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When Jerlyn’s husband returned from a year-long deployment in Kuwait, she surprised him with a new slimmer look. Their first hug was proof enough that Jerlyn (first name only, to protect privacy and security) had lost 47 pounds during their separation.

Jerlyn is among many military spouses who use these long stretches of time to lose weight and improve fitness goals. “Every time my husband left I tried to lose weight,” she said, “but it never stayed off after he returned, until now.” Her formula for success was a balanced plan with ongoing counseling through Jenny Craig.

Weight gain is a constant problem despite the fact that tens of millions of Americans spend more than $33 billion a year on weight-loss plans, products and food. Experts say that most sound diet plans will help you lose weight. “Frankly, all diets work because they are all in the 1500-to-1800 calorie range,” says Dr. Shawn Talbott, associate professor of nutrition and director of the nutrition clinic at College of Health, University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “The trick is to find one that is easy to stay on,” he says.

Despite the high number of quick-fixes on the market, the most reliable way to lose the pounds for good is with moderation and exercise. For Amy (first name only, to protect privacy and security), active duty Navy enlisted, she needed to lose weight to get a good performance evaluation. But she didn’t want the deprivation, which is why she also chose Jenny Craig. “I absolutely loved the food,” she said, “and because I ate every three hours, I was never hungry.”

A recent Tufts University study examined all the diet plans and determined that the four most popular diets – Atkins, Weight Watchers, Ornish and the Zone – all work equally well, resulting in an average weight loss of five percent body weight and positive changes in blood fats. But the most significant finding was a message we are all reluctant to hear: Staying the course for one’s lifetime, not just during a limited time period such as a deployment, is the key to weight loss.

One way to find the stick-to-it factor is to look for a plan with support. Studies comparing the success of self-help diets versus personally monitored diet programs, such as Weight Watchers, found that those with built-in support systems fared much better for long-term weight loss. For Amy, the support from her Jenny Craig counselor was the make-it-or-break-it motivator that helped her lose close to 50 pounds. “There were weeks that didn’t go very well,” she said, “and my counselor helped me to regroup and move on instead of giving up.”

Military active duty and spouses should look for a plan that moves with you and transfers without paying any additional fees; has foods you like to eat; includes an easy-to-follow exercise program; and offers support through meetings, counseling or online. Also look for a plan that doesn’t promise overnight weight loss. Instead, aim for an average of two pounds per week.

Diet Plan Know-How

If you are serious about losing weight and don’t want to wait for the next deployment or performance evaluation to make a change, the following summarizes the most popular plans and the costs associated with each one.

Atkins is the most famous of the high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets. Millions of its followers shun breads, pastas and sugary foods, replacing them with protein, vegetables and a moderate ration of butter and cream. Small portions of whole grains and fruits gradually are reintroduced in the diet. The trend has prompted to new line of low-carb baking mixes, breads, pastas and snacks.

Despite the diet’s appeal, many question its safety. To date, small case studies (paid for by Atkins) show that despite the high fat content, in the short term the diet does not raise the risk of heart disease. Skeptics say it’s likely because any weight loss helps improve cholesterol levels. Long-term, controlled studies will begin to answer these questions in 2004. Researchers warn that the high protein intake may take a toll on the kidneys and thus should be avoided by people with a history of kidney trouble.

Curves International is a 30-minute circuit training program of weight lifting and low-impact cardiovascular exercise that’s like working out with your girlfriends. The comfortable atmosphere makes it attractive for women who have never worked out. Membership is transferable, with nationwide and international locations.

eDiets is an online weight loss service that offers its own plans, a Jenny Craig-type eDiet, and other popular diet plans, including Atkins, Shape-Up and The Zone. An online military spouse group also is accessible.

First Place focuses on finding a balanced life through diet, exercise, scripture, prayer and support. Chapters are worldwide, including some military bases (contact your base chaplain or First Place).

Jenny Craig participants can choose between brick-and-mortar locations to purchase food and attend counseling sessions or use an online program. Exercise programs and support tapes are offered. Membership is transferable, with nationwide and international locations.

Shape-Up is Dr. Phil McGraw’s plan, as seen on his television show, which includes his seven principles of weight loss and a meal plan based on whether you have a pear or apple body shape.

The South Beach Diet is another high-protein, low-carbohydrate plan. Unlike Atkins, however, it includes low-saturated fats instead of butter fats. Dr. Arthur Agatston first developed the diet solely for his heart and diabetic patients to lose weight. The patients saw remarkable results, which prompted public interest. The South Beach Diet avoids simple carbohydrates like white flour and white sugar, and instead focuses on vegetables, proteins and healthy fats from olive oil, nuts and fish.

