Oprah’s Rules for Weight Loss

A few simple rules can make all the difference in losing weight — especially if you apply them in a way that makes the most sense for you.

Originally published 2003

Oprah’s Rules

I came home from work early today, after a relapse of the flu that’s been going around. I happened to catch an Oprah show discussing her most recent approach to weight loss. She had a fellow on with her, discussing his book on the subject — sensible eating, or some such. I didn’t catch his name or the title of the book, but the principles they discussed were worth recording.

Note:
Ahh. Google and Amazon to the rescue. The book was Get with the Program, by Bob Greene.

The 4 rules, as accurately as I can recall were:

  1. Address Emotional Issues
  2. Water and Exercise
  3. Redistribute Your Meals (The Feeling is Your Friend)
  4. Quality of food

As I describe the rules, I’ll be adding some information of my own. But I’ll try to stay focused on the short, pithy bits of information that were developed in the Oprah show.

There was one overarching principle she developed, though. It was to customize a plan that works for you. So take the principles and use them in a way that makes sense in your life.

1. Address Emotional Issues

This wasn’t a big one for me, but apparently the biggest single cause of obesity is “emotional eating”. That’s what her guest said, at any rate. The point was to identify the emotional triggers, and learn to deal with in some other way. For example, if you’re eating to “fill the void in your life”, then fill it with family, friends, and other rewarding activities, instead.

(Interestingly, one of the reviewers at Amazon preferred Deborah Low’s book, The Quest for Peace, Love, and a 24-inch Waist, for women struggling with that problem. The reviewer also recommended the author’s site at www.deborahlow.com.)

Addressing emotional issues is also a big part of Jorge Cruise’s program in 8 Minutes in the Morning. He also provides a web site where you can get in touch with others for emotional support, and get personal coaching (www.jorgecruise.com). He also hosts weekly conference calls, and he encourages people to lean on each other. So it’s kind of a “find a friend” service for weight loss.

2. Water and Exercise

Drink water. Lots of water. All day long. A video montage showed Oprah sipping water all day long. On the show, she sipped through a straw. It kept her hydrated (important for burning fat), and kept her stomach full so she ate less.

When I gave up smoking, I noticed that my hands and mouth were longing for something to do. So one suspects that the constant sipping also has the effect of keeping the mouth busy with something else besides the food it’s in the habit of working on.

On the exercise front, Oprah has added resistance training to here regimen, mostly with dumbbells. (It’s great to see her recommending that. Resistance training is vital for building bone strength, for building fat-burning muscle, and for retaining the fast-twitch muscle fibers we lose as we age.)

Since morning exercise is most effective for weight loss, that’s the best way to start the day. (Not only does it raise the metabolism for the rest of the day, but exercising on an empty stomach promotes the release of growth hormone — which only occurs in the absence of insulin — and growth hormone builds muscle and burns fat, in addition to repairing injuries and doing the “body maintenance” that keeps us young. When we’re young, growth hormone is released automatically, and we take it for granted. But exercise is required to keep it from dwindling as we age.)

Her training regimen is pretty extreme, though: 30 minutes of cardiovascular work 5 days a week, followed by weight training 3 of those days. So it’s clearly an area where you should customize something that works for you. (That’s a pretty intense level of exercise to maintain past 20 or so. I’d be surprised if she’s not experiencing the fatigue and ennui of overtraining — that killer of exercise programs — in 4 to 6 weeks. A better plan might be 3 cardiovascular days, interspersed with 3 weight training days, and one rest day. I’ve known some previously overweight people who developed “killer cuts” on that regimen.)

Note:
You can get a good workout in a matter of minutes in the morning, and raise your metabolism for the remainder of the day! Here’s a book that shows how even a little exercise can make a big difference: 8 Minutes in the Morning, by Jorge Cruise and Tony Robbins.

3. Redistribute Your Meals (The Feeling is Your Friend)

This one was key, for me. The idea was to have your biggest meal for breakfast, a smaller one for lunch, a midday snack, and really small meal (like soup) for dinner. If dinner is early, then a small snack is allowed in the evening. But the idea is to eat nothing after 7:30. (That’s her schedule, anyway. My schedule varies a bit. More on that later.)

A. Exercise and Eat Big in the Morning

The first half of this equation is that eating in the morning raises your metabolism — so you have more energy through the day, and undertake more activities. So you not only burn what you eat, you burn more besides. If you start the day underfed, on the other hand, your metabolism stays in low gear. You move slow and conserve energy, and it becomes a habit.

So the ideal pattern becomes: Exercise and then have a big breakfast, first thing in the morning. (This sequence is ideal because, once the exercise produces growth hormone, it acts in combination with the insulin produced while eating to drive protein, as well as sugar, into the muscle. So the muscles grow, and the sugar replenishes muscle-energy instead of being stored as fat.)

