Maintaining a healthy weight throughout life helps you feel your best and reduce your risk for many serious weight-related health conditions. There is no secret to reaching a healthy weight. Combining a healthy lifestyle of exercise with good nutrition where you are in a balance of calories in versus calories out is the key. However, it is important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to health and any recommendations should recognize that everyone has different needs and preferences.
Many of us are confused by all the different diets and conflicting healthy eating recommendations. Others have been knocked down so many times with attempts to lose weight, only to feel hopeless and unsure if they should try again or if this time will stick. So, let’s break down some basic weight loss questions and give you the answers you’re looking for.
How do you determine how many calories you need to maintain or lose weight?
Many factors impact our weight, some of these are within our control while others are not including food choices, hormones, movement, environment, stress, and social and psychological factors. Many people don’t understand how much food they need to eat to properly function – it can be overwhelming and downright confusing! Cutting calories too low is dangerous and too many calories is bound to result in weight gain.
Each of us has a unique metabolic rate which is the rate your body burns energy, or calories. The body’s need for calories never stops. To understand how your body needs calories, it is helpful to know the breakdown of how this energy in the body is used.
- 60% supports basic energy needs, such as breathing, pumping blood, maintain body temperature, etc.
- 30% physical activity, including all movements such as picking up a book, sitting down, etc.
- 10% digestion and nutrient absorption
To determine your individual calorie needs, it is important to take into account your age, height, weight, and activity level. The National Institute of Health has a Body Weight Planner online tool that helps you determine what your calorie goal should be for your weight loss goals and activity level. To maintain your weight, you want to achieve calorie balance, meaning that you should eat the same number of calories your body burns each day. To lose weight, you would need to eat fewer calories than your body uses daily.
What is a healthy weight?
A chart cannot tell you exactly what number you should see on the scale. Often a healthy weight is a range and takes different factors into account such as bone structure, height, and activity level. A healthy weight is also a place where you feel your best and can maintain it easily. It is not necessarily your lowest weight or a weight you can only reach by taking drastic, unhealthy measures. Weight is partly determined by genes since our genes determine our height, frame size, and body composition which all impact what a healthy weight is for you.
Body Mass Index (BMI) and waist circumference are screening tools that help to estimate a healthy weight and determine health risks related to your size.
- If your BMI is less than 18.5, it falls within the underweight range.
- If your BMI is 18.5 to 24.9, it falls within the normal or healthy weight range.
- If your BMI is 25 to 29.9, it falls within the overweight range.
- If your BMI is 30 or higher, it falls within the obese range.
Waist circumference is a helpful tool because it helps to determine your potential disease risk. Having a larger waist size puts you at higher risk for Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and coronary heart disease. Your waist size is considered to be 'high risk' if it is more than 40 inches for a man or 35 inches for a woman.
Why lose weight?
Knowing why you want to lose weight can help you key into your motivations, help you set goals, and help ensure your goals are realistic. Maybe you want to feel better, have more energy, or reduce your risk for health problems. Carrying around extra weight can put a big burden on your body. Think about carrying around a 20-pound toddler all day long. Think of how tiring that would be! When you carry extra pounds of body fat your heart, lungs, and skeleton all have to work harder. Losing weight will take off the pressure from your joints, make everyday tasks easier, and lead you to feel as though you have more energy.
Losing weight if you are overweight or obese and have weight-related health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol may help you reduce the amount of medications you are taking and help you improve your overall health. Losing even a modest amount of weight can lead to improvements in blood sugar control, decreased cholesterol levels, and lower blood pressure. All of this translates to a lower risk of long-term complications and a higher quality of life.
Do you want to lose weight for a vacation or to fit into a certain dress for an upcoming wedding? It’s important to remember that short-term goals often don’t lead to long-term success. While these goals are still valid, try to find long-term reasons that can keep you motivated after that event has passed.
Are you feeling pressure from others to lose weight but don’t feel motivated to make these changes? Instances like these can get messy! It is important to be committing to a lifestyle that feels right for you and to have support from those around you. But feeling pressured to make changes can lead to stress on a relationship, secretive eating, and emotional strain. Be honest with how you are feeling. Losing weight will not be successful if you are doing it for someone else. You need to be in the mindset of making a long-term commitment to yourself to live healthier.
Sometimes the reason for losing weight can be problematic, such as someone with disordered eating or an eating disorder, it is important to discuss any goals of weight loss with a trained professional. Tuning into your why’s is an important step of the weight loss process to make sure you have clear, realistic direction and can keep focused on the reasons you want to change.
How do you lose weight?
The physiology of weight loss is quite simple. You must burn more calories than you eat and drink. Like we discussed earlier, your body needs a certain amount of calories daily to maintain basic functioning. To lose weight you need to determine how many calories your body requires to function and then subtract 500-1000 calories per day to lose 1 to 2 pounds a week.
