Weight Management

Overview

What is a healthy weight?

A healthy weight is a weight that lowers your risk for health problems. For most people, body mass index (BMI) and waist size are good ways to tell if they are at a healthy weight.

But reaching a healthy weight isn't just about reaching a certain number on the scale or a certain BMI. Having healthy eating and exercise habits is even more important. When you're active and eating well, your body will settle into a weight that is healthy for you.

If you want to get to a healthy weight and stay there, healthy lifestyle changes will work better than dieting. Reaching a certain number on the scale is not as important as having a healthy lifestyle.

Why pay attention to your weight?

Staying at a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do for your health. It can help prevent serious health problems, including:

But weight is only one part of your health. Even if you carry some extra weight, eating healthy foods and being more active can help you feel better, have more energy, and lower your risk for disease.

Why isn't dieting a good idea?

In today's society, there is a lot of pressure to be thin. But being thin has very little to do with good health. Many of us long to be thin, even though we're already at a healthy weight. So we get desperate, and we turn to diets for help.

  • Diets don't work.
    • Diets are temporary. When you diet, you're usually not eating the way you will need to eat over the long term. So when you quit dieting, the extra weight comes back.
    • Dieting usually means not letting yourself have many of the foods you love to eat. So when you quit dieting, you return to eating those foods as much as you used to—or more. And the extra weight comes back.
    • Dieting often means eating so little food that you're hungry all the time and don't have enough energy. So when you quit dieting, you return to eating as much as you did before—or more. And the extra weight comes back.
    • Most diet programs don't include an increase in activity, which is vital to staying at a healthy weight. So when you quit dieting, the weight comes back.
  • Dieting can actually be bad for you.
    • After they quit dieting, most people regain the weight they lost—and many gain even more.
    • Many diets do not include the right balance of foods to keep you healthy.
    • Dieting leads to eating disorders in some people.
    • Some people fall into an unhealthy cycle of losing and gaining weight, which may be harder on the body than just being overweight.
    • Some people feel so defeated after repeatedly failing to lose weight and keep it off that they give up altogether on healthy eating and being active.

Since dieting doesn't work, what can you do?

If you decide that you do need to make some changes, here are the three steps to reaching a healthy weight:

  1. Improve your eating habits. Do it slowly. You may be tempted to do a diet overhaul and change everything about the way you eat. But you will be more successful at staying with the changes you make if you pick just one eating habit at a time to work on.
    To find out how to improve your eating habits, go to the section Healthy Eating.
  2. Get moving: Try to make physical activity a regular part of your day, just like brushing your teeth.
    To learn how to be more active, go to the section Healthy Activity.
  3. Change your thinking. Our thoughts have a lot to do with how we feel and what we do. If you can stop your brain from telling you discouraging things and have it start encouraging you instead, you may be surprised at how much healthier you'll be—in mind and body.
    To find out how to change your thinking, go to the section Getting to a Healthy Weight: Lifestyle Changes.
Photo of an older woman

One Woman's Story:

"The biggest key to my success is knowing that this is a process. It's not 'all or nothing at all.' It's a matter of making choices every day. One day I might decide to eat more than another day, and that's okay, as long as I'm paying attention. I finally realized it wasn't a time-limited thing. It became much more of a lifestyle change than a temporary diet. The idea that somehow I could go back to my old ways was just not there anymore."—Maggie

Read more about how Maggie changed her life and lost 50 pounds.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about healthy weight:

Are You at a Healthy Weight?

Your first step to find out if you are at a healthy weight is to find out what your BMI, or body mass index, is and what your waist size is. For most people, these are good clues to whether they are at a healthy weight.

If your weight is not healthy, your risk for weight-related problems is higher, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, and some forms of cancer. For more information, see the topic Obesity.

What's your BMI?

A BMI chart tells you the recommended weight range for your height. The chart assigns a number, or BMI, to your weight. That number is your BMI:

  • If your BMI is less than 18.5, you are in the underweight category. Talk to your doctor to find out if your weight is a symptom of a medical problem. Your doctor can also refer you to a nutrition expert who can help you learn about healthy eating.
  • If your BMI is between 19 and 24.9, you are in the recommended weight range for your height. But your health may still be at risk if you are not getting regular physical activity and practicing healthy eating.
  • If your BMI is 25 to 29.9, you are in the overweight category. This may or may not be unhealthy, depending on some other things, like your waist size and other health problems you may have.
  • If your BMI is 30 or higher, you're in the obese category. You may need to lose weight and change your eating and activity habits to get healthy and stay healthy. See the topic Obesity.

