Tagged Dieting and Weight

An App to Deconstruct Your Food

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A screenshot of the Sage app.

A screenshot of the Sage app.Credit

Ever wondered how long you’d have to swim to burn off the calories in an organic peanut butter cup? Or how far the strawberries or burger on your plate traveled to get there?

For answers, ask the Sage Project, one of the latest of the food technology companies helping consumers navigate nutrition. While a number of food apps count calories and track eating habits, Sage goes beyond the food label to give customers additional information about additives and preservatives, how much sugar has been adding during processing or how far a food has traveled.

“Food labels are a data visualization that we see every day, but we don’t get a lot from them,” said Sam Slover, the co-founder and chief executive of Sage. “There are a lot of things about those labels that make assumptions about what you know and what you want to know.”

Do we really need another food app? Apple’s app store already lists more than three dozen apps offering users information and advice about calories, nutrition data and weight loss, but research shows that many consumers have a failed relationship with their food apps. For instance, in January, about 16 percent of the people who downloaded the Lose It app were using it once a day. By June, only 10 percent were using it that often, according to research firm 7Park Data.

“These apps have trouble keeping customers loyal — if you use them successfully, you don’t need them any more, and if you don’t use them successfully, you may not think it’s worth it to try more,” said Byrne Hobart, the lead analyst at 7Park Data. “They’re kind of like the dating apps that way.”

The Sage app hopes to inspire more loyalty by providing a trove of useful and quirky information about the food you eat. It contains data on about 20,000 products, though you still may not find your favorite junk foods. Most of the products in the database are described as “natural” and “organic.” But if you shop at Whole Foods, you’re in luck. Sage has partnered with Whole Foods Market, deconstructing all of the roughly 7,000 items sold in the grocer’s new “365” store chains in Los Angeles and Lake Oswego, Ore.

To begin using Sage, which is available online or as a web-based app, a user signs up and enters any food restrictions and personal preferences. Only want to see products without additives and preservatives? No problem. Interested in digestive health? Sage will comb through its database and show you products with probiotics, high fiber and whole grains.

The app displays a wide variety of information using colorful graphics and animated food characters, and it’s surprisingly fun and entertaining to use. The app told me that Surf Sweet gummy bears, for instance, do have a fair amount of added sugar but also have “good nutrient density,” meaning that, among other things, they supply a high amount of vitamin C (much to my delight). A jump-roping chocolate bar informs me that I’d need to jump rope for 19 minutes — or a snorkeling olive recommends 23 minutes of swimming — to burn off a serving of Justin’s Organic milk chocolate peanut butter cups.

“Customers want a better understanding of how a product is sourced, the quality standards behind it, whether the labor that made it was paid a fair wage, its impact on the environment,” said Jason Buechel, the chief information officer at Whole Foods. “This is a way to give them all that information that isn’t captured on the nutrition label.”

Take the Beast Burger, for instance, a meatless burger sold at Whole Foods. Type the name of the burger into Sage or flip through a list, and you’ll find its basic nutritional profile and calorie content, with highlights of its nutritional strengths.

Using animated food characters — a pear doing yoga, a watermelon riding a bike — the app shows how much exercise would be required to work off the burger. In my case, it’s 20 minutes of running, 22 minutes of jumping rope, 28 minutes of swimming or biking, 44 minutes of dance or 89 minutes of yoga.

Sage also identifies any allergens — corn and seeds in the case of the Beast Burger — and offers detailed explanations of all the burger’s ingredients, and why they’re used should you be interested. For instance: “Calcium chloride, a salt, is used in canned goods to improve stability and quality and as a firming agent in tofu production.”

The system awards “badges” to the burger for things like an abundance of healthy fats and protein and having recyclable packaging, and it explains what diets — dairy free, gluten free, vegan, vegetarian and ketogenic — it does not violate. To make nutrition recommendations like “fiber friendly” or “heart healthy,” Sage uses nutritional standards set by the Food and Drug Administration and the American Heart Association. An in-house team of dietitians and nutritionists have created standards for badges like “healthy fats” or “contains probiotics” — areas where the F.D.A. doesn’t set guidelines.

Finally, the app tells you where the product is made or sourced. The Beast Burger is American made. If you decided to check out Driscoll strawberries, you might learn your batch came from Mexico.

