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Nutrition and healthy weight

Learn about the indicators of healthy weight and how following nutrition guidelines can help you lose or gain weight.

Red bell pepper on a scale at Local Market Marche Locale

Being overweight is associated with many health problems that include an increased risk of cancer [PDF], type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke, sleep apnea and high blood pressure. Some of the health problems are due to the weight itself (e.g., increased aches and pains), while others are a result of the behaviours that contribute to the weight gain such as being inactive and having poor eating habits.

Are you at a healthy weight?

There are three indicators of a healthy weight:

  1. Body mass index (BMI): This is a simple measure that is calculated by dividing your weight in kilograms by the square of your height in meters (BMI = weight [kg] / height2 [m]). You can calculate your BMI online. A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is associated with the lowest risk of weight-related health problems. A BMI over 25 is categorized as overweight; over 30 is obese. Both of these categories are associated with an increased risk for health problems. Being underweight (BMI less than 18.5) is also associated with an increased risk for health problems. The BMI does not take into consideration the distribution of weight; so two people of the same height and weight will have the same BMI, despite the fact that one may be lean and muscular while the other has a high percentage of body fat.
  2. Body fat percentage: This measure takes into consideration body composition. There are several ways to estimate body fat percentage, including skinfold calipers and bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA), which can be done using a hand-held tool. The American Academy of Sport identifies obese as 32% body fat or more for women and 25% or more for men. If you would like to have your body fat measured contact a Health Promotion Specialist at Concordia University Health Services.
  3. Waist circumference: Men with a waist measurement greater than 40 inches (102 cm) and women with a waist measurement greater than 35 inches (89 cm) are at increased risk for weight-related health problems.

How weight is gained and lost

Gaining and losing weight is predominantly about energy balance. A calorie is a unit of energy. If you consume more calories in the course of the day than you burn, the excess calories will be stored as fat in fat cells for future use. Alternatively, if you burn more calories during the course of the day than you consume, your body will release fat from fat cells to fuel the additional energy needs.

Video: The Simple Science Behind Weight Loss

How to lose weight

To lose weight you have to consistently (i.e., on most days) have a calorie deficit. The calories you deposit into your body each day come from food and beverages. The calories you withdraw (i.e., burn) from your body come from two sources:

  1. Your physiological processes (e.g., beating of the heart, maintaining a constant body temperature, digesting food etc.)
  2. Any physical activity that you do (i.e. moving your body).  

You don't have much control over the amount of energy you burn through your physiological processes. So to lose weight you will need to modify the things you have control over: your nutrition and physical activity.

There are several approaches you can take to achieve a calorie deficit:

1. Eat less and move more

This is a general approach. Some things you can do using this approach are:

  • Put less food on your plate
  • Use a smaller plate
  • Don't go back for seconds
  • Choose lower calorie foods [PDF] and reduce or eliminate foods and beverages that are calorie dense and provide very little nutrition such as:
    • candy and other sweets
    • snack foods such as chips, cheesies, nachos, etc.
    • soft drinks (e.g., Coke, Orange Crush) and other sugary beverages
    • cakes, cookies and other dessert foods
  • Eat mindfully
  • Eat until you feel satisfied or almost full
  • Set a cut-off time to stop eating (e.g., 7:30 pm)
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Walk up the escalator
  • Incorporate active transport such as walking or biking
  • Park your car further away from your destination
  • Get on off the bus/metro before your destination and walk the rest of the way
  • For more ideas, consult our tips for dealing with food and drinks when eating out, entertaining, on vacations or at special occasions

2. Set nutrition and/or physical activity goals

You can set nutrition and/or physical activity goals so that at the end of the day you have a calorie deficit. Consult How to Set a SMART Nutrition Goal [PDF] for information on one way to set a nutrition goal.

Engaging in regular physical activity is one of the best things you can do for your health. Therefore, we encourage you to include exercise in your weight loss strategy. Setting a weekly physical activity goal of 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity is consistent with the recommendations from a variety of public health organizations.

Consult How to Set, Achieve and Maintain Your Health Goals for information on goal setting.

3. Follow an established diet plan or weight loss program

Although just about every diet plan out there will lead to weight loss, many of them are difficult to follow, eliminate entire food groups, cost a lot or have other significant barriers. As a result, many of these don’t work. Let’s be real … if diets worked, obesity would almost disappear.

To help you select among the many weight loss plans (if you choose this approach), the US News and World Report has evaluated 41 popular diets with input from a panel of health experts. In January of 2020 they presented the results for the "Best Diets" on their website. They rate the diets, provide an overview of each and provide information on how to follow it.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease in the US provides information on choosing a safe and successful weight-loss program.

4. Monitor "calories in" and "calories out"

The bottom line for weight loss is to have a calorie deficit each day, so monitoring how many calories you burn ("calories out") and how many calories you consume ("calories in") can lead to weight loss, as long as you consistently have a calorie deficit.

You can estimate how many calories you burn each day using the Harris-Benedict equation. To calculate the amount of calories you consume, you will need to identify the calorie content of the foods and beverages you consume each day. The nutrition facts panel on foods contains calorie information. For foods that don't have a nutrition facts panel, you can usually find calorie information on sites such as the USDA Nutrient Database. To determine the amount of calories in restaurant food, you can go to the restaurant's website.

Note that this weight loss strategy does not stipulate the quality of the calories you are monitoring: they can all come from ice cream if you wish! If you choose this approach, be sure to select foods that reflect the recommendations for a healthy diet. Also, choosing lower calorie foods [PDF] is helpful.

Since cutting calories results in cutting down nutrients, men should not go below 1,500 calories a day and women should not go below 1,200. 

A few tips for dealing with food and drinks when eating out, entertaining, on vacations or at special occasions.

5. Physical Activity

Weight loss occurs when a person burns more calories than they consume. Increasing physical activity increases the amount of calories burned. Therefore, setting physical activity goals along with nutrition goals helps with weight loss. Research indicates that 150 minutes a week of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity is associated with numerous health benefits. Therefore, aiming for 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity will contribute to weight loss and overall better health. Learn more about physical activity in the Physical Activity section of our website.

What about gaining weight?

If your goal is to gain weight, you need to consume more calories each day than you burn. It's still important to follow healthy eating guidelines, such as those in Canada's Food Guide. Opt for higher calorie, healthy foods in each food group. Beans and nuts are calorie dense and nutritious. See the "Average Calorie Content of One Serving of Food" [PDF] to identify food options with greater calorie density.

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