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Common Chemicals in Nonstick Pans and Food Wrappers Could Hurt Your Health–and Your Waistline. Here’s How to Avoid Them

A common class of chemicals that’s been linked to cancer, fertility problems, and thyroid dysfunction has now been tied to another major health issue: According to a new study in PLOS Medicine, women who have high levels of perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their blood tend to gain back more unwanted weight after dieting.

The new study included both men and women who’d been enrolled in a two-year clinical trial and who lost weight by following a heart-healthy diet. But when researchers factored in the levels of PFAS in participants’ blood at the start of the study, they found that people with high levels tended to gain more of that weight back after initially losing it.

The association was found almost exclusively in women, and the researchers say that PFAS’ effects on estrogen in the body may be one reason why. But the study also found that people with high PFAS concentrations had lower resting metabolic rates; in other words, their metabolism was slower and they burned fewer calories doing daily activities.

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The researchers concluded that PFAS may play a role in body weight regulation, and therefore in the country’s current obesity epidemic. “We all know it’s feasible to lose weight through diet or physical activity; however the challenging part is that almost no one can maintain that weight loss,” says senior study Qi Sun, assistant professor in the department of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Now we’ve shown that PFAS level may actually determine how much weight people regain.”

But what exactly are these chemicals, and why are they in our bodies to begin with? Here’s what you need to know, and how you can reduce your exposure.

Ditch fast food and microwave popcorn

PFAS chemicals have water- and oil-repellant properties, which makes them valuable to the fast-food industry and for packaged foods like microwave popcorn. In a 2017 study published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, researchers found that about half of the 400 food wrappers and containers they analyzed contained fluorine, an indicator of PFAS.

Previous studies have found that PFAS have the potential to leach into food—and that once PFAS enter the body, they stay there for years. That’s reason enough to avoid exposure whenever possible, says Laurel Schaider, PhD, an environmental chemist at the Silent Spring Institute and lead author of the food-wrapper study.

“I think we all already have some reasons to reduce how much fast food we consume, and this may be another one,” Schaider told Health in 2017. “If you’re going to eat it, you could try to get the food out of the wrapper as quickly as possible—that might help a little bit.”

RELATED: Another Reason to Never Eat Fast Food Again (That Has Nothing to Do With Fat)

Think twice about stain- or water-resistant products

Another common use for PFAS is making clothing, carpets, upholstery, and other textiles stain- or water-resistant. (Think of advertisements where spilled wine on a sofa beads up and wipes right off.) And while some older PFAS have been phased out of textile production because of associated health and environmental risks, some newer ones have taken their place, says Tom Brutton, PhD, a fellow and PFAS researcher at the Green Science Policy Institute—and their health effects are not yet known.

To be safe, Brutton recommends avoiding stain-, water-, soil-, or grease-repellant products whenever they’re not necessary. And when they are—in the case of a raincoat, for example—look for gear labeled PFAS-free or fluoro-free. “You’re starting to be able to find rain jackets and outdoor gear without these chemicals,” he says, “and I think there will be many more options in as little as two or three years.”

If you already own fabrics with PFAS, don’t panic. “The harm that’s going to happen to one person from the exposure of wearing a raincoat or sitting on a stain-resistant carpet is probably quite minimal,” says Brutton. “What we’re really concerned about are the chemicals released when these products are manufactured and also when they’re disposed of and end up in a landfill.” If consumers can make smarter choices so there are fewer of these products in circulation, he says, it will be better for our health, and for the environment as a whole.

RELATED: 13 Worst Jobs For Your Lungs

Don’t buy another nonstick pan

The same advice goes for nonstick cookware: If you already own pots and pans with these chemicals, you don’t have to stop using them or throw them away—at least not until they’re scratched or damaged. But don’t buy a new set either. “The exposure to you from your use of that pan isn’t going to be so huge that it represents a significant health threat,” says Brutton. “But when it’s time to buy a new one, perhaps look for one that doesn’t contain PFAS.” Many experts recommend stainless steel, ceramic, or cast-iron cookware, or you can look for brands that advertise being PFAS-free.

RELATED: 6 Reasons You Need a Cast-Iron Skillet in Your Kitchen

Be smart about seafood

Because they’re so prevalent in the environment, PFAS can also accumulate in the tissue of animals that humans then consume for food. The chemicals have been found in contaminated seafood, for example, and Brutton says that buying organic won’t necessarily reduce your exposure.

