Managing healthy weight

Last updated 05 April 2017 — Last reviewed 17 February 2014

Often the focus is on losing weight, but what about maintaining your weight or preventing weight gain? Strategies, motivation, which diets work, causes of weight gain and what you can do to help manage your weight are all discussed.

What is a healthy weight?

What it means to 'manage' healthy weight

Often the focus is on weight as something you need to lose or gain. However, preventing weight gain and maintaining a healthy weight are a part of the way to think about weight throughout the different stages of a woman's life, from adolescence, young adulthood and perhaps pregnancy, then through to midlife, menopause and ageing as an older adult.

Weight gain prevention

One of the most important things for your health is to prevent the kilogram creep – the weight that tends to go on each year and stay on.

On average, Australian women gain around 5-7kg per decade as they age

Preventing weight gain is as relevant to women who are within the healthy weight range as it is for those who are overweight or obese and to women of all ages.

Younger women, 25-45 years, are gaining weight at a faster rate than any other age group

The value of preventing weight gain lies in avoiding the considerable risks for women's health posed by being overweight.

Overweight men have 4 times the risk of developing type 2 diabetes

Overweight women have 14 times the risk of developing type 2 diabetes

The key to preventing weight gain lies in understanding what causes weight gain and how you can maintain a healthy weight for you.

Weight maintenance

Maintaining a healthy weight throughout the different life stages involves understanding the influences on your weight gain as these will dictate how you can manage your weight. If you have a healthy weight, the key is to measure, monitor and to keep yourself motivated to maintain your healthy weight.

Measure

Whether it be a tape measure, a favourite pair of jeans or the bathroom scales, it's important to know roughly what size you are normally, so that you can notice small changes to your weight.

Monitor

Keep a written record of your health habit. If you're aiming to walk 10,000 steps a day, buy a pedometer and write your total down at the end of each day to track your progress. The same goes for healthy eating. If your goal is to eat two fruit and five vegies every day, tally your intake in a food diary so you can see the improvements over time. This reinforces the behaviour and helps keep you on track.

Motivate

Motivation can make or break our attempts to maintain a healthy weight. This is where your friends and social networks are most valuable. When women support each other, they tend to be much more successful in achieving their goals. Make a date with your friends to walk the dog or take kids to the park – anything that gets you up and moving.

Weight gain

The secret to eating for weight gain is to eat regularly – three to six times a day –  and include foods that are 'concentrated' and nutrient-dense. In other words, eat foods that will give you the most kilojoules/calories in the least volume.

These foods generally include more fat than is recommended for the general and overweight population so if you are worried about cholesterol, choose lean meat, poultry and fish and use fats or foods with fats that are either polyunsaturated or monounsaturated.

You may find it helpful to:

  • eat small and often, especially if your appetite is small or you fill up quickly
  • include more healthy fat with your meals such as margarine spread thickly on toast and sandwiches, olive oil on vegetables, dressings on salad, avocados and peanut butter on bread
  • snack on foods like full-fat yoghurt, flavoured milk, cheese with biscuits
  • reduce your aerobic (fat-burning workouts) and do more weights
  • smoking blunts the taste buds and decreases appetite so if you smoke here is another reason to try and give up

Weight loss

Losing weight throughout the different life stages involves understanding the influences on your weight gain as these help show you what you can.

Which diet is best?

All diets work on the same principle – reducing intake of kilojoules one way or another.

Researchers in the US have compared the success of four popular weight loss diets –  Atikins, Weight Watchers, the Zone and Ornish (a strict semi-vegetarian diet) –  when followed for one year.[1] Their results revealed little difference between the diets. All were successful in lowering body weight by between 4-6kg over the year. But the study proved just how hard it is to stick to a diet for a long period. Just under half those that began the diet comparison were not able to last the year.

Most diets are not sustainable for more than a few days or weeks and many do not provide your daily nutrition needs. It pays to be critical and scrutinise what they ask you to eat before you embark on one as research shows.

Dud diet books tend to have the following unhealthy features in common[2]:

  • banning or promoting certain foods or food groups
  • implying that a food can change body chemistry
  • blaming hormones for weight control
  • recommending supplements and special 'health foods'
  • promising quick, even miraculous, results

If any of your diet books have these features then give them the flick. Focus on what influences you to gain weight or to make unhealthy choices and how to manage those influences.

What causes weight gain & what to do about it

Maintaining a healthy weight throughout the different life stages involves a number of challenges for many women. Weight gain is influenced by:

  • food – too many calories
  • life – what is happening in your life (both past and present influences)
  • physical activity – not enough physical activity
  • emotions – anxiety, depression, loneliness, grief
  • environment – having the right place to exercise
  • support – having people who can support you
  • thinking – how you think; for example negative thinking such as 'I will never be able to have the will power to stop eating sugar'
  • time – life is busy and often women prioritise everyone else above their own needs

causes of weight gain

Food

Food changes

For many women, weight loss and the prevention of excess weight gain is achievable with a small adjustment in energy intake. For example, swapping sweet drinks, such as one large glass of juice or soft drink with water or plain mineral water, will save you around 500 kilojoules per day. Eating less processed foods and more unprocessed foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, will also reduce your kilojoule intake.