If you are Asian, your recommended weight range may be lower. Talk to your doctor.

It's important to remember that your BMI is only one measure of your health. A person who is "overweight" according to BMI charts, but not "obese" may be healthy if he or she has healthy eating habits and exercises regularly. People who are thin but don't exercise or eat nutritious foods aren't necessarily healthy just because they are thin.

What's your waist size?

After you know your BMI, it's time to look at your waist size.

Measuring your waist can help you find out how much fat you have stored around your belly. People who are "apple-shaped" and store fat around their belly are more likely to develop weight-related diseases than people who are "pear-shaped" and store most of their fat around their hips. Diseases that are related to weight include diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

Measure your waist size with a tape measure. The tape should fit snugly but not press into your skin.

For most people, the goal for a healthy waist is:1

  • Less than 40 in. (102 cm) for men.
  • Less than 35 in. (89 cm) for women.

If you are Asian, the goal for a healthy waist is:

  • Less than 36 in. (91 cm) for men.
  • Less than 32 in. (81 cm) for women.

If you are ...

Then ...

In the underweight range on the BMI chart:

See your doctor to find out if you have a medical problem that is causing your low weight.

Within the recommended BMI range and your waist size is within the recommendations:

Your weight is not a problem for your health.

At or above the recommended BMI range and your waist size is higher than recommended:

See your doctor to find out if you have health problems that might be related to your weight.

You may need to change your eating habits and get more active.

In the overweight category on the BMI chart but your waist size is within the recommendations:

Your weight may be right for you. But you need to see your doctor to find out if you have health problems that might be related to your weight.

In the obese category on the BMI chart, no matter what your waist measurement is:

You may need to lose weight to be healthier, as well as change your eating and activity habits.

Your doctor may want to take another measurement, called a waist-to-hip ratio. This measurement is a comparison of your waist size to your hip size. A higher waist-to-hip ratio means that you are more "apple-shaped" than "pear-shaped" and therefore at a higher risk for weight-related disease.

Body fat testing is sometimes used to help find out if a person has a healthy percentage of body fat. But it can be inaccurate. It also costs more than measuring BMI or waist size. So it's rarely used to measure a person's risk for weight-related diseases.

Do you have other health problems?

If you are in the overweight or obese category and your waist size is too high, it's important to talk to your doctor about weight-related health problems you may have, including:

If you have two or more of these health problems, your doctor may advise you to make some lifestyle changes and/or lose weight. He or she may also refer you to a dietitian, an expert in healthy eating. See the topic Obesity.

Interactive Tool: Is Your Weight Affecting Your Health Risks?

Are you unhappy with your weight?

If you're at a healthy weight but are still unhappy with your weight, you're not alone. Lots of people are.

It can be hard to be satisfied with how you look when TV and magazines show unrealistic images of what it means to be thin. Here are some things to think about:

  • There is no "ideal" body shape or body size. We let society tell us what "ideal" means. But the way a skinny model looks in a magazine or TV ad is not normal or "ideal."
  • Do you feel good and have plenty of energy? Can you do the activities you want to do? That's what healthy living is all about, no matter what your weight is.
  • Trying to lose weight when you don't have to can actually be bad for you. Most people who diet end up gaining back the pounds they lost—and more.
What do you want to do now?

What Affects Your Weight?

Genetic makeup—what you inherit—plays the biggest role

When we say "genetic makeup," we're talking about everything you inherited from your ancestors, from the color of your eyes or the shape of your toes to the way your brain works and the way your body stores fat.

Your genetic makeup has a very big effect on your weight. It affects:

  • Your basal metabolic rate . That's the rate at which your body uses energy (calories) at rest. Some people are born with higher basic metabolic rates than others. These people naturally burn more calories than the rest of us.
    • Regular physical activity can raise your metabolic rate.
    • Very low-calorie diets will lower your metabolic rate. A lower metabolic rate makes it easier to gain weight because you don't burn calories as fast.
  • Your body signals .
    • Hunger is signaled by stomach growling and hunger pangs. This signal says, "It's time to eat."
    • Fullness, also called "satiety" (say "suh-TY-uh-tee"), is signaled by a feeling of being full and satisfied. This signal says, "It's time to stop eating."
    • Appetite is a desire for food, usually linked to the sight, smell, or thought of food. It is the pleasure you get from food. It's what makes you look for food that you enjoy. It's also what makes you want dessert when you're already full.
  • Your fat distribution.
    • Some people have slim legs, some have heavy legs. You can't change where your body stores fat.
    • Men store more fat in the belly as they age, and women store more fat in the hips and thighs.

