People come to me for dietary advice and recommendations for a variety of reasons, but the most common reason is weight loss. We live in a weight- and diet-centric world, and unfortunately many people feel pressured to lose weight often to conform to a standard or ideal that society has set out of for us.
The first thing I ask people when they tell me they want to lose weight is why? My goal with this question is to get patients not to focus on their actual weight, but the reason behind their desire for weight loss. This is because research has shown that focusing on the number on the scale is highly ineffective for making positive dietary and lifestyle changes. If people instead focus on goals related to their overall health, they find it much easier to make changes that will result in positive health outcomes (which can include weight loss as a side effect!)
For example, a person may wish to lose weight so that they can participate in an upcoming canoeing trip with their family without feeling sluggish or out of breath. Or, someone may want to shed some pounds so that they can lower their blood pressure and not have to rely on hypertensive medication any longer. Focusing on these types of long-term goals is much more effective than focusing on weight.
Speaking of numbers, while paying attention to how much you weigh or how much weight you’ve lost is not helpful in the long-term, there are certain values you can focus on that are much more valuable indicators of health and healthy behaviors. The “balanced plate” is a good example – if you always try to fill ½ of your plate with vegetables, ¼ with a protein and ¼ with a whole grain, you’ve met your goal of eating a healthy and nutritious meal. Other valuable numbers to focus on for markers of health include:
· 120/80 mmHg blood pressure – Blood pressure is a good indicator of our heart and overall health, and anything above 120/80 mmHg increases risk of heart disease and other health problems.
· 25-35 grams of fiber – The majority of Canadians do not consume enough fiber, however fiber is extremely important for gut health, blood sugar regulation and weight loss. You can find fiber in fruits, veggies and whole grains.
· 100 mg/dL blood sugar – Anything higher than this and you may have/be at risk for type II diabetes. Thankfully, this condition can often be completely managed by lifestyle, including diet and exercise.
· 150 minutes of physical activity – This is the recommendation for the amount of physical activity you should get every week, preferably broke up into smaller increments. Physical activity is not only important for weight management, but for lowering your risk of chronic disease.
· 7-8 hours of sleep – People always look at me oddly when I ask them about their sleep habits, however sleep is very important for overall health, and poor sleep can actually impact eating habits and weight.
On the other hand, focusing on the number on the scale, BMI (which can be an inaccurate indicator of health and is really only valuable at a population level) or clothing size is not helpful when trying to make (and sustain) healthy lifestyle behaviors.
Stay tuned for my second installment on weight loss when I talk about what and how to eat if you want to lose weight, and if all those fad diets out there are actually worth it!
Julia Burt, B.Sc(Hons), M.Sc(A), RD