Weight Watchers is the most recognized support-based weight loss program; it strives for success through a point system and set of goals including healthy eating, physical activity, group support and lifetime maintenance. Membership is transferable, with nationwide and international locations.

The Zone is a diet by Dr. Barry Sears that includes generous amount of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats such as olive oil and complex carbohydrates made from whole grains. Dietary supplements and specialty foods available online and in grocery stores.

De-stress to Whittle the Middle

Anyone associated with the military will tell you that stress and the military are inseparable. Physicians now know this constant stress can chip away bit-by-bit at your body’s ability to fight off disease and can lead to weight gain – regardless of what you are eating.

It’s all because of a hormone called cortisol, a chemical responsible for helping humans flee from stressful situations – think of cave men and mastodons. But in today’s world, fleeing is often a socially unacceptable solution, so cortisol levels build up.

The problem is that cortisol makes you seem hungry, especially for sugary and carbohydrate-rich foods – even when you’re not, according to Dr. Talbott. The other side affect is a tighter waistband because, for reasons yet to be explained, cortisol causes abdominal weight gain, a risk factor for heart disease. Talbott warns that obsessing too much about food and feeling deprived on strict diets can also cause stress, thus increasing cortisol levels and continuing the cycle over again.

Weight gain is not the only negative effect of cortisol. “It elevates blood pressure and the heart rate, eventually increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Alyssa Armstrong, Stress Management Consultant based in Portsmouth, England. It also can suppress the immune system, impair memory and decrease sex drive.

Avoiding stress is impossible – world events and the needs of the Department of Defense place uncontrollable strains on active duty and military spouses. But there is hope. Talbott says the aim should be to concentrate on decreasing the body’s release of cortisol, rather than avoiding the stress. Exercise, relaxation, adequate sleep and a healthy diet that you are comfortable with, instead of struggling with, can significantly lower cortisol levels. Talbot also recommends a few dietary supplements to help keep cortisol levels under control, including a multivitamin, calcium (500mg-1000mg/day), vitamin C (1000mg/day, divided into 250 mg doses) and green tea extract (500 mg/day).

Armstrong, stress expert, military brat and military family member, offers these stress reduction tips:

During separations, keep a normal routine.  Maintain your hobbies, even it if means finding regular babysitters.

Eat healthy foods and keep a routine of cooking and eating regular meals, especially if you have children.

Exercise: Any kind of moderate activity for at least 30 minutes a day can significantly reduce cortisol levels.

Emotional comfort and nurturing relationships from family and friends will reduce tension and lift your spirits.

Avoid too much caffeine, nicotine and/or alcohol during stressful periods. They may seem like coping mechanisms, but ultimately they create spirals of stress and fatigue.

To ease the period of readjustment when a service man or woman returns, talk about all the little changes that have occurred since he or she has been away. To help prevent a power struggle, discuss who will now take responsibility for what and talk about new solutions. Seek help from a counselor right away if conflicts are not resolved.

Hopeless weight gain doesn’t have to be an inevitable symptom of the stress of military life. Unlike the civilian community, military families are connected by an unbreakable bond of support, the single common factor for any successful weight loss program.


Plan             Type                Cost            Support    Website

Atkins High protein, low carb plan with four phases Book Price, $7.99-$24.99 Online support
Curves International 30-minute fitness plan and low carb meal plan for women only Initiation fee, plus $29.99 per month On-site support
eDiets Online weight loss service that offers its own plans and other popular diet plans $5 per week, per plan Online support
First Place Christian-based plan that follows Weight Watchers Exchange system $70-$100 for the initial kit, thereafter only pay for Bible study book Weekly meeting and online support
Jenny Craig Pre-portioned foods for the first half of program, own food thereafter Ongoing monthly specials, and long-term plans starting at $199, plus cost of food Personal consultant and online support programs
The South Beach Diet High protein, low fat, low carb plan with three phases Book Cost: $24.95 Online support
Weight Watchers Flexible point system using own food, no foods are forbidden, also a Fast Track program Weekly fee, up to $14 depending on location; lifetime membership once weight goal is maintained Weekly meetings, online and lifetime support


The Zone Diet of 40% complex carbohydrates, 30% proteins, 30% fats; popular with athletes.

Book Cost:


Online support

Kimberly Lord Stewart is a freelance health writer as well as an Air Force daughter and Navy wife, sister and mother. She can be reached at