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8 Ways to Reach Your Healthy Weight and Stay There

Aug 9 2021
11 min read
Man walking through path in the Sonoran Desert.

Eat healthy, exercise more — that’s all we need to do to reach our goal weight, right?

Well, actually, no. While a healthy diet and fitness routine are indeed essential, there’s a lot more you can do to get to where you want to be. Did you know that getting better sleep and managing your stress can curb hunger and cravings? Here are eight strategies to help you achieve your healthy weight: You might know some of these (maybe not how to pull them off yet), and some might not even be on your radar yet.

Eat Fewer Empty Calories

Researchers say we’re eating and drinking an extra 200 to 500 daily calories compared to what Americans consumed a few decades ago (more on this below). It’s little wonder that we’re getting heavier. Starving yourself, however, is not the answer. Choosing your calories more wisely is.

One of the simplest health strategies is to limit the number of “empty” calories you get from trans fats and refined carbohydrates. Trans fats, often labeled partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, are solid fats produced by the addition of hydrogen into liquid oil. (They were once common in sweet snacks, fried foods, and fast food; but the food and restaurant industries use them less often now.)

Refined carbs are anything with added sugar or white flour (think soda, desserts, pasta, and candy). As often as you can, replace these two categories of food with nutrient-dense whole foods: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, lean meats, and low-fat dairy. Eating this way provides the healthy carbs, protein, fat, vitamins, and other nutrients that help your body thrive — while also helping you to feel more full, so you’re not craving something else 30 minutes later.

Eat Mindfully

What if you took a whole new approach to how you consume food, one that’s more “mindful,” less rushed, and distracted? The idea is to slow down and pay attention to what you’re eating and drinking and to become aware of your hunger cues. Nutritionists believe that being more aware of what you’re serving and consuming helps you change behavior. You may find yourself thinking: “Maybe I should put just a handful of these chips in a bowl, rather than eating them straight from the bag.” You may also begin to enjoy your healthy choices more. Thoughts or statements such as: “These strawberries are so sweet!” help to reinforce this healthy habit.

And if you’re actually paying attention to your meal — instead of checking your phone between bites, for example — you’ll be more likely to recognize when you’re getting full. Our fast-paced lives make it hard to bring full awareness to our meals, but here’s an easy adjustment you can make to hit pause and focus on the food in front of you: Take a few long, deep breaths when you sit down to your meal, then give thanks, silently or aloud, for the bounty.

Watch Your Portions

Average portion sizes have increased dramatically over the past few decades, far beyond what a healthy body needs. Just a few examples:

  • Bagels have doubled in diameter and now pack 210 more calories than they once did.
  • Muffins were once 1.5 ounces and 210 calories; now they’re closer to 4 ounces, with an extra 300 or so calories.
  • A slice of cheesecake went from 3 ounces and 260 calories to 7 ounces and 640 calories. That’s a jump of 380 calories.
  • An average order of French fries has tripled from 2.4 ounces to 6.9 ounces, with an extra 400 calories.
  • The average bowl of spaghetti with meatballs now includes two cups of pasta instead of one, with bigger meatballs to boot. That’s an extra 525 calories.

Given how easy it is to super-size so many foods and drinks, it’s also easy to lose sight of what’s a reasonable portion and what isn’t. Being aware of how much you’re putting on your plate is key (remember: It’s a lot easier to gain weight than it is to lose it).

For most people, here’s what a single serving of some common foods looks like—and what you should be striving for:

  • Fish = a checkbook
  • Meat or poultry = deck of cards
  • Cooked rice or pasta; ice cream; snacks like chips or pretzels = a tennis ball
  • Cheese = two dice
  • Peanut butter = a ping-pong ball

Read our guide Stop Overeating at the Dinner Table for secrets to eating reasonable portions, like putting leftovers away before you start eating and never chowing down straight out of a takeout container.

