By Sarah Robertson, Prevention
Ever wonder if a little bit of chocolate can destroy your diet? Or have you ever asked yourself why your friends are always able to lose more weight than you? Just read our expert answers to your most pressing questions about eating right and staying healthy—and hop aboard the fast track to fitness.
Will 200 calories of chocolate a day sabotage my diet?
“You’ll do fine,” says Janet Walberg Rankin, PhD, professor in the department of human nutrition, foods, and exercise at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg.
“Food is a psychologically satisfying and enjoyable part of life; it should remain that way even when you’re trying to lose weight.” Just make sure that you substitute instead of add the 200 calories to what you eat. And to keep the rest of your diet nutritious, enjoy your pleasure foods in moderation. Here are a few examples:
# Buy the minipack of M&Ms instead of grabbing handfuls from the larger bag.
# Keep the goodies out of constant view and reach.
# To overcome other temptations, plan for your treat as you would a snack. Savor every bite.
If I exercise when I’m hungry, will I burn more calories?
No. It doesn’t matter whether you eat before or after your workout. The important thing is to keep exercising comfortably so that you burn more calories overall.
If you eat first and then exercise, your body uses more of the available carbohydrates from that meal and relies less on body fat stores. If you exercise first and then eat, your body will utilize more energy from your fat stores. But no matter what you do, your body will replenish whichever energy form-carbohydrate or fat-that you used at some point after your workout, regardless of the order of your exercise and meal, explains James J. Kenney, PhD, RD, nutrition research specialist at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Monica, CA.
I want to slim down my ______. What exercises target that area?
Doing certain exercises, such as abdominal crunches for your belly or leg raises for your thighs, will definitely strengthen your muscles, but they won’t do much to trim the fat in these areas. “Fat comes off from head to toe-not any one specific area-so an overall aerobic program is primarily what you need to help burn off the layer of fat that’s hiding the firm muscles you’ve built doing resistance training,” says Michele S. Olson, PhD, professor of exercise science at Auburn University in Montgomery, AL.
That said, there are certain activities that give you the calorie burn punch that you need as they help shape sexy muscles: Hill walking, jogging, and inline skating work the large muscles of your legs and butt, for example, while tennis and rowing do the same for your abdominals, shoulders, and arms.
Which is more important-cutting calories or cutting fat grams?
Ultimately, to lose weight you have to eat fewer calories than your body needs. That’s why eating something such as fat-free cookies—which have nearly the same number of calories as their full-fat counterparts—will pack on the pounds fast if you eat them with abandon.
But you shouldn’t ignore fat content, either. “Reducing fat can be a great tool to lower caloric intake,” says Dr. Rankin. Fat contains a dense 9 calories per gram, while protein and carbohydrates have just 4 calories per gram. So if you take the same meal and lower its fat content, you’ll generally consume fewer calories. For example: 3 oz of a lean top round cut of beef contains 8 g of fat and 185 calories, while 3 oz of prime rib has 28 g of fat and 335 calories. And fat-free yogurt weighs in at 120 calories per 8-oz serving, while a smaller container of the full-fat version can have almost twice the calories.
Does eating breakfast boost your metabolism?
Not exactly, but you should still make it a point to eat a healthy breakfast every day. Skipping your morning meal can lead to a 5 percent drop in your resting metabolic rate: You’ll burn fewer calories at rest compared to someone who eats three-plus meals a day, according to a study led by weight loss expert C. Wayne Callaway, MD, associate clinical professor of medicine at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Start eating in the morning again, and your metabolic rate returns to normal. “That small 5 percent boost can add up to a 10-lb weight difference in a year—just because you’re now eating breakfast,” says Dr. Callaway.
To burn more fat, should I go at a slower pace for a longer time?
Although you may burn a greater percentage of fat during low-intensity exercise, you’ll burn more fat calories and more total calories during high-intensity sessions or intervals, says Dr. Olson. And in the end, it’s total calories that determine how much you’ll lose.
