When people talk about losing weight what they are really talking about is losing fat. Your body composition is made up of a lot of things - water, bone mass, muscle, etc. My guess is you don't want to lose muscle or bone mass. Below are 9 simple steps to maintaining a healthy body weight (and more info on each one of the steps). While they are simple - and if you look at them they are really simple - they aren’t easy. They will take repeated, slow practice until they are habits. But once you can do them consistently you will lose fat (if that is what you desire), feel better, look better, and be healthier.
Do not engage in extreme, highly restrictive or yo-yo diets
Don’t count calories
Pay attention and eat mindfully
Eat whole, unprocessed foods
Exercise at least 4-5 hours per week
Stay hydrated throughout the day and night
Sleep 7-9 hours each night (no more, no less)
Make non-exercise physical activity a part of your daily routine
Go slow and be consistent
1. Do not engage in any restrictive, yo-yo diets
Extreme, highly restrictive, and yo-yo dieting is bad for your health and can actually make you gain weight and fat. When you give your body less energy (aka limit calories), your body compensates by holding onto any stored energy it has, mainly fat. It also lowers insulin, which lowers thyroid hormone production, which lowers your resting metabolism. Resting metabolism accounts for 70% of your energy needs so if you are trying to lose (or maintain) weight, you don’t want to slow that down. Calorie restriction also often results in muscle loss, which can increase body fat, and it can affect the production of sex hormones.
2. Don’t count calories
While the simple equation of calories in vs. calories out still applies - there are a lot of complexities to that equation that make counting calories an inaccurate and unhealthy approach to weight loss. It simply doesn’t work because it is nearly impossible to know how many calories are in a food - calorie content varies depending on where a food was grown, how ripe it was when it was picked, how long it was stored, and whether it is raw or cooked, and how it is cooked - plus our body varies on how many of those calories it actually takes in - how we chew, our gut health and bacteria, our resting metabolism and activity level all affect how many calories of a food we take in. So even if we knew the exact calorie content of a food, we don’t know how many of those calories we are taking in. Additionally the calorie content advertised on many packaged foods and restaurant food can be off by as much as 25% and 18%, respectively.
3. Pay attention and eat mindfully
Often times people focus a lot of attention on what types of food - particularly carbs, fats, and protein - they should eat more of, less of, or avoid altogether; however, more and more research is showing that the simple act of being mindful about what you eat - caring and paying attention - is a major factor in weight management, lean body mass, and overall health and wellness. Paying attention to what you eat is not just about being mindful of what you eat but also how you eat. Eating while doing (work, driving, watching tv, etc.) negatively impacts us because it trains our brains to expect to eat while we are doing those activities and it almost always results in us eating too quickly and without paying attention. This usually means that we eat too much, we tax our digestive system because we aren’t chewing enough or properly (which is critical for digestion), and we miss cues about how full we feel or how a food makes us feel. Mindful eating almost always results in healthier food choices and less food intake.
4. Eat whole, unprocessed foods
Rather than focusing on specific ratios of macronutrients or on following a particular diet, you’d be much better to focus on eating whole, less processed foods because they are, well, real foods. These are fruits, vegetables, tubers (potatoes), beans, nuts, and humanely-raised meats and eggs (which have far more nutrients and less harmful ingredients than conventional meats and eggs). Micronutrients - vitamins and minerals - are essential for good health but highly processed foods are usually very low in nutrients because they are stripped out during processing. While low in nutrients, highly processed foods are usually high in calories, sugar, salt, manufactured fats, colors, and preservatives. Additionally , whole, unprocessed foods work best with our bodies because that’s what they have been accustomed to since the dawn of time. Our body recognizes whole foods and then knows how to use them properly – this makes it easy for our body to function properly and to maintain proper energy balance. The single biggest thing you can do for your health, body, and a healthy weight is to eat whole, minimally processed foods.
5. Exercise at least 4-5 hours per week
How much and how intensely we exercise has different effects on how we use energy (aka burn calories) and what types of fuel we are burning (fat vs. carbohydrates). For instance, high intensity, short-duration exercise (like crossfit, boxing, or sprinting) burns carbohydrates for energy during the activity but continues to burn fat after the exercise (sometimes up to several hours after, depending on the type and intensity of the exercise). In low-intensity, long-duration exercise (like hiking, long-distance running, or walking), our body uses fat for energy and tends to burn more energy during the activity but not much after completing it. There is no “right” or “better” exercise. Ideally, you want a mix of both types so your body has time to work hard and recover.
