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Weight Watching

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By Dan Gordon '85, Illustrations by Juliette Borda

Published Jul 1, 2009 8:10 AM


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Summer is a time when we break away from routines and break out the bathing suits — a potentially lethal combination for the many among us who wage a constant war struggling to shed those excess pounds.

Getting Fit, Getting Healthy

At UCLA's Risk Factor Obesity Program, you'll find information on weight-loss diets and maintenance programs, seminars, meetings and how to sign up for the program and attend its weekly clinics.

"Two things tend to happen when we take time off," says Dr. Zhaoping Li, associate director of the UCLA Risk Factor Obesity Program, which helps participants adopt lifestyle changes and modify their eating habits. "We are less active than when we go in to work, and we are more likely to reward ourselves through eating."

Between holiday barbecues and graduation and wedding parties, opportunities for feasting in the summer months become more plentiful. As the days get hotter, we are also more likely to turn to calorie-rich juices, soft drinks, Popsicles and ice cream to cool off, at the expense of our best-laid dietary plans. The heat of summer makes exercise even less enticing. And as we start wearing less, Li notes, we become more acutely aware of, and sensitive to, the extra layers of fat on our bodies. Yet, the temptation to indulge proves irresistible. What makes us cave? How can we better arm ourselves for the fight? Li offers these tips for staying on track:

Control Your Surroundings

"We are social beings, and eating has been part of everything we do," Li notes. "Our celebrations are centered around food. Our recreation is often centered on food. We associate food with reward and love."

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To the extent that it's possible, she suggests avoiding settings where you know the temptations to eat weight-adding foods will prove overwhelming. Even more important, when you can have a say over the agenda during a vacation or a gathering with friends, don't make it just about food. "We all want to relax on vacation, but that shouldn't mean not doing anything active," Li says. "Enjoy yourself physically, too."

Know Your Psyche

Food is used not only for reward and expressing love; for many it is also a source of comfort during lonely times. It's no coincidence, Li notes, that the brain's satiety center is very close to its pleasure center — or that chocolates and carbohydrates may produce higher levels of serotonin, which tend to make us happier.

We succumb to food cravings for a variety of reasons, she explains, including the desire for immediate gratification and our self-destructive tendencies, which in some cases may be driven by low self-esteem. Don't eat to feed your feelings; eat to fuel your body. Recognizing when and why you overeat may not solve the problem, Li says, but it's the first step toward addressing the root cause.

Avoid Trigger Foods

Part of understanding your psyche is knowing what foods tend to put you on a self-destructive course. So-called trigger foods, Li explains, are "high-calorie foods that people get pleasure from, and once they start eating they can't control themselves."

Topping the list are starchy sweets such as pastries, followed by breads, pastas, rice, corn, potatoes and beans, as well as soft drinks and alcoholic beverages. Okay, that's almost an entire picnic. So Li also says it's best to have some lower-calorie alternatives in the basket, such as fruit or yogurt, to overcome — or at least mitigate — your cravings for the usual summertime fixings.

Mind Your Intake

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If you're sitting by the pool absorbed in a book or in front of the TV spellbound by your favorite show, you are more likely to overeat. It's all too easy to become so focused on another activity that you miss your brain's signal that you've had enough. Be careful, also, of leaving the kitchen with bigger servings than you should be eating in a single sitting — that big bag of chips or jar of nuts can be gobbled up before you realize what's happened. Even seemingly healthy foods need to be portioned in advance.

"How many of us stop with a handful of grapes?" Li asks. "That can be 100 calories. But too many people take the whole bag of grapes, sit down, and next thing they know, they're gone." Finally, she says, be aware of those times when you're craving food, not because you're actually hungry, but out of habit. Do you really need that large, buttered popcorn at the movie theater to fill your empty stomach, or is it just something you've become conditioned to doing while watching the latest superhero blockbuster?

Balance Your Account

Li views weight management in much the same way as managing finances. "If you're tempted to eat more than you had planned, that's fine if you follow it up by burning some calories through physical activity, but not if you then go out and do nothing but lie under the sun all day long," she says. "If you go over your limit in calories today, tomorrow you can lower your intake. Balance is the way to go."

When people who struggle with extra pounds say they're on a diet, she adds, they are putting themselves in a position to fail. "'Diet' means it's temporary," Li says. "If someone is passing around cookies and you say you can't have one because you're on a diet, what you're saying is that you don't want to be skipped in the future. We need to emphasize a long-term lifestyle change involving healthy choices — with a focus on fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and exercise. It's OK if we occasionally have more than we should, but we can't do that on a repeated basis."

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