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Is January 1 the best date to kick-start a weight loss diet?

By: Hassan S Dashti, PhD

The most popular New Years resolution by far is weight loss. People kick-start their new year on new ‘detox’ or fad diets with hopes to lose some weight or, less commonly, to adopt a healthy lifestyle, only to quit a few months later. Traffic to websites like caloriecounter.com and weightwaterchers.com hits an all time high in January! (1) People often envision January 1 of every year as an empowering and motivating moment that enables them to consider making these daring lifestyle changes. People might be less inclined to make these commitments on arbitrary dates like March 1 or October 19. With emerging evidence suggesting seasonal changes in the environment and human physiology, driven primarily by seasonal changes in sunlight and temperature, is it possible that certain start dates or seasons are more conducive to successful weight loss?

Seasonal variations have been observed for numerous communicable and non-communicable diseases (2) and both biological and behavioral traits. One of the earliest observations of seasonal variation in a disease was that of rickets, a disease resulting from vitamin D deficiency (3). Clinical observations indicated that rickets was common in spring, but rare in fall. The subsequent finding of seasonal variation in plasma 25(OH)D levels suggested that summer sunlight exposure was indeed an important determinant of vitamin D status. For more complex traits, like obesity, the seasonal etiology, if present, is likely to be multifactorial!

Successful weight loss is largely determined by the ability to reduce overall caloric intake, which depends on food availability and internal hunger cues. Living at a time where food is essentially abundant year-round in the Western world, people are typically not dealing with food shortages. For most processed foods, seasonal price variability is also absent, particularly in metropolitan areas, so people’s intakes are likely to be homogenous year-round (4,5). However, seasonal price variability of nutrient dense fruits and vegetables may limit a person’s likelihood to adhere to diets higher in fruits and vegetables. For example, strawberry prices tend to decrease through the first four months of the year and rise again from September to December. Fresh apples, on the other hand, have a fairly weak seasonal price pattern as a result of new apple varieties with later harvest dates and sophisticated storage technology. But it seems that despite the constant supply of most foods at steady prices, seasonal variation in dietary intake may exist. In the Framingham Heart Study, for example, self-reported total energy intake was 86 kcal/day higher during the fall than in the spring (6). Also, percentage of calories from carbohydrate, fat and saturated fat showed slight seasonal variation, with a peak in the spring for carbohydrate and in the fall for total fat and saturated fat intake. Of course these differences may be due to seasonal differences in self-reporting and recall, but if it’s true, is weight loss in the spring more successful than the fall?

Another important aspect of weight loss to consider is seasonal variability in energy expenditure.

The investigation from the Framingham Heart Study (6) also observed seasonal variation in physical activity, including common activities such as gardening, carpentry, lawn mowing, golf and running for men, and gardening, swimming, health club exercise, dancing and bicycling for women. Not surprisingly, people residing in the Northeast are less inclined to engage in outdoor physical activity. This sedentary lifestyle in the winter may partly explain the reason why people tend to be the heavier in the winter! (7)

Newer studies are investigating more complex physiologic changes that might interfere with energy balance. Recent observations in humans suggest that cold exposure may induce the conversion of white adipose tissue to more metabolically active brown-like adipose tissue (8). This ‘beiging’ effect of cold exposure could potentially have clinical implications for diabetes and obesity. Other studies have observed seasonal variability in metabolism and epigenetics as well (9,10). Whether these physiologic differences can override energy imbalance resulting from seasonal lifestyle differences is currently unknown.

To test whether there are seasonal differences in weight loss success we’d ideally test this in a randomized and controlled weight loss trial whereby people are prescribed hypocaloric diets and assigned random start dates. This can also be investigated analytically in previously conducted weight loss cohorts. Various methodologies are available for the assessment of seasonality and those range from simple comparisons across seasons, to simple models such as fitting monthly counts to a sine curve, or more complex statistical models (2).

Despite the little evidence we have so far relating seasonality and energy balance, healthcare providers, including nutritionists, should account for seasonality in their practice, and tailor their dietary (food and fluids) and physical activity recommendations accordingly – it’d be senseless to recommend berries when they are unavailable at stores or outdoor exercise when it’s uncomfortably warm! But perhaps reaching that point of enthusiasm for weight loss is the most important factor predicting weight loss success, so if January 1 is that date when motivation hits in, then so be it!

