The holiday season is full of wonderful tastes and traditions, but come January we feel pressured by forces everywhere, including the media, to try the latest fad diet in an effort to lose extra pounds. Should we succumb to the pressure or should we consider our body weight from a different perspective?
It’s the New Year and time for New Year’s resolutions. Or is it? Many people consider January an optimum time for renewal and new beginnings yet often find themselves weighed down by unreasonable expectations.
Weight loss is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions. The holiday season is full of wonderful tastes and traditions, but come January we feel pressured by forces everywhere, including the media, to try the latest fad diet in an effort to lose extra pounds. Should we succumb to the pressure or should we consider our body weight from a different perspective?
Healthy Weight: Basic Supply and Demand
Our society has become preoccupied with weight and body image. Ironically, while North Americans as a whole spend billions each year on losing weight, we are also becoming increasingly overweight and sedentary. As even the most casual observer of current events knows, obesity rates among children and adults have increased substantially during the past 25 years, prompting concerns for impending health crises.
As Socrates succinctly pronounced, “Thou shouldst eat to live, not live to eat.” Although it seems obvious, it may be wise to remind ourselves occasionally that food is fuel. We need the nutrients in the food we eat to supply the energy that we expend in our daily routines. So to maintain a stable weight, our energy intake needs to equal the energy we use. If we use more energy than we consume, we will lose weight. On the other hand, if we eat more than we use, we will gain weight while the surplus is stored as body fat.
Just as low-grade gasoline in a car fouls the engine and wreaks havoc with performance, food loaded with calories and fat, but short on nutrients, inhibits energy and increases our risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and some cancers.
What is Healthy Weight Management?
We know why we gain weight, now what do we do about the excess? The Canadian Inventory of Nutrition and Dietetic Associated Research, in a survey of Canadian dietitians, found that professionals in the industry promote effective weight management with a simple recipe: healthy eating and increased physical activity.
The goal of healthy weight management is to feel good about ourselves. When we feel good we are more likely to enjoy being more active and to find pleasure in nutritious food and healthy eating. We are also more likely to define ourselves in terms of our overall good health rather than by the numbers on our bathroom scales or by an unrealistic media model of thinness.
A Ratio of Weight to Height
The first step in achieving a healthy weight is to determine what our weight should be in terms of our height. The body mass index (BMI) is a mathematical formula that describes relative weight for height. While the BMI is useful as a general guideline, it does not distinguish excess fat from muscle. Another caveat about the BMI: since children’s body fatness changes over the years as they grow and girls and boys differ in their body fatness as they mature, BMI for children is gender- and age-specific. The Heart and Stroke Foundation website (www.heartandstroke.ca.) provides an easy-to-use BMI calculator.
Do Diets Equal Healthy Weight Management?
We know that dietitians agree the best way to reach a healthy weight is to follow a sensible eating plan and engage in regular physical activity. When choosing a weight-loss program, look for one that encourages healthy behaviours that help you lose weight and that you can maintain over time.
Often, diet trends focus on one food or nutrient, either emphasizing that we avoid a particular food group or that we consume it to excess. Although many of these diets claim short-term success, diets that strictly limit calories or food choices are hard to follow and long-term success rates are low.
These kinds of diets may be unhealthy because they may not provide all of the nutrients our bodies need. In addition, losing weight at a very rapid rate (more than three pounds a week after the first couple of weeks) puts us at risk for other health concerns such as gallstones. People who lose weight rapidly are also more likely to regain weight and to find it even more difficult to lose subsequently due to changes in their metabolism from dieting.
The Role of Carbohydrates in Our Diet
Some current diet trends have created a stigma around an essential nutrient–carbohydrates. These diets tend to focus on high protein intake while reducing carbohydrates.
Unfortunately, the long-term health effects of high-protein/low-carbohydrate diets are unknown. What is known is that getting most of our daily calories from high-protein foods like meat, eggs, and cheese is not a balanced eating plan. By eliminating carbohydrates from our diet we also miss an abundance of other key nutrients–vitamins, minerals, and fibre–that are essential for good health.
High-protein/low-carbohydrate diets are often low in calories because food choices are strictly limited, so they may cause short-term weight loss. Better, though, is a reduced-calorie eating plan that includes recommended amounts of carbohydrate, protein, and fat. By following a balanced eating plan, all the food groups are available, from whole grains to fruits and vegetables and their associated nutrients. The variety this provides also makes it easier to stick with a diet or eating plan for the long term.
There are no magical foods or ways to combine foods that melt away excess body fat. To reduce weight, we need to make small, achievable changes to our lifestyle. We need to change the way we eat and increase our physical activity.
The other key component to healthy weight management is regular physical activity. It is often the most difficult to implement and sustain. However, the more active we are, the more calories we burn, which leaves less energy available for storage as fat. Exercising more also reduces the chances of developing heart disease, some types of cancer, and other chronic diseases. In other words, physical activity is a key element of weight control and health.
Building our muscles, especially with strength-training exercises, causes our bodies to burn more calories even when we’re not active. Moderate intensity exercise such as walking, gardening, cycling, and even mowing the lawn, has been shown to help reduce body fat.
Strategies for New Year’s Resolve
Many New Year’s resolutions are doomed to fail because the goal is unrealistic, non-specific, and ultimately unachievable. Once we understand that healthy weight management is achieved through healthy eating and increased physical activity, we can set out to create goals that are SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and tangible.
For example, instead of setting out to “lose 25 pounds,” we are more likely to achieve results if we make a goal to “self-monitor intake and calories and aim for an amount that will allow the loss of one pound per week or four pounds per month.” Rather than saying to ourselves, “I will exercise more,” we might achieve more success if we commit ourselves to “walk for at least 200 minutes per week.”
By making small, attainable, and measurable goals we can realize success along the journey to healthy weight management, thereby bolstering self-worth and reinforcing motivation. Next New Year’s resolution may well be, “Keep up the good work!”
Choosing a Safe and Effective Weight-Loss Program
There are literally hundreds of different weight-loss programs that offer help for those who are motivated to achieve a healthy weight. Look for a weight-loss program that includes the following:
- healthy eating plans that reduce calories but do not rule out specific foods or food groups
- regular physical activity, exercise instruction, or both
- tips on healthy behaviour changes that also consider cultural needs
- slow and steady weight loss of about 3/4 to 2 pounds per week and not more than 3 pounds per week (weight loss may be faster at the start of a program)
- medical care for special diets, such as a very low-calorie diet
- a plan to keep the weight off
Easy and SMART Activities
If a formal exercise routine is unreasonable as part of a SMART goal toward healthy weight management, here are some suggestions to increase activity levels:
- Play a sport that you enjoy.
- Walk instead of taking the car on short trips.
- Get off the bus one stop early and walk the rest of the way.
- Play more outdoor games with your children.
- Walk the dog.
- Take stairs instead of elevators.
- Choose exercise activities that you think are fun, rather than those you think are good for you.