Nutrition—what and how you eat—also affects your weight

The average American meal contains too many calories. It also contains too much saturated fat, cholesterol, animal protein, salt, alcohol, and sugar.

It can be hard to make healthy food choices:

  • Emotions and easy access to fast foods and snacks are among the many things that influence our food choices today.
  • Lack of time leads many people to eat on an irregular schedule or skip meals. People who do that have more trouble staying at a healthy weight than people who eat regular meals.
  • Sometimes a food that seems like a healthier choice may not be. A low-fat cookie may have less fat, but usually it is high in sugar and has the same number of calories as a regular cookie. Potato chips that are "cholesterol-free" may still be high in fat and calories.

Physical activity—how much you move—is the third factor that affects your weight

Being physically active is an important part of staying at a healthy weight.

  • Try to do moderate activity at least 2½ hours a week. Or try to do vigorous activity at least 1¼ hours a week. For example, you could do moderate exercise for 10 minutes, 3 times a day, at least 5 days a week. Or you could do vigorous activity for 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week. It's fine to be active in blocks of 10 minutes or more throughout your day and week.2 Brisk walking is an example of a moderate activity. Running is an example of vigorous activity.
  • Regular activity helps you stay fit. When you're fit, you feel better and have more energy for work and for your family. When you're fit, you burn more calories, even when you're resting.
  • Even if you are overweight or obese, you will benefit from being more physically fit. Improving your fitness is good for your heart, lungs, bones, and joints. And it lowers your risk for heart attack, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some cancers. If you already have one or more of these problems, getting more fit may help you control other health problems and make you feel better.
  • Moderate activity is safe for most people, but it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor before you start an exercise program.

Getting to a Healthy Weight: Lifestyle Changes

Photo of a woman

One Woman's Story:

"I see it as a whole life change. I actually get mad at people when they say, 'You've been on a diet.' I'm not on a diet. I've never been on a diet. I just changed the way I eat. I changed the way I live."—Jaci

Read more about how Jaci lost 65 pounds.

What is a healthy lifestyle?

A healthy lifestyle can help you feel good, stay at a healthy weight, and have plenty of energy for both work and play. And it lowers your risk for serious health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.

A healthy lifestyle means:

  • Eating healthy foods. This includes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. If you eat meat and dairy foods, choose lean meats and low-fat dairy foods most of the time. Healthy eating also means not eating too much sugar, fat, or fast foods. You can still have dessert and treats now and then. The goal is moderation. Go to the section Healthy Eating.
  • Making some kind of physical activity part of your daily routine. "Physical activity" doesn't have to mean regular visits to the gym or running marathons. There are lots of other ways to fit activity into your life. Go to the section Healthy Activity.
  • Not smoking. Weight gain is a big concern for many people who want to quit smoking. But many people don't gain weight. And it's more of a health risk to keep smoking than it is to gain a few extra pounds when you quit. For information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
  • Drinking only moderate amounts of alcohol. That's up to 2 drinks a day for men, 1 drink a day for women.
  • Managing stress. Many people find that eating is their way of managing stress. If you have a lot of stress in your life, it can be hard to focus on making healthy changes to your lifestyle. For more information about how to deal with stress, see the topic Stress Management.

Becoming more active and improving your eating habits are the two main ways to reach a healthy weight.

First, change your thinking

If you need to make some lifestyle changes to get to a healthy weight, you'll have more success if you first change the way you think about certain things:

  • Don't compare yourself to others. Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Our culture focuses much too much on thinness, and thinness is just not realistic or natural for most of us. Yet we feel bad when we can't achieve such an unrealistic body size. Body size isn't as important as being healthy.
  • Pay attention to how hungry or how full you feel. When you eat, pay attention to why you're eating and how much you're eating.
  • Forget about dieting. Dieting almost never works over the long term.
  • Decide that you're going to improve your health instead of deciding to go on a diet. For example, you may want to:

For more on how positive thinking can help you, see the topic Positive Thinking With Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy or see:

Click here to view an Actionset. Weight management: Using positive thinking.
Click here to view an Actionset. Positive thinking: Stopping unwanted thoughts.
Photo of an older woman

One Woman's Story:

"I finally realized it wasn't a time-limited thing. It wasn't like, 'Well, I'm going to be really good and stay on this food plan now until I get the weight off.' It was more a realization that, 'You know, at 62, if I want to weigh 130 to 135 pounds, then I have to do these things.' I can't stop doing them just because I lose the weight. So it became much more of a lifestyle change than a temporary diet. The idea that somehow I could go back to my old ways was just not there anymore."—Maggie

Read more about how Maggie changed her life and lost 50 pounds.

