Diet and Weight Loss

How useful is the body mass index (BMI)?

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

The body mass index (BMI) has long been considered an important way to gauge your risk for many chronic conditions, from arthritis to sleep apnea to heart disease. But like all medical measures, BMI is not perfect — and a recent study has revealed that BMI alone may not be a solid measure of cardiovascular health. Here, we’ve examined the pros and cons of the BMI, and whether it’s a number worth knowing.

The missing rewards that motivate healthy lifestyle changes

Srini Pillay, MD
Srini Pillay, MD, Contributor

Ask anyone who’s ever tried to make a healthy change — after a while, the motivation to keep at it just stops. Indeed, it can be incredibly hard to break old habits, or make new ones. But research has revealed that there are actually two different types of rewards in the brain — and that focusing on the less commonly pursued of the two can help you make lasting changes.

Are protein bars really just candy bars in disguise?

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Eating on the go can be a challenge, so many of us turn to protein meal-replacement bars, or even to the ever-popular candy bar. While the protein bars may be a little better for you in terms of the nutrients they contain, they probably do not offer any significant health benefits, and the occasional candy bar won’t hurt provided you eat a balanced diet most of the time.

Exercise: You may need less than you think

Gregory Curfman, MD
Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

Getting regular physical activity is one of the most important things one can do to protect and promote health, yet many people say they don’t have time to exercise. A recent study has confirmed that even a little exercise — just 8 to 15 minutes a day — reduced the risk of death. When it comes to exercise, some is always better than none.

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.