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January is over, and the clock is ticking on perennial resolutions to shed weight. How long have you given yourself this time to lose those 10, 20, 30 or more pounds you packed on since adolescence?

And why does the weight almost always come back?

Unhealthy eating habits plus too little exercise, too much sitting around and an age-related loss of muscle mass are the main reasons, enhanced perhaps by genetics, environment, disability and other circumstances. Most of these can be overcome, dieticians say, by making small behavioral changes before setting weight loss goals.

Going on a "diet," they say, too often involves making radical, unsustainable eating changes in the hopes of losing weight quickly, only to mess up your metabolism and mind so much you could be setting yourself up for eventually weighing even more than when you started.

"Diet" is kind of a bad word to Jessica Cooper, a registered dietician in Salt Lake City who teaches people how to lose weight and counsels athletes on how to use nutrition to boost performance.

One of the first bits of advice she gives her clients is to focus less on outcomes and more on behaviors. "I talk about habits they need to change," she says. "If they start eating better, they start feeling better."

That is the gist of the second annual U.S. News and World Report "Best Diets" feature released in January, an analysis of 25 commercial and academic eating plans for their health and weight-loss potential.

Katherine Beals, a University of Utah associate professor of nutrition, was one of 22 experts who helped evaluate the eating plans, eventually breaking the rankings into bests for weight loss, diabetes, heart health, and healthy eating. The rankings also included the best commercial diet plans, easiest diets to follow and best overall.

"Many of the, quote unquote, diets we evaluated were not really for weight loss," she says.

Nor had the claims of some of them been subject to scientific analysis, something she and the other team members do regularly.

"If you're a consumer, it's very difficult to wade through the hundreds [of diet plans] that are available," she says. "But what I think is simple: Forget what you weigh. What do you need to be healthy?"

One answer: exercise.

"People tell me they don't have time to exercise," Beals says. "Really? How much time do you spend watching TV? You need to be physically active every day....If you do those two things, your weight will settle at what is healthy for you."

Craving what you need • Cooper tells clients that if they are desperate for a certain unhealthy food, they are really craving nutrients. Trouble is, "it takes a lot of cheeseburgers and fries to get those vitamins and minerals," she says, "and you also get a lot of calories."

The diets that got top billing in the U.S. News report share a common denominator: lots of fruit and vegetables. They included the DASH, TLC and Volumetrics eating plans — which were developed to fight chronic ailments such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig were the top two commercial diet plans.

None of them restrict entire classes of food, a big plus in the analyses.

"I'm a big fan of inclusionary eating," Cooper says, which is far better than having people look forward to a diet's end so they can eat whole rows of Oreos.

Cooper provides nutritional counseling to Real Salt Lake, as a team and to interested individual players. Will Johnson, 25, who plays center midfield for the Major League Soccer team, says he seeks advice on how to eat for endurance but also take care of his easily irritated stomach.

"One of the main things Jessica has taught me is, not all carbs are created equal," Johnson said.

He's learned how to eat the night before a game — a healthy plate of brown rice, broccoli or asparagus, salmon or tuna — and in the hours just before he takes the field, when he eats a bland meal of white rice and a lean free-range chicken breast, a banana and some coconut water (a natural isotonic).

That's easy to accomplish when he's at home. But when the team goes on the road, or when they are in preseason training, which started Jan. 31 in Arizona, proper nutrition becomes a bit more of a challenge. That's why Johnson shops at Whole Foods or other grocers for fresh vegetables and healthy breakfast makings, such as bagels with almond butter and honey, rather than relying on restaurant meals.

Not only do the players have to eat for endurance, they have to watch themselves when they are inactive, he says.

Advice from losers • Cooper steers athletes' food choices and urges them to think about what food is really for — not a reward for activity, but rather a means to building activity levels and feeling good. "I call it eating to train, not training to eat," she says.

That's good advice for anyone, not just professional athletes, Cooper says.The idea is to fill up on healthy bulk and minimize calorie-dense foods, Cooper says. She also recommends habits suggested by the National Weight Control Registry, which tracks more than 10,000 individuals who have lost significant amounts of weight and kept it off for long periods of time. They include:

• Exercise. Most of the people in the registry exercise 30 minutes or more per day, per U.S. Department of Agriculture recommendations. Exercise burns calories and builds lean muscle mass, which is active and takes more calories to maintain than inert fat.

• Eat breakfast. This helps control blood-sugar levels and prevent late-morning carbohydrate binges.

• Weigh yourself regularly or try on clothes that used to fit. Cooper likens it to watching your checking-account balance. "If you're never looking at your account and you're just swiping your debit card," she says, "you'll get out of control."

• Get enough sleep. Research shows eight hours of solid sleep — not just rest — are far better than seven hours or fewer when it comes to good health and weight maintenance.

• Track your food intake.

Stay vigilant but nurturing • Salt Lake City dietician Julie Bolick, an instructor with Intermountain Health Care's Health and Fitness Institute at LDS Hospital, says it's better to have clients record what they eat in the program's electronic tracking system rather than on paper. The computer version can be customized and analyzed for caloric intake or a meal's percentage of carbohydrates, protein and fat.

Another option: the USDA's free online SuperTracker site. Either can be set up to send email and text messages that provide new information and encouragement.

"I'm always urging my clients, particularly in my classes, for us to get away from diets," she says. "Rather, let's talk about eating for health."

Bolick favors the TLC and DASH eating plans, top scorers in the U.S. News analysis, and emphasizes they aren't temporary diets but lifelong paths to health. Losing 10 percent of body weight offers tremendous health benefits, she says.

"In my experience with people who are obese, they have to stay steadfast," she says. "It's a process. Often they think there's going to be an end point."

And if it all seems overwhelming, small changes are fine, something she has to remind herself of as well as her clients.

"We health-care professionals expect people to understand when they just don't," she says. "There's this kind of leap we expect, instead of baby steps."Though weight-loss resolutions come with the New Year, winter may not be the best time to be hard on our mammalian selves. Cooper even says it's okay to add a bit of insulation when it's cold, "as long as we're still exercising, making healthy food choices and getting enough sleep."

It's a time to nurture our souls with good food and good company, she says. Fewer daylight hours sets us up to crave carbohydrates, which help create serotonin, a neurotransmitter that counters depression and helps with self-control.

"It's very natural for other animals to gain a little weight in the wintertime," Cooper says. "We need to connect back to some of our natural instincts." —

When is a diet a healthy eating plan for life?

U.S. News and World Report helps to answer the question with its second annual "Best Diets" feature, which rates medical, academic and commercial eating plans for their weight-loss and good-health effectiveness. The top-rated plans shared some basics, including eating lots of fruit and vegetables and not excluding certain foods as bad.

O U.S. News and World Report "Best Diets" • —

Resources cited in this story

National Weight Control Registry •

USDA SuperTracker •

"Exercise for weight loss • Calories burned in 1 hour," Mayo Clinic: —

Fighting 'The Fat Trap'

In January, New York Times writer and blogger Tara Parker-Pope examined "The Fat Trap," concluding that once we become fat we will most likely stay that way, often through hormonal changes that become self-perpetuating.

Her premise rested largely on the experiences of people who had gone on extremely low-calorie diets. Parker-Pope reported the dieters' bodies reacted as if they were starving. The lost weight returned fairly quickly when the dieters ate more, as their bodies countered what they interpreted as an unhealthy situation.