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Food for Though

Small steps to beat the creep

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

If your weight creeps up year after year, you're not alone. Data suggest that many people are gradually gaining weight, on average one to two pounds each year.

But before you spend hours at the gym or drastically cut calories, there's an easier approach that can keep the pounds off.

When it comes to losing weight - or preventing weight gain - it's the small changes that make the biggest difference. Making small changes to diet and exercise that you barely notice has a much greater impact on weight control than drastic changes that can't be sustained.

It's called a "small steps approach" and mounting scientific evidence suggests it works.

Earlier this year, a task force of nutrition experts, researchers and food scientists convened to assess the feasibility of a small steps approach on reducing obesity. Their report, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, concluded that small steps that are easy to implement and maintain will halt weight gain in most people.

What's more, achieving small changes can boost self-esteem and motivate you to make additional changes to your eating and exercise habits.

In adulthood, gaining a few pounds each year isn't hard to do considering we live in an age of automobiles, remote controls, fast food and super-sized portions. And it doesn't take a huge surplus of calories to pack on those pounds. In fact, most people are eating only slightly more calories than they're expending, and as a result gaining weight each year.

According to the report, decreasing your intake by 100 calories a day, or burning off those calories with exercise, is enough to prevent further incremental weight gain. If you're already overweight, losing 20 to 30 pounds would require a decrease in food intake or increase in exercise amounting to 175 to 250 calories a day over an extended period. To lose 40 to 60 pounds, you'd need to drop 325 to 480 calories a day - an amount that can be reached by making a few minor tweaks to your habits on a daily basis.

The key is identifying livable changes that fit into your lifestyle so you have a better chance of maintaining new habits.

Walking an additional 2,000 steps a day (about 1.5 kilometres) will burn off 100 calories.

Replacing your glass of orange juice with an orange at breakfast will save you 50 calories.

Substituting a teaspoon of mustard for a tablespoon of mayonnaise on your sandwich will save 100 calories. So will swapping your side of rice at dinner with a serving of vegetables.

Bigger savings (300 calories) can be had by switching from a bagel with cream cheese to an English muffin with reduced-fat cream cheese. Or forgoing the mid-morning muffin for a piece of fruit (save 370 calories).

Making small changes appears to work better for weight loss than pushing harder for quick results. The ASPIRE study, involving 59 overweight and sedentary adults, compared a small steps program with a traditional weight-loss plan. The small steps group was asked to make one new, small change in food intake and one small change in exercise habits each week for three months.

While both groups lost weight, those making small changes lost substantially more weight and kept it off after the study ended.

The National Weight Control Registry, the largest prospective study of successful weight-loss maintenance, has collected data on more than 5,000 men and women who have lost, on average, 70 pounds and kept the weight off for years. Habits such as eating breakfast, keeping a food journal, weighing in, and walking daily were linked with the greatest success.

As summer approaches, weight control is top of mind for many of us. The following simple strategies can help you shed excess weight - or prevent the pounds from creeping on.

Make small calorie cuts

Identify two or three areas in your diet where you can trim calories each day, such as replacing cream in your coffee with milk, using a smaller plate at dinner, or opting for water instead of a sugary beverage.

Determine how you can burn off an extra 100 calories each day. Use a pedometer to track your daily steps. Aim to increase your daily total by 2,000 steps. For weight loss, aim for 12,000 to 15,000 steps (nine to 11 kilometres) a day.

Eat breakfast

It helps to kick-start your metabolism and prevent you from getting too hungry before lunch. People who eat breakfast on a regular basis are more likely to have a structured eating plan throughout the day and are less likely to snack on empty-calorie foods.

Include snacks

Eat every three to four hours to help keep your blood sugar stable, your appetite under control and your portion sizes down. Snacks should combine carbohydrate and protein - fruit and yogurt, a small handful of nuts and dried fruit, or a small energy bar are good choices.

Be aware of extra nibbles

Those mindless bites and sips can add up significantly - to an entire meal if you're not careful. If you tend to sample while you cook, chew sugarless gum or sip on a glass of vegetable juice. If leftovers tempt you, cook only the amount you plan to serve.

Be consistent

People who don't give themselves a day or two off to cheat are 1.5 times more likely to keep unwanted pounds off. Once you start giving yourself a few breaks on the weekend, you're more likely to ease off on Friday, and then Thursday.

Don't aim for perfection

Consider lapses as momentary setbacks, not the ruin of all your hard work. By telling yourself that you're human and it's okay to have slipped up, it's much easier to return to a healthy routine.

Keep track

Keeping a journal of what - and how much - you eat provides awareness, focus and motivation. It will make you think twice about reaching for seconds, or those sweets at the office.

Step on the scale

Weighing in once a week gives you feedback about how well you are maintaining your weight. Frequent weighing allows you to catch small increases in weight very quickly and take corrective action.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic,  is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is

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