It also can tailor daily nutritional requirements to a user’s specific weight, height and lifestyle. For instance, Sage came up with a recommended daily caloric intake of about 3,300 calories that is rich in protein for Mr. Slover, given his height, weight and exercise routine — he’s a triathlete. It recommended a 1,600-calorie diet with a lower portion of protein for his mother.

“All those things on a label telling you that a product gives you, say, 10 percent of the daily requirement of protein is based on a default, 2,000-calorie-day diet, a kind of one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t work,” Mr. Slover said.

One thing the Sage app won’t tell you is what you should or shouldn’t eat. You will have to figure that out for yourself. “I’m not a big fan of red, yellow and green scoring mechanisms for food,” Mr. Slover said. “I don’t think they’re well received by consumers or used very much.”

An Early Bedtime for Kids May Fight Weight Gain

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Preschool children who are in bed by 8 p.m. are far less likely to be obese during adolescence than children who stay up late, a study has found. Their risk of teenage obesity is half the risk faced by preschoolers who stay up past 9 p.m.

The research analyzed data gathered on nearly 1,000 children born in 1991 whose bedtimes were recorded when they were 4½ years old, and whose height and weight were recorded at age 15. The children were part of the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, done under the auspices of the National Institute of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Among the children who were in bed by 8 p.m., 10 percent were obese as teens, compared to 16 percent of those who went to bed between 8 and 9 and 23 percent of those who went to bed after 9, according to the study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

The researchers adjusted for such factors as socioeconomic status, maternal obesity and parenting style and still found that the children who went to bed by 8 p.m. were at less than half the risk of teenage obesity as those who were up past 9, said Sarah E. Anderson, the paper’s lead author and an associate professor of epidemiology at the Ohio State University College of Public Health in Columbus.

Although the study does not prove that early bedtimes protect against obesity, Dr. Anderson said, “there is a great deal of evidence linking poor sleep, and particularly short sleep duration, to obesity, and it’s possible the timing of sleep may be important, above and beyond the duration of sleep.”

“This provides more evidence that having an early regular bedtime and bedtime routine for young children is helpful,” she said.

Fat Dad: The Coffee and Cigarette Diet

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Credit Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

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The author’s parents, summer-ready.

The author’s parents, summer-ready.Credit

My dad’s face lit up as he placed the engraved linen envelope on the table. We were to be guests at the annual pool party at his boss’s home in East Hampton, N.Y. Not only were we invited for dinner, we were invited to stay for the whole glorious weekend.

Our host was my dad’s boss at the McCann Erickson ad agency, where he was a new creative director. Getting an invitation to his house was more than a polite formality; it was an honor. His family lived on Park Avenue, summered in the Hamptons, and lived by the Emily Post school of etiquette. My family never summered anywhere. We didn’t dress for dinner, we didn’t play golf or tennis, and no one in my family had ever studied Latin or carried a monogrammed bag.

While my dad was flattered, the pressure that accompanied the invitation was huge. His weight had ballooned to almost 400 pounds since landing the job, thanks in part to the decadent three-course client lunches and late-night strategy dinners. In the office, people were focused on my dad’s marketing ideas, but in the Hamptons, my dad said appearances were everything, and there was no hiding behind his creative storyboards and well-thought-out campaigns. He would be presenting my mom, my little sister, April, and me, and showing himself in a more vulnerable setting.

The month leading up to the Hamptons trip was filled with anxiety. My mom and I rushed around shopping for the perfect outfits, and my dad, determined to fit into a bathing suit, starved himself, declaring he was on the “Super Model Diet,” which consisted of hot coffee, cold coffee, coffee shakes, coffee bread, unlimited cigarettes and water.

Even at 10 years old, I knew this was not healthy. I had read the many nutrition and diet books that filled every bookshelf in our house. Each week a new diet, a new promise for miracle results.

“All the actresses and dancers in my commercials swear by this one,” my dad said. “They say substituting a zero-calorie cigarette for lunch helps them stay camera-ready,” he added.

Seeing how worried I was, my dad declared he had never had so much energy, begging my sister and me to try to tag him while he ran up and down the halls of our apartment — not even tempted to take a peek at the diet bread I had just baked for him — adding the required three-quarters of a cup of coffee to my ingredient list.

After successfully losing over 20 pounds on the coffee and cigarette diet in a couple of weeks, my dad headed to Mr. Big & Tall on Eighth Avenue for a couple of items before picking up the Hertz Rent-a-Car. My dad was proud of his new lime-green Bermuda shorts with pictures of palm trees. As we drove to the Hamptons in our beach clothes, my parents argued because my mom, who was in charge of directions, kept navigating us the wrong way. When we finally made it off the highway, my parents became calmer, admiring the quaint churches, old houses and windmills planted on village greens.

