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The New American Diet

Sound familiar? About 70 percent of the population over the age of 50 in the United States is overweight, and approximately one-third are classified as obese. Health complications from obesity cost the United States $190 billion in medical costs each year. Obesity also shortens lifespan: An Oxford University study found that the lifespan of an obese person is three to 10 years shorter than that of someone of average weight, roughly the same loss of life associated with smoking.

So why don’t Anna and her overweight compatriots set out to lose weight? As we all know, it’s a bit more complicated than that. And, fair or not, it becomes even more difficult after the age of 50, due to slowing metabolism, loss of muscle mass and declining hormones, which cause the body to store and retain fat more easily.

So what’s a middle-aged dieter to do? That’s where the AARP’s New American Diet comes in. Seventeen years ago, the AARP partnered with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the effects of diet and lifestyle on the incidence of cancer and other diseases among half a million people age 50 and older.

In recent years, the study has provided a wealth of information about what we should and should not eat to live a long and healthy life. In short, we know how certain foods affect our bodies, so we can adjust our diet accordingly to stay healthy and lose weight.

Charlie is typical of my patients: He doesn’t always make the connection between what he eats and his overall health. On a recent visit, we reviewed his diabetes medication and I told him we could take him off his meds if he lost some weight. His response was, “Dr. Whyte, I have been overweight for 20 years and have only had diabetes for two years. You are the first person to tell me that my diabetes is related to my weight.”

Well, I have news for you. More than 80% of type 2 diabetes cases are weight related. One in three cancer deaths is related to excess body weight, poor diet or physical inactivity. In addition, the risk of dying prematurely increases even if you are only 5 kilos overweight.

Anna and Charlie needed to lose a considerable amount of weight, but instead of putting them on a strict diet, I invited them to try the AARP New American Diet. Instead of focusing on calorie counting or eliminating one food group or another, this plan emphasizes healthy, whole foods over unhealthy, processed foods.

Have breakfast every day

Eating a healthy, nutrient-rich breakfast – including protein, whole grains and fruit – will help keep your insulin level stable throughout the morning and prevent you from overeating later in the day. The National Weight Control Registry, a study of nearly 4,000 dieters who had maintained their weight for up to six years, found that those who ate breakfast daily lost more weight and kept it off longer than those who didn’t eat when they woke up. Two good choices: an egg sandwich with strawberries, or whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk and a banana.

Drink more water

Most of us don’t realize how many calories we consume through soft drinks, juices, alcoholic beverages and other beverages. So I’d like you to try an experiment: drink nothing but water and coffee for two weeks and watch the pounds melt off. This includes diet sodas. Research shows that diet sodas can increase the body’s cravings for sugary, high-calorie foods.

Get fishy

Fish is a crucial component of the AARP’s New American Diet. It contains omega-3 fatty acids necessary for brain health, is low in calories and contains important nutrients. The AARP and NIH study notes that omega-3s in fish may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer and improve some inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. In contrast, consumption of red and processed meats (such as hot dogs and sausages) increases the risk and should be reduced.

Fill up on fruits and veggies

Some fad diets foolishly discourage fruit consumption, but the AARP-NIH study demonstrates that incorporating fruits and vegetables into your daily diet will help you live longer. Consuming these antioxidant-rich foods can also result in weight loss, even when you’re not trying to drop the pounds, the Penn State researchers found.

Embrace whole grains

Whole grains are an important source of not only vitamins and minerals, but also fiber, and the AARP-NIH study shows that they also have extraordinary health benefits. Regular consumption of whole grains – whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta and brown rice – can reduce the risk of heart disease, respiratory disease and some cancers, such as colon and breast cancer. In addition, whole grains can help you lose weight, particularly belly fat, which is linked to diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

Include low-fat dairy foods

Dairy products are a rich source of calcium and vitamin D: 30% of women over 50 are deficient in this bone-strengthening vitamin. In addition, consumption of low-fat dairy products can lead to weight loss. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people with the highest daily intake of low-fat dairy products lost 38% more weight than those with the lowest intake.

Be wary of ‘diet’ foods

I cannot tell you how many patients have gained weight on foods labeled “low fat” or “fat free”. Often these products are loaded with sugar, to compensate for the taste that is lost when the fat is removed. Since many “diet” foods are also highly processed, you end up with fewer nutrients and a lot of empty calories. So instead of eating diet foods, periodically eat a small portion of a fattier food.

Don’t eat out for two weeks

Eating out is fraught with potential problems; you don’t always know how your food is cooked, and you tend to eat larger portions than you should. Some experts estimate that restaurant portions can be three times larger than a “normal” portion. So what is a healthy portion? Fruit and vegetables should be the size of a fist; meat should be no bigger than a deck of cards; fish should be the size of a checkbook.

Inspect food labels

Women who regularly read food labels are, on average, six pounds lighter than those who don’t, according to research from the U.S. National Health Interview Study. No need for a calculator; just scan labels for calories and other nutrients. Some brands of yogurt, for example, have as much sugar as a candy bar. If one brand has 12 grams of sugar and another has 20, the choice is obvious.

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