For example: A 150-lb woman who leisurely walks 1 1/2 miles for 30 minutes burns 112 total calories. But if she were to run the same distance in 15 minutes, she’d burn 170 total calories. Bonus: Your metabolism will stay elevated after a vigorous workout five times longer than after an easy one.
My friend and I both joined Weight Watchers, and we walk together every day. In 1 month, she lost 7 lb. I lost only 2. Why?
Assuming that you both have about the same amount of weight to lose, the difference could be genetic. Some people naturally have a higher metabolism than others, and some store calories more efficiently, says Thomas Wadden, PhD, director of the weight and eating disorders program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. That’s why, say, a cookie seems to have no effect on one person but goes straight to your hips. It could also be that your friend is doing other little activities-taking the stairs instead of the elevator, getting up and walking frequently throughout the day, even fidgeting-that up her calorie burn. This doesn’t mean that you won’t reach your weight loss goals; it may just take you a little longer, and you may need to consciously add more short bouts of activity to your daily routine.
But slow and steady weight loss has an upside: Since your body has the chance to adjust to a new, lower weight over time, it’ll be easier to maintain the weight loss once you reach your goal, says Dr. Olson.
If I want to lose 10 lb., how many calories should I take in per day?
Here’s a quick way to calculate an estimate of your calorie needs:
1. Determine your activity level. Sedentary: You have a job or lifestyle that involves a lot of sitting; you exercise rarely, if ever. Active: Your daily routine requires more activity than light walking; or you exercise aerobically for 45 to 60 minutes, three times every week. Very active: In addition to an active daily routine, you exercise aerobically for 45 to 60 minutes, at least five times every week.
2. Find the number below that corresponds to your activity level and gender. This is your “activity factor”:
# Sedentary woman-12
# Sedentary man-14
# Active woman-15
# Active man-17
# Very active woman-18
# Very active man-20
3. Calculate your calorie needs by multiplying your activity factor by your healthy goal weight in pounds. For example, a 140-lb active woman who wants to lose 10 lb would multiply 15 (her activity factor) by 130 (her goal weight). Her daily calorie need would be 1,950 calories. (Prevention recommends eating no fewer than 1,200 calories a day. Otherwise you risk muscle loss and a slower metabolism, which only makes it harder to lose weight.)
I eat right and exercise every day, but I’m not losing any more weight. Why?
Most people underestimate their food intake by as much as 20 to 50 percent, according to Dr. Wadden, so try measuring and logging your meals to make sure that they haven’t crept up in size. “And don’t make the mistake of ‘rewarding’ a particularly tough workout with a bowl of ice cream. You’ll just be piling back on the calories that you took off,” he adds.
If you’ve already lost some weight, you’re now burning fewer calories doing the same activities because it takes less work to carry around less weight. For example, a 150-lb woman who cycles 6 miles in 30 minutes burns 270 calories. If she loses 20 lb and now weighs 130, she’ll burn only 235 calories during that workout. As your body becomes more energy efficient, you need to work harder to see results. Try increasing the total number of minutes that you exercise by 25 percent. If you’re used to going 30 minutes, aim for at least 40, Dr. Wadden recommends.
You could also be experiencing “behavioral fatigue.” “You’re not seeing much success for your efforts, so you may unintentionally be cutting back on your workouts because you’re less motivated,” explains Dr. Wadden. “Hang in there. It’s possible that you’ll start seeing the scale gradually needle its way down again.”
If I can only choose one, diet or exercise, which should it be?
“Watch your diet,” says Dr. Wadden. You’ll lose more weight through diet alone than through exercise alone. “If you do nothing else, keep tabs on your portion sizes and don’t eat just for fun,” he adds. Focus on reasonable servings of nutritious foods.
But you should certainly try to do both if you can. Among its many benefits, exercise will definitely help keep weight off. Studies suggest that activity may help keep your appetite in check naturally.