Healthy Weight Loss Strategies
A recent survey found that half of U.S. adults tried to lose weight within the last year. People who are overweight are more likely to have other conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. Adopting healthier habits surrounding what you eat and how often you get physical activity can help you improve your physical and mental health, and may help you shed pounds.
Deciding on Your Health Goals
How Much Should You Lose?
It may be helpful to take some time to consider your overall goals. Some of the primary benefits of weight loss are reducing your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. However, losing just 5-10% of your body weight can improve these numbers. For a 200-pound person, this may mean losing just 10 pounds. You may not need to lose as much weight as you think in order to see increased health. Other weight loss benefits may include increased energy, mobility, and mental health.
If you're not sure how much weight loss to aim for, talk to your healthcare provider. They can give you an idea of what a healthy weight loss goal might look like based on your personal needs.
Instead of Dieting, Try Building Habits
Traditional Diets are Usually Not Successful
If you're looking for a way to lose weight, then chances are your first thought is to try dieting. Diets often involve extreme calorie restriction or abnormal eating habits. Unfortunately, despite their popularity and ability to create short-term weight loss, these programs usually don't work in the long-term. Once the program is over, and people start returning to their former eating habits, they usually gain back the weight they lost. This is likely because weight loss programs usually slow down a person's metabolism. This effect can last a long time. In fact, people who diet are actually more likely to gain weight in the future.
People who lose weight using a slow-and-steady approach have better results. Losing one or two pounds a week is more likely to lead to long-term weight loss than losing a lot of weight at once.
Forming Healthy Habits
Rather than trying a diet or exercise program that's only meant to last for a few weeks or months, try to build new permanent habits. One way to do this is by using the strategy reflect, replace, reinforce.
Start by reflecting on your current normal routine. If you're not sure exactly where to start, try keeping a log of your meals and physical activity. Consider which habits you may want to change. For example, maybe you tend to eat even when you're not hungry. Think about the environment or mood that often leads to these habits. Maybe you're bored, or perhaps you've gotten into the routine of going through a fast food drive-through because you don't have anything planned for dinner.
Next, think about replacing unhealthy habits with different ones. For example, you could try going on a walk rather than snacking, or planning out meals in advance so that you have healthy options on hand.
Finally, reinforce your new habits. Give yourself credit for small victories, and don't be too hard on yourself if change doesn't happen immediately. Habits often take a while to stick, and you may have to try several different strategies before you successfully build a new habit.
Take an honest look at where you currently are and where you want to be. Losing huge amounts of weight, and keeping it all off, doesn't happen for most people. Losing weight quickly is also unlikely to happen, and usually isn't healthy. If you try to do too much at once and follow a more extreme plan, there's a good chance you'll end up gaining all the weight back. Making more moderate goals isn't as exciting, but will be more likely to pay off in the long run.
When deciding which strategies to try or which plans to follow, think about what is most likely to work for your current routine. If you tend to wake up 15 minutes before you leave for work, then planning to cook a large, protein-packed breakfast every morning probably isn't going to happen. If you live on a busy street with no sidewalks, then going for a jog in your neighborhood every day isn't realistic. Find ways to incorporate healthier habits into your normal lifestyle.
Finding ways to reduce calories can help you lose weight. However, it's important to not starve yourself. This isn't healthy, and isn't sustainable – it'll slow your metabolism and at some point, you'll end up gaining the weight back. Instead, try building habits like:
- Substituting high-calorie foods for lower-calorie ones. For example, instead of reaching for a fried or carb-based side, eat a side of vegetables.
- Learn more about portion sizes. Some people may not realize they are eating multiple servings' worth of a particular food.
- Drink lower-calorie drinks such as flavored water, rather than high-sugar drinks like juice and soda.
Tracking calories may help. You can keep a food diary that lists what you eat each day, as well as the number of calories in each meal. You can also track other things related to your health goals, such as exercise, sleep, or mood. Several websites and smartphone apps are also available to help track your meals. Often, these tools can allow you to search for ingredients or meals, and will automatically count the number of calories as well as the amounts of proteins, carbs, and fats you're getting. This may not be an ideal long-term habit for everyone, but it may be useful in the short term to learn more about your current habits.
What Foods Should I Eat?
One of the easiest ways to start getting more healthy foods into your diet is to eat more fruits and vegetables. Produce typically has fewer calories and more vitamins than other options. One way to eat more fruits and veggies is to aim for more colorful meals! Foods that are deeper colored often have a lot of vitamins and minerals. For example:
- Red plant-based foods like tomatoes, watermelon, and grapefruit contain lycopene, which protects against certain cancers and promotes eye health
- Orange produce gets its color from beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A, and folate
- Dark green vegetables such as spinach, kale, and broccoli have a lot of vitamins A, C, E, and K, as well as several B vitamins
- Blue and purple fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that can reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer and promote brain health
Eating more fruits and vegetables of any kind is a good way to get more fiber, which makes you feel more full and satisfied.
What Foods Should I Avoid?
In order to stay at a healthy weight and lower your risk of health problems such as heart disease and stroke, experts recommend the following guidelines:
- Less than 10% of calories should come from added sugars. This includes sugars that have been added to processed foods, white bread, and sugary drinks. However, naturally-occurring sugar found in fruits and other whole foods may be fine in moderation.
