Fighting Weight
Creating more active lifestyles key to battle of the bulge

Jean Harvey-Berino, associate professor of nutrition and food sciences, was the inaugural speaker for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Research and Scholarship Seminar in December. Her topic — “Oprah’s Obstacles: The Quest for Permanent Weight Management” — drew on Harvey-Berino’s years of research related to eating and dieting. She is currently involved with two research projects that address nutrition and weight issues in pre-school children.

In a recent seminar, you said that the percentage of obese Americans increased dramatically between 1988 and 1994. Why is this happening?

Among other factors, it appears that people are less active than they used to be. We think that is one of the primary reasons we’re seeing this increase in obesity. We’re also seeing that a percentage of our calories from fat is decreasing, but the number of calories we’re eating is increasing. The result is that we’re seeing these dramatic increases in obesity across all age groups, across all ethnic groups, and really all around the world.

When we cut down on fat is there a tendency to increase our calories to make up for it?

You can learn a lot about this by reading the Nutrition Facts panel on a box of Snackwell cookies. They take the fat out, but then manufacturers put in more sugar to replace it — so the calories are not necessarily any different. We’ve hammered home this message about decreasing your fat intake and people have started to do it. What we didn’t say is that you need to watch your calorie intake. I think the message now needs to be moderation in all foods. That’s a very difficult message, and it’s very hard for people to do that.

Do you think this is a particularly difficult message for American society today?

Yes, because people are eating on the go in different places at different times. It is difficult for adults, and it is certainly difficult for parents to be the “gatekeepers” of their children’s nutrition. We’ve had people, primarily from England, in some of our weight loss programs who are just astonished about not only the portion sizes in this country but how you can’t go anywhere without a great deal of food being present. The movies, sporting events, school activities — you can’t go anywhere without food, and a lot of it, being a key part.

Can you become obese if you eat “good food”?

If you eat too much, yes, you can. The idea is that a body needs a certain amount of fuel, a certain amount of calories to maintain the life that we have. If you’re a fairly sedentary person and you have an office job and you don’t move a lot, you don’t need as much. So it doesn’t matter that you’re eating tofu and bean sprouts. If you eat too much of anything, you’re going to get heavy. Now, having said that, it would take a lot of lettuce and carrots to get there.

Is it just women or are American men becoming more obese?

I think it’s more troublesome to women than it is to men. And it’s not as troublesome to children until they get to a certain age when their peers start to tease them. But, yes, we’re seeing dramatic increases in obesity across the board. One of the ways, sadly, that this has manifested itself in children is that we’re seeing children with adult kinds of disease, which is something that you never used to see. We’re seeing children with hypertension; we’re seeing children with high blood cholesterol levels; we’re seeing children with Type 2 diabetes, which used to be considered the adult version of diabetes.

Given whatever age you are, how do you know what’s the right intake? How should you gauge your eating if you’re a forty-year-old woman, say, with a sedentary job?

One of the things we tell people to do, obviously, is to get on a scale. That really is your best measure. One approximation you can use is that a fairly sedentary person can take his or her body weight multiplied by twelve to get an estimate of the number of calories needed in order to maintain that weight. It’s just an approximation, but it seems to work. The other better way to do this is much more scientific, where you actually measure somebody’s resting metabolic rate — how many calories your body is using just to maintain your physical processes of blinking, your heart beating, and breathing.

I was in a UVM study that tested resting metabolic rate, and I was in shock at how low mine was — just under a calorie a minute.

Yes, so think about how long you have to sit and breathe to burn a piece of chocolate cake and it is scary. If nothing else, in our study’s weight loss protocol people learn that balance. They understand the value of an Oreo. They know that if they eat an Oreo that means they have to walk for a mile or so to burn it off. I think it makes you more aware when you’re standing in the kitchen cleaning up the plates after dinner. When you’re gobbling those extra mouthfuls, you know that’s the equivalent perhaps of a three-mile run.

We had this big campaign years ago about knowing your cholesterol number, or knowing your blood pressure. It’s a very simple message, and now, most people will tell you what their levels are. If we could get to that with knowing the amount of calories your body needs, that would be a significant step in the right direction.

Even with increased participation in exercise, many of us continue to battle the bulge. Why?

If you do these calculations, you find out that you have to exercise a lot to burn up the excess that many of us are eating. In many cases, it’s more important to examine your lifestyle activities than this chunk of time you spend at the gym. If you go to the gym even every single day, you’re going to be burning about three hundred calories each day. If you get there a couple of times a week that’s still good, but it’s not going to make up for this excess. But if you try to add little bits of activity into every day of your life — taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking farther away, walking when you can, lifting the groceries one bag at a time, in other words, being inefficient in your movement — there’s some thinking this can get us back into balance. In our society, you don’t have to do anything anymore. Think about how mechanized our world has gotten. You don’t even have to grate cheese, you put it in a food processor. All these kinds of ridiculous, tiny little things can add up over a lifetime to quite a bit. If we turned back the clock and tried to do things in a more traditional way, we might be in better shape.

Here’s a good example. When it came time for me to renew my campus parking permit, I thought about the lot that’s closer to my building. But I had always parked in the lot that was farther away, probably a three-minute walk. I calculated I was burning two pounds a year by parking at the more distant lot versus the closer one. It was a nice illustration of the idea that you don’t necessarily need to be running marathons to live more healthfully and burn more calories.

