This blog is about perspective, not prescription. Individuals considering decisions about their personal body weight should consult with a health care provider.
Although dieters often successfully lose weight, the challenge is keeping that weight off. Most dieters regain weight starting about 6 months after weight loss. Weight wellness is about taking a fresh perspective toward managing weight starting in youth and consistently applying successful lifestyle choices daily to prevent progressive weight gain through the adult years.
Preventing progressive weight gain is key to weight wellness
Like the law of gravity, there are general truths in nutrition, such as energy eaten in excess of calories spent are converted to body fat and add up over time. On average, adults gain about ½ kilogram (kg), or 1 pound (lb), each year in middle age. This means that a 30 year old weighing 70 kg (155 lb) adds about 20% to their starting weight as body fat by 60 years of age. This is equivalent to carrying a 15 kg weight (about 30 lb) attached at the waist every day. And this happens incrementally, making it hard to notice.
Weight gain is both progressive and persistent across the lifespan, especially since we lose muscle mass as we age. Therefore, the need to actively manage weight starts in childhood. The old adage that kids grow out of their baby fat has been replaced with active weight management in childhood. In July 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidance recommending that pediatricians actively prevent excess weight gain among children (Daniels, 2015). Pediatricians are now advised to:
- Promote a diet free of sugar-sweetened beverages fewer foods with high caloric density, and increased intake of fruits and vegetables
- Promote a lifestyle with reduced sedentary behavior and 60 minutes of daily moderate to vigorous physical activity.
Similarly, World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations state that obesity prevention in infants and young children are a high priority and advises (WHO, 2002):
- Exclusive breastfeeding
- Avoiding added sugars and starches when feeding formula
- Instructing mothers to accept their child’s ability to regulate energy intake rather than feeding until the plate is empty
- Appropriate micronutrient intake to promote optimal linear growth and prevent stunting, which is associated with overweight in later life
Establishing and maintaining a healthy weight in childhood helps establish lifelong lifestyle behaviors. Weight wellness is a proactive approach to avoid the difficulty of losing weight later in life.
Why avoiding weight gain is preferred
Once body fat accumulates, it can be difficult to lose, but it is even more challenging to keep off. Several factors make it difficult to maintain weight loss; among these is that losing weight leads to a lower resting metabolic rate. In other words, your body fights weight loss. Losing weight and, more importantly, keeping it off requires many behavior changes that are sustained lifelong. The National Weight Control Registry, the largest prospective investigation of long-term successful weight loss maintenance, shows that 98% of people who successfully maintain their weight loss modified their food intake in some way, 94% increased their physical activity (90% exercise about 1 hour per day!), and 78% eat breakfast every day. You can see more research findings here.
Leading weight management expert Jim Hill, PhD, summarized the situation as follows (Hill, 2012): “from an energy balance point of view, we are likely to be more successful in preventing excessive weight gain than in treating obesity. The reason is that the energy balance system shows stronger opposition to weight loss than to weight gain. Although large behavior changes are needed to produce and maintain reductions in body weight, small behavior changes may be sufficient to prevent excessive weight gain.” A new mindset of weight wellness.
In the book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” renowned psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, describes the power of a growth mindset in achieving success in life. Individuals with a growth mindset believe they have the potential to grow and learn. In contrast, individuals who believe their capacity is defined in a pre-determined manner achieve less. Applying this concept to weight wellness allows individuals to consider that they are not locked into their body weight, but rather that the choices they make everyday matter and influence weight wellness throughout life.
Perhaps more than any other factor, human genetic or inherited potential seems like an unchangeable determinant. It turns out that genetic potential is not as simple as an on and off switch that predetermines body weight. More than 30 genes have been identified as relating to obesity, yet in general, genes are not fate. They are modified and expressed within the context of lifestyle effects and influences. For example, being physically active lowered risk of obesity by approximately 30% among adults carrying an obesity-promoting gene referred to as FTO (Kilpeläinen, 2011). Even food choices have been shown to modulate genetic potential. The key point is that genes do not determine body weight, but instead are the starting material from which lifelong lifestyle choices affect body weight.
Successful weight managers (i.e., lost weight and kept it off long-term) in the National Weight Control Registry adopted lifelong behaviors that include eating a low-fat diet, weighing in regularly to quickly adjust food intake in order to prevent gains, and maintaining high levels of regular physical activity (Hill, 2001). Studies show that the combination of reduced calorie intake with increased expenditure through exercise achieves greater success in long-term weight management than either diet or exercise alone (Dombrowski, 2010). From a diet perspective, a variety of diet patterns are effective to accomplish calorie balance (typically whatever a person is most likely to stick to is the most effective).
Tailored foods can help
Although weight wellness is mostly about behavior change, certain foods and nutrients may help make that behavior change easier. For example, fruits and vegetables are low in calories and full of micronutrients. Eating more of these and fewer calorie dense foods can aid maintenance of a healthy weight. Studies have shown that protein and fiber can contribute to fullness and decreased hunger throughout the day, so products rich in these nutrients can help people feel better when they are restricting food intake. Whole grains are great ingredients to add to foods to contribute fiber. Legumes are rich in both fiber and protein and may be easier to incorporate into a wide variety of applications than other protein sources like meat or dairy foods, depending on processing techniques available. Reducing calorie content of foods via sugar or fat reductions is another way to help everybody achieve weight wellness.
A weight wellness mindset focuses on a proactive approach starting in infancy and childhood that continues throughout life to prevent modest but progressive weight gain through a combination of diet and substantial exercise. A part of the new mindset is approaching weight wellness as lifelong lifestyles needed to prevent relatively small weight increases (half a kg or one lb), rather than waiting until substantial weight loss is needed. Weight management is every day and forever, comprised of small changes consistently applied. It is a mindset of living the life that you aspire to rather than seeing weight gain as fate.
Barbara Lyle, PhD
Barbara Lyle, PhD, brings over 25 years of experience in the consumer food industry working on and leading cross-functional teams at the fuzzy front end of consumer concept development, new products, science trends, and global platform development. She has worked with top innovation companies globally and previously served as treasurer for the American Society for Nutrition. Barbara is currently adjunct faculty at Northwestern University, School of Professional Studies. She has co-authored numerous scientific publications, patents, and submissions to FDA and USDA addressing labeling regulations.
Daniels, SR, SG Hassink, and the Committee on Nutrition. “The role of the pediatrician in primary prevention of obesity.” Pediatrics 136;(1):e275-e292.
Dombrowski, SU, A Avenell, and FF Sniehotta. “Behavioral interventions for obese adults with additional risk factors for mobidity: systematic review of effects on behavior, weight and disease factors.” Obes Facts 2010;3:377-396.
Dweck, Carol S. “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” New York: Random House, 2006.
Hill, JO, HR Wyatt, and JC Peters. “Energy balance and obesity.” Circulation 2012;126:126-132.
Kilpeläinen TO, Qi L, Brage S, et al. “Physical activity attenuates the influence of FTO variants on obesity risk: a meta-analysis of 218,166 adults and 19,268 children.” PLoS Med. 2011;8(11):e1001116. Epub 2011 Nov 1.
World Health Organization. “Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases
Report of the joint WHO/FAO expert consultation” 2007 WHO Technical Report Series, No. 916 (TRS 916)
Wing, RR and JO Hill. “Successful weight loss maintenance.” Annu Rev Nutr. 2001;21:323-41.