How do you change your lifestyle?

Making any kind of change in the way you live your daily life is like being on a path. The path leads to success. Here are the first steps on that path:

  1. Have your own reason for making a change. If you do it because someone else wants you to, you're less likely to have success.
  2. Set goals. Include long-term goals as well as short-term goals that you can measure easily.
  3. Measure improvements to your health. For example, keep track of your blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar. Or see how you can shorten the time it takes to walk a mile.
  4. Think about what might get in your way, and prepare for slip-ups.
  5. Get support from your family, your doctor, your friends—and from yourself.

1. Have your own reasons for making a change

Your reason for wanting to make a lifestyle change is really important. Don't do it just because your spouse or boyfriend or parent wants you to. What makes you want to get to or stay at a healthy weight? Do you:

It's not easy to make changes. But taking the time to really think about what will motivate or inspire you will help you reach your goals.

Photo of an older woman

One Woman's Story:

"Nothing anybody else said to me or suggested to me had any impact, until I decided for myself that I needed to do something about my weight, and that it was worth it."—Maggie

Read more about how Maggie changed her life and lost 50 pounds.

2. Set goals you can reach

Ask yourself if you feel ready to begin taking steps toward big goals. If you're not ready yet, try to pick a date when you will start making small changes. Any healthy change—no matter how small—is a good start.

When you are clear about your reasons for wanting to make a change, it's time to set your goals:

  • Long-term goals:These are large goals that you want to reach in 6 to 12 months. Let's say that you want to meet the recommendation of doing moderate activity, like brisk walking, for at least 2½ hours a week.2 One way to do this is to be active 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.
  • Short-term goals: But you may not be ready for 30 minutes a day just yet. What are the short-term goals that will help you get there? In this case, your first small goal might be to walk for just 10 minutes every other day. After a week, you can set a new goal by adding a few minutes to your walk or adding another day to your schedule.
  • Updated goals: It will help you stay motivated if you track your progress and update your goals as you move forward.

Tips for setting goals

  • Focus on small goals. This will help you reach larger goals over time. With smaller goals, you'll have success more often, which will help you stay with it.
  • Write down your goals. This will help you remember, and you'll have a clearer idea of what you want to achieve. Use a personal action plan(What is a PDF document?) to record your goals. Hang up your plan where you will see it often as a reminder of what you're trying to do.
  • Make your goals specific. Specific goals help you measure your progress. For example, setting a goal to walk 30 minutes a day is better than a general goal to "get more exercise."
  • Focus on one goal at a time. By doing this, you're less likely to feel overwhelmed and then give up.
  • As soon as you reach a goal, set a new one.

3. Measure how your health has improved

Before you make lifestyle changes, ask your doctor to check your cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and blood sugar.

Research shows that you can improve your health by losing as little as 5% to 10% of your weight.1 Here's what that means:

  • 5% of 150 lb (68 kg) is 7.5 lb (3 kg), and 10% is 15 lb (7 kg).
  • 5% of 200 lb (91 kg) is 10 lb (4.5 kg), and 10% is 20 lb (9 kg).
  • 5% of 250 lb (113 kg) is 12.5 lb (6 kg), and 10% is 25 lb (11 kg).

Keeping track of your weight

  • Weigh yourself no more than once a week, unless your doctor tells to you to do so more often because of a health problem.
  • Try to weigh yourself on the same scale, at the same time of day, in about the same amount of clothing.
  • Remember that many things can affect your weight. It's normal for your weight to go up and down by a few pounds from one day to the next. Try to look at the general trend of your weight, rather than the day-to-day changes.
  • Aim to lose no more than 1 to 2 pounds a week. Weight loss of more than that often means that you are not getting enough nutrients to be healthy. And some of the weight you lose may be from lean body tissue (muscle and organ tissue) or water loss, not fat.

Have your cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar checked again after you have lost 5% to 10% of your weight or in 3 to 6 months. You can also check your blood pressure and blood sugar at home.

