How to Lose Weight

Diet advice often seems dizzying: Avoid fats! No, avoid carbs! Eat all you want of these magic foods! Don’t even “diet” because diets backfire! But amid the sea of contradictory advice, a consensus is emerging on a few key suggestions that will lower your overall intake and keep cravings to a minimum:

1. Eat breakfast. There are different theories on why this is so important. Some experts say skipping it throws the body into a “starvation” mode that slows the metabolism and prevents calorie-burning. Others say that going all night long and into the next day without eating lowers the blood sugar and sets up powerful cravings. Either way, numerous studies have found that people who eat breakfast are leaner, on average, than people who don’t.

But what you eat for breakfast is very important: Loading up on sweetened cereal, donuts or juice – or other refined carbohydrates – will cause your blood sugar to spike and then plummet, leaving you edgy, irritable and craving sweets again by late morning. Instead, load up on lean protein at breakfast. The best sources are egg whites (hard-boiled, or in an omelet with vegetables) or low-fat, low-sugar yogurt. Or shake things up and have chicken or fish for breakfast.

2. Eat lean protein. At breakfast, lunch, dinner and for snacks in between, lean protein will keep your blood sugar stabilized and your appetite in check. Many diets allow you to eat as much as you want, as long as it’s not red meat or fatty. Chicken, turkey, fish and tofu are all great sources, and can be prepared with dozens of different seasonings and sauces to keep them interesting. (Just watch out for the buttery, creamy variety.)

3. Eat vegetables. These are another “free” food that you can enjoy in unlimited quantities all day long, as long as you stick to green vegetables like lettuce, broccoli, asparagus, green beans, etc., and brightly colored ones like peppers and tomatoes. Aim for five servings of these a day, and let them take up the bulk of the space on your plate. (Beware that potatoes do not belong in this category; see below.)

4. Eat fats and carbohydrates sparingly. Debates continue to rage over these two food groups. But it never made sense that people could eat unlimited pasta (as some low-fat experts claimed) or unlimited cheese (as the low-carb crowd claimed) and expect to lose weight. The human body needs some fats to function; the best forms are the monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados. Keep butter, cheese, fried foods and whole milk products to a minimum if you want to lose weight. The human body also needs carbohydrates—the complex kind found in green vegetables and whole grains. It does not need much, if any, of the kind found in starchy vegetables like potatoes. And if you really want to lose weight, eliminate refined carbohydrates like pasta, white bread, cookies, candy and sugar from your life. That goes for sugary sodas too. (Nobody said this was easy.)

5. Keep alcohol to a minimum. A daily glass of wine may reduce the risk of heart disease, but it’s also basically sugar water. Alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to burn calories and promotes fat storage. Even worse, it lowers your resistance and makes it harder to stick to all your resolutions.

6. Drink 8 glasses of water a day. Here’s a beverage you can and should load up on. While some experts dispute that it’s necessary to drink this much water a day, legions of dieters see it as their secret weapon to fill themselves up, cut food cravings and help flush out the system. You can load it up with lemons or other flavorings. But if you add low-cal sweeteners, you may find that it makes you hungrier later, even if it doesn’t specifically add calories.

7. Eat “mindfully.” One reason Americans keep gaining weight is that we eat on the run, multitasking madly and paying little attention to what we’re putting in our mouths. Try sitting down and focusing solely on eating. Slowly. Savor all the individual flavors. Put your fork down in between bites. Assess your hunger when you first sit down, and again every few minutes. Most importantly, stop when you are no longer hungry, even if it’s after just a small portion of your meal. This takes practice, but you may find that enjoying a small part of your food is far more satisfying than wolfing down a large quantity without thinking about it.

8. Keep a food journal. Write down everything you eat, every day. This alone helps you be more mindful of what you are eating.

9. Exercise. No matter what kind it is—walking, running, swimming, dancing, working out with weights—get moving for at least 30 minutes a day.

10. Don’t go it alone. It’s hard to keep yourself motivated. Having a nutrition or exercise coach to report to regularly will keep you from straying when temptation strikes. Or make a pact with a friend or relative who also wants to lose weight and serve as each other’s coach and conscience.

How to Manage Stress

Stress and negative emotions can affect the immune system, increase inflammation and even increase the amount of physical pain a person feels.

But there are plenty of ways to short-circuit these harmful effects of stress. One of the best is physical exercise, which not only releases the feel-good neurotransmitters called endorphins, but also helps use up excess cortisol and adrenaline.

Many experts also recommend getting plenty of sleep, eating regular, balanced meals and keeping up social connections — all things that people tend to forgo in times of stress.

Biofeedback, once considered alternative medicine, is now accepted in mainstream medical circles as a way for people to reduce the impact of stress. In biofeedback, patients learn to monitor and control basic bodily functions such as heart rates, respiration, temperature and other vital signs.

There is also new research going on in the field of “emotional resilience training” to help people learn to lower their anxiety levels and recover from setbacks. “People spend huge amounts of money, time and energy training their cognitive brains,” says one expert. “What we now know is that the emotional brain can be trained as well to become more resilient.”

Scientists have shown that that chemical gates in the spinal cord control pain signals from the body to the brain, depending largely on patients’ emotional states. Positive emotions diminished the perception of pain, while negative emotions kept the gates open — sometimes continuing the pain even after the initial cause had disappeared.

There’s a growing consensus that a treatment called cognitive behavioral therapy can be very effective at diffusing negative emotions. It works by examining, and challenging, the thoughts behind them. “We’d say, ‘I understand your fear, but fear is not a fact. Let’s look at the reality in your life,’” explains one cognitive therapist.

Many successful people find that low levels of stress and worry help them function. But at times, the stress can grow to the point where it begins to take a physical toll.

