How to maintain a healthy body weight
An estimated 60% of Australian adults are trying to lose weight, according to the results of the 2021 Australia Talks National Survey (1). Yet most people who diet won’t succeed in losing weight, or if they do, they’ll regain it, and possibly more, soon after. So what is a healthy body weight? How do we lose weight if we need to? And how do we maintain a healthy body weight once the weight is lost? Naturopath, Sonya Byron, investigates.
What is a healthy body weight?
The simplest way to assess whether your weight is within a healthy range for your height is to calculate your Body Mass Index, or BMI. This is done by dividing your weight in kg by the square of your your height in metres (kg/m2). Don’t worry if you don’t like maths; there’s simple BMI calculators available online, such as this one offered by the National Heart Foundation: https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/bmi-calculator (2) A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered to be within a healthy weight range. Below 18.5 is classed as underweight, 25-29.9 is classed as overweight, and a BMI of 30 or above is classed as obese.
BMI is not a perfect indicator of healthy weight. It doesn’t take into account factors such as ethnicity, age, gender or body composition. For example, a healthy BMI may be lower for people of Asian origin, and higher for people of Polynesian origin, older people, and athletes. Nevertheless, BMI is generally agreed to be a clinically useful indicator for adults, and its use is recommended by the World Health Organisation (3). For a more nuanced assessment of your weight, however, your health care practitioner can also assess your waist circumference, and other indicators, such as your body fat percentage.
BMI and disease risk
Based on the classifications above, an estimated 67% of Australian adults are overweight or obese (75% of men and 60% of women). 25% of Australian children also fall within these categories (5). Researchers agree that BMI is a good indicator of disease risk, at least for groups of adults, rather than for individuals. For example, a group of adults with BMIs above 30 are statistically more likely to develop chronic diseases and to die younger than a group of adults with BMIs of 20 (6). In general, being above a healthy weight range increases your risk of developing chronic health conditions, such as hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. For this reason, it’s beneficial for most people to reduce their BMI if it’s within the overweight or obese weight ranges. To accurately assess your individual disease risk, however, book a consultation to discuss your risk factors with your health care practitioner.
How to manage your weight the healthy way
So if you’re overweight or obese and you’d like to lose weight, what should you do? Perhaps you’ve tried to lose weight previously and haven’t succeeded, or you’ve lost weight only to regain it. This can be very demoralising, leaving us with the feeling that weight loss is an impossible goal that we will never achieve. The good news is that this isn’t the case, but you may need to try a different approach to what you’ve tried previously. Read on for my top 6 healthy weight management tips.
1. Ditch the diet mindset
The first step to healthy weight management is to ditch the diet mindset. The vast majority of dieters simply do not succeed in losing weight. Researchers at the University of California analysed 31 long term weight loss studies, and concluded that while participants were initially able to lose 5-10% of their body weight no matter which diet they followed, the majority regained more weight than they’d lost within 5 years (7).
Rather than a weight loss goal, I encourage you to focus on a health goal or goals that you’d like to achieve instead. This might be reducing your risk of one of the chronic health conditions above, but it’s often easier to focus on a goal with a more immediate and tangible benefit, such as having more energy for the activities you enjoy during the day or being able to sleep better at night. The healthy dietary and lifestyle changes that you implement to achieve your health goals will naturally support healthy weight management in time.
2. Be realistic…and above all, kind
If you do choose to pursue a weight loss goal, please choose a realistic time frame in which to achieve it, and above all, prioritise being kind to your body and mind, ensuring that you receive adequate energy and nutrients to feel your best and function well each day. In my clinical experience, people often have very unrealistic expectations of how rapidly they could or should be able to lose weight. It can be beneficial to reassess your expectations. Chances are that you didn’t gain weight quickly, most people experience a gradual increase in their weight over a number of months or years. If it took you 5 years to gain the extra kg you’re carrying, why should you expect to lose them in 5 weeks? Drastic measures undertaken to lose weight rapidly, such as calorie restriction, ultra low carbohydrate diets, and meal replacement shakes, can wreak absolute havoc with our bodies and minds. Symptoms like extremely low energy and mood, poor immunity and frequent infections, and even hair loss can result from “crash” dieting.
