Feature Archive

Lose Fat in a Flash -- Here's How

Battling the Bulge

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

Oct. 9, 2001-- Several years ago, talk show star Oprah Winfrey walked onto her set pulling a wagon full of fat to demonstrate how much she had lost on a highly touted liquid diet. Her dramatic results gave hope to dieters around the country that they, too, could lose weight fast.

But Oprah's triumph didn't last. Within a year or so, the television superstar had regained most of what she'd lost.

A quick and painless path to a size 6 is the dieter's ultimate dream. And at least one scientist has given hope to millions of dieters looking for a quick fix. The plan doesn't have a catchy name -- yet. Originator James Anderson, MD, just calls it the VLCD, for very-low-calorie diet.

The formula? Consuming only 900 calories a day by drinking only five weight-loss shakes. Or dieters also can choose to take in their allowed calories by drinking three shakes and substituting two low-calorie meals for the others. When 112 people tried the diet as part of Anderson's research, they lost an average of 65 pounds over five months.

What's really impressive, however, is that most people kept off 15 of those pounds -- 23% of the initial loss -- for more than five years, according to results published in the December 1999 issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. That's significant because most people who lose weight can only maintain 5% to 15% of their losses, says George Blackburn, MD, PhD, associate director of the division of nutrition at Harvard Medical School.

"Our study shows that people do better if they bite the bullet and get down to a weight they desire and then try to maintain it," says Anderson, the study's lead author and a professor of medicine and clinical nutrition at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. "It's a myth that if you lose weight slowly you do better in the long run."

Shaping a Skinny Lifestyle

Don't go running for the Slim Fast yet. On top of carefully controlling their calories, the researchers also coached the dieters on how to change their weight-gaining habits and ways. Physicians and dietitians in the study stressed the importance of eating fruits and vegetables. Dieters learned how to count calories, assess the nutritional value of various foods, and understand the importance of exercise. Those parts of the program are essential to any weight-loss regimen, not just Anderson's. "Weight loss isn't just about restricting calories," Anderson says.

Other weight-loss experts agree. "The diet itself was an important element of Anderson's study, but if the subjects hadn't also made substantial behavioral changes, the outcome would [have been] very different," says psychologist Tom Wadden, PhD, director of the weight loss and eating disorders program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Research has shown that such fast-track diets are only as good as long as they last, says John Foreyt, PhD, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "Rapid weight loss typically leads to rapid weight gain," he says. "Very-low-calorie diets are diets we can't live with and can't live on. The bulk of research shows that they're short-term fixes, and when you go off the diet, you return to old habits."

Battling the Bulge

Still interested in giving quick weight loss a try? Anderson offers these tips, which he thinks made the big difference for his dieters.

  • Exercise. Try to burn at least 2,000 calories through exercise each week. Start with one 10-minute walk a day, every day, and work up to at least 20 10-minute exercise sessions a week. Walking just one mile burns 150 calories.
  • Eat at least five servings a day of fruits and vegetables. "You get a lot of food for the calories," says Anderson. Three cups of broccoli, for instance, contains roughly 120 calories -- about the same as a tablespoon of butter or oil.
  • Incorporate meal replacement products into your daily or weekly menu. Meal replacements -- whether they're packaged foods such as Lean Cuisine, or shakes such as Slim Fast -- are very helpful for maintaining long-term weight loss. "Using just two meal replacements a week would be enough to keep off 10 pounds in a year," says Anderson. "That's a lot of weight for a minimal change in eating patterns."

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