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Lifestyle Changes to Manage Obesity

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Managing obesity is mostly about making lifestyle changes, which may be difficult. To maintain your weight, you must burn the same amount of calories you take in when you eat. To lose weight, you have to burn more calories than you take in. Your body burns calories just doing the normal bodily functions that keep you alive along with any extra activity. Exercise, besides burning calories, also builds muscle which in turn increases the amount of calories you use just to be alive. However, your body is a very efficient engine, so it takes a lot more time and energy to burn calories than it does to take them in. Therefore, it is important to both decrease your calorie intake and increase your exercise when treating obesity.

Talk to your doctor about a weight loss program that is right for you. You are more likely to successfully lose weight and keep it off if you participate in a program that is easy to follow and continue forever. A program should include a combination of strategies, like diet, exercise, counseling, and medication. Your doctor can refer you to a dietitian, an athletic trainer, or multicomponent weight-loss program for more personalized help.

Dietary Changes

Diet trends may make one type of nutrient seem more important than others when it comes to dieting. This can be seen when you compare the Mediterranean diet, the low-carb diet, or the low-fat diet. However, research has not found one particular diet to be the best. The key to successful weight loss appears to be reducing caloric intake and not in reducing certain nutrients, like carbohydrates. Adhering to the diet is what mattered most. The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends aiming for a loss of about 1-2 pounds/week (0.45-0.91 kg/week) and to lose about 10% of weight by the first 6 months. This can be done by decreasing food intake by 500-1,000 calories every day.

Increasing your dietary protein to 25% of your overall calories in your low calorie diet has also been shown to improve weight loss.

It's challenging to eat fewer calories, though, when the custom in the US is to be served large portions. Another team of researchers found that using special portion-control plates help people who are obese and have type 2 diabetes lose weight and lower their diabetes medications. If you are interested in buying a portion-control plate, you'll find a lot of information online.

Commercial programs such as Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and Nutrisystem may improve your chances of success.

Other factors that can contribute to a healthy diet include:

  • Thinking about the kinds of beverages that you typically choose. For example, if you like to have a 12-ounce can of regular soda with your lunch, this drink adds about 150 calories to your meal. For a healthier option, have a glass of water or a diet soda instead. You can quench your thirst without the extra calories.
  • Paying attention to how food is prepared. Foods cooked or seasoned with high amounts of fat can quickly increase calories.
  • Limiting fast food, take-out, and dining out.
  • When grocery shopping, choose healthy foods.
  • Focus on unprocessed foods.
  • Cook less food at mealtime and do not bring it all to the table.

Factors to consider in children

  • Give your child healthy lunches and snacks to take to school. This may keep your child from buying unhealthy options at school.
  • Do not use sweets as a reward for good behavior or test scores. Think of other, more active rewards.
  • Set a good example by:
    • Preparing healthy meals at home. Children are strongly influenced by their parents behavior.
    • Eating together as a family.
  • Teach your child how to make good choices at the grocery store.
  • Teach your child about proper portion sizes. Your child may be able to continue eating favorite foods, just in smaller portion sizes.
  • Focus on healthy foods your child can eat. Do not eliminate all sweets and treats. Overdoing this may make your child want them more. Include occasional treats in proper amounts.

Your doctor and a dietitian can help you create a safe and healthy diet that fits your lifestyle.

Physical Activity Changes

Exercise helps you to lose weight and keep the weight off after you have lost it. Participating in a regular exercise program can also reduce the risk of a number of health conditions, like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. Aim for 150 minutes per week.

To be safe, check with your doctor before starting a program. You may also want to make an appointment with a certified athletic trainer, who can help you understand what elements of a fitness routine are most effective for you.

There are 3 basic categories of exercise and each provides specific health benefits.

  • Aerobic exercise raises your heart rate through repetitive movement of large muscles groups, burns calories, increases endurance, and strengthens your heart. Examples include jogging, walking, dancing, biking, or swimming.
  • Strength training exercise increases the power, tone, and efficiency of individual muscles by contracting isolated muscles against resistance. Strength training can be done with weights or resistance bands.
  • Stretching improves or maintains the flexibility of your muscles. Yoga and tai chi are good examples of ways to improve flexibility.

Regardless of your weight and health status, there is a program that will work for you. If you are interested in working with a trainer, you can find one at a local gym or through a referral from your doctor or a friend.

Lifestyle Changes for Children and Teens

The growing prevalence of overweight children has become a serious health concern. In the US, an estimated 17% of children and young adults aged 2-19 are obese. These children are more likely to have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. There is also some evidence that being overweight or obese during late adolescence may shorten life expectancy as an adult.

If your child is struggling with a weight problem, what can you do? Just as with adults, kids benefit from making diet, exercise, and behavior changes. The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPTF) also recommends counseling for kids who are obese.

Be an active participant with your child. Children take their cues from adults, so make healthy eating a family event. In the end, it will benefit everyone if you are all in it together.

The National Institutes of Health offers some positive steps that you can take at home to help your child:

  • Encourage healthy eating habits—Make an effort to keep a variety of healthful foods— fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, and lean meats—on hand. Practice healthful eating habits, such as portion control, eating breakfast everyday, eating fast food less often, and healthy snacking. A dietitian can work with you and your child to create a healthy meal plan.
  • Encourage daily physical activity—Help your child get some exercise everyday. Aim for 60 minutes a day. When it’s safe and feasible, let them walk to school, the store, or a friends' houses. It also helps to encourage physical education in school and participation in extracurricular sports teams or classes. Make exercise a family activity. For a more structured routine, a trainer can work with your child to create a fun and safe exercise program.
  • Discourage inactive pastimes—Limit the time your child is allowed to watch TV, play video games, and surf the internet. A reasonable rule is no more than 2 hours per day total of screen time.

Other options for your child include multidisiplinary programs and weight-loss camps. At camp, your child will have an opportunity to learn about fitness and nutrition in a fun environment. They may also lose some weight at the camp by exercising more and eating healthier food.


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Last reviewed February 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP  Last Updated: 2/23/2017