Food changes Suggestions
Eat less saturated fats
  • Reducing the fat in your diet will help cut kilojoules because fat is kilojoule dense (37kJ per gram)
  • Choose from healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats found in oils, spreads, nuts, avocados and hummus
  • Choose lower fat versions of foods you eat often e.g. lean meats and low fat dairy foods
Eat more vegetables and fruit every day Eating green, leafy vegetables will not add many kilojoules and will provide excellent nutrition.
Choose a nutritious, sustainable diet Visit the 'Smart Eating for You' section on the Dietitians Association of Australia website or get help from an Accredited Practising Dietitian.
Keep alcohol in check

Reducing your alcohol intake will cut kilojoules because:

  • weight for weight, alcohol at 29kJ per gram is roughly twice as fattening as carbohydrate or protein
  • alcohol helps you relax and loosens inhibitions so you may end up eating more after a couple of drinks than you would otherwise
  • research shows alcohol has an appetite-enhancing effect – which is why it's traditionally served as an aperitif before dinner
  • alcohol is usually consumed as well as the meal without considering the additional kilojoules it adds
Eat breakfast every day

Eat a breakfast of wholegrain cereal and bread, low fat milk and fruit (rather than sweet, honey-toasted, crunchy cereals) and it will:

  • 'switch on' your metabolism after the night's sleep
  • prevent mid-morning snacking on biscuits and pastries
  • provide a good source of carbohydrates and B-group vitamins for energy, a source of calcium for bones and fibre for bowel health
Pack a lunch

Use a lunch box and have:

  • a sandwich with salad and lean meat or tuna
  • some fruit
  • some low fat milk, yoghurt or cheese
Don't be afraid of carbohydrates Include wholemeal bread and wholegrain cereals for nutrition and energy, particularly if you often feel tired in the afternoon.
Eat regularly Have healthy meals and snacks at regular times.
Eat slowly Try to eat slowly and enjoy what you are eating, as you are more likely to recognise when you are full.
Eat only when hungry Avoid eating because you are tired, alone, upset or anxious.
Plan ahead for changes to your eating routine
  • Watch for times when your eating routine changes, such as during holidays
  • Plan how you will include healthy foods in your diet daily so you can enjoy the occasional treat

Non-hungry eating

Anyone can eat food when not feeling physically hungry. This sort of eating is often called non-hungry eating and can include overeating, grazing, picking, nibbling and bingeing.

Non-hungry eating can occur at any time: at mealtimes, in between and even during the night.

Many people do a significant amount of this sort of eating.

It's normal to do some non-hungry eating, but when it occurs too often it can become habitual and can cause significant weight gain.

Many people may not be aware of the many different reasons for their non-hungry eating.  Some common reasons for non-hungry eating are listed below:

  • not recognising the difference between physical hunger and the feeling of wanting to put food in the mouth
  • not allowing enough time to listen to body signals
  • confusing hunger and thirst
  • not sure when to stop eating
  • eating too quickly
  • filling up but not feeling satisfied
  • eating 'just in case' you get hungry later
  • eating because the clock says it is 'meal time'
  • eating due to almost any emotion
  • eating due to feeling bored or tired, out of habit, to solve a problem, or because the food is there

Eating awareness

A great tool to help decrease non-hungry eating is to check in on a hunger/fullness scale before you eat something:

Hunger/fullness scale
10 Stuffed full Don't eat now
8 Overfull
5 Comfortably full
2 Getting empty OK to eat now
0 Absolutely empty

By simply being more mindful, many people can quite quickly start to decrease the amount of non-hungry eating they are doing.

In order to eat more mindfully, an eating awareness diary (as distinct from a food diary that simply asks you to list the type of food you're eating) is also a great tool to help you recognise your eating habits in more detail. You can identify factors that contribute to your non-hungry eating, which may be boredom, loneliness or eating just in case you're hungry later.

An eating awareness diary can also be helpful to track the foods and drinks you have during the day. 

What is going on in your life?

Set a realistic health goal, make a plan, find a friend to support you and monitor what you do.

Physical activity

Physical activity changes

Being physically active does not have to be difficult or expensive and can be enjoyable. Going for a walk with a friend after work or at lunch time can be a simple way to increase your daily physical activity. Walking briskly for just 30 minutes each day will use approximately an additional 500 kJ per day and deliver immediate health benefits.

Parking the car further away, taking the steps as often as you can and putting your mobile phone out of reach so you have to get up to answer it, will all help to increase your activity.

Physical activity changes Suggestions
Move more every day in as many ways as possible
  • Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days
  • Borrow a child's skipping rope and skip for five minutes
  • Do step-ups on a back step
  • Walk or ride to the shops or to work when you can
Wear a pedometer

Wear a pedometer to track the number of steps you take during the day and try to do at least 10,000 steps a day. It's one of the easiest ways to motivate you to be more active.

Reschedule your day

Schedule a walk in the morning when you have more energy. Even a 10 minute walk in the fresh air will make you feel more energised and help you to perform better during the day.

Plan ahead for changes to your exercise routine
  • Watch for times when your activity routine changes, such as during holidays
  • Plan how you will maintain some exercise during these times, whether that's walking, dancing, swimming, cycling or surfing

Emotions

Cravings can undo your diet and exercise strategies. Trying to overcome them is important to dieting success. Eating biscuits, cakes and lollies can be a way of comforting yourself and soothing away anger or resentment (perhaps over a very restrictive diet regime). Cravings may also indicate meals are not adequate or balanced.

The best insurance against cravings is to make sure you're eating healthy balanced meals, with a generous serve of protein, some low glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrate and plenty of fill-you-up vegetables or salad – especially at lunch time.

Planning to have a sensible snack late afternoon or early evening can also help, so it's not all denial and 'willpower'. If you still suffer from cravings, then you need to look in to the reasons why you want food.

Thinking patterns & behaviour

The way you think can influence your mood and your actions. It is helpful to understand how your thinking affects your thoughts and behaviours around food and exercise.

References

  1. Dansinger et al. Comparison of the Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers and Zone diets for weight loss and heart disease risk reduction: A randomised trial. J Am Med Assoc 2005:293;43-53

  2. Williams L and Williams P. Evaluation of a tool for rating popular diet books. Nutr & Diet 2003;60:187-197

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at February 2014.

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