On the face of it, controlling your weight is simple: eat less and exercise more. But it’s much harder than it sounds. Researchers have recently found several factors influencing your weight that you might not be aware of. Here’s how to recognize and take control of the things that may be tripping up your efforts at weight control.
You probably have a pretty good idea what a healthy diet is. Unfortunately, studies show that Americans are not eating enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains. And we’re eating too much fat and salt. So where are we going wrong?
Part of the problem, according to Dr. Andrew Rundle of Columbia University, is that so many things around us influence the seemingly simple balance between how many calories we eat and how many we burn. “I’ve often thought that the obesity epidemic is an epidemic of a thousand paper cuts,” he says. “So many things prod us throughout the day to raise our calorie intake and lower our energy expenditure.”
Once you recognize what these things are, you can take control of your surroundings to make healthy habits easier.
First off, learn how to read nutrition labels and ignore the rest of the packaging. Phrases like “low-fat” don’t necessarily mean anything if you’re concerned about calories. Some low-fat and non-fat foods actually have more calories than the normal versions.
“It’s not enough just to have the perception that something’s healthy,” says Dr. Susan Yanovski, co-director of the Office of Obesity Research at NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “You actually have to look at what’s in it.”
Make sure to look at the number of portions, too, she says. That muffin might seem like it has 150 calories, but if the serving size is 1/3 of a muffin, it really has 450 calories.
Did you know that the size and shape of what’s holding your food can affect how much you eat? “People basically eat what’s put in front of them,” Yanovski says. It’s the amount of food you eat that counts, not what it looks like. So try serving food on smaller plates and bowls if you’d like to eat less.
One of the reasons eating out has become such a challenge is that restaurant food portions have gotten larger. Super-sized dishes may seem like a good value, but not if they get you to eat more than your body needs. Order smaller dishes and plan to share larger ones. Or set aside a portion to take home with you before you even put a bite in your mouth.
It’s easy to fool yourself about how much you’re eating—and, it turns out, about how healthy the food is. Marketing researchers have found that when restaurants claim to be healthy, people are more likely to underestimate the calories in their main dish and order higher calorie side dishes. One study found that when there’s healthy food available, people actually make more indulgent choices. Remember, it’s what you eat that counts, not what you think about eating.
Some areas have enacted laws requiring restaurants to list calories on the menu. “When people actually have calorie values staring them in the face, they may make better choices,” Yanovski says.
Unfortunately, in most places, you have to do some work to check calories when you eat out. Some restaurants may have nutrition information available if you request it, or might have it posted on their web site.
You may not think about sleep when you’re concerned with weight, but studies show that people who get less sleep have a higher risk of obesity (along with other health problems). Lack of sleep can disrupt the normal chemical signals in your body and lead you to eat more. So try to get enough sleep. And make sure not to snack mindlessly when you’re sleepy, like late at night.
Your neighborhood and community can affect your weight as well. A research team led by Rundle found that access to produce markets, supermarkets and health food stores is associated with lower rates of obesity in New York City.
“It’s also an issue in rural areas because the very small towns don’t have supermarkets,” says Dr. Madeline Dalton of Dartmouth Medical School. “Sometimes you need to drive 15 to 20 miles to get to a store that has fruits and vegetables. Clearly, that’s a problem.”
Wherever you live, Dalton says, you need to plan to eat well. “It’s really a matter of getting to know your environment and figuring out how to get healthy food on a regular basis.”
Your surroundings can also affect how active you are. Studies show that people in neighborhoods without sidewalks, or who live far from a recreational facility or a walking or biking trail, are more likely to be obese. People who perceive their community as unpleasant or unsafe are also more likely to be obese. Recognize your particular challenges and figure out how to add exercise and physical activity to your daily routine.
Once you identify the things that affect your weight, you can start changing them. Set modest goals and gradually improve your habits. “Pick 1 or 2 things in your life that you think you can change,” Dalton says. “Just walk a quarter of a mile a day to get started. Cut out 1 soda every day.” You may have to try a few times, but when you meet each goal you can move on to the next one.
NIH-funded research has found that people who are close influence each other’s weight. You may be more likely to lose weight if you work with friends, relatives and co-workers to develop healthier lifestyles. Get the family together to make nutritious meals. Form walking groups with co-workers. Take a dance class with friends.
“What you really want to do is make the healthy choice the easy choice, the default choice,” Yanovski says.