Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight

What is my ideal weight?

There is no such thing as an ‘ideal weight’, just as there are no perfect measures of overweight or obesity. However, there are a couple of measures that can be used to assess whether your weight is in a healthy range. These measures – body mass index and waist circumference – may take into account how tall you are, your build and gender. Ideally, if you were a healthy weight in young adulthood, it is best to maintain that weight throughout life.

Lose weight and keep it off

Even losing 5-10 per cent of your bodyweight if you are overweight or obese can have a beneficial effect on your risk of heart disease and other conditions. The key to weight loss, simple as it may sound, is to create a deficit in the energy consumed via food and drinks, versus the energy expended in your daily life.

If you are overweight, to be successful at losing weight you should:

  • become more physically active;
  • eat appropriate amounts of healthy foods;
  • build up muscle mass (because it burns more energy at rest than fat does); and
  • try to make changes that you can stick to in the long term.

Have goals and rewards

Decide what is a healthy, achievable and sustainable weight for you, and give yourself a sensible time-frame to achieve it. Lose weight slowly (about 1-2 kilograms a month) as weight lost quickly usually comes back quickly. Set a number of short-term goals so you have a sense of achievement, and reward yourself with non-food treats when you achieve them.

Mind what you eat

  • Eat a healthy diet consisting of plenty of vegetables, fruit, legumes (e.g. lentils, beans, chickpeas) and wholegrains (including wholegrain breads and cereals such as oats or muesli, pasta, brown rice, wholemeal couscous and other grain foods). Also include low-fat milk and dairy products, as well as some lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs or plant-based choices such as legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds. The so-called Mediterranean diet is a good example of a balanced diet that has been shown to help in weight loss and also provide benefits for heart health.
  • Consume fewer foods containing saturated fats. Cut visible fat off meat; eat less fried food; eat fewer takeaways, sweet and savoury snacks, cakes, pastries and biscuits – all of which are high in saturated fat. Instead, choose moderate portions of foods containing healthy unsaturated fats such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, oats, soybeans, fish and other seafood. Also, avoid reduced-fat foods where the fat has been replaced with sugar or refined starches such as maltodextrins.
  • Limit intake of sugars. Avoid sugar-sweetened drinks such as soft drinks, cordial, sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit drinks, vitamin waters and cordial. Many studies now show such products increase the risk of weight gain. Also avoid adding sugar to tea or coffee and limit confectionery as well as cakes, biscuits and desserts.
  • Drink plenty of water each day.
  • Limit alcohol intake – it provides no nutrients, but plenty of kilojoules.
  • Read labels, noting the kilojoules, saturated fat and sugars. Ingredients are listed in order of prominence in the product so it’s wise to avoid processed products where sugars and fats are close to the top of the list. Beware of so-called ‘low-fat’ or ‘reduced-fat’ foods or “lite” processed foods, as many are made palatable by adding lots of sugar or starches.
  • Watch the kilojoules. An extra 200 kilojoules a day that you don't need can add approximately 2 kilos a year. However, very low kilojoule diets are doomed to failure in the long-term and are usually nutritionally inadequate. Don't be so strict that you feel deprived, because you won’t be able to sustain the effort.

Mind how you eat

  • Think about your relationship with food; figure out if there are times when controlling food intake is hard. You may be eating for comfort, out of habit or absent-mindedness, or just because there's food around. Find other ways of controlling stress, and break old habits.
  • Don't keep high fat or sugar treats in the house — have them when you are out, but only occasionally. Stock the fridge at all times with healthy options. Freeze healthy dinners, so fast is not fatty.
  • Learn how to cook tasty, balanced meals with lots of vegetables and only small amounts of any fatty ingredients.
  • Check your food portions — if you are in the habit of piling up your plate, try gradually easing back. Use smaller plates and bulkier foods so the ‘eye’ is full – filling up with fruit and vegetables provides essential dietary fibre and helps stave off hunger.
  • Mindful eating. Try to chew and eat slowly, so the message that the stomach is full has time to reach the brain.
  • Check drink portion sizes. A typical glass of wine is equivalent to 2 standard drinks and alcohol adds many kilojoules.
  • Don't skip meals. Establish regular eating patterns so that you don’t get hungry and then overeat.
  • Don’t confuse thirst with hunger. Satisfy thirst with water or moderate quantities of tea or coffee.

Get moving

Most overweight and obese people need to combine eating less with increased physical activity to lose weight.

Any increase in physical activity is beneficial to health, but to achieve and maintain weight loss, a substantial level of activity is required. As well as helping you to lose weight, the increased exercise will also reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, bowel cancer and dementia in old age.

How much exercise is enough?

Start slowly, perhaps with a gentle walk for 15 minutes several times a week. Increasing activity gradually has been shown to be associated with fewer injuries in adults who have been inactive.

Work up to 150 to 300 minutes of moderate (where you can still hold a conversation) exercise per week – this equates to about 25 to 50 minutes most days of the week. Or, 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous, higher intensity activity. These are the levels of activity recommended for health benefits by the Australian Physical Activity Guidelines for adults. To prevent weight gain, lose excess fat and maintain the loss, you will probably need activity at the upper end of these ranges.

Getting started

To improve your chances of success:

  • Find something you enjoy and that is easy to get to or organise, otherwise you won't do it.
  • Exercise with a friend or the family.
  • Schedule exercise and physical activity into your week. If you can't schedule a block of time for exercise, try shorter bursts of activity, such as walking around the block at lunch time, after dinner, from a car park further away from the office or up the stairs, several times a day.