- Less than 10% of calories should come from saturated fats. Animal products such as butter, cheese, and red meat have a lot of saturated fat. Unsaturated fats, found in nuts, seeds, avocados, seafood, and certain oils, are a healthier choice.
- You should consume fewer than 2300 milligrams of sodium per day and possibly even less, depending on your health condition.
If you drink alcohol, cutting down on the number of drinks you have each day or each week can also help you lose weight. Many alcoholic beverages contain more calories than you may think. For example, a serving of beer has on average 153 calories, and a margarita has 168. This can add up if you're having a few drinks on a single evening. For some people, drinking less alcohol can lead to less overeating and greater weight loss.
Other Food Habits that May Help with Weight Loss
Consider adopting additional habits such as:
- Start your day with protein: Eating a protein-packed breakfast, such as eggs, leads people to feel more full and lose more weight than eating a carb-filled breakfast, such as a bagel.
- Drink more water before meals: Drinking half a liter (a little over two cups) of water can increase metabolism and lead to increased weight loss.
- Cook more meals at home: Cooking your own foods from scratch is often healthier than eating out. When you plan ahead and have healthier options on hand, it also helps you avoid less healthy, quicker options like grabbing fast food or processed snacks. Try making grocery lists ahead of time and planning for lower-calorie meals. If you're not used to cooking, try following online tutorials on YouTube or food blogs, subscribing to a meal planning service, or ordering meal kits that contain pre-measured ingredients and step-by-step instructions.
- Find ways to still enjoy the foods you love: If you constantly feel like you're depriving yourself, you may not stick to your dieting plan. Rather than completely cutting out your favorite high-calorie foods, try eating them less often, having them in smaller portions, and finding ways to enjoy similar lower-calorie versions.
- Consider intermittent fasting: Intermittent fasting for weight loss has become more popular in recent years and works better at a cellular level for autophagy and cellular repair. It also reduces inflammation and insulin resistance. However, patients must find a healthy weight loss regime that works best for them and their schedule. It must be one that is sustainable for your lifestyle. For example, with intermittent fasting, patients eat during the non-fast period daily and this time may stretch from an 8 hour to 12 hour period of time while the fasting period may extend to up to 20 hours per day. You and your doctor need to consider whether this is practical for your particular lifestyle and any health conditions you may currently have. (I'm writing a more in-depth article on intermittent fasting so stay tuned to Ask the Doctor if you are interested about this topic.)
Exercising for Weight Loss and Health
Increasing your physical activity levels is a great way to lose weight. Some research shows that getting regular exercise is also the only way to maintain weight loss. Additionally, whether or not you lose weight, getting regular exercise will reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Exercise can also lower your blood pressure, reduce symptoms of arthritis, drop your risk of getting certain cancers, and boost mental, sexual, and brain health.
Experts recommend getting 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. This can be broken up however you choose. For example, you can have five 30-minute workout sessions. If you're not used to working out, though, start small. Try going on a short walk a couple of times per week and then work your way up to more.
Try to use a mix of different strategies to increase your physical activity level:
- Aerobic exercise: This type of exercise raises a person's heart rate. Aerobic exercise can help people lose weight, burn belly fat, and support healthy cholesterol levels. Aerobic exercise includes walking, running, swimming, dancing, and playing high-energy sports.
- Resistance training: This type of exercise involves building strength and weight lifting. Resistance training can help people lose weight while preserving muscle mass. It also leads to many other health benefits, such as improved brain, heart, and bone health, reduced diabetes risk, and better cholesterol levels.
- Be more physical throughout the day: If you spend most of your day sitting down, you may be more at risk for weight gain, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and poor mental health. Try getting more activity throughout your day. You could try working while standing up rather than sitting, getting up and stretching regularly, or doing a few exercises during TV commercials.
Incorporating more exercise into your routine is a great way to boost your health. Try to find a form of exercise that you like – you'll be more likely to stick with it. If you hate jogging, don't try to make yourself go on a run every day. Instead, try taking a workout class or finding a sport that interests you. Try to gradually build more activity that you enjoy into your regular routine.
Finding a Healthy Weight-Loss Program
Knowing which habits to focus on or how to incorporate them into your daily routine can be tough. If you don't want to try to do it all yourself, some weight loss programs can work with you to help. But how do you know if a program offers safe, long-term solutions or if it's a fad diet?
The best way to lose some extra pounds is to find a program that promotes healthy eating or physical activity based on scientific principles. A good, healthy weight loss program should:
- Give you access to counseling to help you create long-lasting change
- Include qualified professionals such as doctors, nurses, nutritionists, registered dieticians, and exercise physiologists
- Emphasize long-term strategies such as creating new routines and building new habits, rather than following a short-term plan
- Include a plan for keeping the weight off, once you lose it
- Offer flexible choices and options rather than saying that one rigid approach is best for everyone
If possible, it's also good to find out overall results for people who have completed the program. Rather than just focusing on one or two success stories, try to learn what the average weight loss is for participants, and how many participants end up completing the program.
Losing weight is tough, so don't be too hard on yourself. Focus more on creating a healthy lifestyle for yourself as opposed to worrying about the number on the scale. In fact, eating a healthy diet and getting regular physical activity may be more important than losing weight when it comes to reduced risk of disease and improved health measures. Building good habits that you can stick with are the most important part of staying healthy.