References:

2.Christiansen CF, Pedersen L, Sørensen HT, Rothman KJ. Methods to assess seasonal effects in epidemiological studies of infectious diseases–exemplified by application to the occurrence of meningococcal disease. Clin Microbiol Infect. 2012 Oct;18(10):963–9.
3.Stamp TC, Round JM. Seasonal changes in human plasma levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D. Nature. 1974 Feb 22;247(5442):563–5.
4.Evolving U.S. Fruit Markets and Seasonal Grower Price Patterns, by Kristy Plattner, Agnes Perez, and Suzanne Thornsbury, USDA, Economic Research Service, September 2014
5.Bernstein S, Zambell K, Amar MJ, Arango C, Kelley RC, Miszewski SG, et al. Dietary Intake Patterns Are Consistent Across Seasons in a Cohort of Healthy Adults in a Metropolitan Population. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016 Jan;116(1):38–45.
6.Ma Y, Olendzki BC, Li W, Hafner AR, Chiriboga D, Hebert JR, et al. Seasonal variation in food intake, physical activity, and body weight in a predominantly overweight population. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2006 Apr;60(4):519–28.
7.Visscher TLS, Seidell JC. Time trends (1993-1997) and seasonal variation in body mass index and waist circumference in the Netherlands. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2004 Oct;28(10):1309–16.
8.Iyengar P, Scherer PE. Obesity: Slim without the gym – the magic of chilling out. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2016 Feb 26.
9.van Ooijen AMJ, van Marken Lichtenbelt WD, van Steenhoven AA, Westerterp KR. Seasonal changes in metabolic and temperature responses to cold air in humans. Physiol Behav. 2004 Sep 15;82(2-3):545–53.
10.Aslibekyan S, Dashti HS, Tanaka T, Sha J, Ferrucci L, Zhi D, et al. PRKCZ methylation is associated with sunlight exposure in a North American but not a Mediterranean population. Chronobiol Int. 2014 Jul 30;:1–7.
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ACCN15: Motivational Interviewing Techniques to Encourage Lifestyle Changes/Weight Loss

By Celez Suratos, MS, RD, ACCN15 Blogger

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a technique used to incite positive behavior change. It is directive and client/patient-centered. Healthcare providers (including registered nurses and dietitians) use MI to direct self-motivational statements from the patient. Hence, allowing patients to be in charge of setting and meeting their own goals. Dr. Kathryn I. Pollack from the Duke University School of Medicine facilitated an interactive workshop on MI at this year’s Advances and Controversies in Clinical Nutrition Conference (ACCN). The main focus was to inform healthcare providers of the “spirit” of MI, as well as putting MI techniques into practice through role-playing.

Most of us are familiar with the phrase, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” But did you know that communication is approximately 90 percent body language? MI is more than a methodological counseling approach. It also causes a healthcare provider be more present and aware of how he/she is communicating to the patient. According to Dr. Pollack, the “spirit” of MI embodies four key principles to elaborate on such a concept; Partnership, Acceptance, Evocation, and Compassion.

A healthcare provider may have the tendency to dominate the conversation by supplying the patient with numerous facts about the status of his/her health, likely telling the patient what he/she “must” do in order to prevent the “worst-case scenario” from happening to them. However, in MI, a provider should focus on building a partnership-like relationship rather than one that is hierarchical. One can do this by initially asking permission before sharing information and giving advice. This allows patients a choice to discuss their health based on their own readiness to handle the information you want to give them. Alternatively, a provider can ask the patient what concerns he/she may have in order to allow the patient to set the agenda, giving the patient the power to discuss what he/she may already be thinking about improving.

Acceptance goes beyond the concept of non-judgment. This means the healthcare provider accepts the patient’s motivation, commitment, and choices in totality. This relates back to non-verbal communication. If you are feeling judgment, you are also likely exhibiting judgment, which then means your patient can see your judgment. Think about it – do you ever cross your arms or furrow your brow when you disagree with a statement? Letting go of judgment will not only improve your skills as a practitioner, but can be freeing as well.

A healthcare provider may be able to provide a patient with beneficial reasons to improve his/her health status. However, evocation is the idea that people are motivated by their own reasons. In MI, the provider facilitates a conversation that allows the patient to find his or her own motivation for adopting positive change. One way to help patients find their motivation is to prompt them with questions to discuss their readiness to change. Such questions may include asking patients to rank their readiness to change (i.e., on a scale of 1 to 7 –with 1 being least ready to change and 7 being most ready for change, for example), then asking why they chose that particular number on the scale, what it would take for them to rank their readiness for change even higher (if not already ranked as a priority), and when will they be ready to implement their plan. Evocation extracts information from the patient, such as reasons to change, identifies barriers to change, and eventually a self-actualized plan to get patients to reach their goal(s).

Dr. Pollack also mentioned ‘compassion’ as a novel principle to the spirit of MI, particularly in the provider-patient relationship. It comes from the idea that providers should use open-ended questions, reflective statements, and summarize the conversation when they interact with their patients. This demonstrates active listening, versus a series of agreeable head-nods or dismissive “uh huh” verbal responses. Compassion also calls on providers to give patients affirmation with each step they take to reach their goal(s), even during times of perceived setbacks.

Dr. Pollack summarized that only the patient can make change happen for him or herself. The patient is the one who needs to put in the work to see results. Motivational interviewing is not only a tool healthcare providers can use as a catalyst for positive change, but is also a specific skill that takes practice and time to perfect.