Try to think of healthy weight management as a marathon rather than a sprint. Slow and steady definitely wins the race in this case. As a general guideline, if you’re losing more than 1-2 – 1kg per week by restricting your kJ intake or the variety of foods you eat, you may be at risk of nutritional deficiencies that could have long term consequences for your health. See a health care practitioner for personalised advice and support if this is the case. A naturopath, nutritionist or dietician can work with you to help you develop healthy eating habits that will support your health as well as your weight loss goals.
3. Take care of the basics
We’ve been programmed to believe that weight management is as easy as calories in versus calories out, but this is a gross simplification. Our bodies, minds and emotions are incredibly complex, and each of these will influence our ability to bring our weight back into balance. Try to set yourself up for success by taking care of the basics for good physical and mental health. For example:
Hydration: this is incredibly important for healthy weight management. Even minor dehydration can cause feelings of fatigue for many people, and we’re more likely to crave ultraprocessed “junk” foods when we’re tired and grumpy! Individual requirements vary, but as a general guideline, aim for 30mL water per kg of body weight per day. If you weight 70kg, for example, aim to consume at least 2.1L water per day.
Movement: with our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, regular movement is vital to maintaining a healthy body weight. Exercise not only “burns calories” itself, but increases our muscle mass, which in turn increases our metabolic rate. Studies also demonstrate that exercise is a very effective means of managing stress (8), which has a big impact on weight gain (see below). Walking or running, bike riding, dancing, swimming, weight training, team sports…the best exercise is whatever you enjoy enough to do regularly. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes movement per day, I suggest up to 90 minutes per day for healthy, long term weight management. Be cautious of overexercising, however, which can elevate stress (see below). How you feel the day after exercise is a good indicator of whether or not you’re doing too much; you should feel energised rather than exhausted or depleted. If you’re new to exercise or have a pre-existing health condition, a check up with your health care practitioner before you begin is a wise idea.
Stress management: stress causes release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can really influence our weight. Chronic stress in particular can elevate cortisol levels, and higher cortisol levels can promote insulin resistance, which encourages fat storage. Elevated cortisol levels are also associated with “stress-eating” behaviours, which promote weight gain over time (9). We can’t always reduce the stressors in our lives (hello, pandemic), but we can take steps to manage them in a positive way. In addition to regular movement, practices such as Yoga, breath work, mindfulness meditation, journalling, reading uplifting books, listening to soothing music, or even taking a warm bath or shower before bed can help us to relax and release the stresses of the day.
Sleep: sleep influences our weight management efforts primarily by influencing two hormones, ghrelin and leptin. Insufficient sleep causes our ghrelin levels to rise, increasing our appetite, and our leptin levels to decline, which decreases our capacity to feel full after eating (10). This is why we tend to snack more and feel less satisfied when we haven’t slept well. Sleep researchers agree that most people need 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night, so prioritise sleeping well to support your weight management efforts.
4. Eat real food.
Forget all about “diet” and “low fat” foods. There is literally no evidence that they support healthy weight management, and an abundance of anecdotal evidence that they cause people to overeat, because being artificially low in fat, they are simply less satisfying. Typical “low fat” products are also high in sugar and artificial additives, and evidence suggests that excess sugar and refined carbohydrates may be more likely to promote weight gain than fat. You can also forget about counting kJ. This not only creates unnecessary stress for most people, but studies suggest that people’s kJ counting is often inaccurate in any case (11).