Arriving hot and disheveled after our long drive, we were greeted by my father’s boss’s wife, who was wearing a neatly pressed blue Pucci cocktail dress, adorned with a single strand of pearls. Tucking her coiffed blond hair behind her ears, she offered us iced tea with orange slices and led us to the back yard. It was like no pool party I had ever been to, and I wondered if anyone was actually planning to swim.

The tables had crystal candlesticks, and waiters were passing around trays of delicious appetizers that I couldn’t pronounce. Among them were rumaki  — chicken livers wrapped with chestnuts — and soufflés — puffy omelets loaded with cream. There were plates stacked on top of plates and more silverware than I had ever seen. For dinner, we each had our own one-and-a-half-pound lobster with a side of mussels and white sweet corn from the local farm stand. The kids and the grown-ups were served the same food, but we were not seated at the same table. Parents and kids sitting together was a no-no, according to our host’s son, whom I was placed next to.

The boy, who was wearing a jacket and a tie, was only a year older than I was but had the demeanor of a grown man. When I asked, “Aren’t you hot in that stuffy outfit?” he said that the men in their family “always wear a tie and a blazer at dinner each and every night.” He motioned to me to unfold my napkin and place it over my bare legs, dangling above the ground.

I tried to follow his lead as I saw my dad covered in melted butter and lobster juice. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, not shy about asking for seconds and thirds of potatoes au gratin as he forfeited the salad and green beans. “I need to leave room for the good stuff,” he exclaimed, loosening his belt buckle, as the table howled in laughter, watching my dad joyfully dash to the dessert table.

“Go for the gusto, Lerman!” my dad’s boss bellowed, pleased that all the guests started chanting my dad’s award-winning slogan for Schlitz beer.

“You Only Go Around Once in Life, So Grab the Gusto,” they yelled out, encouraging my father to load and re-load his plate.

While I knew that the next day my dad would have regrets, and his vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting would begin again, that night I relaxed, savoring every bite of the succulent meat — hoping my first lobster dinner would not be my last.

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Swimsuit-Ready Iced Coffee Shake


Dawn Lerman is a Manhattan-based nutrition expert and the author of “My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love and Family, With Recipes,” from which this essay is adapted. Her series on growing up with a fat father appears occasionally on Well. Follow her @DawnLerman.

Parents Should Avoid Comments on a Child’s Weight

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Credit Stuart Bradford

Should parents talk to an overweight child about weight? Or should they just keep their mouths shut?

Parents in this situation are understandably torn. Say something, and they risk shaming a child or worse, triggering an eating disorder. Say nothing, and they worry they’re missing an opportunity to help their child with what could become a serious long-term health problem.

Now a new study offers some guidance: Don’t make comments about a child’s weight.

The study, published in the journal Eating & Weight Disorders, is one of many finding that parents’ careless — though usually well-meaning — comments about a child’s weight are often predictors of unhealthy dieting behaviors, binge eating and other eating disorders, and may inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes about weight that children internalize. A parent’s comments on a daughter’s weight can have repercussions for years afterward, contributing to a young woman’s chronic dissatisfaction with her body – even if she is not overweight.

“Parents who have a child who’s identified as having obesity may be worried, but the way those concerns are discussed and communicated can be really damaging,” said Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. “The longitudinal research shows it can have a lasting impact.”

The impact on girls may be especially destructive, she said, because “girls are exposed to so many messages about thinness and body weight, and oftentimes women’s value is closely linked to their appearance. If parents don’t challenge those messages, they can be internalized.”

The new study included over 500 women in their 20s and early 30s who were asked questions about their body image and also asked to recall how often their parents commented about their weight. Whether the young women were overweight or not, those who recalled parents’ comments were much more likely to think they needed to lose 10 or 20 pounds, even when they weren’t overweight.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor and the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, characterized the parents’ critical comments as having a “scarring influence.”

“We asked the women to recall how frequently parents commented, but the telling thing was that if they recalled it happening at all, it had as bad an influence as if it happened all the time,” said Dr. Wansink, author of the book “Slim by Design.” “A few comments were the same as commenting all the time. It seems to make a profound impression.”

