A reader writes to ask why her husband isn't losing weight—and in fact, seems to be gaining—despite exercising for over a year (jogging/walking for 30 to 45 minutes three to five times a week) and eating a generally healthful diet. Before I get into the specifics: I'm a journalist, not a nutritionist or M.D. If you worry your difficulty losing weight is from a medical condition, talk to a doctor, and if you are really having a tough time losing weight or planning meals, consider a visit to a nutritionist. That said, this problem is a common one, and here are some of the ideas I've picked up over the years from talking to various experts.
First, let's break it down into the two things that generally govern weight loss: what we take in (calories, in the form of food) and what we burn off (calories, in the form of activity). To lose weight, it's essential to burn off more than you take in. That sounds simple, but it's not, because the two sides of the equation can be tricky to figure out.
Take exercise. It is really tough to lose weight with exercise alone, simply because for most people, it doesn't really burn off that many calories. This reader's husband is about 190 pounds, she says. At that weight, walking at 4mph for 30 minutes will burn off only about 215 calories, according to several of the weight activity calculators available online. (Try caloriesperhour.com.) And to make matters worse, he'd burn off about 45 calories sitting on the sofa watching TV for a half-hour, so the actual caloric benefit he's getting by walking instead is only about 170 calories. Does that mean exercise isn't useful? Not at all—there are a host of health benefits that are independent of weight loss. But take it from someone who barely saw the scale budge when training for an Ironman: You've got to consider diet as well as workouts.
The reader also writes that her husband eats healthfully. That means different things to different people, but nutritionists generally agree that the best diet to follow to maximize nutrients and minimize the bad stuff revolves around fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fish (or other lean proteins). [Read about how to follow 4 particularly healthful diets.] Portions are important, too; one easy rule of thumb is to divide a plate into three sections and fill half of it with nonstarchy vegetables, one fourth with lean protein, and one fourth with "good" carbs like sweet potatoes or brown rice.
[For more portion control tips, check out these holiday healthful eating ideas from an expert on mindless munching.]
Also, the reader says her husband sticks mostly to water but does drink sweet tea. Some nutritionists recommend cutting out all caloric beverages, saying it's a relatively easy way to pare calories from your diet. What any of us decide to eschew or consume in order to lose weight is going to be highly individual, based on our tastes and preferences, so figure out small ways to cut back that fit your lifestyle.
[Here are 7 tips to shed pounds, including keeping a food diary and ignoring fad diets.]
The reader asked if stress can play a big role in weight gain. It may contribute. Some people actually lose weight when stressed out; others gain because they eat to relieve their anxiety. But the stress hormone cortisol appears to promote the storage of excess calories, particularly in the form of belly fat. Exercise can combat stress and reduce cortisol levels (as well as burning calories)—another reason to do it!