One therapist asks patients to keep a diary evaluating their stress level on a scale of zero to 10 several times a day and note what was happening at the time. That can help reveal unnoticed patterns in daily life that may be contributing to stress.

How to Wash Your Hands

There’s a simple step you can take to keep yourself from getting sick: Wash your hands frequently. The list of infections that can spread via unwashed hands reads like the Biblical plagues, including staph, strep, salmonella, E. coli, hepatitis, MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), colds, flu and norovirus – the infamous cruise-ship bug.

Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says hand washing is the most effective way to stay healthy, many people don’t do it often enough, or long enough, to be effective. Here’s a guide:

When to do it. Wash your hands every time you use the bathroom. Every surface presents an opportunity for germs to hitchhike out. Also wash your hands whenever you change a diaper, pick up animal waste, sneeze, cough or blow your nose; when you take public transportation, insert or remove contact lenses, prepare food, handle garbage and before eating. Few people are as conscientious as they should be.

How to do it. Soap and water is the gold standard. In a study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, researchers in Australia doused the hands of 20 health-care workers with human H1N1 flu virus. Soap and water removed slightly more virus than three alcohol-based hand rubs. When volunteers didn’t clean their hands, most of the virus was still present an hour after exposure.

It’s the mechanical process of washing that’s so effective. Soap molecules surround and lift the germs, friction from rubbing your hands loosens them, and water rinses them down the drain.Experts recommend using warm water — mainly for comfort, so you’ll wash longer. Use liquid soap if possible. Bar soaps can harbor germs.

Use enough soap to build a lather. Lace your fingers together to cover all the surfaces. Rub the fingertips of one hand into the palm of the other, then reverse. Keep rubbing for as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. (Some experts prefer “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” But any tune will do as long as it lasts at least 15 seconds.)

Rinse thoroughly. Residual soap can make hands sore. Leave the water on while you grab a paper towel and use it to shut off the faucet. Take it with you to use on the door handle as well.

Drying lessons. Many hand-hygiene experts are down on hand dryers — chiefly because few people have the patience to dry completely and end up wiping their hands on their clothes. Air dryers can also blow remaining germs as far as six feet away.

Antibacterial soap? In 2005, a Food and Drug Administration panel voted 11-to-1 that antibacterial soaps are no more effective at keeping people healthy than regular soap. There may be some downside too. Some antibacterial ingredients like triclosan leave a residue on the skin that continues killing some bacteria. Critics worry that the remaining bacteria could become resistant, not only to soap but also to antibiotics.

Hand sanitizers. It’s not often that a personal-care product gets a presidential endorsement. Some drug stores sold out after Barack Obama echoed the CDC’s recommendation that people use alcohol-based hand sanitizers when soap and water aren’t available to help stop the spread of swine flu. Experts say they must be at least 60% alcohol to kill germs.

Can you overdo handwashing? Yes. “Try to strike a balance between being obsessive-compulsive and being reasonable,” one expert suggests. More frequent washes may be in order when there’s an outbreak of flu or some other illness in your area.

How to Determine if You Are at Risk for a Drinking Problem

There is a spectrum of alcohol-use disorders, which some experts hope will replace the current criteria for “abuse” and “dependence.” The old definitions were based on observing addicts in treatment. Several large studies of drinking in the general population show that some patterns clearly pave the way for future problems.

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says you are at “low risk” for serious problems if you consume no more than four standard-size alcoholic drinks a day for a man or no more than three for a woman. That may sound like a lot, but you can’t drink like that every day. The weekly “low-risk” limit is no more than 14 drinks for a man or seven for a woman. Drinking more daily, weekly or both carries higher risk of abuse or dependence.

At www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov, you can plug in your average consumption and see how you compare with the general population and problem drinkers. Since this is anonymous, you can try different amounts and see what they mean.

Some 37% of Americans always stay within the daily and weekly limits, according to the site. Only two in 100 of them progress to serious alcohol problems.

But 19% of Americans exceed either the daily or weekly levels; one in 12 of those people has already progressed to alcohol abuse or alcoholism. About 9% of Americans exceeds both the weekly and daily limits; half of them have alcohol problems.

Very few Americans exceed the weekly limits without exceeding the daily limitations. That contrasts with drinking patterns in Europe, where people are more likely to have wine with lunch and dinner on a daily basis.

About 35% of Americans don’t drink at all.

Even “low-risk” drinking can be risky for people with bipolar disorder, liver disease, abnormal heart rhythm and chronic pain, the Web site notes. It also links to a list of dozens of medications that can react adversely with alcohol, including drugs for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pain and depression.

The limits are lower for women than men not just because of their size. According to the NIAAA, women’s bodies tend to have less water so the alcohol tends to become more concentrated and more damaging to organs like the liver.

The Web site also notes that being able to “hold” a lot of liquor is actually a warning sign of dependence. And driving and judgment can be impaired even if you don’t feel a buzz.

Knowing the size and strength of a “standard” drink is critical, so the site has a size chart and a content calculator. Some cocktails contain as much alcohol as three standard drinks. A wine bottle usually holds five 5-oz. glasses.

“Rethinking Drinking” leaves it up to you whether and when to change your habits, though it notes that alcohol is a factor in many fatal accidents and increases the risk of heart and liver disease, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes and many cancers. One section discusses the merits of cutting down versus quitting completely. Another lists pros and cons to consider—including “I’d need another way to wind down.”

The site also lists strategies for changing drinking habits, from “space and pace” (no more than one per hour) to “avoiding triggers” (recognizing external situations and internal emotions that tempt you to drink). An “urge tracker” lets you record times when you wanted a drink and why, what you did and what you might have done differently. A section on “refusal skills” helps you plan ahead to say no in social situations.