Don’t Eat More of Anything (Until You Decide What to Eat Less Of)

A year ago this week, I made a stir with my post about five common weight loss myths. Today I had a patient conversation I have had so many times before: Someone was trying to eat healthier and lose weight at the same time. They are not necessarily the same thing.

This person was using flavored coffee creamers. I pointed out that they often have harmful fats, like palm and coconut oil, and chemicals that may not be good for humans to consume (corn syrup, trans-fats, milk protein [yet it’s called non-dairy], phosphoric acid [found in Coca-Cola, pesticides and fertilizer], mono- and diglycerides, sodium aluminosilicate [also known as feldspar, a ceramic glaze; it is explosive in powdered form] and proprietary artificial flavors). I even told her about Björn Gillberg, the Swedish chemist who in 1971 washed his shirt on TV with the powdered non-dairy creamer Coffee Mate.

“So what kind of creamer should I use?” She seemed flustered.

“Cream or half and half”, I answered. “They’re not all that good for you, but better than the alternatives.”

I pointed out that most of us want to do both things, eat healthy and achieve or maintain a healthy weight. But salmon, avocado, almonds and olive oil have calories, just like pizza, ice cream and Coca-Cola.

So it helps to prioritize a little. My recent patient, after some thought, wanted to attack the weight first. So my advice was about what to eliminate, rather than what to substitute it with. My point is that it makes little sense to skip the nightly ice cream and start eating yogurt instead if your number one objective is to lose weight. “Eat the real thing that you love, but only do it on the weekend”, I might say.

I scribbled down the math behind the lazy man’s guide to calorie counting, the theoretical 1 lb weekly loss if you eliminate 500 calories (kcal, to be correct) from your daily routine. I do it often enough I might save some time if I created a handout, but I believe in showing the math evolve on the paper as I talk – it’s more like telling a story.

Only after someone who wants to lose weight has eliminated some things do I discuss substitutions in earnest. People want to see results, and giving up ice cream, soda, donuts or beer brings results and makes people believe they can do it. Then, it makes more sense to talk about adding back something with fewer calories.

Like in so many other clinical scenarios, I like to “chunk it down” (see Leveraging Time by Doing Less in Each Chronic Care Visit) and to focus (see The Power of Focus): Reversing a disease process that has been going on for a long time is not usually something that happens quickly.

Five Weight Loss Myths I am Constantly Fighting

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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.

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