What will help, however, is choosing fish that are lower on the food chain. You may already be doing that if you’re concerned about mercury and other heavy metals in seafood, says Brutton. Following those same rules will also help you avoid PFAS. “Instead of buying swordfish, for example, choose salmon,” he says.

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Check on your water supply

PFAS released during industrial and manufacturing processes can also accumulate in water supplies, especially near industrial sites, wastewater treatment plants, and military fire-training areas. A 2016 study found that drinking water supplies for at least 6 million Americans may exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory limit for lifetime exposure to certain PFAS from drinking water.

Unfortunately, there may not be an easy way to know if your community’s drinking water is contaminated with PFAS, since the EPA does not currently require municipalities to notify residents about these chemicals. But if you’re concerned, it’s worth asking your local supplier.

“In a lot of cases when water utilities find that their levels are high, they’ve taken action and installed filters and alerted consumers, although there’s no guarantee,” Brutton says. Consumers who are concerned about contaminant levels can also install activated carbon filters in their homes. “These products do a fairly good job at removing a lot of these chemicals from drinking water,” he adds.

People Who Lost a Combined 6,818 Lbs. Struggle with Excess Skin on My 600-Lb. Life: Skin Tight

“My skin makes me look like a circus freak,” says one woman in this exclusive clip from the new season.

Losing hundreds of pounds is tough enough, but for many people it comes with the added complication of excess skin. That challenge is the focus of My 600-Lb. Life: Skin Tight, which starts its third season on March 7.

This season features 29 people who have lost a whopping total of 6,818 lbs. But instead of celebrating their accomplishment, many are frustrated with the loose layer of skin covering their bodies.

“My skin makes me look like a circus freak,” says one woman in this exclusive clip from the new season.

“It looks like I’ve melted,” adds a man.

“This extra skin is a punishment worse than death,” says another woman.

“I lost 320 lbs., but I’m still reminded of being the fat girl,” adds a third.

With the help of Dr. Younan Nowzaradan and other plastic surgeons, those 29 people will get skin removal surgery and, hopefully, will finally feel comfortable in their bodies.

“I’m one step closer to being able to live a real life,” says one woman.

My 600-Lb. Life: Skin Tight premieres March 7 at 10/9c on TLC.

Demi Lovato Says She Quit Dieting: ‘I Gained a Little Weight but I’m Happier’

Demi Lovato struggles with body positivity like so many of her fan base.

Despite what the titles of her hit singles “Confident” and “Sorry Not Sorry” might indicate, Demi Lovato struggles with body positivity like so many of her Lovatics fan base.

“It’s a daily battle. Some days I feel great and some days I don’t feel great. And sometimes it’s periods of times,” the singer, 25, tells PEOPLE. “I stopped dieting and have gained a little weight so it’s been a struggle but at the same time, I’m happier because I’m not restricting myself from certain foods and I’m no longer food shaming myself.”

Lovato, who recently launched her third capsule collaboration with Kate Hudson‘s activewear company Fabletics, told fans and social media followers in January via Twitter that she has “given up dieting and in exchange has “given up the chronic stress” of food shaming herself.

“I think that’s something in our society we get caught up in diet culture. Every commercial on TV is either about a weight loss pill or piece of fitness equipment or it’s all food-based,” says Lovato, who credits Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which she has been practicing for two years, as her go-to workout and source of empowerment.

RELATED: Demi Lovato’s Swimsuit Selfies Have Helped Her Take the Power Away from Her Online Haters

“As someone recovering from a food disorder, it’s something that I want to put out there that you don’t have to diet in order to be happy. I don’t think I’ve heard that message out there in the public and of course, it’s important to be healthy and everything in moderation is fine,” Lovato shares.

Her tweet about no longer dieting was specifically timed, according to the Tell Me You Love Me hitmaker.

“I wanted to put that message out there for other people especially with the new year coming in because it’s very triggering for people that are in recovery because everything is about weight loss,” Lovato explains.