  • Blood sugar levels can tell you whether your lifestyle changes or weight loss are helping to control your diabetes.
  • Cholesterol and triglyceride levels can tell you whether your lifestyle changes or weight loss are lowering your risk for heart disease.
  • Blood pressure can tell you whether your lifestyle changes or weight loss are lowering your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Another way to measure improvements is to look for changes in your fitness level. For example, are you able to walk longer and on more days than when you started? Can you climb a flight of stairs without getting as tired or out of breath? Do you have better strength and muscle tone? Do you have more energy?

4. Prepare for slip-ups

Photo of an older woman

One Woman's Story:

"Beating yourself up because you did something you wish you hadn't done is very negative. It doesn't help anything. ... What I've learned to do is reframe it. What did I learn from that? How did it happen? What was I feeling at the time it happened? What can I do differently so it doesn't happen again?"—Maggie

Read more about how Maggie changed her life and lost 50 pounds.

It's perfectly normal to try to change a habit, go along fine for a while, and then have a setback. Lots of people try and try again before they reach their goals.

What are the things that might cause a setback for you? If you have tried to make lifestyle changes before, think about what helped you and what got in your way.

By thinking about these barriers now, you can plan ahead for how to deal with them if they happen.

Here's one person's list of barriers to taking a brisk 30-minute walk every day, along with some possible solutions:

Barriers

Solutions

I might be too busy.

  • My backup plan will be to break my usual 30-minute walk into two 15-minute walks or three 10-minute walks.

I might get bored.

  • I'll listen to music or a podcast while I walk.
  • I'll get my neighbor to walk with me.

It might rain.

  • My backup plan will be to use an exercise DVD or a treadmill in front of my TV when the weather's bad.

Use a personal action plan(What is a PDF document?) to write down your barriers and backup plans.

5. Get support

The more support you have for making a lifestyle change, the easier it is to make that change.

Tips for getting support

  • Get a partner. It's motivating to know that someone is going through the same thing you are and maybe is counting on you to help him or her succeed. That person can also remind you how far you've come.
  • Get friends and family involved. They can exercise with you or encourage you by saying how they admire you. Family members can join you in your healthy eating efforts. Friends can tell you how good you look because you're exercising. Don't be afraid to tell family and friends that their encouragement makes a big difference to you.
    Click here to view an Actionset.Healthy eating: Getting support when changing your eating habits
  • Join a class or workout group. People in these groups often have some of the same barriers you have. They can give you support when you don't feel like staying with your plan. They can boost your morale when you need a lift.
  • Give yourself positive reinforcement. When you feel like giving up, don't waste energy feeling bad about yourself. Remember your reason for wanting to change, think about the progress you've made, and give yourself a pep talk and a pat on the back.
Photo of an older woman

One Woman's Story:

"One of the (motivators) for me was all the praise and comments people have made to me. My students will comment, 'Gee, you really eat healthy.' ... Other people will say, 'How did you do that, Maggie?' "—Maggie

Read more about how Maggie changed her life and lost 50 pounds.

You can use this personal action plan(What is a PDF document?) to organize your support system.

Healthy Eating

Eating a healthy, balanced variety of foods is far more satisfying than following a strict weight-loss diet that leaves you feeling deprived and hungry. And healthy eating paired with increased activity is more likely to get you to a healthy weight—and keep you there—than dieting is.

Dieting is not healthy eating

Dieting may make you feel like a failure if you can't lose weight or stay on your diet. Instead of blaming the diets, people who are overweight tend to blame themselves. You may think, "If I could just stay on that diet, I would be thin." This doesn't take into account that your body has powerful regulators that affect your weight—things you can't do anything about. And if you've dieted again and again without success, you can get into a cycle of negative thinking—and even gain more weight.

When you go on a diet, you deprive yourself of food. For many people, that means being hungry most of the time and not having enough energy. It also can lead you to think about food all the time. So you're much more likely to overeat when you finally give yourself permission to eat. It's important to make healthy eating changes that you can keep doing, instead of dieting.

Many different diets and programs, such as the ones below, promise rapid weight loss but rarely work for the long term. Some might even be dangerous. Learn more about:

But what does healthy eating mean? Everywhere we turn, we get conflicting advice on what foods are good for our health. It can be hard to know where to start after you've decided to make a change.

  • First, start paying attention to your body signals and to your hunger triggers.
  • Then get smart about eating healthy foods and controlling your portions.

First, learn to pay attention

Before you tackle the subject of what you should eat, it's important to start paying attention to why and how you eat.

