This month the Metabolink staff shares practical and useful information on how to look great and feel better, just by understanding your body and treating it right.

With the summer rapidly approaching, so many people start thinking about their weight and general health. Many of our readers have written us with concerns about their metabolism and rapid weight gains.

“Tina” asks about the kinds of results she should be seeing with her diet program. She writes, “About 2 years ago I started gaining weight at a very rapid pace – about 20 pounds in less than one year. While I was eating out more often than before the weight gain, I maintained my exercise routine (2-3 aerobic workouts a week) and did not feel my eating habits had changed significantly. For the past 6 weeks I have been very focused on losing weight through reducing my calories and increasing my activity. I have been eating 1200 calories a day (less than 18 grams of fat) and participate in an aerobic activity at least 3 days a week�. I also do weight training for 20 to 30 minutes twice a week and try to take at least a 30 minute brisk walk on the days I don’t workout. Despite all of these things, I have only dropped between 1-2 pounds in 6 weeks. My goal�was to lose 1.5 pounds a week and I am becoming very discouraged by my lack of results. I have no known health problems and the only medication I take is Ortho Novum 7/7/7.

“Wow! With all that exercise, how do you find time for anything else? All kidding aside, “Tina’s” weight gain could be attributed to many things, and eating out is certainly one of them. Meals eaten outside the home often consist of bigger portions and contain “hidden” extras (bread and butter, high-calorie desserts, fatty sauces, etc.). Her diet and exercise routine should be enough to promote a higher weight loss than what she is experiencing. A weight loss of 1.5 pounds per week with this regimen is correct. But, it is possible; assuming her caloric count is accurate, that there are other factors preventing her expected weight loss. It would be wise to consult with a physician in order to rule out any metabolic or medical condition.

With a clean bill of health, you might want to consider consulting with a registered dietitian who can evaluate your current lifestyle and recommend changes, as well as give an individualized plan to help you achieve your desired weight goal.

Although “Tina” did not specify how long she has been using the Ortho Novum; it is possible that it is related to her weight gain. Hormone therapy can affect weight and appetite, and also induces gastrointestinal problems and edema (fluid retention) in some people. This is definitely something you need to consult with your doctor on.

Weight gain/loss rates vary among individuals. Age, sex, genetics and metabolism factors play important roles in this process. If you are consistent with your exercise regimen, you may need a professional assessment of your physical condition and eating behavior habits. As mentioned before, its those “hidden” extras when eating out that can sabotage the best of diets. Avoid fried foods and cream or cheese-based sauces and ask for the bread basket and butter dish to be removed from the table. Start your meal with a salad with low-fat dressing, so you will be less hungry for the rest of the meal. Eat slowly and take small bites. Choose water, seltzer or diet sodas rather than regular soda, juices or alcoholic drinks. Share a dish with another person, or take half of it home for another meal, and if you must have desert, share that too. These suggestions should be able to start many of you on your way to reaching your goals.

Both “Mel” and “Pat” have questions about how their metabolic system works. Metabolic rates vary from one person to another and are affected by any number of factors. It is higher in men, tall and thin people, children and pregnant women. It increases with fever, a hyperactive thyroid gland and many diseases. Certain drugs can also have the effect of temporarily speeding up metabolism.

The metabolic rate decreases with age, fasting or starvation, malnutrition, an under-active thyroid gland, and when sleeping. Exercise, probably due to an increase in muscle mass, increases the body’s metabolic rate. The amount depends on type and duration, as well as percentage of existing muscle mass. It is the only safe and natural method to increase the metabolic rate. Without a medical diagnosis, you won’t know what leads to a low metabolism. The physician who diagnoses this condition can tell you more, and possibly prescribe medication if your condition requires it. Ask him/her for help to avoid weight gain, including a referral to a registered dietitian, who can provide you with a personalized plan according to your needs and medical condition.