In your recent seminar, you mentioned very specifically how much you would have to walk – twenty-eight miles a week – to maintain your weight.

Those figures came from looking at a group of people that reported being successful across a number of studies. These were people who had all lost a certain amount of weight, kept it off for a year, so they weren’t people that were never overweight. The question to them was, “How much exercise are you doing now to maintain this weight loss?” It turned out that the vast majority of them were doing a lot of exercise, more even than the Surgeon General’s recommendation of thirty minutes a day, five days a week. As a minimum they were doing the equivalent of about 2,800 calories in exercise a week with 600 to 700 of that being vigorous — cross-country skiing or something of that level. But it does equate to the equivalent of about twenty-eight miles a week of walking, and, depending on how fast you walk a mile, that’s hours and hours and hours of walking.

And we’re talking about maintaining the weight loss, not losing more?

That’s right.

What was the protocol for this group of research subjects? To watch calories and exercise?

It depended on what study you looked at, but generally it was a combination of eating and exercise. These people who are exercising a lot were also eating a moderate amount of calories to maintain their weight. It’s not like they’re doing all this exercise so they can get away with eating whatever they want. In general you have to be committed to a lifetime of being active and a lifetime of managing your food intake.

I remember you said that they were reporting about a 1,400-calorie intake a day, but you believed it would probably be more honestly around 1,700. In order to do that you have to become conscious about labels don’t you.

Exactly, and you have to really watch your food intake. What often happens is that people eat generally the same amounts or kinds of foods over and over and over again. They might have the same breakfast and lunch almost every day and they get used to that. But I think what also keeps those people on track long-term is they’re not rigid. They eat their cereal in the morning, their salad for lunch, but they also know when they really want chocolate, they eat chocolate. If you get into this idea that “I’m never going to eat chocolate again,” it’s not going to work over the long-term

And that’s the real clue isn’t it, you have to be able to establish some sort of pattern of both exercising and eating, that you can maintain forever, essentially. Right, exactly.

What do you think about supplements — vitamins, minerals, or maybe nutritional supplements?

I think it’s reasonable to take a vitamin/mineral supplement if you feel you’re not eating right. But frankly, unless you’re deficient, taking a supplement is not going to help you at all. If you feel, however, that you’re not getting a balanced diet, taking a multivitamin that has 100% of the RDA, is a reasonable thing to do.

One of the things you talked about in the seminar, using Oprah Winfrey as illustrative, was that she got on one of those liquid-fast diets and it did wonders. She had a dramatic weight loss, but quickly went the other way. What’s wrong with that idea and are all diets as bad?

When those diets are used appropriately, you have to attend behavior modification class at the same time. They’re for people who are extremely heavy and don’t get as far as they would like to on a standard moderate-calorie approach. What happened, I think, for Oprah is that she never went to the classes, she never learned anything. She used the supplement, she knocked the weight off, and then she was right back to where she started. And my sense of her path at that time is that she didn’t do any exercise, which is also an important component of following those diets the way they’re supposed to be used. When you look at the benefit of following a diet like that versus following a moderate-calorie restriction that has all the same components — the exercise and the behavior modification — over the long-term they’re not any more beneficial. The problem is that because of the severe restriction that you have to go through when you’re on the liquid fasting, you have a lot more medical appointments, more blood testing, and EKG tests, so that from a medical perspective it’s a little bit riskier. It’s also more expensive. You have to do the same when you take a weight loss drug. Drugs may help as an adjunct to behavior modification and exercise, but you never get away from the hard work.

I seem to get the impression it’s only women on diets.

I think men are just as likely to go up and down, there are just not as many men who make an effort of coming to an organized program. We probably all know men who on their own decided they’re going to manage it, they’re going to be tough and shut their mouths for a couple of months until they lose weight. The cosmetic issue is not there for them. It has to be something physical that happens to men — they can’t run like they used to; they can’t walk up the steps like they want to; they can’t bend over; they can’t do their jobs the way they want to; they can’t ski like they used to. That bothers men.

In fighting weight gain, how significant is the fact that our metabolism is decreasing as we age?

It does slow. Research shows, however, that gaining weight is not an inevitable part of aging, that you can stave it off. But you do have to be very diligent about the amount of exercise you get and the amount of calories you eat. Your body doesn’t need as much as it used to. What happens as you age is that your muscle mass decreases, and muscle is what’s primarily responsible for the number of calories we burn at rest, so if you can keep your muscle mass high then your metabolism stays a little bit higher, but that requires exercise and usually weight-bearing exercise. You need to either lift weights or do something that stresses your muscles so they maintain their strength and tone.

Is there any encouraging news about the weight-health connection?

What we do know is that if people lose even small amounts of weight, then all of the metabolic parameters usually improve, and it doesn’t have to be a large amount of weight. You don’t have to get down to this perfect weight in order to see these improvements — even a 5 to 10% weight loss will do it. If you’re heavy and you feel like you’re not ready to consider doing anything about your weight, get out and do some exercise. We do see a protective effect in doing exercise regardless of what your body weight is.