The Ultimate Weight Loss Guide
The statistics are clear: too many Americans weigh too much. Over one-third of adults are overweight, and over two-thirds are overweight or obese. That means you are more likely than not to find yourself in the group of overweight or obese Americans. Even if not, you may be interested in weight loss to hit a goal that you have for yourself.
Why Lose Weight?
There are all kinds of reasons to get rid of extra pounds. They raise health risks and can interfere with your emotional well-being, too. Losing weight can:
- Lower blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar.
- Increase insulin sensitivity.
- Lower risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Reduce joint pain
- Improve sleep
- Improve self-confidence and self-image.
You do not need to lose a lot of weight to get a lot of benefits. You can expect improvements in health with a loss of 5 to 10% of your total body weight, or 10 to 20 lb. if you weigh 200 lb.
How Can I Lose Weight?
If you are among the millions of Americans who want to lose weight, you need accurate information to learn about your options. Different strategies can work better for different people, so it is vital that you consider your individual preferences and situation as you narrow your options. The main choices are:
- Dietary changes
- Increasing physical activity
- Diet drugs
- Weight loss surgery
Diets for Weight Loss
Changing what you eat is the biggest factor in weight loss for most people. There are many different diets you can choose from, and many of them have a seemingly different focus, such as nixing carbs or adding protein, but all weight loss diets that work have something in common: they reduce calories in some way.
Select The Right Diet By Considering Certain Factors
Ask yourself, and/or a healthcare provider, these questions as you sift through your choices:
- Does it work? Do people who follow the diet lose weight?
- Does it include foods you love? You are unlikely to be able to follow the diet long-term if you do not enjoy the foods on it. If you live for cheese and meat, for example, you may not be able to tolerate a plant-based diet for long.
- Does it allow for special treats? Life happens. Does the diet allow you to work in holiday parties, restaurant meals, and the occasional craving?
- Is it safe? “Safety first” applies here. Be sure the diet provides enough calories to keep you going; a minimum of 1,200 calories per day is a good rule of thumb. Another benchmark for safety is to lose no more than 2 lb. per week.
- Is it nutritionally adequate? The diet should have a range of foods to provide the vitamins and minerals you need. Weight loss should not lead to malnutrition!
- Is it healthy? Does the diet improve health markers, such as lowering blood pressure and blood sugar, and reduce risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease? If you do not want to dig into the scientific research on the diet you are looking at, you can take a look at the foods and nutrients on the diet to get a good idea of its healthiness. There are no tricks here – common sense dictates that you opt for more vegetables and fiber, and less sugar and processed foods, for starters.
These are some of the most popular and top-ranked diets and strategies you can follow.
You can shift the calorie balance by making small changes to your regular diet. This can be the best choice for you if you love the foods you already eat, and do not want to change your habits much. Each little change saves calories, and those saved calories add up. For example…
- Have a cup of puffed cereal instead of a cup of granola, and save 300 calories.
- Drink water instead of a 12-oz. soda, and save 250 calories.
- Use 4 egg whites instead of 2 whole eggs, and save 80 calories.
- Order half of a turkey and avocado BLT sandwich instead of a full one, and save 300 calories.
- Serve ½ cup of rice and a side salad instead of 1 cup of rice, and save 150 calories.
- Serve strawberries with 2 tablespoons of whipped topping instead of sugar, and save 70 calories.
These changes take little effort, since you are still eating your typical foods. You can shop the same aisles of the supermarket, cook the same recipes you always do, and order your usual choices at restaurants.
The principle: Starches and sugars are carbohydrates that provide 4 calories per gram. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) has found that these carbohydrates contribute about 50% of calories to the average American diet. Furthermore, carbohydrates serve very little purpose besides providing energy, or calories. So, cutting out some carbs can help you cut calories and lose weight.
Most low-carbohydrate diets limit or exclude high-carbohydrate foods, such as some or all of the following:
- Grains, such as wheat (including couscous and farro), barley, rice, and oats.
- Grain products, such as bread, crackers, pasta, and breakfast cereal.
- Flour-containing baked goods, such as cookies, cake, and pie.
- Starchy vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, potatoes, and corn.
- Sugary foods, such as desserts, candies, and processed foods with sugar, such as certain types of yogurt and sweetened cereal.
- Juices, and sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soft drinks, energy drinks, and sports drinks.
- Fruit, especially dried fruit and higher-sugar types.
- Beans, peas, and lentils.
Your reduced-carb diet is likely to include:
- Meat, fish, poultry, and eggs.
- Non-starchy vegetables.
- Nuts and seeds.
- Fats, such as avocados and olive oil.
- Lower-sugar fruits, such as strawberries.
There are many diet plans that reduce carbohydrates. Some are stricter and minimize carbohydrates. Others emphasize a controlled intake of nutritious carbohydrates. These are some popular approaches:
- South Beach. This diet starts with low-carbohydrate foods, but progresses to include nutritious carbs, such as whole grains and fruit.
- Atkins. This diet starts with severe carbohydrate restriction, and you gradually reintroduce carbohydrates as you lose and then maintain weight.