Adding, “Because new year’s resolutions are about going to the gym and it’s really important that there’s somebody out there to speak up and say, ‘Hey your weight doesn’t define your self-worth and it definitely doesn’t define your beauty inside and out.’ ”

RELATED GALLERY: From Bikinis to Bedhead: See All of Demi Lovato’s Sexiest Social Media Snaps

After candidly discussing her eating disorder in her YouTube documentary, Simply Complicated, the Grammy nominee reveals a positive update on her recovery.

“I think every day I work towards a better version of myself. It’s recovery so I don’t think it’s something that there’s a cure or anything like that,” Lovato says. “I work towards a better life. And I’m definitely in a great place.”

RELATED: Demi Lovato Is Offering Free Mental Health Counseling to Fans on Tour: ‘I’m Here For Them’

Honest about body positivity and the own struggles with her eating disorder, Lovato is now embracing her curves with bikini and one-piece-clad selfies on social media.

“I think posting sexy pictures are so empowering and liberating,” she says about never hesitating to share sultry photos.

“Anytime you can put yourself out there the more empowering I feel. Also it doesn’t hurt when you look good and you have a good bathing suit on and then a cute guy likes your picture. Doesn’t hurt,” she shares.

The Number One Thing You Need to Do to Lose Weight Forever, According to Experts

Want to lose a little—or a lot—of weight? Forget the get-slim-quick gimmicks and magic bullets and follow the advice of these weight loss pros instead. We asked four experts in different fields to explain their research into what really works when it comes to losing the weight and keeping it off. Their full-proof strategies will help anyone win at losing.

RELATED: 25 Surprising Ways to Lose Weight

Go to bed

No, you’re not dreaming! Getting your Zz’s is proving to be one of the most important behaviors to achieve—and maintain—a healthy weight. Studies show that adults who report sleeping less than five to six hours per night gain more weight over time, have bigger waistlines, and are more likely to be obese compared to those who get sufficient sleep, says Andrea Spaeth, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of kinesiology and health at Rutgers University.

The reason: When you skimp on shut-eye, your hunger hormones get thrown out of whack, which can drive you to eat more calories, often in the form of sugary or fatty foods. It’s much easier to stick to healthy eating habits when you give your body the sleep it requires. If you snooze, you lose!

Since one in three adults are getting insufficient sleep, Spaeth recommends planning your sleep schedule a week at a time in order to ensure at least seven hours of slumber each night. She also suggests creating a healthy sleep environment by limiting light and setting the temperature to around 67 degrees, as well as establishing a nighttime ritual that includes powering down electronic devices and engaging in more relaxing activities instead.

RELATED: 34 Sleep Hacks for Your Most Restful Night Ever

Eat early

When obesity researcher Courtney Peterson, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, wanted to shed 30 extra pounds and keep it off, she used time-restricted eating, one of her areas of research. Time-restricted feeding involves eating in a defined time period (say eight to 10 hours per day), followed by an extended fast of 14 to 16 hours. According to Peterson, research shows that time-restricted feeding reduces appetite, increases fat burn, and aids weight loss.

Eating during a more defined timeframe helps guarantee that you get the majority of your calories earlier in the day. In one study of 420 dieters, those who ate most of their calories before 3:00 p.m. lost more weight (22 pounds) compared to participants who ate most of their calories later in the day (17 pounds), despite both groups following the same 1,400-calorie diet and sticking with an exercise program. To start a time-restricted eating plan, try dining within a 10-hour window, say 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Then, fast overnight. If you want to get more aggressive, switch to an eight-hour eating window.

RELATED: The 50 Best Weight Loss Foods of All Time

Step on the scale

Your bathroom scale may be the best tool to help you lose weight and keep it off, explains Dori Steinberg, PhD, RD, associate director at Duke Global Health Science Center. After completing a series of studies, her research team discovered that overweight and obese adults who stepped on the scale each day lost an average of 13.5 pounds, with some volunteers dropping up to 20. Those who weighed themselves less frequently lost an average of 7 pounds.

“Contrary to popular belief, our research didn’t reveal any downsides of daily weigh-ins, like feeling depressed or displaying signs of disordered eating,” Steinberg says. Weighing yourself daily provides immediate feedback about your typical behaviors, she adds, which explains why it has been shown to motivate individuals to adopt healthier habits, such as eating fewer sweets and getting enough exercise. In other words, it provides additional accountability to help you stay on track.