Some studies have actually linked parents’ critical comments to an increased risk of obesity. One large government-funded study that followed thousands of 10-year-old girls found that, at the start of the study, nearly 60 percent of the girls said someone — a parent, sibling, teacher or peer – had told them they were “too fat.” By age 19, those who had been labeled “too fat” were more likely to be obese, regardless of whether they were heavy at age 10 or not.

Comments made by family members had even stronger effects than comments made by unrelated people.

Several studies have found that when parents encourage overweight teenagers to diet, the teenagers are at higher risk of lower self-esteem and depression and of being overweight five years later.

Research by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a professor at the University of Minnesota, found that when parents talked to their teens about losing weight, teenagers were more likely to diet, use unhealthy weight-control behaviors and binge eat. Those behaviors are less likely to develop when conversations with parents focused on healthy eating behaviors, rather than weight per se.

Harsh comments about weight can send the message that parents are “tying weight to some kind of perception about how the child is valued,” Dr. Puhl said, and that can trigger negative feelings. “The children are internalizing that, and thinking they’re not O.K. as a person. And that is what’s leading to other outcomes, like disordered eating.”

So what’s a parent to do? Do they just stand by while their child gains weight?

Dr. Neumark-Sztainer was besieged by parents asking her this question, and wondering, “How do I prevent them from getting overweight and still feel good about themselves?”

In her book, called “I’m, Like, SO Fat: Helping Your Teen Make Health Choices About Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World,” she notes that parents can influence a child’s eating habits without talking about them. “I try to promote the idea of talking less and doing more — doing more to make your home a place where it’s easy to make healthy eating and physical activity choices, and talking less about weight.”

For parents, that means keeping healthy food in the house and not buying soda. It means sitting down to enjoy family dinners together, and also setting an example by being physically active and rallying the family to go for walks or bike rides together. Modeling also means not carping about your own weight. “Those actions speak louder than words,” Dr. Puhl said.

While your children are young, “there doesn’t need to be a conversation at all – it really is just about what’s being done at home,” Dr. Neumark-Sztainer said.

If an older child is overweight, “wait for your child to bring it up, and be there to support them when they do,” she said. “Say, ‘Look, I love you no matter what size you are, but if you would like, I will support you. I suggest we focus not so much on your weight but on your eating patterns and behaviors. What would be helpful for you?’”

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Walkable Neighborhoods Cut Obesity and Diabetes Rates

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Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Neighborhoods designed for walking may decrease the rates of being overweight or obese and having diabetes by more than 10 percent, a new study concludes.

Canadian researchers studied more than three million people in 8,777 neighborhoods in urbanized areas of Ontario, ranking them for “walkability” on a 100-point scale that measures population density, numbers of facilities within walking distance of residences and how well connected their webs of streets are.

The study, published in JAMA, adjusted for age, sex, income and other factors, and found that the prevalence of being overweight and obese was more than 10 percent lower in the one-fifth of neighborhoods rated highest for walkability than in the one-fifth rated lowest. Over the 12-year study period, being obese and overweight increased by as much as 9.2 percent in the three-fifths of neighborhoods rated lowest, with no change in the two-fifths rated highest.

The incidence of diabetes was also lowest in the most walkable neighborhoods, a difference that persisted throughout the study.

The authors acknowledge that this was not a randomized trial and does not prove causation. Still, the senior author, Dr. Gillian L. Booth, a physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, said that the healthiest neighborhoods seem to be those where cars are not a necessity.

“Walking, cycling and public transit rates were much higher in walkable neighborhoods,” she said, “and that leads to better health outcomes.”

To Keep Obesity at Bay, Exercise May Trump Diet

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Credit Getty Images

Young rats prone to obesity are much less likely to fulfill that unhappy destiny if they run during adolescence than if they do not, according to a provocative new animal study of exercise and weight. They also were metabolically healthier, and had different gut microbes, than rats that keep the weight off by cutting back on food, the study found. The experiment was done in rodents, not people, but it does raise interesting questions about just what role exercise may play in keeping obesity at bay.

For some time, many scientists, dieting gurus and I have been pointing out that exercise by itself tends to be ineffective for weight loss. Study after study has found that if overweight people start working out but do not also reduce their caloric intake, they shed little if any poundage and may gain weight.

The problem, most scientists agree, is that exercise increases appetite, especially in people who are overweight, and also can cause compensatory inactivity, meaning that people move less over all on days when they exercise. Consequently, they wind up burning fewer daily calories, while also eating more. You do the math.

