Shedding even just a few pounds can have profound health benefits for people who are overweight. But those of us who have tried to lose weight as we age know how difficult and frustrating it can be.

I'm a veteran of the diet wars, I have binged, dieted and skipped meals. I've tried dozens of diets and exercised in sauna suits, and I even went through one period where I subsisted on nothing but vanilla wafers and black coffee.

What I discovered: The quest for a silver bullet is one of the main reasons people never lose weight and keep it off. We're fascinated by the latest theory about calories or fad diets. But unless the diet fits our lifestyle, it's bound to fail-and then we gain weight again. Finally, I started "making friends" with food—and with exercise. Strategies that worked for me…

Food As Fuel

Many Americans have become so accustomed to eating out of anxiety or boredom and using food as a reward or as entertainment that they actually have trouble identifying when they are hungry and when they are not.

Solution: Start thinking of food as nothing more than fuel. This isn't a romantic notion—but it will help you lose weight.

Counting calories isn't fun, but it does work. Calories are important because they are actually a measure of the potential energy in food. Think of calories in terms of a bank account. You make deposits by eating calories and withdrawals by burning calories through exercise—only you want this bank account to have just enough in it.

To lose weight: Most people should aim for 1,200 to 1,500 calories daily, depending on their height and activity level. That's enough fuel to keep you going during the day and help you lose up to eight pounds in a month but not so little that you feel hungry all the time. The best choices when trying to achieve this calorie level are nutritious, low-calorie fruits, vegetables, healthful whole grains (such as brown rice) and lean proteins (such as skinless chicken).

At first, it might help if you keep a food journal in which you write down what you eat and each food's calorie amount. There are many online sites that list calories. A good, free one is

My approach: Learn what is contained in 100-calorie portions such as 15 almonds, one large egg, one-third of an avocado. Once you know these general portion sizes, you can easily count up by 100s your day's worth of food.

Eating Strategies

Some of the best ways to make a friend of food and master weight control…

  • Make sure that your medications aren't working against you. Many prescription drugs increase appetite or slow metabolism. Drugs that might affect weight include antidepressants, such as paroxetine (Paxil), escitalopram (Lexapro) and sertraline (Zoloft), as well as insulin medication, such as glyburide (Diabeta). Your physician may be able to adjust your dosage or switch you to a drug that doesn't have these side effects.
  • Don't deprive yourself. I believe that depriving yourself of your favorite foods sets you up for failure. If you really want a piece of cake, eat it as an entrée. Allowing yourself the occasional splurge means that you may be less likely to overindulge.
  • Mix low-fat carbohydrates with proteins at every meal. This combination slows down digestion and allows you to eat less but still feel full.

Example: Rice cakes will satisfy your hunger as a snack more effectively if you eat them with a piece of sliced turkey or a smear of peanut butter.

  • Widen the color spectrum of the fruits and vegetables you eat. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables with deep colors, such as blueberries, tomatoes, broccoli, spinach and sweet potatoes. They are densely packed with healthful nutrients, such as cancer-fighting antioxidants, vitamins and fiber.

Helpful: If you are unable to clean or cut vegetables, select precut vegetables at the grocery store. Many people with arthritis, for example, shy away from healthful foods because they are too difficult to prepare.

  • Control your portions. Using a nine-inch salad plate instead of a dinner-sized 11- or 13inch plate can help you serve yourself smaller portions.

Another way: Divide your plate into three sections-one each for protein, carbohydrate and vegetable. Having distinct sections cuts back on overflowing-and oversized-servings.

  • Have dessert but take just three bites. This requires only a little willpower. Researchers have found that taste buds provide the maximum amount of pleasure in the first three bites of a food, and then the eater starts to get bored by the fourth bite. The rest of the dessert offers diminishing returns you ingest more calories but derive less pleasure.
  • When you feel like bingeing, drink water. People often blow their diets by bingeing when they feel hungry between meals.

Solution: Drink an eight-ounce glass of water. You will be amazed how full it will make you feel.

Bonus: You stay hydrated. As you age, your body has a harder time recognizing the need for fluids, which is why many seniors get dehydrated.

  • Curb your appetite by eating "wet" carbohydrates when very hungry. Wet carbs are such foods as cooked oatmeal, yams and brown rice, which are full of fiber and moisture that create a bulk effect in your stomach. You can eat them at mealtimes or as a snack.

Other wet carbs: Fruits and vegetables.

  • Add herbs and spices with strong flavors to your food. Older people often suffer diminished taste and smell and reach for the salt shaker or butter to enhance food.

Better: Tarragon, ground cinnamon and turmeric, all of which add a strong accent to food, won't raise your blood pressure like salt.

  • Skip herbal supplements for weight loss. Avoid herbal supplements that contain bitter orange extract, L-carnitine (an amino acid derivative that helps fat metabolize within cells) and hoodia, the extract from an African cactus-like succulent plant. Flimsy evidence of their safety and effectiveness makes them too speculative for me to recommend.

A word about exercise: Find a physical activity that you like to do—and do it for 30 minutes on as many days as you can. My favorites are walking, hiking and biking outdoors.

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