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Commit to a new lifestyle

Weight loss experts often say: Don’t diet, change your lifestyle. Making the commitment to change your life for the long haul is the key when it comes to lasting weight loss, explains Lisa Zucker, MS, RD, who worked with weight loss clients for nearly a decade at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado.

When people come to the understanding that their behaviors have to change forever, great things can happen. But if the resolve to stick with it isn’t there, weight loss will be only temporary. Participants in the National Weight Control Registry–a collection of more than 10,000 successful dieters who lost significant amounts of weight and kept it off–are noted for their resolve compared to less successful dieters. These folks haven’t gone back to where they were, no matter what barriers they faced. Analysis of their results shows that even when these dieters faced challenges and slipped, they quickly got back on track with their healthier habits.

To get new healthy habits to stick–forever–make your goals specific and concrete, focus on the positive behaviors you’re going to start rather than the negative ones you want to stop, and enlist close friends and family members to help support you and keep you accountable along the way.

This Woman Chose Gastric Bypass and Lost 178 Lbs.: ‘I Wanted to Be Healthy but I Needed Help’

“I remember being in the fourth grade and having to get a note from my pediatrician granting me permission to start Weight Watchers,” she said.

Kathleen Golding’s weight loss struggle started when she was very young.

“I remember being in the fourth grade and having to get a note from my pediatrician granting me permission to start Weight Watchers,” Golding, now 26, tells PEOPLE.

At 21, she found herself wrestling with depression and anxiety turned to food as a “coping mechanism.” By her 22nd birthday she had gained 100 lbs.

“I was stuck in a constant cycle of daily binging,” says the New Bern, North Carolina resident, whose highest weight was 331 lbs. “I was eating fast food for every meal and enormous quantities each time.”

By August 2015, she was ready to start the process of getting gastric bypass surgery. “The morning [I decided to do it] I turned down an offer from friends to go to an amusement park because I knew couldn’t fit in the ride seats, and the following Monday I had a doctor’s appointment scheduled to discuss diabetes medications,” she recalls.

Golding had also been laughed at by strangers earlier that day. “They had pointed to my legs and I knew why — I had stopped shaving my legs because it was difficult to reach my calves, and that was funny to them.”

In preparation for the surgery, which she underwent in June 2016, Golding lost 20 lbs. Afterwards, the weight quickly started to “melt off,” she says. “I felt this incredible sense of confidence that I had totally forgotten about. Even after losing only 30 lbs., I felt amazing, both about my appearance and the way my body was able to move.”

Since losing a total of 178 lbs., Golding maintains a weight of 150 to 155 lbs. — and remains proud of her decision to seek medical help. “For some reason, weight loss surgery is seen as ‘cheating’ or being weak, but for me, I found strength in being able to say ‘I can’t do this on my own. I want to be healthy, but I need help.’ ”

She continued:  “For a long time, I felt completely hopeless. I felt trapped in my body, and no matter what I did to try and lose the weight, I failed. I went into this surgery with the mentality that this would work for me, and I looked at it as me finally taking back control of my life.”

Now the fast-food-free Golding — who recently got married — says she “loves salads and colorful dishes.” She also has been “hitting the gym hard.”

Another source of strength comes from social media. Golding, a photographer and operations manager, has been candid about sharing her story through photos and videos.

“Between Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, I probably receive about 25 to 50 messages a day from random strangers struggling with their weight and looking for diet and fitness tips, or from people who have been on the fence about bariatric surgery,” says Golding. “I’ve inspired them to take the next steps and move forward with the surgery.”

As for how she’s feeling these days, Golding says she is finally at peace with her body. “I have some loose skin and it definitely has its imperfections, but I worked hard for this body,” she says. “I spent so much time hating it but I’ve realized that this is the only body I’ve got and I’m going to take care of it.”

Jen Widerstrom Shows Off Her 17-Day Keto Diet Transformation After ‘A Very Chaotic Six Months’

“My greatest takeaway: I have the power to do something about the way I feel,” she said.

Jen Widerstrom followed an intensive ketogenic diet for the last 17 days, and she’s ready to share her ab-filled results.

The former Biggest Loser trainer strictly followed her diet for her mental health, after dealing with “a huge amount of stress” over the last six months. She announced on Jan. 18 that she was going to try out the keto diet after feeling out of shape.