Photo of an older woman

One Woman's Story:

"I used to just eat automatically, not think about it. If I liked something, I put it in my mouth. Now, it's like being on a budget. It isn't mindless. I have to be mindful of how I eat."—Maggie

Read more about how Maggie changed her life and lost 50 pounds.

  • Know your body signals

Young children are good at paying attention to their body signals. They eat when they're hungry. They stop when they're full.

But as we grow older, and fast food, huge portions, and delicious snacks are everywhere, many of us start to ignore our body signals. We eat for other reasons—or sometimes without thinking at all.

You can ignore those body signals for a while, but they are powerful. And if you ignore them for a long time (by dieting, for example) you lose your ability to pay attention to them. You get out of practice.

Photo of an older woman

One Woman's Story:

"I was way overweight, and I was out of control with my eating. I could not say to myself, 'That's enough.' "—Maggie

Read more about how Maggie changed her life and lost 50 pounds.

Here are the body signals that tell us when and how much to eat:

  • Hunger is a normal sensation that makes you want to eat. Your body tells your brain that your stomach is empty. This makes your stomach growl and gives you hunger pangs.
  • Fullness, also known as satiety (say "suh-TY-uh-tee"), is a feeling of being full and satisfied. The body tells the brain that it is full.
  • Appetite is a desire for food, usually linked to the sight, smell, or thought of food. It can override hunger and fullness, such as when you keep eating even after you feel full.
    Click here to view an Actionset.Healthy eating: Recognizing your hunger signals
  • Know your eating triggers

It's important to figure out what keeps you from getting to a healthy weight. This includes finding out what causes you to eat when you're not really hungry. These causes are your triggers.

If you know what your eating triggers are, you can avoid them.

  • Stress is a very common trigger. Learn how to manage stress and eating.
  • Other common eating triggers include certain smells or sights, certain social situations, and emotions like boredom, loneliness, anger, and even happiness.
  • Your environment—the world around you—affects what you eat, so it also affects your weight to some extent. Take a look around, and see what causes you to eat more than you need. For example, if you have high-fat, high-sugar snacks in your house, it's tempting to eat them whenever you see them. So move those foods out of your kitchen or to the back of a cupboard where they're not so easily seen. You can still plan to have those snacks once in a while, but you may not eat them as often if they're out of sight.
    Click here to view an Actionset.Healthy eating: Changing your eating habits

Identify your eating triggers by keeping an eating journal for a week or two. Write down everything you eat, plus the time of day and what you were feeling right before you ate.

Choose sensibly

After you understand why and how you eat, it's time to look at what and how much you eat.

Many people classify foods as "good" or "bad" based on their calorie or fat content and, sometimes, on how nutritious they are. But a healthy diet has room for all kinds of foods.

A healthy, balanced diet means getting the right amounts of:

  • Fat. Choose unsaturated fats like olive and canola oil, nuts, and fish.
  • Carbohydrate. Choose carbohydrate that comes from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and low-fat dairy products.
  • Protein. Choose lean protein as often as you can, such as all types of fish, poultry without skin, low-fat dairy products, and legumes (peas, beans, and lentils).
  • Fiber . Fiber comes from plant foods, like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts.
  • Vitamins.
  • Minerals.

For more information on food groups, see the topic Healthy Eating.

Keep a food diary (What is a PDF document?) , writing down everything you eat for a week or two. It will help you see which foods you need to eat more of and which foods you're eating too much of.

Tips for choosing your food sensibly

Control your portions

Most of us are so used to the portions handed to us in restaurants that we think those portions are normal. But they are usually much larger than we need.

Just cutting back on the size of your portions can be a great way to get to or stay at a healthy weight—without giving up any of your favorite foods.

Click here to view an Actionset. Healthy eating: Making healthy choices when you eat out
Photo of a woman

One Woman's Story:

"Before I gained the weight, I wish someone said, 'portion sizes.' If you're not thinking about it, you go to a restaurant, you think you're getting a portion size. You're not thinking they're serving you six plates of food."—Jaci

Read more about how Jaci lost 65 pounds.

For more information on food portions, see the topic Healthy Eating.

How do you get started on a healthy eating program?

If you want to eat healthy foods, you may need to make some lifestyle changes first. If your habits include eating portions that are usually too big or eating when you're not hungry, you'll need to work on changing those habits. Go to the section Getting to a Healthy Weight: Making Lifestyle Changes.

Changing your eating habits will be easier if you have a plan. Putting together a plan means setting goals, tracking your progress, finding support, and rewarding yourself.

