A measured approach to weight loss

A significant proportion of North America’s population is either obese or overweight. Unfortunately, maintaining an excessively high bodyweight is the single biggest risk factor for a wide variety of chronic diseases and has dire implications for an individual’s longevity, quality of life and physical functioning.  

How do I know if I am overweight? 

The quickest way to determine if you are overweight is to use a BMI calculator.  The BMI calculation takes into consideration both your height and weight and is a reasonable method to determine weight status in most people ( BMI may not be a useful measure for very muscular/athletic people or for the elderly). If your BMI is above 25 you are classified as overweight, if it is above 30 you are classified as obese. The higher the number, the greater the risk your weight poses to your health.

The solution is simple to state but hard to achieve

Lose the weight. Lose the risk. If only the process were that easy. 

From a theoretical standpoint, a healthy and realistic amount of weight loss is 1-2 lbs a week. For most people, this amounts to eating approximately 500 calories less a day. If we estimate and say you are currently eating 2500 calories, then 500 calories amounts to 20% less calories on a daily basis. 

Achieving this goal is easier said than done. Weight loss is a daunting challenge for most people. The internet is inundated with opinions on novel weight loss strategies , most of which are either repetitive or of questionable quality and utility.

To lose weight in a healthy manner, most people will generally need to make healthier food choices and consume less of the foods they are currently consuming. This is a gross over simplification of the process, but is more or less accurate. Unfortunately, most “quick-fix” weight loss guidance and fad diets available on the internet encourage unrealistic and unsustainable changes that have a very low chance of success for most people. 

Don’t get me wrong, there is also some good reputable information out there. You have probably heard it all before: Choose lower fat dairy options, cut out sugar sweetened beverages, eat more fruits and vegetables, and the list goes on and on. Seeking out professional weight loss advice ( via a dietitian or program of some kind) may be another common piece of guidance. All of these suggestions are sound and effective, but not everyone who needs to lose weight may be ready to take those steps. If this sounds like you, read on to hear what I have to say. 

A measured approach to weight loss

Succesful weight loss is dependent on one or both of eating less calories and making healthier food selections. Believe it or not, I am not asking you to do either of those things here today. 

With that being said, the goal of today’s article is not to condone you to neglect those important lifestyle changes, rather to provide you a novel low committment approach to get your mind geared towards what you will eventually need to do, even if you are not ready to do it yet.

All I am asking of you here today is that you start taking steps towards better understanding the amount of food you eat on daily basis.

In order to do get started you will ideally have access to each of the following;

1) An electronic kitchen scale 

2) A simple measuring cup

3) A food “diary” or calorie counting smart phone application such as My Fitness Pal 

So what exactly am I asking you to do with these tools? 

I am not asking you to change the way you eat, but I am asking you to weigh, measure and record what you eat, whenever you can. You can record the volumes of your fluids ( drinks, sauces, oils) and weights of whole foods ( primarily meats and grains) and input the values you get into either a food dairy or a smart phone application. If you eat a food for which you already know the weight or volume, you can record that amount without measuring or weighing. (Do not worry about measuring or recording your fruit or vegetable intake – Do eat fruits and vegetables).

If you choose to record the amounts of food you eat in a food diary, that is fine. Doing so will allow you to understand the amounts of certain foods you eat on a regular basis and put you in an advantageous position if you want to attempt to try eating slightly less of those foods in the future. 

Using a smart phone app ( such as My Fitness Pal) would probably be even better. Doing so gives you all the advantages of a food dairy,  but will also provide you an exact figure of the calories you are eating. It will probably also be more convenient.  

Why am I asking you to do this?

A moderate decrease in caloric intake ( about 20% in the example I provided in the previous section) is an important part of weight loss. From my perspective, it will be easier for you to visualize and appreciate what 20% less looks like if you know how much you are currently eating. 

Once you weigh and measure your food intake over a period of time, you will begin to understand the amount you “normally” eat and can theoretically proceed to eating 20% less ( by weight/volume) of that amount. 

This process alone may not guarantee you success in your weight loss endeavours, but it will get you moving in the right direction.

My hope is that, by carrying out this exercise, you will begin to appreciate your food consumption patterns and hopefully it will help you to see and believe that making small changes to the way you eat may not be as hard as you may have thought.

Even if the actual act of trying to lose weight is not something you want to try in the immediate future, carrying out this exercise will put you in a stronger position for whenever you are ready to try to do so. 

What are the limitations of this approach to weight loss?

The idea that I have proposed today is an activity that can start you on the path towards healthy weight loss if you are someone who currently has little interest in making changes to your diet.

It is far from a flawless or easy approach to carry out, but should become easier with practice. It will require a certain level of time and committment on your part, but will not require you to make any immediate dietary changes.

The approach is also limited by the fact that it is not practical to weigh meals consumed out of the home ( such as at restaurants or fast food). In such cases, using a smart phone dietary tracking application or recording nutrition information from a restaurant website will help. 

This approach is also limited by the fact that it does not necessarily encourage you to make healthier choices, only to understand the amount you are currently eating and to help you appreciate what eating less than that amount might look like.

In short, this initial approach to weight loss has several limitions but it also has the potential to point your mind in the direction it needs to be going. My hope is that this activity will stimulate you into re-thinking the way you eat  and provide you the motivation and self-assurance you need to make changes to your diet.

I am proposing this approach because weight loss is a real struggle for many people  and I feel as though it is important to know that you can make strides towards eating better without necessarily having to make immediate or significant significant changes to your diet. If my sentiment resonates with you, you may benefit from this initial measured approach to weight loss. 

For those at a more advanced stage of preparedness to change their dietary habits, you can use this approach to actively help you monitor , quantify and reduce your current food consumption levels. 

Final thoughts

Do not be overwhelmed by your need or desire to lose weight. Although your ultimate long-term goal may be to eventually find yourself in a healthy BMI range ( 18.5-24.5), an initial weight loss of 5-10% has been shown to improve physical functioning and quality of life while reducing many risk factors for chronic disease. Keep in mind that weight loss on a weekly basis should amount to no more than 1-2 lbs.

I reiterate that consuming less calories is an important component of weight loss. Consuming less calories is often achieved by making healthier food selections and/or consuming less of the foods you are currently eating.

This can be  a daunting proposition for many people at the initial stages of trying to lose weight. For this reason, today’s approach of measuring and monitoring one’s intake without making any immediate changes offers individuals empowerment without the requirement to commit to change. The hope is that this approach will provide the individual a greater appreciation for their own eating habits and to help them understand, from a practical perspective, what eating less calories might look like.

It is undeniable that a healthy weight has numerous benefits to the quality and longevity of your life.  Although the information I have provided here today is far from an ultimate guide to losing weight,  I do believe it has potential to help you start on that path. I urge you to pursue information and guidance from reputable sources as you go forward on your weight loss journey. As always, I wish you the best in this endeavour.

Andy De Santis RD MPH