How much weight do you really need to lose?
By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
Maybe you've been struggling -- without success -- to get down to the size you were in high school or on your wedding day. But do you really need to go that low? The truth, experts say, is that you can weigh more than your ideal weight and still be healthy (not to mention happy).
If you're overweight, losing just 10% of your body weight is associated with a myriad of health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar, and reducing your risk for heart disease. Not only that, experts say, but this kind of weight loss is easier to attain and maintain, setting you up for success in the long run.
Your Weight "Set Point"
Just as your body temperature is programmed to stay around 98.6 degrees, your body weight is naturally regulated to stay within a range of 10%-20%, says Thomas Wadden, PhD, director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at University of Pennsylvania Medical School. This weight range is known as the "set point."
A complex set of hormones, chemicals, and hunger signals help your body naturally maintain your weight within this range, says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD.
It is not just a matter of genetics, though. Your eating and exercise habits can also help to determine your set point.
"Overeating swamps the internal regulatory system, and, as a result, the set point increases -- which is much easier to do than it is to lower it," says Wadden. The body adjusts to the higher weight and "resets" the set point to defend the new weight.
It is difficult, but not impossible, to set your range lower. "With changes in healthy eating and exercise behavior, you can lower your set point," says Blatner.
The 10% Solution to Weight Loss
A recent book, Break Through Your Set Point: How to Finally Lose the Weight You Want and Keep It Off, by George Blackburn, MD, suggests that maintaining a 10% loss for six months to a year helps your body adjust to the lower weight and thus reset the set point.
Wadden explains that when you lose large amounts of weight at once, you set up an internal struggle and hormones like ghrelin spike to make you hungrier as your body tries to defend its comfortable range.
Instead, experts recommend that you try losing 10% the old-fashioned way -- by slowly changing eating and exercise behaviors -- then maintain this new weight for a few months before trying to lose more. Not only will your body get the signal to lower its "set point," but you'll give yourself a chance to get used to new food choices, smaller portions, and regular exercise.
"When patients lose 10% it may not be the pant size they want, but they start to realize how a little weight loss impacts their health in very positive ways," says Blatner. "They feel better, sleep better, have more energy or less joint pain, and some people are able to reduce medications."
How Much Should I Weigh?
Most people overestimate how much weight they can realistically lose, which leads to frustration, says Blatner. To find your happy or healthy weight, Blatner suggests looking back on your weight history as an adult and identify a weight you were able to maintain naturally and fairly easily.
And if you've gained more than a few pounds since your wedding day, forget trying to fit into that bridal gown. "As you gain weight, you experience an increase in fat cell size and number, which will probably prevent you from getting back to your married weight," says Wadden.
Instead of focusing on the numbers on the scale, Blatner suggests setting behavioral goals: "Eat breakfast every day, go for daily walks, eat more fruits and vegetables -- when you set behavior goals, they are easier to accomplish and they make you feel good." Stick with these behaviors for 3-6 months and they will become part of your life.
Based on your current weight, eat about 10 calories per pound of nutritious food (low in fat, rich in lean protein, high in fiber), get regular exercise, and assess your weight after a month or so.
"Your weight will settle out and typically you will lose 10%, then hit a plateau, which is a good time to maintain the weight loss," says Wadden.
As you get to a healthy weight, you can go up to 12 calories per pound.
Tips for Weight Loss Success
Here are some tips from Blatner for weight loss success:
- Eat regular meals. People who eat regular meals consume fewer calories than those who eat irregular meals.
- Use a plate, sit down, and enjoy your meals. Folks who do this eat 43% smaller portions than those who eat out of containers or on the run, according to Blatner.
- Get at least 30 minutes of moderate activity each day.
- How much and what you eat makes a big difference. Enjoy normal portions of foods that are high in fiber (fruits, veggies, whole grains) and rich in lean or low fat protein is the secret to feeling full.
- Think positive: Focus on the benefits of a healthier lifestyle rather than the scale.
Medically Reviewed May 21, 2008.
Thomas Wadden, PhD, director, Center for Weight and Eating Disorders, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.
Blackburn, G. and Cordiss, J. Break Through Your Set Point: How to Finally Lose the Weight You Want and Keep It Off, Harper Collins, 2008.
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