The benefits of physical activity for weight control are cumulative. Try building extra physical activity into your daily life too. Housework, gardening and using public transport instead of driving everywhere can all help.

Tone up

Strength training and muscle-strengthening activities increase your metabolism. Muscle (also called lean tissue) burns more fuel (kilojoules) at rest than fat does. Each day, every kilogram of muscle burns more energy than each kilogram of fat just to maintain itself. So a couple of extra kilos of muscle will automatically mean you burn off more energy from food. Also, the stronger you are, the more likely you are to exercise, and as a bonus, you'll look trimmer because you are toned.

Other benefits of building muscle mass include reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Record your progress

Record your daily food intake and exercise. Studies have shown that this is the best way to ensure your weight-loss programme will succeed. Traditionally, using a diary was the best way to do this, but now there are a variety of devices that you can use, including;

  • pedometers (to record how many steps you take each day); and
  • apps and wearables that can help you measure your food intake, physical activity and calories burned, track your fitness and even record the quality of your sleep.

Weigh yourself regularly, say every week, at the same time of day, and record your progress. This has also been shown to help in managing weight loss.

Get enough sleep

It’s important to get enough sleep, because being sleep deprived can contribute to weight gain. Inadequate sleep can trigger your body to release certain hormones that can make you feel hungry and crave foods that are high in kilojoules and carbohydrates. When you feel tired, you’re also more likely to eat in an effort to restore your energy levels.

Ask the professionals

Before you start, check with your doctor if you:

  • have any health problems;
  • are currently taking any medicine, or plan on taking any medicine; or
  • plan to lose more than 6 to 8 kilograms.

Health professionals such as your GP, dietitians, exercise physiologists and psychologists, should be able to help you with your weight loss plan, depending on your individual needs.

There are also many weight-loss programmes, personal trainers, gym programmes, online weight-loss programmes, apps, and self-help books available.

Use your common sense. Choose a programme that teaches you how to make permanent changes in eating habits and levels of physical activity so you take weight off AND keep it off. If it offers a quick fix or recommends removing whole food groups from your diet, forget it.

When choosing a weight-loss programme, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the person/staff qualified to offer advice?
  • Does the programme include lifestyle changes in food intake AND physical activity?
  • Does the programme promote a slow, gradual weight loss?
  • Is there a maintenance plan included and does it teach you how to get through difficult times?
  • Are the food choices flexible, suitable and affordable?
  • Does the programme ask you to omit any of the major 5 food groups (vegetable; fruit; wholegrains; lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds; milk, cheese and yoghurt or plant-based alternatives)?
  • Are there hidden costs (special foods/supplements)?

What doesn't help weight loss?

Quick-loss, very-low-kilojoule diet methods, most pills, potions and herbs, passive machines and rub-on creams do not help you lose weight. There is also little evidence for complementary medicines or nutritional supplements as an aid to weight loss. Remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is a sham. Don’t waste your life looking for a miracle cure for obesity. There isn’t one!

Prescription weight loss medicines and surgery for weight loss (bariatric surgery) are usually reserved for people with a high BMI, or a moderately high BMI plus other health risks, who have been unsuccessful in their efforts to lose weight with diet and exercise alone. These treatments must always be taken under medical supervision and with lifestyle changes.

Maintenance - keep the weight off

Weight will be regained unless the changes in diet and the increase in activity are ongoing. Beware of the ‘made it’ syndrome, where, having reached a target weight, you return to old habits.

People who succeed at long-term weight management tend to have:

  • stuck with a healthy eating plan;
  • regularly eaten breakfast;
  • included high levels of regular physical activity or a consistent exercise routine;
  • continued to weigh themselves regularly;
  • had support from family or friends;
  • maintained ongoing contact with their health professional;
  • caught weight regain before it became a large-scale lapse; and
  • developed strategies to deal with any emotional eating triggers.

So, if you have started to regain weight or are having difficulty in maintaining your weight loss, see your health professional for help to get back on track.

Last Reviewed: 11 June 2015
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References

1. National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Clinical practice guidelines for the management of overweight and obesity in adults, adolescents and children in Australia, May 2013. Melbourne: National Health and Medical Research Council. http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines/publications/n57 (accessed Jun 2015).
2. National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Australian dietary guidelines, February 2013. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council. http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines/publications/n55 (accessed Jun 2015).
3. Overweight and obesity (revised October 2012). In: eTG complete. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Limited; 2015 Mar. http://online.tg.org.au/complete/ (accessed May 2015).
4. World Health Organization. What are the health consequences of being overweight? Updated March 2013. http://www.who.int/features/qa/49/en/# (accessed Jun 2015).
5. Australian Government Department of Health. Australia’s physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines (updated 10 July 2014). (http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/health-pubhlth-strateg-phys-act-guidelines#apaadult (accessed Jun 2015).
6. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Healthy Weight Website http://www.healthyactive.gov.au/internet/healthyactive/publishing.nsf/Content/healthyweight (accessed Jun 2015).
7. Heart Foundation. Trans fats. http://www.heartfoundation.org.au/SiteCollectionDocuments/Dietary-fats-transfat.pdf (accessed Jun 2015).
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myDr

myDr provides comprehensive Australian health and medical information, images and tools covering symptoms, diseases, tests, medicines and treatments, and nutrition and fitness.