Make Time for More Exercise

If your goal is to lose weight, you need to use more calories than you take in; otherwise you’ll store those excess calories as fat. You might not know how much physical activity you need to drop pounds, though, and it could be more than you assume. While it varies among people, here is what the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) generally advises:

To prevent weight gain and lose a small amount of weight: 150 to 250 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.

To lose a more significant amount of weight and prevent re-gaining weight: More than 250 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. (This is the amount the group recommends for people who are overweight and obese.)

Moderate-intensity exercise includes activities like brisk walking (3 to 4.5 mph), hiking, water aerobics, yoga, golfing, playing Frisbee, and even coaching a sports game. You can shorten the amount of time you have to work out by doing more vigorous physical activity. Check out this complete list of moderate and vigorous activities from the ACSM and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If you’re carrying a lot of extra weight, the idea of doing more than 250 minutes of exercise a week may seem overwhelming; keep in mind that even losing a small amount of weight has health benefits, and that you can work up to the recommendations over time.

More More All Day Long

Exercise is critically important for weight management, but being more physically active isn’t all about going for a run or hitting the gym. Adopting a less sedentary lifestyle — simply moving more in other ways throughout your day — can also help. When researchers looked at a group of people living relatively sedentary lifestyles, those who were obese stood up and moved around 2.5 hours less per day than leaner people. Experts call standing, moving from place-to-place (like walking back and forth between your kitchen and home office), cleaning the house or gardening, and any other physical activity that isn’t intentional exercise “NEAT,” an acronym for “non-exercise activity thermogenesis.”

They say that we’d be much healthier if we did more of it overall. How can you live a NEAT-er lifestyle? Remind yourself to get up from your desk for at least a few minutes every hour (set an alarm so you don’t need to remember), walk, or bike more places instead of driving, and think of chores as a way to be more active.

Get The Sleep You Need

Being tired influences your weight more than you may think. Most of us need seven to nine hours of sleep, and getting less can impact your waistline. A large study of nurses found that those who got five or fewer hours of sleep were 15 percent more likely to be obese than those who got seven or more hours. There are several ways that a lack of sleep affects weight.

If you’ve ever downed a pint of ice cream after work because you were too tired to cook, you know how poor sleep makes it harder to make healthy decisions about food. It also makes you less sensitive to the hormone insulin, which affects how your body stores fat. And it interferes with hormones that tell your brain when you’re hungry or full, making you more likely to overeat.

Being tired is, of course, a big reason why many of us don’t get the exercise we need. Experts even cite the extra hours we’re awake as a culprit, since the less time we’re asleep the more time we have to take in calories. So how can you get better rest? Keep in mind that both quantity and quality of sleep matter. It’s important to identify and eliminate distractions that affect your sleep and make a plan for a better night’s rest — one that makes time for winding down before bed, for example.

Work On Your Stress Levels

Feeling pressured and anxious are other factors we might not recognize as challenging our healthy weight goals. Yet stress often increases comfort eating. Unfortunately, most of us don’t reach for a fresh salad and a nice piece of salmon when we’re frazzled; refined carbs, saturated fats, and salty and sweet snacks are more typical go-tos for people under pressure. Stress also triggers the release of cortisol in the body, which leads to higher insulin levels and, in turn, weight gain (especially dangerous belly fat). What’s worse, the combination of cortisol and high-fat, high-sugar foods appear to interfere with leptin, one of the hormones that helps regulate your appetite. And, as you well know, anxiety and stress can keep you from getting the restorative sleep you need to maintain a healthy weight. One way to manage stress at mealtimes is to eat more mindfully (more on that below). Some other ways to lower stress include yoga, meditation, social groups, therapy, and nightly baths.

Find a Partner

Studies show that we make changes more successfully when we have social support. A friend, coworker, or loved one who shares your goal of reaching a healthy weight can make you feel more accountable, help to motivate you, and be there with a high-five as you hit your milestones.

And let’s not forget that having someone who wants to walk with you, or explore healthy recipes can make weight management a little more fun.