Note:
This part of the plan reminds me of old-time farm life, where you get up early, do your chores, and then sit down to a big meal before going on with the rest of your day. It certainly worked for them. But after years of eating nothing for breakfast, I’m finding it impossible to eat a really big meal in the morning, especially after exercising. I have a sandwich, some carrots, and my morning tea, and I’m full! But then, maybe that’s the idea. Maybe what seems like a lot in the morning really isn’t all that much. And if it keeps you from eating even more later in the day, that’s a pretty good thing.

B. Don’t Eat in the Evening

The second half of the equation was to embrace that gnawing feeling you get in the evening, when you start getting hungry and want to graze. Her guest pointed out that you can’t lose weight without experiencing that feeling. Oprah expanded on that point, saying relax, you’re not going to die, and when you have that feeling, it means you are losing weight. So welcome it. She also said, “And if you feed the feeling, you wake up fat!”

As Bob Greene says in Get with the Program, “That slight craving for something late in the evening is your body warning you that if you don’t feed it, it’s going to dip into your fat stores for some energy. Let it! Just go to sleep wanting a little something and let the feeling pass.” (p.132)

Note:
This part of the program rang true, for a couple of reasons. One was the memory that, as I child, I never ate anything after dinner. (Of course, as a teenager, I ate at all hours of the day and night. But that’s a different story. Teens need a lot of fuel to grow.) The other reason it made sense was the way it matched my experience when training for my black belt, which I’ll go into in more detail, shortly.

In other words: The feeling is your friend. Because:

  1. You’re eating a little less than you otherwise would have.
  2. You’re only eating when food has a fighting chance of being burned, instead of taking it straight to bed (or the couch) where it has to be stored as fat.
  3. Growth hormone is released during sleep, but as with exercise, it is only released when insulin (release after eating) drops to a low level. So going to bed on an empty stomach allows growth hormone release, which repairs tissue, builds muscle, and burns fat.Note:
    To promote the process, take a glutamine supplement before bed.)

So look forward to that feeling, welcome it, and plan on having a big breakfast the next day!

4. Quality of Food

The interesting finding was that while quality of food is obviously important for health, it is much less important for weight loss than the other factors. So if you don’t change anything at all about what you eat, but redistribute your meals, get more exercise, drink more water, and get emotional eating under control, you should have little trouble losing weight.

Oprah did point out that she was avoiding the “white foods” — white bread, white pasta, white rice, and that she was eating more unrefined foods like brown rice. (The added fiber and nutrients undoubtedly help her stick to her plan. But it is also important to avoid poisons like the trans fats in partially hydrogenated oils that are in most manufactured food products, and the high-fructose fatteners (AKA high-fructose sugar) that are sweetening most every manufactured liquid.)

Finally, Oprah noted that she tried to limit the amounts of food, as well. So, for example, she had a smaller medium size potato, instead of an el grande huge one. (My suspicion is that we should limit amounts of the “guilty foods” that we know are bad for us and eat all we want of the foods that we know are good for us and, if in doubt, assume the worst until we find out better.)

How It Works, and Why

This program is amazingly simple, and it works. First, there is the simple fact that by drinking a lot of water, you’ll be avoiding the fattening high-fructose syrup that’s in nearly everything bottled soft drink, these days. And beyond a basic sense of “eating what’s good for you” and avoiding what’s not, it’s nice to know that you don’t have to follow some rigorously specified diet. (For some tips on making good food choices for health, see What’s Wrong with Partially Hydrogenated Oils? and Trans Fats: Metabolic Poisons.)

Note:
Reducing portion size is part of Oprah’s regimen, but I suspect that it’s really not that important to limit how much you eat. While it makes sense to limit “guilty pleasures”, good quality food does a lot more good than harm. And it’s self-limiting. It’s virtually impossible to overeat fruit, for example. It is most likely that as your body adapts, you will simply want less, so your portion sizes tend to reduce themselves naturally.

Then there is the idea of getting in some quality resistance exercise, first thing in the morning. In 8 Minutes in the Morning, Jorge Cruise does a nice job of detailing why that part of the program works:

