Non-Fat Does Not Equal Zero Calories!

"Everything I eat is low in fat. I exercise three times a week. Why am I not losing weight?"

I hear that said often enough. Apparently so do other people in the fitness business all over the world -- this case of individuals on a low-fat diet but are gaining weight. It was discussed extensively in a one-day forum on weight management held at the World Fitness Convention last July 1996 in Orlando, Florida.

Panelists, who included Dr. Daniel Kosich, Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology, Nancy Rodriguez, Ph.D. in Nutrition, and Dr. Tom Wadden, Ph.D. in Psychology, presented the many factors that may cause a person to gain weight even if one is vigilantly watching one's fat calories.

Non-fat doesn't mean zero calories.
The basic message of nutritionists has been to eat less fat and more complex carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, and grains. Unfortunately, many people have interpreted this message to mean that as long as food has little or no fat, you can eat all you want.

This is probably true when applied to a heaping plate of steamed vegetables that are high in fiber and naturally low in fat and calories. Most people will stop eating after a reasonable amount because the high fiber content of the vegetables fills them up. However, this is not true when a box of non-fat cookies made from refined flour is in front of them. The cookies do not take up much room in the stomach, they are easier to chew than vegetables, and they deliver many more calories.

Psychologists are calling this the "Snackwell Cookie Syndrome". Snackwell is the manufacturer of a popular non-fat cookie. People think that non-fat means zero calories and, therefore, instead of just eating one or two cookies, they finish one or two boxes!

The panelists said that not even the future availability of Olestra, the fake fat made by Proctor and Gamble that can be used for frying, would save people afflicted with the Snackwell Cookie Syndrome. They will just eat double what they are used to.

The panelists stressed that if you want to lose weight, eat non-fat or low-fat foods as if they were high in fat, in other words, moderately.

Portion sizes have grown bigger.
Over the years, the size of meals served at restaurants has increased dramatically. People have lost touch with what realistic portions should look like. That, plus the old habit of finishing everything that is on the plate, has led to people polishing off portions made for two or three. They suggest sharing portions with a friend. Or asking the waiter to doggy bag half of it before the meal is even served at the table.

Portion size miscalculation.
Eating at home isn't safe either, according to Joan Horbiak, a consultant at Duke University's weight management center. She says that many people define a serving size as what they routinely serve themselves. That means filling up whatever vessel they've got. She tells of a client who was convinced she was putting only 250 to 300 calories worth of raisin bran and milk in her bowl when the actual figure was closer to 900.

Too much food, too little exercise.
Nancy Rodriguez also pointed out that the majority of people will routinely underestimate how much food they eat and overestimate the amount of exercise they do. They think they're doing the right thing, but in reality they're eating too much and exercising too little.

Tom Wadden focused on the fact that many people are physically active only at formal exercise sessions or sports but are lazy the rest of the day, taking the elevators instead of the stairs, fighting for the nearest parking spot because they don't want to walk far, etc. They can fool themselves into thinking they deserve that second serving because they are so "active".

Anything eaten in excess will be converted to fat.
The body does not waste anything. Any kind of excess calorie whether it comes from protein, carbohydrates or dietary fat will be converted to body fat. Studies indicate that it is more costly to convert protein or carbohydrates (25% of the calories ingested will be burned in the conversion) rather than fat (only 3% of the calories will be burned) but this is still not a license to overeat anything.

Eating too many processed grain products.
Carbohydrates come from grains (rice, wheat, etc.), vegetables, and fruits. Whole grain products are preferable to refined and over-processed grains. A grain is defined as whole when the hull and the germ have not been removed, as in whole wheat bread. Up to 80% of the essential nutrients in whole wheat are missing in white bread. And because the insoluble fiber has been removed, refined flour products are less filling so it is easier to consume overly large amounts of processed pasta, rice, or bread.

Confusion also occurs when people think that carbohydrates only mean grain products. They forget that vegetables and fruits are carbohydrates too so their diets can end up with an excess of bread, pasta, etc. and too little fruits and vegetables.

Eating too little fat will diminish weight loss efforts.
Fat has become such a villain that many people think that they will be more successful at losing weight if they take in no fat at all. Actually, this may defeat their weight loss goals. There is a study indicating that when less than 10% of the total daily calories come from fat there is a rapid increase in the rate of lipogenesis (the conversion of carbohydrates to fat). It was also mentioned in the forum that when people drastically cut back on fat, they tend to make up for the calories by eating foods high in sugar. Some dietary fat is needed by the body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamins A, D, and E, to manufacture necessary hormones, as a source of energy, as insulation, as lubrication for the skin, and cushioning for the organs.

There are no good or bad foods.
The bottom line is that no one food is all good or all bad. There are no heroes or villains. The body needs them all. The other take-home message is one that has been around a long time, eat in moderation!

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