With the daily crush of media coverage about obesity, weight, and health, it’s easy for people to feel overwhelmed. But there are simple steps you can take to help keep weight in check and lower the risk of many chronic diseases.
The Healthy Weight Checklist—is a resource not only for individuals but also for those helping others stay healthy: Parents, caretakers, teachers, healthcare providers, worksite coordinators, public health practitioners, business and community leaders, and healthcare policymakers.
Calories matter for weight—and some foods make it easier for us to keep our calories in check. Healthy eating is a key to good health as well as maintaining a healthy weight. It’s not only what and how much we eat but also, it seems, how we eat that’s important.
What to Eat
Choose minimally processed, whole foods:
- Whole grains (whole wheat, steel cut oats, brown rice, quinoa)
- Vegetables (a colorful variety—not potatoes)
- Whole fruits (not fruit juices)
- Nuts, seeds, beans, and other healthful sources of protein (fish and poultry)
- Plant oils (olive and other vegetable oils)
Drink water or other beverages that are naturally calorie-free.
Limit these foods and drinks:
- Sugar-sweetened beverages (soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks)
- Fruit juice (no more than a small amount per day)
- Refined grains(white bread, white rice, white pasta) and sweets
- Potatoes (baked or fried)
- Red meat (beef, pork, lamb) and processed meats (salami, ham, bacon, sausage)
- Other highly processed foods, such as fast food
A good example of an overall healthy diet is the Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Eating Pyramid and Healthy Eating Plate. The Nutrition Source, a companion website to The Obesity Prevention Source, also offers a quick guide to choosing healthy drinks, as well as recipes and quick tips for eating right.
How Much to Eat
Age, gender, body size, and level of physical activity dictate how many calories you need each day to lose weight or to stay at a healthy weight. With two out of three U.S. adults overweight or obese, it’s clear that many of us need to eat fewer calories.
Online calorie-needs calculators are a bit over-generous with their recommendations. And, in practice, it’s hard for people to track the amount of calories they take in each day.
A better approach: Adopt habits that will help you avoid overeating (see below)—and skip some of the high-calorie, low-nutrient foods that are most strongly linked to weight gain, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grains, and potatoes.
How to Avoid Overeating
- Eat breakfast. While it seems like skipping a meal is an easy way to cut calories, skipping breakfast usually backfires when hunger comes raging back mid-day, often leading to overeating.
- Choose small portions and eat slowly. Slowing down at meals and choosing smaller portions can help avoid overeating by giving the brain time to tell the stomach when it’s had enough food. Limiting distractions—turning off the television, computer, or smartphone—can also help us focus on the food.
- Eat at home. Fast food, restaurant meals, and other foods prepared away from home tend to have larger portions and be less nutritious than the foods we cook for ourselves.
- Eat mindfully. Taking time to think about why you’re actually eating is an easy way to avoid needless calories. Hungry? Make the healthiest food and drink choices possible. Not really hungry? Choose something else to do or have a piece of fruit instead of a full meal. When you do eat, focus all of your senses on the food, so that you can truly enjoy what you are eating. More information about mindful eating can be found at The Center for Mindful Eating and the website for the book Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.
Besides eating a healthy diet, nothing is more important to keeping weight in check and staying healthy than regular activity. If there ever were a magic bullet for good health, physical activity would be it.
How much activity is recommended depends on whether you’re a child or an adult and what your goals are: good health or weight control. There are a lot of ways to get moving. Choose activities you enjoy.
In addition to staying active, it’s important for all age groups to minimize “sit time” (sedentary time), especially time spent watching television.
Physical Activity Recommendations for Adults:
For good health: 2.5 hours a week of moderate activity (brisk walking, slow bike riding) or 1.25 hours a week of vigorous activity (running, fast bike riding).
For weight control: 1 hour a day of moderate to vigorous activity. This activity can be pieced together from short bursts of 10 minutes or more.
Physical Activity Recommendations for Children:
- At least 1 hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day, which can be pieced together from short bursts of 10 minutes or more.
- Muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening activities at least three days a week.
Key to these recommendations is that all activities should be age appropriate and fun, and keep kids moving and breathing at an increased rate.
Limit Screen Time
Watching television (TV) can be enjoyable and informative; unfortunately it can also be double jeopardy when it comes to weight. It’s a completely sedentary activity that also seems to promote unhealthy eating though the ads, product placements, and other promotions that constantly pitch high-calorie, low-nutrient food and drinks.
Try these tips for curbing exposure to TV and other screen media (video games, recreational computer use, and similar pastimes):
- Keep television/screen media time to no more than two hours a day. The less, the better.
- Limit children’s screen time to no more than two hours per day. The less, the better. Children under 2 years old should watch none.
- Make children’s bedrooms TV-free and Internet-free.
- Turn off the TV during meals.
Schools and caregivers:
- Put in place policies that limit recreational screen time.
- Ask parents about their children’s screen time and counsel parents to limit their children’s screen time.
- Become advocates for stricter regulations on TV/media food and beverage advertising to children.
There is more and more evidence that a good night’s sleep is important to good health—and may also help keep weight in check. How much a person needs can vary a great deal, but there is good evidence that a lot of children and adults don’t get enough. Here are some general recommendations for sleep duration.
- 7 to 8 hours a night
1–3 years old: 12 to 14 hours a night
3–5 years old: 11 to 13 hours a night
5–12 years old: 10 to 11 hours a night
Adolescents: 8.5 to 9.25 hours a night
Source: National Sleep Foundation
Give Kids a Good Start
It’s almost never too early to lay the foundation for good health, and there is good evidence that a child’s early years, and even time during pregnancy, can have an important impact on their weight later in life.
Together with the help of their healthcare providers, women of childbearing age, pregnant women, and new mothers can take steps that could help improve their own health as well as the health of their children.
- Try to start pregnancy at a healthy weight.
- Don’t smoke during pregnancy.
- Aim for a reasonable weight gain during pregnancy.
- Breastfeed (preferably without other liquids for 4 to 6 months and some breastfeeding for at least 12 months).
- Ensure infants get adequate sleep during the first few years of life.
- Help children gain weight at a healthy rate (discuss at doctor’s visits).
Today’s world is full of daily stresses. This is a normal part of life, but when these stresses become too much, they can take a toll on health and contribute to weight gain by leading to unhealthy eating and other unhealthy activities.
One of the best ways to control stress is also one of the best ways to combat weight gain: regular physical activity. Mind body approaches, such as breathing exercises, can also be beneficial.
For more on stress and tips on controlling it, visit this Medline Plus article on Stress Management or, for employers, the University of Massachusetts website on Stress at Work. The Benson–Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital also offers a variety of resources for stress management.
The aim of the Harvard School of Public Health Obesity Prevention Source Web site is to provide timely information about obesity’s global causes, consequences, prevention, and control, for the public, health and public health practitioners, business and community leaders, and policymakers. The contents of this Web site are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Web site. The Web site’s obesity prevention policy recommendations are based primarily on a review of U.S. expert guidance, unless otherwise indicated; in other countries, different policy approaches may be needed to achieve improvements in food and physical activity environments, so that healthy choices are easy choices, for all.