How to tip the scales in favor of health and happiness
“DO I NEED TO lose weight?” All too often the answer to that question is inspired by ultraskinny fashion models. Or by a nostalgic yearning to weigh what we weighed in high school. Or by an arbitrary number on a weight chart.
Instead, I feel the best way to decide if you’re at an ideal weight is to determine, first, whether you’re at a healthy weight. Carrying too much fat can lead to heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and osteoarthritis. It’s also been linked to some forms of cancer, as well as early death. And second, determine whether you’re at a happy weight, one you can easily maintain.
THE NEW STANDARDS
For much of this century, the “scientific” way to determine your ideal weight was to consult the Metropolitan Life Insurance charts. These famous charts are based on heights, weights and death rates of millions of life-insurance subscribers. To use them, you look up the recommended weight for your height, sex and “frame size.” (The charts inevitably set people to wondering: “Do I have a small frame? Medium? Large?”)
The problem with these tables, scientists now acknowledge, is that ideal weights are not constant throughout a life span, as the data imply. So the charts’ “ideal” weights for adults may be too low.
Now there are new standards to set our scales by. The National Research Council’s executive summary Diet and Health, three years in the making and released early this year, is one of several that synthesize new findings on excess weight and health. The NRC recommendations are based on heights, weights and mortality of many millions of people in different walks of life–far more numerous and varied than the life-insurance data. Some of their conclusions are: It is likely you can weigh more than you think you can without incurring increased health risks.
Your healthy weight increases with age. In other words, a weight that is associated with increased health risk for a 25-year-old might be fine for a 55-year-old of the same height. How risky your weight is depends not just on how much you carry, but where you carry it. For reasons that scientists don’t fully understand, excess upper-body fat (abdomen, arms, chest, neck) is associated with more health risks than lower-body fat (buttocks, thighs and down).
HEALTHY WEIGHT QUIZ
Based on this information, I use a fairly simple method to help determine if someone needs to diet. If you think you are carrying excess weight, answer the following questions:
- Do you feel healthy and energetic, and do you exercise for at least 20 minutes a day (walking, swimming, stair climbing or other) without fatigue?
- Do you and your immediate blood relatives have no history of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis or liver disease? Do you show no risk markers for these diseases, such as high cholesterol, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, abnormal blood sugar?
- Do you carry most of your excess weight on your thighs and buttocks (and not much extra fat on you abdomen, arms and/or chest)?
- Answer this question only if you were not overweight in high school. Take your high school weight and add five pounds to that number for every decade of your age past age 20. Is your current weight less than or equal to that number?
If you answered “Yes” to every question, then chances are, your weight is a healthy one for you. You’re active and energetic; you don’t have genetic risks or health problems related to excess weight; your fat is in the safer, lower zone of the body; and the amount of weight you’ve gained over the years really isn’t very significant.
(It’s fine to gain moderate amounts of weight as you age–about five pounds per decade. In other words, if you weighed 135 as a teenager and you were not obese, then 140 is fine when you’re 30, 145 when you’re 40, 150 when you’re 50, 155 when you’re 60, and so forth.)
But if you suspect you’re overweight and you answered “No” to one or more of these questions, it is likely you need to lose some weight. Check with your doctor for confirmation.
RESET YOUR HAPPY WEIGHT
Trouble is, there’s sometimes a difference between your healthy weight and what I call your happy weight–your set point–the weight your body wants to maintain. The set point is determined by many factors: your diet, your activity level and your genes.
If you’ve been at your current weight plus or minus five pounds for the last two years, that’s your set point. If you are healthy (you answered “Yes” to all the questions above), then your set point is also your healthy weight and I would not recommend going on a diet.
But what if your set point puts you at risk? Your body will make you very unhappy indeed when you try to go lower than the set point. It will punish you with hunger if you don’t eat enough to maintain that weight; it will slow your metabolism, so it’s more difficult to lose weight. What can you do?
Plan a healthy, low-fat diet with a moderate number of calories; don’t go under 1,200 a day. Focus on cutting the fats out of your diet. When you cut the fat, the calories descend by themselves, particularly if you’re on a regular exercise program.
Stay on the diet for six to eight weeks. During this time, you should lose about 10 to 20 pounds, or around 5 to 10 percent of your body weight. Then, spend the next three to six months on maintenance. Exercise, eat right (a low-fat, high-fiber diet with five servings of fruits and vegetables a day) and stay at your diet of not less than 1,200 calories per day.
The good news: In my view, most people don’t need to lose more than 5 to 15 percent of their current weight in a single year to achieve significant health benefits, so you may not have to lose any more weight after the first round.
After the maintenance period, if you still need to lose more, start dieting again and stick with it for another six to eight weeks. Then maintain by resuming your low-fat, high-fiber diet.
Losing the weight in steps makes it easier to adjust the set point and more likely you’ll succeed than if you drop it in one fell swoop.
If you get to the point where you can’t lose any more, and your doctor agrees that you’re no longer at an increased health risk, just stay there. That is the weight your body wants. To lose more, you’d have to limit more strictly your food intake, and exercise even more. The risk: You may not succeed, which would hurt your self-esteem. Or you could gain back excess weight, and when people gain after dieting, the fat often piles up in unhealthier locations (the upper body). Also, it’s healthier to be a little plump than to yo-yo up and down.
Above all, don’t focus on the scale. Work on eating a low-fat diet and staying active, and the weight should take care of itself. That’s the best way to make sure your healthy weight is also your happy weight!