Maintaining a healthy weight is primarily due to doing the right amount of exercise and nutrition for you. That combination depends on lots of factors including your genetics, age, lifestyle (inactive versus active) and motivation. Diet is the focus of this post. There is an infinite amount of information available online, and it seems that there is always a new diet trend that is taking the world by storm (e.g. South Beach or Atkins). However, it’s never a one size fits all solution.
I’m someone that needs a lot of carbs in my diet. Without them, I can’t focus as well, and I can’t maintain a healthy weight for my height. For others, carbs have the opposite effect. So when my family or friends tell me they are on “insert name here” diet and it works for them so others should do it, I have to say something because it won’t work for everyone (more on this later in this post). I’m also a firm believer in long-term lifestyle goals over quick fix solutions that in the long run aren’t sustainable.
Everybody needs a certain amount of calories per day to maintain their current weight. It varies greatly among individuals and factors including gender, height, weight, and activity level. According to USDA dietary guidelines, with an inactive lifestyle:
- The average woman between the ages of 19 and 50 needs between 1600-2000 calories per day.
- The average male between the ages of 19 and 50 needs 2400-2600 calories per day.
If you would like an estimate that is more specific to you, try this free tool through the Mayo Clinic.
- To maintain your weight: take in the same amount of calories as your body uses each day.
- If you’d like to gain weight, you need to eat more calories than your body uses each day
- If you’d like to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories.
It’s as simple (and difficult to do) as that.
In addition to the basic calories in versus calories burned; what you put in your body matters as well.
Food is made up of three components
Your body’s primary source of energy to fuel brain activity and movement. There are two categories of carbohydrates: simple and complex.
- Simple carbohydrates are sugars, including those found in fruit, vegetables, milk, and refined sugar.
- Complex carbohydrates are starches, which include rice, potatoes, pasta and bread, etc.; these are broken down by the body into basic building blocks of energy.
The less refined a carbohydrate is, the more time it takes your body to break it down, which keeps blood sugar levels even. So if you’re looking for a healthier carb to eat, whole grains are better for you than white bread.
Your body’s primary source of energy storage. Essential to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. There are two main categories of fats, saturated and unsaturated.
- Saturated fats are those mainly found in animal products and may cause increases in bad cholesterol. Consume them in moderation.
- Unsaturated fats are those found in fish, nuts and plant sources and are considered “good fats.”
Your body’s building blocks for skin, hair, muscle, etc.
- Animal sources of protein (meat, fish, etc.) contain “complete” proteins. Red meat tends to contain more saturated fat than fish or poultry so you should eat it in moderation.
- Plant-based sources of protein are predominantly “incomplete,” so you should eat them in combination with another plant-based protein (e.g. a quinoa dish with some nuts or seeds). It will ensure that your body gets all of the amino acids that it needs.
As you can see, each component is essential to health. Generally speaking, about half of your plate should be filled with vegetables while the rest should be an even split between protein and whole grains. A small amount of healthy fat should be part of your plate (think olive oil-based salad dressing).
Healthy portion sizes
Fats were the enemy in the 80’s and 90’s, and carbohydrates are currently considered diet enemy number one. None of this is true, but it is essential to watch your portion sizes when you’re watching calories. For example:
- Meat or fish – 75 g (about 3 oz.), approximately the size of a deck of cards
- Vegetables and grains – 125 ml (1/2 cup) – about half of your fist
These are likely much smaller than you think. Portion sizes have increased over the years; for example, slices of bread are bigger, and some restaurant portions are huge! As mentioned earlier, the number of servings you require per day depends on gender, body composition, and activity level, but on average, women need:
- 7-8 servings of vegetables per day,
- 7 servings of grains,
- 2 servings of meat, and
- 2 servings of dairy or dairy alternatives per day.
When you’re trying to change your weight, you need to remember that eating “treats” will not provide you with the nutrients required by your body. It’s especially important if you’re trying to lose, or even maintain weight. It can be tough to give your body everything it needs when you reduce your caloric intake. So you need to keep focused on eating nutrient-dense foods and cutting out anything unnecessary like sugar, saturated fat, and alcohol (sorry, especially about that last one).
Fad diets and associated health risks
Fad diets can work for some people because they tend to reduce your overall calorie intake but are not all sustainable in the long run. The diets that aren’t sustainable mean that most people put weight back on right after they finish the diet, and in some cases, even more weight. It’s not only bad for your body, but there are also health risks associated with fad diets. Some examples include:
- Restricting carbohydrates too much can cause dizziness, fatigue, constipation and, in extreme cases, kidney problems. It also affects brain functioning.
- Eating too little fat can cause a nutrient deficiency, excessive appetite and mood problems.
- Although it’s currently not a trend to limit protein intake, eating too little can cause muscle wasting, changes in skin and hair texture, and a higher amount of infections.
In general, if you’re looking to lose or gain weight, or to change your diet for other reasons, you should make small tweaks to an already healthy diet. The reason is that once you reach your target weight, you can easily adjust into maintenance mode. If you’re starting with an unhealthy diet, start by making small, sustainable changes that will get you to a healthy lifestyle. For example, start by cutting out dessert once per week; or, increase the number and variety of vegetables that you eat each week. You could also replace a serving of red meat with poultry or fish. Once you’re on the right track, you can change your diet as needed to accomplish your nutrition goals.
While the above provides some basic information about nutrition, I have not included any information for those with health issues or allergies. If you have specific concerns, a registered dietitian will be able to provide you with information geared to your specific issues.
Check out our recipes for some inspiration.