Often our efforts to eat smart and move more are in pursuit of other goals, especially weight loss. In fact, the CDC found that half of all Americans, especially women, report attempting to lose weight in the past year. This makes sense considering that our nation’s weight has gone steadily up over the last several decades. Today, 2 of every 3 people in the country are either overweight or obese. But we might be setting ourselves up for failure by focusing on weight loss. Unfortunately, half or more of people who lose weight regain it over time. So I wanted to talk today about how we can shift our approach to be more successful and focus on health rather than just weight.
To start, let’s talk about some different phrases we use when talking about this subject. We classify weight using BMI, which stands for Body Mass Index. It is calculated using a person’s height and weight. The normal BMI range is 18.5-24.9. BMI between 25-30 is considered overweight and over 30 is obese. It is a useful tool for health professionals, but is not sensitive to differences in weight due to large muscle mass, or dangerous visceral fat, or other factors. The CDC has a BMI Calculator you can use to calculate your own BMI.
Weight loss is the intentional decision to reduce body weight by change eating or activity habits. Experts recommend aiming for losing 5-10% of body weight for improvements in health, such as better blood sugar control, less joint pain, or lower blood pressure. Note, for many people who are obese, 5-10% weight loss does not bring BMI into the recommended 18.5-24.9 range.
On the other hand, weight management is a more broad approach to weight that encompasses weight loss, gain, or maintenance. This is more useful in our work because it helps guide individuals as they make health decisions based on their own circumstances. For some people, weight management is focused on stopping a trend of weight gain and maintaining current weight. For some people, it is simply staying at a current weight and maintaining that over time. For others, it might be actually gaining weight by increasing muscle mass for greater strength and fitness.
Behavior vs. Outcome
When you apply for a job, there are parts of the process that you control, such as how you write your resume or answer interview questions. But there are also other factors outside your control that affect whether you end up getting the job or not, such as a more experienced candidate or a preference for internal hires. Weight loss is a lot like this. There are things you can do that influence your weight, but there are also other factors outside your control that affect whether you end up losing weight or not.
In the Family Nutrition Program, we encourage you to focus on those behaviors you can actually control to eat smart and move more while shifting priority away from the outcome (weight loss) that isn’t fully under your control. Weight is affected by so many factors, such as genetics, medications or medical conditions, sleep habits, age, sex, etc.
When we put all our motivation towards weight loss and don’t reach our goals, it can be very disappointing even if the outcome was out of our control. Instead, we should focus on the behaviors we do have control over – eating like MyPlate, drinking water instead of sugary drinks, choosing smaller portions, getting 150 minutes (or more) of physical activity each week, etc. The CDC also has some good information about behaviors linked to weight management to help you get started. My personal recommendation is to start with a food diary and a daily walk and go from there.
What Motivates You
When we focus on weight loss as the reward for making behavior changes, it can be discouraging when we don’t meet our expectations (again, possibly due to factors outside our control). For long term success in developing a healthy lifestyle, it’s best to find intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic or external motivation comes from praise, awards, or meeting someone else’s expectations. These can help short term, but will wear out over time. Intrinsic or internal motivation happens when you are gaining enjoyment from the process itself or the process helps you achieve a higher purpose. For example, I enjoy playing volleyball because it’s fun, it’s part of my social life, and I am always challenged to play better than before. If I only played in order to meet the physical activity guidelines, it wouldn’t be as fun or inspiring to get my gear together and drive to the gym after a long day at work.
Unfortunately, the health payoff of eating smart and moving more isn’t immediate. So changing your habits can’t really hinge on this general idea of being healthier. However, you can find shorter term ways to feel the benefits to keep you focused when it’s tough. Eating smart and moving more can give you more energy, make it easier to keep up with your kids or let you carry all the groceries inside on one trip. Notice and appreciate these shorter term rewards as you gradually improve your health over the long term.
The reality of weight loss is that it’s hard and is essentially a lifelong commitment. You can make all the recommended changes and still not reach your weight goals. But the behaviors that are associated with weight loss are good for your health, no matter if you lose weight or not. So if you start eating more fruits and veggies and doing more physical activity, you’ll see improvements in your health even if the scale doesn’t budge.