Dr. Katz weighs in on weight loss

Hardly two weeks into 2008, many students’ New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and get healthy are likely to begin fading with the advent of late-night cravings and busy shopping-period schedules. The News asked nationally recognized nutrition and weight-maintenance expert David Katz how students can establish and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Dr. Katz is a professor at the Yale School of Public Health and is the co-founder of the Yale Prevention Research Center — a clinical research laboratory — and founder and director of the Integrative Medicine Center — a facility in which conventionally trained and naturopathic physicians collaborate to provide unique patient care. He has authored 10 books and almost 100 scientific papers on nutrition and health.

Many people make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, work out and become healthier, but most do not last through January. How can students achieve these goals in 2008?

The phenomenon of the New Year’s resolution is sort of a “ready-or-not-here-we-go phenomenon” — it is New Year’s Day, so we feel the need to make a resolution, but it may not be a good time for behavior changes. Lasting changes are based on preparation, not inspiration. What matters is making sure one is ready to make the change, has the knowledge about the change and is not going at it alone. Often, making resolutions is social, but sticking to it is private. Getting into a group that supports each other, that can convince you to stick to it, has a lot of benefits. Another thing that people do is lose patience: They want to cross the finish line in a hurry. But the benefits of living well accrue over time. If you go too fast, you’re going to hurt yourself and you’re going to give up. Make gradual adjustments to your lifestyle that are reasonable to sustain.

Is it harder for students to maintain a healthy lifestyle than it is for most adults?

It can be. There are unique pros and cons in every stage of life. There are some advantages, like the social aspect. The big disadvantage is that you aren’t in control — you’re not in your own home, where you can go shopping. You eat the food from the dining hall. There may be budget constraints and peer pressure. But just as there are unique challenges to trying to be a healthy undergraduate, there are also unique ways to do it. When I was in college I ran 10 miles a day, and I look back longingly. I wish I had that much time now to dedicate to fitness. If you want to, you can do it. One of the biggest challenges of this age is that you feel quasi-immortal, so you may shrug it all off and say, “I’ll worry about this later.” But the sooner you invest in health, the greater the return.

What are the main tenants of healthy eating that students should keep in mind?

There are a lot, but the main one is “Eat close to nature.” Food should be food — it is amazing how often we violate that. It shouldn’t be neon or florescent. If it is not a fruit or vegetable, if it comes in a box, bag or can, look for an ingredient list. Longer lists mean more chemicals. The advantages to following this rule are monumental — it is a shortcut to avoid excess sodium, saturated fat, sodium, etc. and get more fiber and vitamins.

How can students find the healthy options in the cafeteria?

The issue of “closer to nature” is big here — can you recognize what type of food it is? Compare grilled chicken or fish to chicken or fish swimming in some creamy sauce. Ask yourself, “What is in this?” Stick with the simple dish where you can answer that question. Also, take advantage of fresh veggies and the salad bar. If you begin each meal with a salad, you’ll fill up on something with a high ratio of nutrients to calories. It is a great tool for weight loss. Of course, it all depends on what you put on your salad — I’m talking about spinach salad, not blue cheese dressing and bacon.

How can students minimize unhealthy snacking between meals, while studying or late at night?

It doesn’t really matter whether you eat a few large meals or several small snacks, but the implication is that you are shifting calories from meals to snacks, not adding calories. You need to assess, prepare and decide what you need. If you routinely stay up to 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., then plan for that “moonlight meal” — eat breakfast at 12:00 a.m., lunch at 3:00 p.m., and a light dinner. In terms of healthy snacks, I load up a snack pack and take it wherever I go. Stock your dorm room with non-fat yogurt, fresh fruit, whole-grain cereal, dried fruit, soy nuts and almonds. You can either let the nincompoop who stalked the vending machine decide what you eat or defend yourself and make healthy choices.

How much exercise is recommended for the 18-22 age group?

As much as possible. The official recommendation is at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, five days a week. But homo sapiens are constructed to be very physically active, which means we’re fine with a lot more.

What types of workout routines are most successful, both in terms of results and feasibility?

You are more likely to stick with an activity that you like. Maybe you are on a team and you like the competitive aspect — that’s great. Maybe you don’t — do aerobics or take a dance class. I have patients who come up with every imaginable excuse not to exercise, but they will tell me they like to dance. Well, put on your favorite music for half an hour and dance. That counts. Also, look for that social support, find something that you and your friends like to do together. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you do something. Many of the benefits of exercise come with fairly moderate activity.

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