“I’ve had a very chaotic six months and for the first time I visually see how that chaos is reflected in my eating habits and mental health,” Widerstrom, 35, wrote at the time. “With a huge amount of stress alongside many things to be thankful for, I have been drinking a lot, eating fast food, and to be honest been mentally checked out. To see the distention and my gut is the physical evidence that I’ve clearly been avoiding handling what I’ve been feeling.”

Seventeen days later, Widerstrom is in a better headspace after committing fully to the diet.

“My greatest takeaway: I have the power to do something about the way I feel and I also get to decide how to move through what happens to me,” she wrote on Instagram. “I do not have to be a victim but I do get to choose how I cope with my stress. It’s up to me on whether I check out or not — and through this experience I’ve chosen to participate everyday of my life going forward.”

And as far as how the diet itself went, Widerstrom said that she was impressed by how quickly she saw results, that she had no cravings and what she could and couldn’t eat was very clear. But Widerstrom says she couldn’t stick to the keto diet all the time, because starch, one of the banned foods, an essential part of her diet.

“My body NEEDS starch so I choose not to live in ketogenesis,” she said.

What Widerstrom wants her followers to really learn from her though, is that anyone can make a change to their lifestyle and take control of their health.

“YOU HAVE THE SAME POWER,” she said.

Trying to Lose Weight? Your Partner May Reap the Benefits, Too

The partners who didn’t participate lost weight, too.

Committing to a weight-loss program can have an unexpected benefit: Your significant other may shed some extra pounds, too, even if they aren’t trying. That’s what researchers found in a new study on the so-called weight-loss ripple effect, published today in the journal Obesity.

The study, which was sponsored by Weight Watchers, tracked the progress of 130 married or cohabitating couples for six months. In all of the couples, one partner had a desire to lose weight, and both partners agreed to weigh-ins after three and six months. Half of the partners followed Weight Watchers, while the others received a four-page handout with healthy-eating and exercise tips, and were told to try to lose weight on their own.

The researchers wanted to see if one approach would work better than the other. As it turns out, they were both effective, and everyone involved lost weight. After three months, those in the Weight Watchers group had lost more weight (about 7.4 pounds versus 4.3 pounds), but by the end of the trial, both groups had lost about 14 pounds.

But the partners who didn’t participate — most of whom were men — lost weight, too. On average, people whose partners joined Weight Watchers lost about 3.3 pounds in the first three months, and about 4.9 pounds over the full six-month study. Those whose partners were given a self-guided weight-loss approach had lost about 2.1 pounds at the three-month check-in, and 4.2 pounds at six months. Because of the study’s margin of error, the difference between the two groups was not statistically significant.

Lead author Amy Gorin, PhD, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut, said in a press release that when one person changes their behavior, it’s not unusual for the people around them to change, as well. When one partner starts counting calories, weighing themselves regularly, or making healthier food choices, for example, their partners might emulate them.

Four or five pounds may not seem like a lot. But by the end of the study, about a third of the “untreated” partners in the study had lost more than 3% of their initial body weight, which the experts say has measurable health benefits.

Partners also tended to lose weight at similar rates: If one member of a couple lost weight at a steady pace, his or her partner did too, and the same goes for people who lost weight slowly.

“This data suggests that weight loss can spread within couples, and that widely available lifestyle programs have weight loss effects beyond the treated individual,” the authors wrote in their paper. They also suggest that programs like Weight Watchers could help more people by actively involving spouses and partners in the weight loss process.

Gorin says she and her colleagues next hope to look at whether the weight-loss ripple effect could go even further, to other family members who share a household, or to close friends or coworkers.

Eating Fruit Can Actually Help You Lose Weight. A Nutritionist Explains

Here’s some good news if you love berries, pears, and apples: Ditching fruit isn’t necessary to lose weight. It’s also not smart. Yes, fruit contains carbs and naturally-occurring sugar. But there are important reasons to make fruit a daily staple in your diet, even when you’re working to slim down. The key is to eat it strategically. Doing so can actually help you shed pounds.

Natural substances in fruit—including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and prebiotics—are incredibly good for you, not just in terms of protecting against chronic diseases, but also for managing your weight. Even if you eat plenty of veggies, nixing fruit means missing out on the unique antioxidants they provide.

