intake elsewhere in subtle ways. Sports drinks, power snacks, slightly larger helpings at meals … and if we aren’t actually weighing food portions, our guess is usually off. People underestimate their food intake, on an average, by about 700 to 800 calories a day. Another compensatory tactic our bodies take is to relax more between workouts in an effort to recover from the added exercise. We use less energy on our non-gym activities; we decide to take the elevator instead of the stairs. Our total energy output remains pretty much the same as before, but we are so hungry. And – viola! Weight gain.

Please don’t get the wrong idea. I do not present this information to you to discourage you from exercise, but rather, to prevent you from quitting. One of the main reasons many people give up is that they have unrealistic expectations. Those one-sided advertising campaigns don’t help – when people don’t get the results promised in the ads, they think it’s all a waste of their time. Obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff believes that there is a strong need to “re-brand” exercise: “By preventing cancers, improving blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar, bolstering sleep, attention, energy and mood, and doing so much more, exercise has indisputably proven itself to be the world’s best drug – better than any pharmaceutical product any physician could ever prescribe. Sadly though, exercise is not a weight loss drug, and so long as we continue to push exercise primarily (and sadly sometimes exclusively) in the name of preventing or treating adult or childhood obesity, we’ll also continue to short-change the public about the genuinely incredible health benefits of exercise, and simultaneously misinform them about the realities of long-term weight management.”

Then how DO we lose holiday weight? Sorry, but the facts are in – the only way to lose weight and keep it off is to improve your food choices and restrict calories. There’s a lot of fad diets out there, but a nutritionally sound, long-term plan is your best bet for success. Why? It takes at least two months for weight loss to become set in body memory. If you chose a diet you can actually live with, and it takes 2 months, there’s your insurance right there. What’s the point in dieting if you’re just going to gain it all back again?