If you want to maintain your weight, about 30 minutes of exercise, 5 days a week (or 150 minutes/week) is sufficient; however, if you are trying to lose weight, you should be doing more exercise - about 4 to 5 hours a week, and you should engage in exercise that makes your body work harder because it will require more energy. You also will want to include muscle-building activities (like strength training) to ensure you lose fat and not muscle. No matter what, the most important thing when it comes to exercise is to choose what you like to do because that’s what you will do repeatedly and consistently.
6. Stay hydrated throughout the day and night
Drinking water may seem like an obvious or oversimplified step but most people don’t get enough water. While hydration is absolutely necessary for critical body functions, it’s also pretty important for weight loss because of its impact on metabolism. In fact, there is evidence that water may increase metabolism and weight loss, and fat loss. In addition, water makes us feel fuller which means we may consume less food calories, and drinking water can also result in drinking fewer calories. The average North American currently drinks over 400 calories a day. Remember we get water from foods too - the average person gets 4-6 cups of water from foods - so aim to get about 8-12 cups of water on top of whatever you eat. Sedentary people only need about 8 cups of water while active people need closer to 12 cups because of hydration lost through sweat. If you are trying to lose weight, try drinking two cups of water before your meal - you will feel fuller and it may boost your metabolism for the next hour.
7. Sleep 7-9 hours each night (no more, no less)
So many people underestimate the benefits and necessity of good sleep. The natural sleep cycle of the brain dictates that most humans would sleep about 8 hours per night – this is historically what humans have done when they had less stressors, technological distractions, artificial lights, etc. It’s what our body was designed to do. Not only is sleeping 7 to 9 hours critical for basic body functions, there is also some connection to healthy body fat. Those who sleep less than 6 hours per night or more than 9 hours per night gain, on average, almost two times more weight over a 6-year period than those who sleep 7 to 8 hours per night.
People who chronically sleep poorly – less than 7 hours per night – have a greater risk for weight gain, insulin resistance, and Type 2 diabetes. They are also at risk for decreased growth hormone and thyroid stimulating hormone, as well as increased evening and night cortisol levels. Finally, there is some evidence that excessive low sleep – 4 hours a night for just two nights in a row – can deregulate our appetite hormones, which can lead to body fat gains. Research suggests that there is evidence that the obesity epidemic in the US may be partially caused by a decrease in the average number of sleep hours.
8. Make non-exercise physical activity a part of your daily routine
Taking the stairs, walking places, even standing can have a pretty big impact on your weight, especially if the alternative is sitting. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy your body uses through movement that isn’t intentional, physical exercise - things like cooking, cleaning, walking around, taking the stairs, etc. - and it’s an important factor in your metabolic rate. To simplify, the more non-exercise physical activity you do, the more efficient your body is at burning energy. This can greatly impact weight loss/gain. For example, if you sit all day at work and then drive home in your car and go through a drive-thru and then go sit at home on your couch, you aren’t doing a lot of moving around. But if you get up to walk to a co-worker’s office instead of emailing them and then you drive home but spend an hour cooking (instead of the drive-thru) and then you walk your dog (instead of heading straight for the couch) you are doing small things that can have a big impact on your metabolism. Not only that, you tend to make better health choices (cooking vs. drive-thru and walking vs. sitting on the couch). These small movements can make big changes when it comes to weight.
9. Go slow and be consistent
Depending on where you are starting from, if you want to start losing fat now (or soon) your chances of long-term success are much greater if you go slow, and change one thing at a time. We want progress over perfection here. Think about it – if you change all of your meals and snacks and exercise routines and sleep routines…well, that’s a lot all at once. It’s overwhelming just thinking about it let alone doing it. Part of the reasons yo-yo, overhaul diets don’t work is because it’s too much all at once. The idea here is to make lasting, lifestyle changes. After all, the word diet comes from the Latin word “diaeta,” meaning “a prescribed way of life” and the Greek word “diaita,” which means “way of life.” That’s just it – we are creating a way of life. Be kind, go slow, and make one small change at a time.
While these are simple steps to do they aren’t always easy, especially in our busy lives; however, the truth is that these steps are the best reliable way to create a healthy lifestyle.