America has a big fat problem.
Obesity is an epidemic that is robbing people of their quality of life, and sometimes their life itself. Consider these statistics as reported by U.S. News and World Report:
- Nearly 40 percent of all adults over the age of 20 in the U.S. — about 93.3 million people — are currently obese.
- Obesity causes about 1 in 5 deaths in the U.S. each year — nearly as many as smoking — due to its clinical links to such killers as diabetes and heart disease.
- The prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents between ages 2 and 19 was estimated to be 18.5 percent – more than one in six people – between 2015 and 2016, with 13.7 million impacted.
Logically, the financial cost of obesity is incredibly high as well, with obese individuals averaging nearly $1,500 more in medical costs each year when compared to their thinner counterparts.
While dozens of factors have played a part in creating the obesity epidemic, experts have come to a general consensus that the high proportion of highly processed, sugary, and fatty foods in the American diet is key to why we’ve ballooned as a nation since the 1960s. When combined with the increasingly sedentary lifestyle adopted by most Americans, excessive caloric intake is a given. And, if you’re consuming more calories than you’re burning, the excess gets stored as fat.
What can you do about excess weight?
These are probably all things you’ve heard before. And, if you’re currently in a battle of the bulge, it may be disheartening to hear that the standard American lifestyle is setting you up for failure. If you’ve been struggling with a weight problem for a long time, it can overwhelm you and leave you feeling powerless to fight your ever-expanding waistline.
But in reality, you do have the power to turn the tables on obesity. And, you may not need to lose as much as you think to make a huge positive impact on your health. Experts agree that losing just 5 to 10 percent of your total body weight can significantly reduce your risk of developing obesity-related conditions. For someone who weighs 200 pounds, that’s a weight-loss goal of just 10 to 20 pounds.
So, how should you attack that 10 percent? The battle plan is actually pretty simple:
- Eat fewer calories
- Burn more calories
OK, we said it was “simple,” but that doesn’t always mean “easy.” So, let’s break it down into some practical steps you can start taking today to realistically lose 10 percent of your bodyweight by Memorial Day 2020.
Start logging what you eat
To lose about a pound a week, you’ll need to take in about 500 fewer calories each day than you need to maintain your current weight. (Here’s a calculator to help you figure out the numbers.) One of the simplest ways to start getting a handle on your caloric intake is to keep a food diary.
At the very beginning, don’t even try to change your diet at all. Just write down everything you eat, including the number of calories you’re taking in. There are a number of popular apps for your phone that make this super simple, such as MyFitnessPal and LoseIt! These apps even allow you to look up foods or scan labels to nutritional information. But, using a piece of paper and a pencil works too.
Your food diary will help you lose weight in a few different ways:
- After the first several days of logging your “normal” eating habits, you’re likely going to be shocked and amazed (or appalled) by the facts: most of us take in far more calories than we think we do, but the food diary doesn’t lie. You’ll also start noticing patterns. For example, maybe you tend to munch uncontrollably from 9:00 pm on, or maybe you eat just as much during one football game as you did the entire previous day.
- As you continue logging, you’ll naturally start thinking more about what you put in your mouth because you know you’re going to have to record it. That’s your Diet Conscience coming to life, and chances are it’s going to steer you toward healthier choices and more reasonable portions.
- Further along in your logging practice, it will become easy and almost second nature to plan your meals and snacks in advance, allowing you to consistently stay below your calorie goal for each day. That’s how weight loss happens.
Learn the basics of nutrition
The main reason the typical American diet is making you fat is because it’s loaded with foods that are packed full of calories, but which lack real nutrition. As a result, your body feels like it needs more and more food because it’s not getting the nutrients it needs, leaving you sluggish, irritable, and often feeling hungry. So, you end up eating far more calories than you need in order to satisfy your body’s nutritional needs.
A few simple principles about good nutrition can go a long way toward clearing up misconceptions and helping you make healthier choices that will leave you feeling more satisfied and help you lose weight. Consider these examples:
- Nutritious food is made up of three main macronutrients: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Your body needs all of them, but they’re not all created equally. While one gram of protein or carbs carries just four calories with it, one gram of fat contains nine calories. So, you can eat more carbs and protein for the same number of calories. That’s why one slice of cheese adds nearly 50 percent to the total calories in a deli sandwich.