One pound of weight is equal to 3500 calories. To lose 1 pound a week, you would need to cut about 500 calories a day. This can occur by either cutting the amount of calories you eat or by increasing the amount of calories you burn. Which is better, cutting calories or exercising more? The research shows that diet is hands down more effective at shedding unwanted pounds. That is because it is much easier to pass on calories than to burn those calories off through exercise. For example, the difference between a fast-food small French fry and a large French fry is about 350 calories. In terms of exercise, one would have to run at 5K (a 3.12-mile race) to burn off that amount of calories!
Exercise is also important when it comes to weight loss, just not as important as diet. Studies show that people who can lose weight and keep it off include physical activity in their daily routine. One reason it is important to keep up with exercise is that regular exercise can help to increase your resting metabolic rate. When we exercise, we can prevent muscle loss that can occur with weight loss. Muscle burns more calories than fat, helping to offset any decrease in metabolism that can occur with age and weight loss. This is also a reason that men lose weight faster than women, men typically have a higher muscle mass leading to a higher metabolism.
The National Institute of Health recommends making physical activity a regular habit for a healthy weight. It is advised to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week to manage weight or prevent weight gain. To lose weight you may need to boost your level further.
One frustrating part of weight loss is when you hit a plateau. It is important to recognize that weight loss is not a linear process and to keep focused on the big picture. Weight fluctuations occur day-to-day due to fluid loss and retention. Plateaus are a normal part of weight loss. When your body is smaller it requires fewer calories, this metabolic shift may be the reason that your weight loss has stalled. If you hit a plateau, you may need to reassess your intake and exercise patterns.
How much weight should I lose?
For those who would benefit from weight loss, the American College of Cardiology, American Heart Association, and The Obesity Society advise a sustained weight loss of 3-5 percent of body weight at a minimum to help improve the factors that increase the risk for some chronic diseases. Within 6 months, increasing that to 5-10 percent of weight loss is advised. For someone weighing 200 pounds, that a loss of 10-20 pounds. If you are overweight or obese, losing 5-10 percent of your weight may improve your health and quality of life and may help you avoid or manage certain health issues, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, arthritis, and high cholesterol. Setting a weight loss goal is a personal decision, but should also be made in conjunction with your medical team.
What should I avoid if I want to lose weight?
- Cutting calories too low. If you eat too few calories it could lead to muscle loss which ultimately would lead to a decreased resting energy expenditure (REE) making it harder to lose weight. And since your heart is a muscle, it could also weaken your heart as well as leading to low energy. Eating too little can also make it harder to maintain your diet, leading to higher cravings and setting you up for overeating.
- Using diet pills. Diet pills that lead to long term weight loss do NOT exist! For weight loss and good health, it is best to focus on goals you can see yourself maintaining for over 1 year. Diet pills are also dangerous! Many diet pills contain hidden ingredients that may pose significant health risks. The FDA recently released a warning about weight loss products sold online on sites like Amazon and eBay. Out of 26 supplements they purchased from Amazon and 25 they purchased from eBay, 100% of the Amazon and 80% of the eBay supplements had undeclared active ingredients with many of these ingredients identified as restricted to use under the supervision of licensed health care professionals. Many diet pills have awful side effects as well including nausea, agitation, dizziness, high blood pressure, and difficulty sleeping.
- Fad diets. Trendy diets often lure people in with the idea that they have unlocked the secrets of weight loss and make a long list of promises. These diets come and go but never seem to stick. They often do lead to weight loss due to a series of food rules and a list of things to avoid but are not realistic or maintainable over the long-term. Oftentimes they cut out large amounts of food which may lead to an unbalanced diet, lacking important vitamins and minerals. They also lead to a dramatic cut in calories being consumed which causes people to lose weight but sets them up for failure. Once someone goes off the fad diet, they have not learned any meaningful lifestyle changes that will help them achieve good health in the long-run or help them with transitioning back to normal eating. Remember, eating for weight loss and eating for health should look the same! Most fad diets are not a well-balanced diet that is beneficial for your health. Just because something causes weight loss does not mean it is healthy.
- Liquid diets. Similar to fad diets, liquid diets are not maintainable over time. Drinking shakes in place of meals may lead to weight loss due to a decrease in calories but may lead to nutrition deficiencies and untamed hunger. Most of these shakes contain high amounts of sugar and low amounts of fiber. Take that and the fact that liquids leave the stomach sooner than solids and you are setting yourself up to feeling hungry and falling off the diet. Many of these shakes also contain ingredients that may lead to stomach upset, jitters, and poor concentration. Save your money and invest in whole foods and a balanced diet!
- Rapid weight loss. When weight is lost too quickly, it is often muscle and water loss, which is regained quickly. Losing weight too quickly also is a sign that your body is being drastically depleted in nutrition and fluids which is not good for your overall health. Without the proper amount of nutrients, you could experience a decreased immune system, fatigue, hair loss, and weak bones. Losing weight too quickly can also slow down your metabolism which can set you up with a struggle to lose weight in the future and increase the likelihood of weight gain. To lose weight and keep it off, it is important to focus on losing slow and steady.
Losing weight doesn’t need to be complicated. Now that you know the basics it’s time to make a commitment to yourself and your health. Set some small goals and build on them over time. Focus on basic healthy eating principles, move your body, and keep a positive attitude. You will reap many benefits from making this lifestyle change!