In research, fruit has actually been tied to weight loss, not weight gain. One study found that overweight and obese adults who ate more fruit experienced greater weight loss than those who didn’t. Another study, which followed more than 130,000 adults over 24 years, found that consuming fruit was associated with improved weight loss over time.

This link may be because fruit can help boost satiety, satisfy a sweet craving, and decrease your desire to dig into goodies like candy or baked goods. Fruits also tend to replace higher-calorie treats, whereas veggies tend to be add-ons. In other words, you’re much more likely to choose an apple rather than a piece of broccoli in place of a cookie; and that swap can help you limit total calories and avoid added sugar, the real culprit when it comes to weight gain.

RELATED: Here’s What to Eat for Lunch If You’re Trying to Slim Down, According to a Nutritionist

As for sugar, even the strictest guidelines from groups like the American Heart Association and World Health Organization don’t lump the sugar from fresh, whole fruit in with added sugar, the refined type used to sweeten foods (think almond milk, or the spoonful you add to your morning coffee).

That’s because the naturally-occurring sugar in fruit is much less concentrated, and bundled with water and a number of key nutrients. For example, one whole orange provides about 17 grams of carb, about 12 of which are natural sugar. But it also supplies fluid, 12% of your daily fiber needs, and nearly 100% the recommended amount of vitamin C, along with B vitamins, potassium, and substances like hesperidin, which has been shown to help lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and inflammation.

Compare that to one tablespoon of table sugar, which contains 16 grams of carbs and no nutrients. Essentially, whole, fresh fruit and added sugar don’t belong in the same category.

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Of course, that doesn’t mean you can eat unlimited amounts of fruit. Fruit does contain carbohydrates, and the job of carbs is to fuel the activity of your cells. When you eat more carbs than you can burn after a meal or snack, even from fruit, the unneeded surplus can either feed existing fat, or plump up fat cells.

For this reason your total carb intake, including fruit, should correspond to your fuel demands, which are based on your height, ideal weight, sex, age, and physical activity level. Most of my women clients can afford to eat two servings of fruit per day (more if they are taller or more active), with one serving being one cup, or one piece about the size of a baseball.

Since the carbs in fruit help fuel activity, when you eat fruit matters too. Downing a huge bowl of grapes late at night while you’re watching TV or surfing the web (when your fuel requirement is low) doesn’t make a lot of sense. Instead, build fruit into the meals and snacks you consume before your more active hours of the day. For many of my clients that may mean eating a small banana 20 or 30 minutes before a workout, or eating berries with breakfast before heading to work—and pairing an apple with almond butter in the afternoon to help power through the rest of the day.

RELATED: Best Superfoods for Weight Loss

As far as the type of fruit you choose, try to get a good variety to expose your body to the broadest spectrum of nutrients and antioxidants. In my opinion no fruit is off limits if you’re thoughtful about the amount and timing. For example, while watermelon is a high glycemic-index fruit, enjoying it when it’s in season is smart, since one cup of cubes contains less than 50 calories, and it provides vitamin C, potassium, and antioxidants tied to anti-inflammation, protection against heart disease, and improved exercise endurance and recovery.

Bottom line: fruit is incredibly nutritious and not inherently fattening. Its impact on your weight depends on when you consume it, and how much you eat. Banishing fruit completely can backfire for weight loss, and negatively impact your overall wellness. Instead, strike the right balance to reap all the benefits of fruit and still achieve your slim-down goals.

Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.

Instagrammer Proves Weight Is Just a Number with Very Different Photos of Her Body at 125 Lbs.

On Instagram, Arielle  Mandelson showed how drastically she can tone her body with nutrition and exercise, while keeping her weight exactly the same.

Want proof that weight is just a number? Then look to Arielle Mandelson’s Instagram, where she showed how drastically she can tone her body with nutrition and exercise, all while keeping her weight exactly the same.

Mandelson, a behavioral health consultant from Los Angeles, shared a series of three photos of herself over the last two years while she was following different diet plans and exercise routines. In the first photo, taken in Feb. 2016, she thought she was doing everything right after recovering from a near-deadly addiction to drugs and alcohol. But, she says, she still wasn’t feeling healthy.