But those discouraging studies involved weight loss. There has been much less examination of whether exercise might help to prevent weight gain in the first place and, if it does, how it compares to calorie restriction for that purpose.

So for the new study, which was published last week in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers at the University of Missouri in Columbia and other schools first gathered rats from a strain that has an inborn tendency to become obese, starting in adolescence. (Adolescence is also when many young people begin to add weight.)

These rats were young enough, though, that they were not yet overweight.

After weighing them, the researchers divided the animals into three groups.

One group was allowed to eat as much kibble as they wished and to remain sedentary in their cages. These were the controls.

Another group, the exercise group, also was able to eat at will, but these animals were provided with running wheels in their cages. Rats like to run, and the animals willingly hopped on the wheels, exercising every day.

The final group, the dieting group, was put on a calorie-restricted meal plan. Their daily kibble helpings were about 20 percent smaller than the amount that the runners ate, a portion size designed to keep them at about the same weight as the runners, so that extreme differences in body size would not affect the final results.

After 11 weeks, all of the animals were moved to specialized cages that could measure their metabolisms and how much they moved around. They then returned to their assigned cages for several more weeks, by which time they were effectively middle-aged.

At that point, the control animals were obese, their physiques larded with fat.

The runners and the lower-calorie groups, however, although they also had gained ounces, had put on far less weight than the controls. None were obese.

Both exercise and portion control, in other words, had effectively protected the animals against their fated fatness.

But beneath the skin, the runners and the dieters looked very unalike. By almost all measures, the runners were metabolically healthier, with better insulin sensitivity and lower levels of bad cholesterol than the dieters. They also burned more fat each day for fuel, according to their metabolic readings, and had more cellular markers related to metabolic activity within their brown fat than the dieting group. Brown fat, unlike the white variety, can be quite metabolically active, helping the body to burn additional calories.

Interestingly, the runners also had developed different gut microbes than the dieters, even though they ate the same food. The runners had greater percentages of some bacteria and smaller populations of others than the dieters or the control group; these particular proportions of gut bugs have been associated in a few previous studies with long-term leanness in both animals and people.

Perhaps most striking, “the runners showed no signs of compensatory eating or compensatory inactivity,” said Victoria Vieira-Potter, an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri who oversaw the study. They didn’t scarf down more food than the control group, despite running several miles every day and, according to the specialized cages, actually moved around more when not exercising than either of the other groups of rats.

In essence, the runners, while weighing the same as the dieters at the end of the study, seemed better set up to avoid weight gain in the future.

Of course, these were rats, which do not share our human biology or our tangled psychological relationships with food and body fat.

This study also involved young, normal-weight rodents and cannot tell us whether exercise or dieting alone or in combination would aid or hinder weight loss in people (or animals) who already are overweight, Dr. Vieira-Potter said. Metabolisms change once a body contains large amounts of fat, and it becomes increasingly difficult to permanently drop those extra pounds.

So better to avoid weight gain in the first place, if possible. And in that context, she said, “restricting calories can be effective,” but exercise is likely to be more potent in the long term and, of course, as common sense would tell us, doing both—watching what you eat and exercising—is best of all.

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Visiting to Lose Weight, Then Calling It Home

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After a trip to Fitness Ridge, Jennifer Morton ended up staying there.

After a trip to Fitness Ridge, Jennifer Morton ended up staying there.Credit Victoria Tarter

There was no reason for Jennifer Morton to move to Utah, except one: It was the place she lost 40 pounds.

In 2009, Ms. Morton was working 90-hour weeks as the director of learning at a large company outside Louisville, Ky. She traveled 80 percent of the time, and her weight shot up. Panicked and exhausted, she quit her job and checked into Fitness Ridge (now called Movara Fitness Resort), a weight-loss and fitness retreat in southern Utah.

She ended up staying a month.

“All of a sudden I was in a place where everybody was like me,” said Ms. Morton, 40. “It felt like home.”

Five weeks later, it really was: She packed up her belongings and settled into a house less than a mile from the resort in the town of St. George. Not long after, she began teaching classes at Movara on emotional eating and food addiction, guiding clients through their own body battles.

“It just made sense to do this,” Ms. Morton said. The low cost of living was appealing, as was the natural beauty. But most importantly, she could continue the healthy lifestyle she had embraced.

“At the resort, the way you feel about who you are is so important to protect that you’re willing to stay in that environment to make sure it sticks,” said Ms. Morton, who began doing triathlons after her stay. “If you find your best self somewhere, you definitely don’t want to leave it.”