  1. “Your true problem is not excess fat; that’s just the symptom. The underlying problem is lack of lean muscle tissue (because muscle burns fat).” (p. 34)
  2. “Strength training also encourages you to exercise more throughout the day.” (p.35)
    (He adds that men produce 30 times more testosterone than women. Testosterone is required to build muscle, so women don’t have to worry about “bulking up”. Unless you take steroids, the result will be “firmer, sexier, and shapelier — not bulkier”.)
  3. Aerobic exercise can be too challenging when you’re overweight, but that’s not true for strength training. (p. 36)
  4. Strength training will “immediately elevate your metabolism for the whole day”. (p. 38)
  5. “Morning is the only time of day that most people can control”. (p. 44)
  6. “Only 25 percent of evening exercisers consistently do their exercise routines, compared to 75 percent of morning exercisers.” (500-person study conducted at Mollen Clinic in Phoenix. p. 44)
  7. “Women who worked out in the morning reported less tension and greater feelings of contentment (because) exercise sends a signal to your pituitary gland to release endorphins, your body’s natural feel-good drug. (pp 44-45)
  8. Unlike evening exercise, morning exercise lowers blood pressure. (p.45)
  9. Morning exercise produces a bigger burst of testosterone than evening exercise, and the resting levels are higher to start with. So morning is the ideal time to build strength. (p.46)

But the real revelation for me was the dictum to avoid eating before bedtime. (For at least 2 hours before going to bed, according to Bob Greene. I prefer 3 hours.) I immediately recognized that I had done that very thing while training for my black belt, as a result of becoming very strict about what I ate.

This aspect of the program works on so many levels, it’s practically ridiculous:

  1. Calorie reduction
    The simple fact that you’re not eating for that period of time reduces your caloric intake for the day. (In essence, it’s a “mini-fast” for a few hours each day. More on that in a moment.)
  2. Curb junk food
    More importantly, it eliminates a huge volume of “empty calories”. (In my first week, I immediately noticed that the majority of the junk food I was eating was at night, when I was tired and “wanted something to eat” — specifically, something sweet and easy to grab.)
  3. Promote growth hormone release
    Clearing your bloodstream of insulin and sugar allows growth hormone release, which builds muscle, burns fat, repairs muscle, and keeps you young. Eating late at night, especially eating sugary foods, prevents all that.
  4. Cure for indigestion
    Not eating at night is virtually a total cure for indigestion! (Indigestion is at its worst when you lie down, because gravity is no longer keeping stomach acids out of the esophagus. But when the stomach is clear of food: Voila! Instant cure.)
  5. Hydration
    If at no other time of the day, this is the one time when you will drink water — because it’s the only thing you can have. Water is vital for fat burning, energy, and cellular function, so this focused “hydration time” is very good for health, as well as for weight loss.
  6. Sleep
    This program goes a long way towards promoting a good night’s sleep — and that’s when your body grows muscle and repairs itself:

    1. Indigestion doesn’t interfere with your sleeping.
    2. With no “sugar fix”, you’re tired sooner, so you go to sleep earlier.
    3. Besides, the more hungry you get, the more you can’t wait to get to sleep so you can get up early and have a big breakfast.

    As Jorge Cruise notes, sleep is vital. Without it, you eat more to stay awake. At the same time, the body’s metabolism slows down, and the levels of a hormone called leptin rise, which makes you crave sweets.

    Plus, with insufficient sleep, growth hormone levels are reduced. (p. 46). (Although the major growth hormone release occurs early in the sleep cycle, growth hormone is released periodically throughout the night to burn fat for energy and repair tissue.)

    Note:
    Personally, I find it helpful to avoid caffeine after 2pm — ideally, after noon. Otherwise, I tend to stay up later and later each night. Other folks, though, seem to be able to sleep on schedule, regardless. So your mileage my vary.

  7. Regularity
    Your body is an exquisitely adaptive bit of organic machinery. It not only reacts, it anticipates. When you take vitamins, for example, the body takes a couple of weeks to adapt it’s mix of digestive hormones to utilize them. In essence, it predicts what nutrients will be available in the food, in what quantities. Regularity is a key ingredient in weight loss, because when your body “knows” that more food is coming, it can respond to an energy shortage by burning fat instead of shutting down your metabolism. A regular schedule makes that “knowledge” possible, and cutting off food intake at the same time each night tends to produce exactly that kind of regularity. (For more on this subject, see Effect of Exercise on Diet.

And, as a bonus, it helps you take care of your teeth! The cutoff time for food intake makes the perfect time to floss and brush. (That was always a problem for me. There was never a good time to do that in the evening, because I never knew what sticky sweet thing I might be eating later. And the only time I knew it was safe when I was dead-tired and half-asleep already!)

Learn more: A Tale of Six Diets

Conclusion

The small change presented by this program has accomplished big things for me. It’s most important effect was to reverse the weight-gain trend. For a very long time, my weight has been steadily increasing, little by little, every day. It’s almost a negligible gain, really. But it adds up. After many years, it added up to a considerable amount (some 20 or 30 pounds).

When I was training for my black belt, I had myself on a strict training diet. I lost 20 lbs. easily over 8 months, but of course it was difficult to maintain a diet that strict, so I wound up inching my way back up again. A couple of years after attaining my black belt, I was back up where I was before (226/227, closing in on 230).

