Diet and Weight Loss

10 tips for mindful eating — just in time for the holidays

Wynne Armand, MD
Wynne Armand, MD, Contributing Editor

Eating without awareness can lead to overeating and take away much of the pleasure that can be found in your meals. During the holidays, it can easily cause you to overindulge. Taking a mindful approach to meals by slowing down and savoring the experience can not only help with weight control, but also enhance health and well-being — as well as your enjoyment of the meal.

Quitting smoking doesn’t have to mean big weight gain

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Weight gain might be one of the most dreaded “side effects” of quitting smoking. Constant reminders of the health dangers of being overweight lead some smokers to think that smoking is “safer” than the weight they might gain if they quit. But that’s just not the case. It’s true that people tend to gain 5-10 pounds in the first six months after they stop smoking. But a recent study suggested that for those who quit, weight gain slows down over the following 10 years after quitting. Over that same time period, people who continued to smoke also gained some weight, though not as much. Over all, kicking the habit doesn’t have to mean a larger waistline, especially if you plan ahead.

Making one change — getting more fiber — can help with weight loss

Nancy Ferrari
Nancy Ferrari, Senior editor, Harvard Health

Getting to a healthy weight and staying there isn’t always easy. Many complicated diets offer solutions. A study published in today’s Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that something as simple as aiming to eat more fiber each day can be just as good as a more complicated diet. In a head-to-head study of a simple diet (eat more fiber) and a complex one (eat more fruits, vegetables, high-fiber foods, fish, and lean protein but also cut back on salt, sugar, fat, and alcohol), participants lost almost the same amounts of weight on either diet. Both diets led to similar improvements in blood pressure the body’s response to insulin. The results of the study don’t prove that a high-fiber diet is necessarily as good (or better) for health than the AHA diet or the highly in-vogue Mediterranean diet. But it does suggest that one simple step can make a difference and that encouraging healthy behaviors may be more effective than discouraging unhealthy ones.

Using the glycemic index to stave off holiday weight gain

Beverly Merz
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

One way to avoid adding extra pounds over the holiday season is by relying on the glycemic index to choose your foods and snacks. The glycemic index is a measure of how fast carbohydrates are turned into sugar. The higher a food’s glycemic index, the faster your body turns that food into sugar, and the sooner the “hunger bell” rings again. This can set into motion the cycle of holiday overeating. One way to go low glycemic: Choose foods your grandmother used to eat—ones that resemble things in nature, and don’t come with long lists of ingredients.

Can an app help you lose weight?

Daniel Pendick
Daniel Pendick, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Smartphones and tablets combine an extraordinary amount of portable computing power with connectivity to the world via cell phone signal and WiFi. Many health entrepreneurs are trying to harness that power to help people to get healthier. But do they work? A study published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine on one popular weight-loss app finds that the answer is “not so much.” University of California, Los Angeles researchers tested one free app called MyFitnessPal. Overweight women who used it lost about five pounds over six months—but so did women who didn’t use the app. In spite of the app’s poor showing in the UCLA trial, MyFitnessPal and other health apps can be useful tools for people who want to manage their weight and lifestyle. But it takes two things from the user—motivation to make a change and using the app enough to produce the desired effect.

FDA approves weight-loss drug Contrave

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

For the third time in two years, the FDA has approved a drug to help people lose weight. The new drug, Contrave, combines two generic drugs, naltrexone and bupropion. Naltrexone is used to help kick an addiction to alcohol or narcotics. Bupropion is used to treat depression and seasonal affective disorder. Many people also take bupropion to stop smoking. Neither naltrexone nor bupropion by itself has been approved for weight loss. Specifically, Contrave was approved for use by adults who are obese (meaning a body-mass index of 30 or higher) and by overweight adults (body-mass index between 27 and 30) who have at least one other weight-related condition or illness, such as high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes. Across the clinical trials on which the FDA based its approval, some people lost more than 5% of their body weight. But it’s important to note that more than 50% had minimal or no weight loss. Side effects ranging from seizures and high blood pressure to diarrhea and constipation were reported.

Low fat? Low carb? Almost any healthy diet can work for losing weight

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

The results of a clinical trial reported in yesterday’s Annals of Internal Medicine showed that low-carb diets helped people lose weight better than low fat diets. A report in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association tells a somewhat different story. A review of 48 head-to-head diet trails showed that average weight loss on either a low-carb or low-fat diet for 12 months was the same, about 16 pounds. And when the researchers compared named diets, which ranged from the low-carb Atkins and South Beach diets to moderates like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig and low-fat approaches like the Ornish diet, all yielded similar weight loss. The main message from careful comparisons of different diets is that there’s no single diet that’s right for everyone. Any healthy diet can help people lose weight. And there’s more to a diet than weight loss. What’s needed for long-term health is an eating plan that can be followed day in and day out that is good for the heart, bones, brain, and every other part of the body. One eating strategy that can provide all that is the so-called Mediterranean diet.

FDA gets with the evidence, proposes that trans fats are not “safe”

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Trans fats, once seen as harmless additives that ended up in everything from Twinkies to French fries, are finally getting the reputation they deserve—bad for health. For years, the FDA has labeled trans fats as “generally recognized as safe.” That term applies to substances added to foods that experts consider safe, and so can be used without testing or approval. Yesterday the FDA proposed removing trans fats from the generally recognized as safe list, a step that would eliminate artificial trans fats from the American food supply. Oils rich in trans fats, long a workhorse of the food industry, boost harmful LDL cholesterol. They also depress protective HDL, which trucks LDL to the liver for disposal; have unhealthy effects on triglycerides; make blood platelets more likely to form artery-blocking clots in the heart, brain, and elsewhere; and feed inflammation, which plays key roles in the development of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Wellocracy aims to help trackers choose and use health apps and devices

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

There’s something satisfying about getting immediate feedback about exercise, sleep, and other activities. That’s why more and more people are joining the “quantified-self” movement. It involves formal tracking of health and habits, usually using apps and devices that feed data to them—from heart rate, activity, and sleep monitors to Bluetooth connected scales. But with so many apps and connected devices on the market, it can be hard to decide which ones are worth trying. Wellocracy, a website launched by the Harvard-affiliated Center for Connected Health, aims to give people impartial information about fitness trackers, mobile health apps, and other self-help technologies. It reviews dozens of sleep trackers, wearable activity trackers, mobile running apps, and mobile pedometer apps, lets you compare apps and devices in each category, provides a guide for beginners and offers tips for adding activity “bursts” throughout the day.

Letters from an obese president tell a familiar story of struggling with weight

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

William Howard Taft was America’s heaviest president. He would have preferred being seen and remembered for something else, and took steps to lose weight. Taft’s story of weight loss and regain, described in today’s Annals of Internal Medicine, sounds completely familiar today, more than 100 years later. Using correspondence and archival sources, Deborah Levine, an assistant professor at Providence College in Rhode Island, tells the story of Taft’s struggles with his weight. In 1905, with the help of a British physician, Taft went from 314 pounds to 255. He was pleased with his accomplishment. But three years later, when Taft was inaugurated as the nation’s 27th President, he tipped the scales at 354 pounds. His story and struggle with weight are no different than what many people experience today.