“I spent a year focusing on my emotional well-being before I addressed my physical health, and when I finally did I was so misguided,” Mandelson, 32, tells PEOPLE. “I thought ‘healthy’ meant lean with abs so that’s what I pursued, and by all the wrong measures. I all but completely cut carbohydrates out of my diet, ate about twice the protein someone my size should, did a lot of cardio and attempted some random weight exercises. I felt aimless, bloated, lethargic and just completely frustrated.”

Looking to make a change, she decided to try out Kayla Itsines’ Beach Body Guide program after seeing other women on Instagram have success with the workouts.

“After a few weeks of doing BBG, something inside me had shifted; I could feel myself getting stronger each time I did a workout and my relationship with food improved,” Mandelson says. “My motivation was still primarily aesthetically driven but I also wanted to get stronger, so I looked at food as fuel and workouts as personal challenges to overcome. Carbohydrates and I became friends again, and I began exercising in the gym. I craved working out for the first time in my life.”

She took the second photo in the set a few months later, after finishing a full round of BBG. “I felt good on the inside, so I liked what I saw in the mirror,” Mandelson says.

As she started toning up, Mandelson says she was initially “obsessed” with the number on the scale.

“I thought if I could just get it lower and be a certain weight that I would feel better about myself,” she says. “It was disconcerting when the number didn’t change at first but my clothes fit better and I felt so good that I was able to ignore it.”

And when her weight wouldn’t budge, despite her workouts, Mandelson realized that it was muscle weight.

“Progress photos, vain as they are, became my primary barometer — and they are a much more effective tool for gauging where I was physically,” she says.

The third photo is current, and Mandelson says she feels “strong, energetic and proud.” She still does BBG, along with other workout programs, and started tracking her macronutrients.

“During the week I eat planned meals that I prepare — and it’s way more food than you would believe! — and during the weekend I just eat intuitively,” she says. “But I am not stringent about anything; I think people assume I eat leaves all day but really I’m over here eating three desserts after dinner.”

And Mandelson says her photos make an important point against focusing on weight.

“Scales can’t differentiate between muscle, fat, bones, tissue and water,” she says. “There are more accurate ways to measure body composition and that is ultimately what is important. I get messages everyday from women all over the world of all ages asking how to lose weight. It makes me sad to know how much value people give that number, and how much it can control somebody. I know because I’ve been there.”

Here’s What to Snack on If You’re Trying to Slim Down, According to a Nutritionist

These five bites are nutritious, filling, and low-cal enough to support your weight-loss goals.

Tired of eating almonds and Greek yogurt (over and over and over)? I hear you. When you’re trying to shed pounds, it’s easy to fall into a healthy snack rut. But luckily, there are plenty of other options to choose from. Below are five easy ideas that satisfy all the criteria for a slimming snack. Each one is packed with nutrients to boost your energy and mood; filling enough to tide you over till your next meal; and low-cal enough to support your weight-loss goals. There’s something for every type of craving—from salty to crunchy, and yes, even chocolate.

Savory egg salad with chopped veggies

Chop one hard-boiled pasture-raised egg. Mix with one cup of finely chopped vegetables, like kale, cucumber, tomato, and red onion. Toss mixture with a quarter cup of hummus to coat thoroughly and evenly.

RELATED: What to Eat for Dinner If You’re Trying to Lose Weight, According to a Nutritionist

Spiced-up almond butter spread on celery

Stir one quarter cup of shredded zucchini, one quarter teaspoon fresh grated ginger, one eighth teaspoon ground cinnamon, and a teaspoon of pure maple syrup into two tablespoons of almond butter. Fill four fresh celery stalks with the mixture and crunch away.

Oven-roasted chickpeas

Toss a half cup of canned (drained, rinsed) chickpeas with a half tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and one sixteenth teaspoon each sea salt and black pepper. Roast on a baking sheet in a preheated 350°F oven for 15 minutes.

Salmon-stuffed avocado

Whisk together a teaspoon of Dijon, half teaspoon of Italian seasoning, and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar. Mix dressing with half a can of wild Alaskan salmon. Fill half an avocado with salmon mixture, and enjoy with a spoon.

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Dark chocolate and berries

Pair a half cup of fresh or frozen, thawed raspberries, blueberries or strawberries with one or two squares of 70% dark chocolate. Sweet tooth, satisfied.

Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.