Unrealistic expectations undermine your long-term health

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Published July 15. 2022 11:26PM

Back when I was running 50 to 70 miles per week, racing a 10k twice a month, and doing a half or full marathon once or twice a year, my significant other at that time (not the “godsend of a girlfriend” just mentioned in a RoadBikeRider.com article) would run a mile or two on her own most days of the week simply to burn some calories and stay in shape.

Then she started running farther and farther and made a real attempt at going faster. I asked her what was up.

She said she wanted to accompany and keep pace with me on my shorter runs, the ones between three and five miles.

Not harshly, but matter of factly, I said, “That’s not happening,” and regretted it immediately. But I knew back then what I’m about to write now and thought it best she know it too.

Nothing saps your desire to exercise or derails a diet like unrealistic expectations.

She was not built like a runner but like the woman in that 1977 Commodore’s song – a brick house. After two or three weeks of Miss Mighty Mighty doubling her mileage – and somehow looking even better than before – though, she stopped just letting it all hang out on the roads.

A nasty case of shin splints was the cause.

Her shins recovered with time. Her desire to run didn’t.

She tried Jane Fonda-type aerobics both in the gym and on video, didn’t like that much, and gave up working out except for an occasional walk. Eventually we went our separate ways.

I saw her by chance a few years after that.

After some awkward small talk, she admitted to no longer liking how she looked and to having just started one of those fad diets that guarantees a loss of 14 pounds in 14 days. She wanted to be 30 pounds lighter for her class reunion in three months, she explained.

I wanted to explain that this expectation was as unrealistic as wanting to run five miles in 35 minutes when she was a 36-28-38, but didn’t. I offered support, in part because dropping that amount of weight in that amount of time actually is possible.

The unrealistic expectation behind it, however, is that the weight will stay off for the long term when you lose it that quickly. And after seeing a photo of her recently, it’s obvious that all the weight returned – and then some.

Now I remembered this former girlfriend, oddly enough, after reading a study published in the May 2022 issue of Obesity. It found higher protein intake during dieting improved diet quality and reduced the loss of muscle mass.

I made this odd connection because the “higher” amount didn’t strike me as being high at all. In fact, the increase was so small, 21 more grams of protein a day, that asking someone to make such a dietary change struck me as the opposite of unrealistic.

After all, that’s 2 fewer grams than what’s found in 3 ounces of chicken. One fewer gram than 3 ounces of canned tuna. About the same as 1 scoop of a high-quality whey-based protein powder.

The study used data on 207 overweight or obese adults from prior trials at Rutgers University. In all instances, the participants had been evaluated beforehand, attended counseling sessions during the first two months, and occasionally conferred with a registered dietitian nutritionist after that.

All were encouraged to lose weight by eating 500 fewer calories per day and healthier foods in general. To insure the latter, participants were told to consult the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics/American Diabetes Association’s Food Lists for Weight Management.

In six months, most of the 207 participants lost close to the group average, 5 percent of their total body weight. Such a loss is significant because it’s generally held that a 5 to 10% decrease in bodyweight reduces the risk of the chronic diseases that have been linked to carrying excess weight, most notably, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, and certain cancers.

But when the researchers separated the results of those who ate a bit more protein while dieting, an average of 79 grams per day, from those who lost weight while eating less, an average of 58 grams per day, two other important patterns emerged.

The overall quality of the diets of those who ingested a higher amount of protein was better. They also ate more vegetables and fewer foods that contained refined grains and added sugars.

The extra protein ingestion also reduced the loss of lean muscle mass from the overall weight loss, meaning the higher-protein group lost more body fat.

Reducing daily caloric intake by about 15%. Increasing daily protein intake by about 25%.

Making these changes is not unrealistic, only effective if you’re looking improve your health through weight loss – and do so for the long term.