December 2022

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Healthy Weight Control

Balancing Eating and Exercise

Keeping off weight during the holiday season can be tough. But there are many reasons to maintain a healthy weight all year round. A healthy weight lowers your risk for chronic diseases, like diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. It can also help you stay more mobile as you age.

Excess weight comes from taking in more energy, or calories, than your body needs. Some extra energy may be stored as fat. Many factors influence your risk for weight gain. These include poor diet, lack of sleep, and not getting enough physical activity. GenesStretches of DNA you inherit from your parents that define features, like your risk for certain diseases. can also play a role. Certain medications affect weight gain, too.

“In the U.S., we all live in an obesity-promoting environment to some degree,” says Dr. Susan Yanovski, an NIH expert on obesity and eating disorders. “We are constantly tempted with low-cost, high-calorie foods. And, we’re expending a lot less energy than we used to in everyday life. Many jobs are sedentary, and even household activities like washing dishes take less energy to do now. You throw them in the dishwasher. We have to work hard to incorporate activity into our everyday life.”

Taking steps toward a healthy lifestyle—even small ones—can help you get on a path to a healthy weight.

Calculating a Healthy Weight

The definitions of overweight and obesity are based on body mass index, or BMI. BMI is based on your height and weight. Overweight for adults is a BMI between 25 and 29.9. Obesity is a BMI of 30 or greater. NIH has a tool to help you calculate your BMI.

“BMI is quick and easy to obtain, but it’s not perfect,” Yanovski says. A high BMI is usually caused by extra body fat. But it can also come from extra muscle, bone, or water.

If your BMI is high because of extra body fat, aim to lose about one to two pounds per week. “Some people might think losing weight quickly is the best strategy,” says Dr. Alison Brown, a nutrition scientist at NIH. “But really, the safer and more sustainable weight loss is gradual.”

To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you take in. “Combining both calorie restriction plus physical activity tends to be most effective for weight loss,” Brown says.

Cutting Down Calories

To lose weight, experts suggest taking in about 500 fewer calories than you burn per day. This should get you to about one pound per week of weight loss, Yanovski says.

The NIH Body Weight Planner can help you calculate exactly how many calories you need for your weight loss goals. The tool takes your age, sex, and level of physical activity into account.

Experts recommend limiting less healthy foods that are high in calories, saturated and trans fats, refined carbohydrates, or sugar. “But there’s not one recommended diet for weight loss,” Yanovski says.

“The best diet is the one that you can stick with,” explains Brown. “It should be balanced and provide a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy or dairy alternatives.” For more about a healthy diet, see the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (HHS).

Creating an eating plan based on your likes and dislikes can help you stick with it. You can use nutrition labels to estimate how many calories a food has. But be sure to check the serving sizes. Learn more about nutrition labels (FDA).

“It is easier than it’s ever been to try to figure out what you’re actually taking in with all the trackers and food labeling,” says Yanovski. “But, of course, you have to be honest with yourself.”

A registered dietitian or a weight management program can also help you create a healthy eating plan.

Getting More Activity

Physical activity helps you burn off the calories you consume. Studies have found that it’s critical for maintaining a stable weight.

Experts recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. Aerobic activity is anything that gets your heart rate up and gets you breathing harder. Examples of moderate-intensity activities include brisk walking (faster than 2.5 miles per hour), swimming, and dancing.

If you’re able, start increasing your physical activity. Doing so slowly can help prevent injuries. Even light activity burns more calories than being sedentary. Start small. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Break up your day with short walks.

You can also break up moderate-intensity activity into short sessions. Every minute counts toward your weekly goal!

Don’t forget to do muscle-strengthening activities, like lifting weights. Experts recommend adults do them at least two days a week.

Staying on Track

Creating new habits can help you lose and maintain your weight. Weigh yourself regularly to see if you’re meeting your weekly goals. You can use an app or journal to track your physical activity and food intake. Some devices can automatically track and record your activity. Calculate whether you’re burning more calories than you’re taking in.

Getting social support can help keep you motivated. Apps and social media sites may connect you with other people who support your goals.

“But often, people differ in terms of what they consider supportive,” notes Dr. Laurie Friedman Donze, a clinical psychologist at NIH. “So it’s important to communicate with your support system and let them know what you feel is helpful or unhelpful.”

“Trying to keep your stress under control and getting enough sleep are also good for preventing weight gain,” says Donze. “Stress can affect food cravings. Often, people will eat to reduce stress or as a way to comfort themselves. Not getting enough sleep may also increase your appetite or cravings for high-fat foods.”

“No matter what your weight loss goal is,” says Brown, “it takes time. Be patient with the process.”

It can be difficult to lose or keep weight off. Some people may benefit from medication or surgery in addition to lifestyle changes. If you’re struggling with losing weight or maintaining weight loss, ask your health care provider if medications or surgery may be helpful for you.

“An NIH study, called POWERS, is studying why some people struggle over time to maintain weight loss and why some are going to find it easier,” says Yanovski. “We hope to come up with better strategies for people who struggle with obesity and to individualize solutions for keeping lost weight off.”