Click here to view an Actionset. Healthy eating: Starting a plan for change

Identify your barriers

There are lots of reasons why you may have trouble changing your eating habits. These are called barriers.

Barriers can range from "I only like foods that are bad for me" to "I'm too old to make big changes."

Figuring out your barriers and how you will respond to them is a big step in planning the lifestyle changes that will lead you to a healthy weight and help you stay there.

Click here to view an Actionset. Healthy eating: Overcoming barriers to change
Click here to view an Actionset. Weight management: Using positive thinking
Click here to view an Actionset. Positive thinking: Stopping unwanted thoughts
Click here to view an Actionset. Healthy eating: Changing your eating habits
Click here to view an Actionset. Healthy eating: Getting support when changing your eating habits

How do you turn healthy eating into a habit?

Most people don't think about how and what they eat as a habit. But it is. And it's affected by many things: your work schedule, your home life, eating out, your family history, and your social life.

When something becomes a habit, it means that we don't think about it much. And if our eating habits aren't healthy, it's hard to change them.

Starting new, healthy habits takes practice and patience. But you can do it if you take one small step at a time.

Experts say that it takes about 3 months of repetition to form a habit. For some people, even 3 months isn't enough. So start small, and keep doing it until you no longer think about it as something "extra" that you have to do.

When you slip up, don't get mad at yourself or feel guilty. Figure out what happened and how to keep it from happening again. Get right back into your healthy eating routine, and don't look back.

Click here to view an Actionset. Healthy eating: Staying with your plan

Healthy Activity

Regular activity makes you healthier

Physical activity is key to improving your health and preventing serious illness. Experts say to do either of these things to get and stay healthy:2

  • Moderate activity for at least 2½ hours a week. Moderate activity means things like brisk walking, brisk cycling, or shooting baskets. But any activities—including daily chores—that raise your heart rate can be included. You notice your heart beating faster with this kind of activity.
  • Vigorous activity for at least 1¼ hours a week. Vigorous activity means things like jogging, cycling fast, or cross-country skiing. You breathe rapidly and your heart beats much faster with this kind of activity.

Being active in several blocks of 10-minutes or more throughout the day can count toward these recommendations. You can choose to do one or both types of activity.

If you're not active right now, you don't have to start out at this level. Instead, start small and build up over time. Moderate activity is safe for most people, but it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor before you start an exercise program.

Regular moderate-intensity physical activity lowers your risk of:3

Photo of an older woman

One Woman's Story:

"I'm an old backpacker. I like to cross-country ski. I like to hike. And quite frankly, it was getting harder and harder. It was getting to the point where I just wasn't enjoying it anymore. ... After I lost about 35 pounds, 40 pounds … I was, like, sprinting up that mountain and not even feeling it."—Maggie

Read more about how Maggie changed her life and lost 50 pounds.

Work activity into your daily life

Brushing your teeth and getting dressed are regular parts of your day, right? You hardly think about it.

It can be that way with physical activity too. With practice and repetition, you can make activity—whether it's formal exercise or an activity like gardening or walking the dog—so routine that it becomes something you just do because it's part of your day and you enjoy it.

Like any lifestyle change, changing your activity level may be easier if you have a plan. Set small goals. Be creative. For more information, go to the section Getting to a Healthy Weight: Making Lifestyle Changes.

Don't wait until you are "thin" to do the activities you want to do. Just make sure to start slowly. If you aren't active at all, talk to your doctor first.

No matter what you do, the key is making physical activity a regular, fun part of your life. And as soon as you start seeing the results, you'll be even more motivated to keep doing it.

Click here to view an Actionset. Fitness: Adding more activity to your life
Quick Tips: Fitting Physical Activity Into Your Day
Quick Tips: Getting Active at Home
Photo of a woman

One Woman's Story:

"My kids started football, and I started running the track (during their practices). Instead of going home, like a lot of people do, I do the track."—Jaci

Read more about how Jaci lost 65 pounds.

What's the right amount?

It's best to get some moderate physical activity for at least 2½ hours a week. Brisk walking is one kind of moderate activity.

But if you're not active at all, work up to it. For example, you may want to start by walking around the block every morning, or walking for just 10 minutes. Over time, you can make your walks longer or walk more often throughout your day and week.

Here's how you can tell if an activity or exercise is making you work hard enough:

  • If you can't talk while you do it, you're working too hard.
  • You're at the right level if you can talk but not sing during the activity.

