Every year Americans spend millions of dollars on losing weight. They invest in diet books, diet clinics, and fitness farms; they eat fiber tablets, seaweed, and psyllium; they swallow grapefruit tablets, diet pills, and amino acids. They latch onto anything that will give them hope.

The sad truth is that after all the time, energy, and expense put into this effort, up to 97 percent of all those people who lose weight will gain it back again. And despite the many years that diets have been popular, Americans are heavier now than ever before.

Do Diets Work?

Nutrition scientists claim that your body’s “survival mechanism” responds in two ways when you go on a diet:

Number one: Your metabolism (the amount of calories you burn every day) slows down because your body is not getting the fuel (food) it needs to function at an optimum level. Depending on the number of calories you limit yourself to, one month of dieting can lower your metabolic rate by as much as 25 percent.

Number two: When you stop the diet and start eating normally again, your body is primed to store more food as fat. Like a bear that prepares for hibernation, your body will automatically prepare for the next famine (diet).

In light of this, some specialists now recommend that you choose sensibly from the four food groups and not diet at all. Instead, increase your physical activity. Exercise can raise your metabolic rate, which means you will burn excess calories, and allow you to lose weight.

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Lifestyle Change vs Diet

If you are thinking about going on a diet, stop and take a quick inventory. You may not need to go as far as starting a “formal” diet. With a few minor changes, you may be OK with what you are doing now.

Ask yourself:

* Does your weight fall within the average range on the growth curve charts?

These tables serve as a guideline to determine how much you should weigh, based on your age and height, for optimum health. Two 14-year-old girls could weigh 100 and 130 pounds, and both be considered “normal” for their age.

* Are either for your parents obese?

Some researchers claim that genetics determines your body size. Statistically, a child of trim parents has only a 10 percent chance of being obese (20 percent above ideal weight). If one parent is obese, that number climbs to 40 percent. If both parents tip the scales, the child has an 80 percent chance of being obese. If this pertains to you, it is especially important for you to develop healthy eating habits while you are young.

But it is not only genetics that can predispose a child to becoming obese. More times than not, a child becomes fat if his or her home environment permits poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle.

* Are you physically active?

The more hours you sit in front of the television, the greater your risk of gaining weight. Not only are you inactive, but you are also bombarded by tempting food commercials that may trigger you to overeat.

Physical activity itself not only burns more calories; it also builds up your muscles, which can increase your overall resting metabolic rate. This means that you burn more calories during the exercise routine itself and you burn more calories for the rest of the day.

* Do you eat a lot of high-fat snacks or fast foods?

Current research suggests that all calories are not equal. Fat calories (from butter, margarine, mayonnaise, salad oils, and salad dressings) are more likely to be stored as body fat than carbohydrate calories (such as cereal, pasta, potatoes, and rice). Nutrition experts recommend that you reduce your fat intake to 30 percent or less of your total calories per day.

* How many times do you eat during the day?

Ideally, you should eat five to six times per day. This doesn’t mean sitting down to a big meal six times a day; it refers to three meals and two to three snacks. If you eat only one meal per day, your body metabolism slows down and you essentially go into a 23-hour fast. Because of this, the next time you eat, your body will want to store more of the food as fat. Therefore, skipping meals can actually lead to weight gain.

Practice healthy nibbling all day long. You’ll never get starved, your energy level will be more stable, and even your mood can be more stable. (Do you know people who start to get grouchy in the afternoon? It may be because they haven’t eaten!)

Evaluating the Diets

If you still insist that a diet is the way to go, protect yourself from potential “quacks.” Before you start, measure the program against the checklist that accompanies this article.

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