People like Ms. Morton are adopting a model familiar to those fighting substance abuse, who are often encouraged to change their environments and relationships post-rehab in order to “stay clean.” (Minnesota, for example, is half-jokingly referred to as “Minnesober” because of the large number of rehab centers there and the many people in various stages of recovery, who often remain in the state after treatment.)

“Addiction is a lifelong problem that people have to deal with, and it’s the same with weight,” said Dr. William Yancy, director of the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C. “Even if they reach their goal, it’s something they need help and support with.”

“It speaks to the power of the proverbial ‘toxic food environment,’” said David Sarwer, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University’s College of Public Health. “When we’re in our normal day-to-day routines, and those routines have become second nature to us, there are countless negative influences on our eating habits and sedentary behavior that contributes to weight gain.”

Relocating, he said, offers an opportunity to create new habits. “In these cases, people have the opportunity to make a significant commitment to health and well-being to live in a geographical location that promotes health,” he said.

From 2007 to 2012, Marjorie S. Fine went twice a year to the Duke diet and fitness program. She would lose about 30 pounds during her two-month stay, and regain half when she returned home to Miami. “I would chip away at the weight, but never really be anywhere near 99 percent successful,” said Ms. Fine, 69.

Late in 2015, she and her husband moved full-time to Durham (once called the “diet capital of the world” because of the number of weight-loss facilities there). She exercises and eats lunch at Structure House, a residential program in town, six days a week, and attends individual therapy and weekly Overeaters Anonymous meetings there.

“As with any other addiction, you have to work on it on a daily basis,” said Ms. Fine, who has now lost 65 pounds and hopes to lose another 40.

“It’s very important to have that shared experience and problem solve together,” said Catherine J. Metzgar of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the lead author of a study that found social support and being accountable to others helped some women lose and maintain weight loss. “Having your family and others in your social circle buy into what you are doing is also important.”

Cindy MacKenzie, 62, a former teacher and self-described yo-yo dieter, retired with her husband in 2015 to southern Utah. The couple purchased a home about a five-minute drive down the road from Movara, where Ms. MacKenzie used to go for annual weight-loss visits.

“We have definitely bought into the program,” said Ms. MacKenzie, who still regularly attends the resort. Back in Silicon Valley, where they used to live, “we would go out to eat all the time, we would drink. Here, there are no threats, no temptations.”

“If you’re living in a community where every single one of your friends and family members is devoted to overeating and an unhealthy lifestyle or to misusing various drugs and alcohol, it’s really hard to change in that environment,” said Maia Szalavitz, a former heroin and cocaine addict and author of the book “Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction.”

On the other hand, surrounding yourself with too many people with similar issues can be risky. “A lot of people get into a very closed world that’s kind of limited,” she said. “Sometimes you make each other better, and sometimes worse.”

Of course, most of us cannot afford to uproot our families, lives and jobs in the name of healthy living. (Structure House’s base price for new participants, for example, is $10,500 for a four-week stay.) And even if we could, we bring our struggles with us. (In bumper sticker terms: “Wherever you go, there you are.” )

Jean Anspaugh, 62, lost 100 pounds at the Rice House program in Durham, where she stayed for seven years, renting an apartment nearby and taking odd jobs to pay the costs. She figured she would “stay thin forever.” But she didn’t. Work, bills and relationships took their toll, and she got “mainstreamed back into the dominant culture, which eats all the time.”

“Nobody realizes how hard it is to lose weight and keep it off,” said Ms. Anspaugh, a folklorist in Fairfax, Va., and author of “Fat Like Us.” “It’s a full-time job.” She has regained some of the weight but still feels that Durham, “the place where the magic happened,” is home. “I miss the mind-set,” she said. “I miss my tribe.”

Ms. Morton, too, acknowledged that moving to Utah wasn’t a panacea. “You still have to do the same things: build your community, get involved, find the people you like,” she said. And she now is wrestling with “emotional management — meaning, working through the parts of myself that will keep me successful over the long run.”

Still, she has no plans to leave.

“Weight and fitness is definitely on the forefront of my mind, so I think it keeps me accountable because I have to face it every day,” she said. “Also, it helped me realize — we’re all the exact same. We are all dealing with the same set of four or five problems; they just manifest differently in each one of us. It has helped me on my weight management program, and also on my journey to be a good human.”

Ask Well: Does Skipping Breakfast Cause Weight Gain?