Walking is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to get moving for most people. Keep track of the number of steps you take each day with a step counter or pedometer, which you can buy at a sporting goods store. Wearing a step counter may motivate you to walk more in order to increase your total steps.

Click here to view an Actionset. Fitness: Walking for wellness
Click here to view an Actionset. Fitness: Using a pedometer or step counter

Identify your barriers

There are lots of reasons why you may have trouble getting more active. These are called barriers.

These barriers can range from "I don't have time" to "I'm too embarrassed."

Figuring out your barriers and how you will respond to them is a big step in planning the lifestyle changes that will lead you to a healthy weight and help you stay there.

Click here to view an Actionset. Fitness: Staying active

For more information, see the topic Fitness.

Other Places To Get Help

Online Resource

Aim for a Healthy Weight
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Web Address: www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/lose_wt/index.htm
 

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This section of its Web site provides useful, medically reviewed information about obesity and weight loss.


Organizations

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636)
(404) 639-3311
TDD: 1-888-232-6348
Web Address: www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpao/index.html
 

This Web site has information about healthy weight, nutrition, and physical activity for people of all ages.


American Dietetic Association
120 South Riverside Plaza
Suite 2000
Chicago, IL  60606-6995
Phone: 1-800-877-0877
E-mail: knowledge@eatright.org
Web Address: www.eatright.org
 

The American Dietetic Association sets standards for all types of prescribed diets. The organization produces a variety of consumer information, including videos and CD-ROM products. This group will help you find a registered dietitian in your area who provides nutrition counseling.


U.S. Department of Agriculture: MyPyramid
3101 Park Center Drive
Suite 1034
Alexandria, VA  22302
Phone: 1-888-7-PYRAMID (1-888-779-7264)
E-mail: support@cnpp.usda.gov
Web Address: www.mypyramid.gov
 

The MyPyramid food guidance Web site provides many options to help people make healthy food choices and to be active every day. Enter your age, gender, and activity level to get a food plan specific to your needs. You can also print out worksheets for tracking your progress and goals. On this Web site, you'll find answers to many of your questions about healthy eating.


Weight-Control Information Network (WIN)
1 WIN Way
Bethesda, MD  20892-3665
Phone: 1-877-946-4627 toll-free
Fax: (202) 828-1028
E-mail: win@info.niddk.nih.gov
Web Address: http://win.niddk.nih.gov/index.htm
 

The Weight-control Information Network (WIN) is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. WIN supplies information on weight control, obesity, and nutritional disorders for the public and for health professionals.


References

Citations

  1. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health (2000). The Practical Guide: Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults (NIH Publication No. 00-4084). Available online: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/obesity/prctgd_c.pdf.
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008). 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (ODPHP Publication No. U0036). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Available online: http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/pdf/paguide.pdf.
  3. Simon HB (2003). Diet and exercise. In DC Dale, DD Federman, eds., Scientific American Medicine, Clinical Essentials, chap. 4. New York: WebMD.

Other Works Consulted

  • Corbett EC (2007). Principles of nutrition in ambulatory care. In LR Barker et al., eds., Principles of Ambulatory Medicine, 7th ed., pp. 228–240. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Dansinger ML, et al. (2007). Meta-analysis: The effect of dietary counseling for weight loss. Annals of Internal Medicine, 147(1): 41–50.
  • Heymsfield SB, Baumgartner RN (2006). Body composition and anthropometry. In Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, 10th ed., pp. 751–769. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • American Heart Association (2006). Diet and lifestyle recommendations revision 2006. Circulation, 114(1): 82–96. [Erratum in Circulation, 114(1): e27.]
  • Gee M, et al. (2008). Weight management. In LK Mahan, S Escott-Stump, eds., Krause's Food and Nutrition Therapy, 12th ed., pp. 532–562. St Louis, MO: Saunders Elsevier.
  • Riedt CS, et al. (2007). Premenopausal overweight women do not lose bone during moderate weight loss with adequate or higher calcium intake. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 85(4): 972–980.
  • Saper RB, et al. (2004). Common dietary supplements for weight loss. American Family Physician, 70(9): 1731–1738.
  • Truby H, et al. (2006). Randomised controlled trial of four commercial weight loss programmes in the UK: Initial findings from the BBC "diet trials." BMJ. Published online May 23, 2007 (doi:10.1136/bmj.38833.411204.80).

Credits

Author Christine Wendt, R.D., L.D.
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Ruth Schneider, MPH, RD - Diet and Nutrition
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Rhonda O'Brien, MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
Last Updated December 12, 2009

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