- Ketogenic diet. Your carbohydrate intake is so severely restricted (to 30 grams or less per day) that your body must use fat or protein for fuel.
Other Diets That Restrict Food Groups: Paleo and Plant-Based
Pretty much any meal plan that cuts out or severely restricts entire food groups is likely to help you lose weight. Paleo and plant-based diets are sample patterns that could help you lose weight.
Commercial Diets: Prepared Meals and Meal Replacements
If you have trouble figuring out what to eat, or you dislike grocery shopping and cooking, you might look into a diet plan that delivers prepared meals. Nutrisystem is a popular example, but there are many other companies that offer meal delivery, with or without nutritional support. You are likely to get up to 3 meals and 2 snacks per day on a reduced-calorie plan that may also let you specify preferences such as low-carbohydrate or vegetarian.
There are several potential benefits to meal delivery services.
- You can lose weight if you follow them.
- Your A1C, a measure of your long-term blood sugar control, can drop within to 6 months.
- They are often customized so you can choose from options such as vegetarian or reduced-carbohydrate.
There are drawbacks, too. For example:
- In many cases, you still need to go grocery shopping to supplement your diet with fresh, healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, yogurt, cheese, and nuts.
- You might get bored with the variety of meals offered and the program may be unsustainable for your lifestyle.
- You may not learn the skills you need to keep the weight off after you stop using the program.
- The meals can be expensive.
- The meals are for an individual – you – and your family will still need to eat…something.
The problem: not sustainable
Caution: Meal Replacement Programs
The theory behind meal replacements sounds good: replace 1, 2, or 3 daily meals with a bar, shake, or even a special cookie, and you will lose weight. It is true that cutting calories will help you lose weight, but it is usually best to be wary of these programs.
- It is hard to stick to them. A bar, shake, or cookie may not fill you up, so to satisfy hunger, you might add foods that are not on the plan.
- They may not be nutritionally adequate or optimal. Even if you do get your essential vitamins and minerals, you might miss out on important “extras” such as antioxidants and fiber found in plant-based foods.
- They can be boring. A few weeks of shakes and bars may be tolerable, but it could take months or over a year to hit your weight loss goal.
- It can be hard to keep the weight off. Once you stop following the plan, you might go back to your old eating habits since you did not learn new, healthy habits while on the plan.
Slim-Fast and the Cookie Diet are examples of meal replacement diets.
Exercise for Weight Loss
You may already know that exercise burns calories, and that can help you lose weight.
However, the calorie-burning boost to weight loss may not be the greatest benefit of exercise for weight loss and health. Research suggests that what you eat is far more important for weight loss than how much you work out. However, exercising regularly appears to be important in keeping off the weight successfully. Exercise:
- Is a reminder of how hard you are working to control your weight.
- Helps your body directly feel the benefits of being good to yourself.
- Is a signal to yourself that you are committed to your healthy lifestyle.
- Improves your confidence in your own ability to treat yourself right.
Exercise Benefits Are Beyond Weight Loss
It improves health and quality of life. Consider these effects in which exercise can:
- Lower blood pressure, total cholesterol, and blood sugar, and raise “good” HDL cholesterol
- Lower risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and hypertension
- Help you sleep better
- Increase energy
- Improve your mood
So how much exercise should you do, and what is the best type? Along with stretching to increase flexibility and lower injury risk, experts suggest doing cardio and strength training regularly.
“Cardio,” or aerobic activity, burns calories and has the health benefits mentioned above. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, suggest getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, or at least 30 minutes at least 5 days a week. You can add up bouts of 10 minutes at a time to hit your 30 minutes.
These are examples of moderate-intensity activities. They burn about 150 to 200 calories per half-hour for someone who weighs 150 to 200 lb.
- Walking briskly
- Leisurely bicycling
You can also hit your recommendations by getting at least 75 minutes per week, or 15 minutes 5 days a week, of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. You might burn 125 to 175 calories in 15 minutes doing these activities.
- Swimming laps quickly
- Bicycling hard
The CDC suggests strength training your major muscle groups at least 2 times per week. You can use weight machines, weights such as dumbbells or barbells, resistance bands, or body weight. Strength training tones your muscles, but does not need to bulk you up. Instead, it:
- Burns calories.
- Improves bone health.
- Increases insulin sensitivity.
Two Common Traps of Exercise
Exercise can help with weight control, but stay aware of two common traps. One is that exercise makes you hungrier, so some people eat more when they exercise. They may eat enough to outweigh the weight loss benefits of their exercise – that is, they eat more extra calories than they burned.
The other trap to avoid is exercise extra to burn more calories so you can eat more. Most people overestimate the calories they burn, and underestimate the calories they eat, so it is likely that you will lose out if you try to match extra eating with extra exercise. The other problem is that calories from food add up faster – the cookie may have 300 calories and take a minute to eat, while it might take you an hour of exercise to burn that off.