A low metabolic rate is conducive to weight gain. In order to avoid it, watch your caloric intake and increase your physical activity. Choose low-fat and nonfat products (milk, cheese, dressings, etc.). Cut down on portion sizes by eating less than you are used to. Try using smaller plates and bowls and avoid second portions. Avoid those tempting high-fat sauces and gravies, such as cream-based pasta sauces. Eat three balanced meals everyday and do not skip meals. This leads to excessive hunger and a tendency to snack and overeat. Eat slowly and take small bites, and remember to drink at least eight glasses of water a day. Limit the amounts of high-fat, high-sugar desserts you have. Remember to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables – these should be the bulk of your meals. There are many weight loss products available which claim to curb your appetite, melt away fat, or increase your metabolism. Be aware that using some of these without medical clearance and guidance may be extremely harmful. Follow the above suggestions and always check with your doctor before attempting additional measures.

Another reader, “Sheila,” writes, “I’ve been to see my physician and a nutritionist, but they don’t seem to be able to give me advice that will help me solve my problem. I’m 30 and have been a consistent “calorie counter” for over 10 years, which has left me with a slowed metabolism. (I also am hyperthyroid, but that has been monitored and treated since I was 14.) I do 45-min. running or 60 minutes very brisk walking 6-7 times a week, plus 45 mins. Biking twice a week. In an effort in increase my metabolism, I have been weight training 2-3 times a week as well. In the past six months, I have gained nearly 12 pounds (some muscle, but mostly fat) with absolutely no explanation other than my metabolism is revolting against me. In frustration, as I gained this weight I decreased my calories even further, to about 800 a day (about 50% carb., 40% protein, 10% fat). The nutritionist says I need to eat more, which of course I agree! But how can I keep my body from gaining additional weight while my metabolism sorts itself out? Will it sort itself out? How long will it take? Are there other ways to boost my metabolism? It seems to defy logic that I can work this hard and keep gaining fat! I don’t want to be stick thin – I just want to be fit and at a weight I’m comfortable at (and previously could maintain with much less effort)! Can you offer any insight? I’m 5’5″, and currently 135 pounds.”

We can appreciate your concern about a 12-pound weight gain in six months! Our nutritionist, Carol Testa, advises that after 10 years of calorie counting and a history of hypoglycemia, “Shelly’s” metabolic set point for calories may be very low indeed. Her nutritionist is right, 800 calories is low – in fact this is considered a VLCD (very low calorie diet) which should only be followed if obesity is severe and under careful medical watch. The reason is that it is not possible to meet nutritional needs with so few calories. At 5’5″ and 135 pounds, “Sheila” is well within good weight guidelines. 135 pounds is exactly her IBW (ideal body weight). This also indicates a BMI (body mass index) of 22.5 which carriers very little health risk – she wouldn’t be considered obese or even overweight. In fact, she would have been considered underweight at her previous weight of 123 lbs., so perhaps this is a more realistic weight for her.

We aim these days for a healthy state of mind and body, and are not so concerned with weight only. “Sheila” says the gain was mostly fat. How was this determined? With the amount of exercise she gets, plus weight training, she may be adding muscle which weighs more than fat. It doesn’t sound like she needs any more exercise, but the rest of her day should not be sedentary, either. If you have a desk job, get up often and walk around. Use the stairs whenever possible and park farther out in the lot, etc. studies show that people who are more active in their daily activities have a higher metabolic rate. Instead of focusing on calories, those wishing to loss weight should try using a good guide for healthy eating, such as the Food Guide Pyramid.

Try also to eat a mix of protein, carbohydrates (avoid simple sugars) and fat at each meal. Eat the same relative amount of food per meal each day, don’t skip meals, don’t overeat or over-drink on weekends and then cut back during the week – this makes it very difficult to get a healthy set point. Stress and certain medications also need to be considered. Carol advises “Sheila” to keep working with her physician to adjust her medications, and work with the dietitian on her diet. Exercise and eating should be a natural and joyous part of life.

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