Safely slim

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It’s hard to stay skinny over the holidays. My friends and I know it, and we are all trying our best to keep the weight off, or at least come up with a plan to lose the extra pounds once the new year rolls around! But I’m concerned about one of my friends, a girl from my hometown who I’m afraid is taking this too far. She diets obsessively and tends to get even more intense around this time of year. She even tries diet pills, which I don’t trust. How can I tell if her behavior is unsafe? What should I do if I think it is?

Gaining weight during the holiday season may not be fun, but it is very normal. The average person gains about a pound at this time of year. And there’s nothing wrong with trying to stay healthy during peak dessert season, nor is there anything wrong with losing extra weight in January. Americans tend to be overweight–70.7% of Americans over 20 years old are either overweight or obese–so it’s good that you and your friends are health-conscious.

But there’s a big difference between being health-conscious and being diet-obsessed, nutritionists say. A healthy lifestyle demands a healthy diet and regular exercise, say the Toronto-based personal trainers at FitSquad. It’s hard to train your way out of an unhealthy diet, but a healthy diet is not about calorie deprivation–it’s about fueling your body with nutrients and the right balance of natural foods, including plenty of vegetables, and then using some of that fuel to stay active and in shape.

Does that mean there’s no role for dieting? Well, not exactly. It’s fine to try to lose weight and to try to cut out unhealthy foods, though experts suggest you aim for a sustainable lifestyle change rather than a short stint as a hardcore dieter (making smaller but more permanent changes is both more healthy and, in the long term, more effective). It’s not necessarily actively bad to try a fad diet or use diet pills (not all diet pills are created equal, say the developers behind Ephedra diet pills–be careful, check ingredients lists, and remember that while non-medical supplements are subject to limited regulation by the FDA, the FDA also warns against combining too many), but it can be bad, and such things are rarely, if ever, at the center of long-term lifestyle changes that result in real health gains.

So if your friend is obsessing about diets and supplements rather than choosing to eat more vegetables and exercise more, she could be misguided at best or, at worst, could even be hurting herself. Look for signs like ritualistic habits, which could point to an eating disorder. Check your friend’s habits against lists of symptoms. And if you feel that she has a problem, raise the issue–with her, and with her loved ones if she ignores you. An eating disorder or body image issue can be a serious health threat, and while it’s always good to be in shape, it’s wise that you’re watching out for the dangerous habits that can masquerade as weight loss tactics.

“Cutting back on calories is not the answer to successful weight loss and successful health…you have to increase the qualitiy of what you eat, not just reduce the quantity.”

— Joel Fuhrman

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