Weight Loss Surgery
Weight loss surgery, or bariatric surgery, is a more extreme option for higher-weight individuals who have not found long-term success controlling weight with dietary changes. You may qualify for bariatric surgery if you:
- Have extreme obesity, or a BMI over over 40 kg/m2, OR
- Have Class II obesity, or a BMI between 35 and 40 kg/m2, and an obesity-related comorbidity such as sleep apnea, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, or hypertension, AND
- Tried diets in the past and they have not worked for you to lose weight and keep it off.
Bariatric Surgery Basics
There are a few different types of weight loss surgery procedures. According to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS), the most common are:
- Gastric sleeve – 58% of procedures. The surgeon removes your stomach pouch and creates a vertical “sleeve” for food to pass through.
- Gastric bypass – 19% of procedures. A small stomach pouch is created and attached to your lower small intestine, so much of your digestive system is “bypassed.”
- Gastric band – 3% of procedures. A small band is placed around the upper portion of your stomach, so the pouch where food goes during a meal is smaller.
All of the approaches are restrictive; they restrict the amount food you can eat by making your stomach smaller. The gastric bypass is also malabsorptive; it reduces the absorption of food, so you get fewer calories, but also fewer nutrients.
After surgery, you must follow a strict diet. It progresses over the course of weeks or a couple of months from liquids, to pureed foods, to semi-soft foods, to solid foods. As you continue to lose weight, you continue to emphasize a low-calorie, high-protein diet.
Bariatric Surgery Benefits and Success
Bariatric surgery can be the most effective way to lose a lot of weight and keep it off. It can also lower your risk for obesity-related conditions, and improve them if you have them.
You can improve your chances of success by:
- Choosing a surgeon with a history of safe and effective procedures.
- Making sure your team includes a nutritionist, exercise specialist, and mental health professional with experience in bariatric patient care.
- Going to all of your support group meetings and any follow-up appointments.
- Above all, following your instructions for the post-op and long-term diet and exercise program.
Barriers to Weight Loss Surgery
About 8% (1 out of 13) adults have extreme obesity, with a BMI, but only 1% of patients who are eligible for weight loss surgery get it. Barriers can include social stigma, lack of information, and, frequently, lack of coverage or difficulty getting approval from health insurance plans – a procedure can cost $15,000 to $25,000 out of pocket. There are also concerns such as:
- Risks of side effects and complications, such as nutritional deficiencies, gastrointestinal discomfort, and food intolerances.
- Long-term commitment – your eating patterns will need to change for life to maintain your weight loss.
- Fitting in “real life,” such as social engagements and vacations, on your restricted diet.
Sleep for Weight Loss
What happens if you are doing “everything” right but not losing weight? If you are eating a balanced, calorie-controlled diet and being physically active, but you are not losing weight, you might want to take a hard look at whether you are getting enough sleep. If not, you could be setting yourself up for:
- Bigger portions due to poorer judgement.
- More cravings for high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods.
- Less ability to resist cravings and make healthier choices.
- Increased hunger due to higher levels of ghrelin, a hunger hormone.
- Lower satiation due to lower levels of leptin, a satisfaction hormone.
- More fat storage due to higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and less sensitivity to insulin, which regulates blood sugar levels.
Since getting adequate sleep is not a luxury, but a necessity for health, you can make sleep a priority. Most adults need about 8 hours, but needs are individual. Here are some tips for getting enough quality sleep.
- Allow enough time each night to get the sleep you need.
- Have a consistent bedtime and pre-bed routine.
- Avoid looking at electronic devices for at least 30 minutes before bed.
- Sleep in a dark, quiet room.
- Use an app to track sleep and provide coaching on strategies for improving your sleep.
While it is easy to think of monitoring and tracking as optional tools, or even as strategies that only certain types of people would want to use. However the research is consistent that monitoring and tracking are linked to more success with weight loss. You might want to log your:
- Food: what, when, and how much you eat and drink.
- Activity: how long, and what you do.
- Weight: a weekly weigh-in at the same time of day on the same day each week is most accurate.
While you can use an old-fashioned notebook or spreadsheet, you can also look for a health app that makes logging easier.
Best Weight Loss Health Coach App
You are putting in the work, so you deserve to maximize the benefits. A weight loss health coach app can help you do just that. A health coach app serves all the functions of a regular coach: informing, motivating, guiding, cheering, and organizing. The best weight loss health coach app:
- Informs you about healthy ways to lose weight and incorporate healthy behaviors into your lifestyle.
- Motivates you to keep setting and chasing new goals.
- Guides you through your weight loss journey in your own way.
- Cheers your successes, your efforts, and, should you fall short of your goals for a time, your renewed dedication.
- Organizes by encouraging you to log your food, activity and weight, and storing that information.
Lark Health Coach serves all of those roles, and then some. Lark is available 24/7 to be your coach and friend. Your health coach automatically customizes your program for you.
Lark even learns your patterns and coaches around them. Do you prefer a gluten-free or dairy-free lifestyle? You’ll get tips on healthy ways to get your nutrients without eating gluten or dairy products. Do you normally take an afternoon walk? Then do not be surprised if Lark gives you a gentle nudge if you forget to take it one day.