But now the trend has been reversed. After a couple of weeks, I’m down to 224. There is no feeling of deprivation — just that mild gnawing in the evening that tells you you’re burning fat — and the knowledge that in the morning you’re going to exercise and eat a big breakfast, which will persuade the body that it should definitely burn the fat, and preserve/build the muscle.

Note:
My evening activities were curtailed during those two weeks, for a variety of reasons. So the only exercise I got was a few minutes in the morning with my cardio-oriented strength-building device. As I add evening workouts back into my schedule, the effects of this program can only accelerate.

This program is giving me the same effect I saw in training — a slow, steady maintainable weight loss — but it’s a lot easier to follow. And the fact that it’s easy bodes well for the long term.

(Epilog) Follow Up Notes

21 Apr ’03

  • Three weeks into the program, weight is down to 222. That’s a 4 lb. drop from my starting weight of 226.5, or a little over one lb. a week. I expect that rate to taper off to something like a 1/2 lb. a week, at some point. That’s a more sustainable, and more maintainable, level of fat loss which should eventually stabilize at a decent weight (and a regular schedule!). But for the moment, I’m please to be dropping so much, so quickly.
  • The really important (and optimism-inducing) point in all this is the trend. Where before I was slowly gaining (mostly due to late-night snacking that was getting worse instead of better), the weight is now dropping. (Body fat percentage hasn’t changed significantly, but muscular strength and size are increasing, even with small amounts of exercise. So I’m confident that it is mostly fat which is being burned.)
    Note:
    I have the electronic scales which attempt to measure body fat. But the measurements vary tremendously throughout the day — since the electrical resistance they measure depends a great deal on water levels, they appear to reflect hydration levels much more accurately than body fat percentage — at least when it comes to small variations. I expect that the only way to measure significant changes in body fat composition will be at monthly intervals — and then only as an average of several samples taken at different times of the day.
  • The weight isn’t dropping in a smooth progression, though. I weigh myself in the morning (when I’m at my lightest!), and one day I’ll be the same, the next I’ll be up a little, and the day after that I’ll be down a lot. But over all, I’m down more days than I’m up, which is good. (After a big down, there is almost always a bounce back up. But the upward bounce is smaller, which makes it possible to predict the trend.
  • I’ve found that I tend to alternate cutoff times. One day, I’ll cut off at 6:30, because that’s the last time I ate, and I 9:00 or 9:30 when I get hungry again, it’s too late to eat. The next day, I’ll have my last meal at 8:30 or so. The early-cutoff days, of course, are the ones where the weight loss occurs. (I could push to get more of those days, but I’d rather keep the losses down to 1 lb. or so a week, to maintain energy levels and be sure that I’m burning fat, rather than muscle.)
  • Cutting off 2 hours before going to bed appears to be sufficient when I eat a truly light meal, like a handful of cashews and a bowl of soup. But when I eat a heavier meal (as I often do), it takes at least 3 hours, and generally more like 4, before I begin to feel that fat-burning feeling.
  • That experience is explained pretty well by the known facts of growth hormone release:
    • “Clinical studies reveal that elevating levels of growth hormone (produces dramatic results including) restoring hair color and growth, making bone tissue more dense, boosting energy, and significantly reducing body fat.” (HGH: Age Reversing Miracle, Rita Elkins, p. 8. Emphasis added.)
    • “The frequency of GH (growth hormone) release pulses and the quantity of GH secretions can be increased by fasting, whereas food intake shuts down this mechanism by stimulating insulin, which counteracts growth hormone.” (Staying Young, Gilbert Elian, et al, p. 22)
    • Free fatty acids also inhibit GH release (Grow Young with HGH, Ronald Klatz, p. 43), which explains why fasting promotes GH release. (The trick is to keep your metabolic rate high and to keep from burning muscle!).
    • Growth hormone is released naturally at several times:
      • During high-intensity exercise and heavy resistance exercise.(Klatz, p. 254, 260)
      • About 3 hours after eating (a normal meal). (Klatz, p. 40)
        (The graphs show GH being released to burn fat as insulin and blood sugar levels drop below the threshold necessary to sustain energy.)
      • In the first couple of hours of deep sleep. (Klatz, p. 241)
    • So Klatz recommends that you, “take your last meal at least 4 hours before you plan to go to bed.” (Klatz, p. 248) That recommendation ensures that insulin levels will not inhibit GH release. (But a very light meal two hours before going to bed seems to produce an equivalent effect because insulin still dissipates during, if not before, the initial 2 hours of deep sleep.)

References

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    […] plan is very similar to the one discussed in Oprah’s Rules for Weight Loss. It should be — it stems from the same roots. Although it, too, required “expert […]

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