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Continental breakfast is served at Hey Jupiter, a cafe in Adelaide, Australia.

Continental breakfast is served at Hey Jupiter, a cafe in Adelaide, Australia.Credit David Maurice Smith for The New York Times

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Intermittent Fasting Diets Are Gaining Acceptance

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Credit Gary Taxali

Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging in Maryland, has not had breakfast in 35 years. Most days he practices a form of fasting — skipping lunch, taking a midafternoon run, and then eating all of his daily calories (about 2,000) in a six-hour window starting in the afternoon.

“Once you get used to it, it’s not a big deal,” said Dr. Mattson, chief of the institute’s laboratory of neurosciences. “I’m not hungry at all in the morning, and this is other people’s experience as well. It’s just a matter of getting adapted to it.”

In a culture in which it’s customary to eat three large meals a day while snacking from morning to midnight, the idea of regularly skipping meals may sound extreme. But in recent years intermittent fasting has been gaining popular attention and scientific endorsement.

It has been promoted in best-selling books and endorsed by celebrities like the actors Hugh Jackman and Benedict Cumberbatch. The late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel claims that for the past two years he has followed an intermittent fasting program known as the 5:2 diet, which entails normal eating for five days and fasting for two — a practice Mr. Kimmel credits for his significant weight loss.

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Credit Gary Taxali

Fasting to improve health dates back thousands of years, with Hippocrates and Plato among its earliest proponents. Dr. Mattson argues that humans are well suited for it: For much of human history, sporadic access to food was likely the norm, especially for hunter-gatherers. As a result, we’ve evolved with livers and muscles that store quickly accessible carbohydrates in the form of glycogen, and our fat tissue holds long-lasting energy reserves that can sustain the body for weeks when food is not available.

“From an evolutionary perspective, it’s pretty clear that our ancestors did not eat three meals a day plus snacks,” Dr. Mattson said.

Across the world, millions of people fast periodically for religious and spiritual reasons. But some are now looking at the practice as a source of health and longevity.

Valter Longo, the director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California, initially studied fasting in mice that showed that two to five days of fasting each month reduced biomarkers for diabetes, cancer and heart disease. The research has since been expanded to people, and scientists saw a similar reduction in disease risk factors.

Dr. Longo said the health benefits of fasting might result from the fact that fasting lowers insulin and another hormone called insulinlike growth factor, or IGF-1, which is linked to cancer and diabetes. Lowering these hormones may slow cell growth and development, which in turn helps slow the aging process and reduces risk factors for disease.

“When you have low insulin and low IGF-1, the body goes into a state of maintenance, a state of standby,” Dr. Longo said. “There is not a lot of push for cells to grow, and in general the cells enter a protected mode.”

Critics say that health benefits or not, various forms of intermittent fasting are too impractical for most people.

The 5:2 diet, for example, advocates eating without restrictions for five days and then consuming just 500 calories — roughly the equivalent of a light meal — on each of the other two days of the week. Another regimen, called alternate-day fasting, involves eating no more than 500 calories every other day.

A third regimen, which Dr. Mattson follows, is known as time-restricted feeding. The idea is to consume all of the day’s calories in a narrow window, typically six to eight hours, and fasting for the remaining 16 to 18 hours in a day. Studies of time-restricted feeding practices in both animals and humans have suggested that the practice may lower cancer risk and help people maintain their weight.

The scientific community remains divided about the value of intermittent fasting. Critics say that the science is not yet strong enough to justify widespread recommendations for fasting as a way to lose weight or boost health, and that most of the evidence supporting it comes from animal research. Advocates say the body of research on intermittent fasting is growing rapidly and indicates that the health benefits are striking.

The 5:2 diet, in particular, is backed by “promising” studies that show that it lowers weight and improves blood sugar, inflammation and other aspects of metabolic health, said Joy Dubost, a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the country’s largest organization of dietitians. She noted that fasting isn’t appropriate for pregnant women, people with diabetes and people on medications.

“Most people who do this understand that it’s not about binge eating,” Dr. Dubost said. “But they like that it gives them the freedom not to worry about calories, carbs and other restrictions on days when they’re not fasting.”

Krista Varady, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has studied the effects of alternate-day fasting on hundreds of obese adults. In trials lasting eight to 10 weeks, she has found that people lose on average about 13 pounds and experience marked reductions in LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, triglycerides and insulin, the fat-storage hormone.