Focus instead on eating a healthy, whole food, predominantly plant based diet. Foods such as fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dried beans/peas/lentils, and nuts and seeds are full of nutrients and fibre that will “fill you up”, and these foods should make up the bulk of your diet. Enjoy moderate amounts of protein rich foods such as free-range eggs, fermented dairy products such as yoghurt and kefir, and fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel too. There’s no need to avoid healthy fats either; extra virgin olive oil can be used for cooking and salad dressings and will help you to feel satisfied when you’ve eaten. Flavour your foods with an abundance of fresh and dried herbs and spices too.
It’s been my consistent experience in clinic that by eliminating ultraprocessed, refined carbohydrate rich “junk” foods, and focussing instead on nutrient dense, real foods containing an abundance of fibre, protein and healthy fats, that many people’s unhealthy food cravings will gradually decline and even disappear entirely. So try to focus not on deprivation, or on the foods that you “can’t have” on your “diet”. Focus instead on nourishing yourself with an abundance of real foods that you enjoy eating, and your weight will manage itself in time.
5. Try intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting is all the rage, and there’s increasing evidence that it can be effective in helping people to manage their weight (12). It isn’t suitable for everyone, however, and if you have a history of disordered eating, certain diagnosed medical conditions, or if you take pharmaceutical medications, it may not be suitable for you at all. Check with your health care practitioner if any of these conditions apply. If not, it’s safe for most people to eat within a 12 hour window, from 7am to 7pm, for example, and this can help you to bring your weight back into balance if you have a tendency to overeat at night (late night snacking in front of the TV, anyone?). Eating within a smaller window of 10 or even 8 hours can also be beneficial for weight management for some people, however, it’s best to seek professional advice from a naturopath, nutritionist or dietician if you plan to do this.
6. See your GP
While most people’s weight will gradually return to a state of balance by following the above guidelines, occasionally it’s the case that you’re “doing everything right” but your weight remains the same or even increases. If this is the case, be sure to book a consultation with your GP for a check-up. Blood glucose, insulin, thyroid or reproductive hormone abnormalities, for example, can make weight management more challenging, so it’s a good idea to discuss your progress with your GP if you’re feeling frustrated and to ask if any testing is appropriate.
One of the Co-op’s in store practitioners, Sonya Byron, is a naturopath and yoga teacher in clinical practice at Lower Mountains Health & Healing in Blaxland. Prior to her career in natural health, she earned her living as the owner/farmer of Good Karma Farm, a sustainable two-acre organic farm producing 60 different vegetable and herb crops. She believes that fresh, healthy, home grown food is one of the foundations of good health, and she’s passionate about empowering people to care for their health (and to save money, time and the planet in the process) by learning how to grow and preserve their own food, and how to make their own simple herbal and nutritional remedies for common health complaints. For further information, visit Sonya Byron Plant Medicine at sonyabyron.com.au
(The information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for health care advice. Please consult your friendly local naturopath, herbalist or other health care practitioner for personalised advice, particularly if you have a diagnosed medical condition or take pharmaceutical medications).
(8) Ahmadi, H., Mehravar, M. (2019). The effect of an eight-week Pilates exercise regimen on stress management and cortisol levels in sedentary women’. Journal of Physical Activity and Hormones, 3(4), pp. 37-52.
(9) Geiker, N. R. W., Astrup, A., Hjorth, M. F., Sjödin, A., Pijls, L., & Markus, C. R. (2017). Does stress influence sleep patterns, food intake, weight gain, abdominal obesity and weight loss interventions and vice versa? Obesity Reviews, 19(1), 81–97.
(10) Taheri, S., Lin, L., Austin, D., Young, T., Mignot, E. (2004). Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index. PLoS Med 1(3): e62.
(11) Carels, R., Konrad, K., Harper J. (2007). Individual differences in food perceptions and calorie estimation: An examination of dieting status, weight, and gender. Appetite, 49(2), 450-458.
(12) Welton, S., Minty, R., O’Driscoll, T., Willms, H., Poirier, D., Madden, S., & Kelly, L. (2020).
Intermittent fasting and weight loss: Systematic review. Canadian Family Physician, 66(2) 117-125.