- These nutrients are digested differently by the body. For example, carbohydrates tend to be absorbed quickly for immediate energy, but this also means you’ll feel hungry sooner if they made up the bulk of your last meal. Proteins and fats take longer to digest and keep you feeling fuller longer. That’s why balanced meals are the best choice as you’ll get the benefit of both types of nutrients.
- The more natural or “whole” a food is, the more nutrient-dense it is. As food is processed, nutrients are stripped out and less healthy elements are added, including lots of salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats. Your body can get far more use out of 100 calories of fresh fruit than it can out of 100 calories of Velveeta.
- Fiber is vitally important to your diet even though it’s not technically used by the body at all. Fiber helps regulate your digestive system, ensuring you’re always getting the most out of every bite of food you take. It also absorbs liquid and expands inside, allowing you to feel full with far less food in your stomach. Finally, it moves very slowly, so you feel full longer.
- Water is also vital, and not just because you’ll die in a few days without it. Water is integral to pretty much everything that happens inside your body, including digestion and the conversion of food into energy. When you’re dehydrated, that process becomes far less efficient, and the easiest thing your body can do is turn it all into fat. Additionally, it’s common for people to mistake thirst for hunger, and water fills up the stomach just as well as food does. So, drinking a large glass of water when you’re considering a snack may help you avoid a few hundred calories you didn’t really need.
- Some “foods” are simply empty calories with no nutritional value at all. Two of the biggest culprits are added sugar or other sweeteners, and alcoholic beverages. That doesn’t mean you should never consume them again, you just need to understand that your body gets almost nothing of value out of them, but the calories still count.
With these few facts in mind, it’s easy to choose which foods should make up the bulk of your diet and which you should keep a tight rein on:
Eat lots of these:
- Lean meats
- Whole grains
- Fresh or frozen vegetables
- Fresh or frozen fruit
- Healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated)
Put limits on these:
- Processed foods
- Added sugar
- Unhealthy fats (trans and saturated)
- Simple carbs (white bread, baked desserts)
It’s never easy to find the time or energy to exercise, and it’s even harder to find them at the same time every day. But, like any habit, with some effort and perseverance, anyone can add more movement into their day.
Exercise that raises your pulse, gets you breathing a little heavier, and breaks a sweat is also stoking your body’s engine. It burns calories while you’re doing it, but it also makes your body burn more calories than it otherwise would have for hours afterward.
Exercise that builds and tones muscles can permanently increase how many calories your body burns every moment of every day, because muscle burns more calories than fat.
The most effective exercise program will combine these two types — cardio and strength training — to get the most out of both. According to the Mayo Clinic, “people with obesity need to get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity to prevent further weight gain or to maintain the loss of a modest amount of weight. To achieve more significant weight loss, you may need to exercise 300 minutes or more a week.”
Yes, that’s a significant chunk of time. But, keep in mind that you can — and should — incorporate a general “move more” strategy across the board rather than focusing on strict exercise periods surrounded by long sedentary periods. Here are some practical suggestions:
- Park further away from the entrance to the grocery store, and carry the bags in one at a time when you get home so you have to make several trips back to the car
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator
- Purposely park a few blocks away from your destination, even if there’s a closer spot
- Keep a set of dumbbells or resistance bands under your desk at work and use them while you’re on the phone or staring at your screen
As for the formal exercise periods, be reasonable and practical so that you truly do form a habit. If you want to make a lasting change, it can’t be just another New Year’s resolution that fades away by February. Remember:
- Start slowly and work your way up to the recommended 150-300 minutes
- Choose activities you truly enjoy and do them in comfortable surroundings
- Mix it up so you don’t get bored — there are literally hundreds of different ways you can effectively exercise
- Stay safe and avoid injury so you can keep going
By following these basic guidelines, you can definitely gain control of your personal weight-loss battle.