Dr. Varady found in her research that intermittent fasting was easiest when people ate a moderately high-fat diet and were allowed to consume up to 500 calories on their fasting days. In her studies, 10 percent to 20 percent of people usually find the diet too difficult and quickly stop. Those who stick with it typically adjust after a rocky first few weeks.

“We’ve run close to 700 people through various trials,” Dr. Varady said. “We thought people would overeat on their feast days to compensate. But people for some reason, regardless of their body weight, can only eat about 10 or 15 percent more than usual. They don’t really overeat, and I think that’s why this works.”

In 2011, Dr. Mattson and his colleagues reported a study of the 5:2 program that followed 107 overweight and obese women. Half of the subjects were assigned to eat no more than 500 calories each on two consecutive days each week. A control group was assigned to follow a low-calorie diet.

After six months, both groups had lost weight. But the intermittent fasting group lost slightly more — about 14 pounds on average — and had greater reductions in belly fat. They also retained more muscle and had greater improvements in blood sugar regulation.

Dr. Mattson’s interest in intermittent fasting grew out of work on animals that showed that alternate-day fasting protected mice from strokes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and consistently extended their life spans by 30 percent. Dr. Mattson and his colleagues found that alternate-day fasting increased the production of proteins that protect brain cells, enhancing their ability to repair damaged DNA. Fasting, he said, acts as a mild stress that makes cells throughout the body stronger, shoring up their ability to adapt to later insults.

In this way, intermittent fasting is like exercise, which causes immediate stress and inflammation, but protects against chronic disease in the long run. Eating fruits and vegetables may have a similar effect. While very large doses of antioxidants can cause cancer in humans, moderate amounts of exposure can make cells more resilient, Dr. Mattson said.

“There is overlap between the way cells respond to exercise, to fasting, and even to exposure to some of the chemicals in fruits and vegetables,” he added.

Dr. Mattson is now starting a rigorous clinical trial of people 55 to 70 years old who are prediabetic and at high risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. He plans to study whether intermittent fasting may slow cognitive decline.

Dr. David Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said one benefit of fasting is that it forces the body to shift from using glucose for fuel to using fat. During this process, the fat is converted to compounds known as ketones, a “clean” energy source that burns more efficiently than glucose, like high-octane gasoline, Dr. Ludwig said.

The same process, known as ketosis, occurs when people go on extremely low-carb, high-fat diets. Dr. Ludwig said ketones seem to have unique effects on the brain. High-fat diets, for example, have been used for years to treat people who suffer from epileptic seizures.

“There are extensive reports of children who had debilitating seizures who were cured on ketogenic diets,” Dr. Ludwig said. “If it benefits the brain to prevent seizures, then maybe it benefits the brain in other ways.”

Dr. Ludwig noted that the long-term effectiveness of fasting had not been well studied. He cautioned that for many people, fasting is simply too difficult and may slow metabolism. A potentially more practical approach is to limit sugar and other processed carbohydrates, replacing them with natural fats, protein and unrefined carbohydrates, he said.

“It takes a very disciplined person to skip a couple meals every day,” he added.

But Dr. Mattson, who has been skipping meals for decades, said the adjustment to skipping breakfast and lunch was a lot like the change that occurs when a couch potato starts exercising.

“If you’ve been sedentary for years and then you go out and try to run five miles, you’re not going to feel very good until you get in shape,” he said. “ It’s not going to be a smooth transition right away. It takes two weeks to a month to adapt.”

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Big Health Benefits to Small Weight Loss

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Obese individuals who lose as little as 5 percent of their body weight can improve their metabolic function and reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, a new study has found.

Many current treatment guidelines urge patients to lose between 5 percent and 10 percent of their body weight in order to experience health benefits, but the recommendations were based on earlier studies that didn’t distinguish between participants who lost only 5 percent of their weight and those who lost more.

The study, a clinical trial, randomized 40 obese individuals with signs of insulin resistance to either maintain their body weight or go on a low-calorie diet and lose 5 percent, 10 percent or 15 percent of their body weight.

It found that insulin sensitivity improved significantly after participants lost just 5 percent of their body weight, as did triglyceride concentrations, blood pressure and heart rate. There were no improvements in markers of inflammation at that level of weight loss, however.

“Losing 5 percent is much easier than losing 10 percent, so it was important to understand what the differences might be,” said Dr. Samuel Klein, a professor at Washington University School of Medicine and senior author of the study, published in the journal Cell Metabolism. “You get a big bang for your buck with 5 percent.”