This publication is part of the Healthy Eating & Physical Activity Across Your Lifespan Seriesfrom the Weight-control Information Network (WIN). The series offers health tips for readers at various life stages, including adulthood, pregnancy, parenthood, and later life. The entire series is also available in Spanish.
How can I use this publication?
This publication is one of many handy guides from WIN that can help you and your family. This publication gives you tips on how to eat better and be more active.
Eating healthy foods and doing physical activity on a regular basis may help you reach and maintain a healthy weight. They may also help prevent some health problems.
Start taking steps now to move more and eat better—for yourself and your family!
More than two-thirds of American adults are considered overweight or obese. Excess weight may lead to heart disease and diabetes. Creating and following plans for healthy eating and physical activity may help you improve your health.
What is a healthy weight?
Body mass index (BMI) is one way to tell whether you are at a healthy weight, overweight, or obese. It measures your weight in relation to your height.
A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is in the healthy range. A person with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight, and someone with a BMI of 30 or greater is considered obese.
Go to the tip sheet to find a BMI table you can use to find your BMI score. You may also check the Additional Links section section for a link to an online tool for measuring BMI.
Another way to find out if you are at risk for health problems caused by overweight and obesity is to measure your waist. If you are a woman and your waist is more than 35 inches, or if you are a man and your waist is more than 40 inches, your risk of disease may be higher.
What are the health risks of being overweight or obese?
Extra weight may increase your risk for
- type 2 diabetes
- heart disease and stroke
- high blood cholesterol
- high blood pressure
- kidney disease
- non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (a fat buildup in the livers of people who drink little or no alcohol)
- problems with pregnancy (see box)
- certain cancers
Health Risks Of Being Overweight Or Obese During Pregnancy
Extra weight can cause these health problems with pregnancy:
- gestational diabetes (high blood sugar during pregnancy)
- high blood pressure
- increased risk for cesarean section (C-section)
Talk to your health care provider if you have concerns. You may also want to see the WIN brochure Fit for Two: Tips for Pregnancy.
Why do people become overweight?
Over time, if you eat and drink more calories than your body uses or "burns off," your body may store the extra energy, leading to weight gain. Many factors may play a part in weight gain.
The World around You
Communities, homes, and workplaces can all affect people's health decisions. Foods high in fat, added sugar, and calories are easy to find. They also often cost less than healthier choices like fruits and vegetables. Also, many people lack access to safe places where they can be physically active. On top of that, many tools and devices, like remote controls and drive-in banks, make it easy to be inactive.
Overweight and obesity tend to run in families. Research shows that genes can play a role in obesity. Families also share eating habits that can affect how, when, and what we eat.
Some medicines, such as steroids (drugs used to reduce swelling) and some drugs for depression and other psychiatric disorders, may lead to weight gain. Ask your health care provider or pharmacist about the side effects of any medicines you are taking.
Many people eat when they are bored, sad, angry, or stressed, even when they are not hungry.
Although you may not be able to control all the factors that lead to overweight, making small changes to your eating and physical activity habits may improve your health.
Paying attention to what, when, how often, and how much you eat can be the first step to helping you eat better.
What kinds of foods should I eat?
Every 5 years the Government releases dietary guidelines that recommend what kinds of food to eat and to limit so you can have a healthy eating plan.
Eat more of these nutrient-rich foods
Nutrients—like vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber—nourish our bodies by giving them what they need to be healthy. The guidelines advise adults to eat the following foods because they are rich in nutrients:
- fruits and vegetables
- whole grains, like oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, and brown rice
- seafood, lean meats, poultry, and eggs
- fat-free or low-fat milk and cheese, or substitutes (like soy or rice milk) that are high in vitamin D and calcium
- beans, nuts, and seeds
Eat less of these foods
Some foods have many calories but few of the vitamins, minerals, or fiber your body needs. Added sugars, solid fats, and refined grains pack a lot of calories into food but do not add nutrients. The Government's dietary guidelines recommend that you limit foods such as these:
- sugar-sweetened drinks and desserts
- foods with butter, shortening, or other fats that are solid at room temperature
- white bread, rice, and pasta that are made from refined grains
Easy Snack Ideas
- low-fat or fat-free yogurt
- fresh, canned, or dried fruit
- sliced vegetables or baby carrots
Quick Breakfast Ideas
- oatmeal with low-fat or fat-free milk or a soy-based drink, topped with walnuts and fresh or dried fruit
- a slice of whole-wheat toast with a thin piece of low-fat cheese
- fruit smoothie made with frozen fruit and low-fat yogurt
- high-fiber, low-sugar cereal with a soy-based beverage or fat-free milk
How can I follow a healthy eating plan?
These tips may help you stay on track with your plan to eat better:
- Have low-fat, low-sugar snacks on hand. Whether you are at home, at work, or on the go, healthy snacks may help to combat hunger and prevent overeating.
- Select a mix of colorful vegetables each day. Choose dark leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, collards, and mustard greens, and reds and oranges such as carrots, sweet potatoes, red peppers, and tomatoes.
- Eat breakfast every day. People who eat breakfast are less likely to overeat later in the day.
- Choose whole grains more often. Try whole-grain breads and pastas, oatmeal, brown rice, or bulgur.
- Choose fresh fruit more often than fruit juice. Fruit juice has little or no fiber, the calories may be high, and many juices have added sugar.
- Use fats and oils sparingly. Olive, canola, and peanut oils; avocados; nuts and seeds; olives; and fish provide heart-healthy fat as well as vitamins and minerals.
- Limit foods and beverages that are high in sugar.
How much should I eat?
How much you should eat depends on your genes, sex, age, and how active you are. In general, men need more calories than women do, and younger adults need more calories than adults in midlife and older. At all ages, adults who are more physically active need to eat more calories than those who are less active.
What if I need to lose weight?
What defines a healthy weight varies from person to person. Ask your health care provider about what a healthy weight is for you.
If you are overweight or are experiencing health problems linked to overweight or obesity, ask your health care provider if a modest weight loss would be helpful. A weight loss of 5 to 7 percent of your body weight over 6 months or longer has been shown to improve health.
Use a food diary to track what you eat
To keep a food diary, write down all the food you eat in a day. Also write down the time you eat and your feelings at the time. Writing down your feelings may help you identify your eating triggers. For example, you may notice that you sometimes overeat when you are in a big group, simply because everyone around you is eating. The next time you are eating with a big group, be mindful of that trigger and try to limit how much you eat.
Ideas To Support Your Weight-Loss Efforts
- Keep a food diary. To get started, see the sample food diary.
- Make a shopping list and stick to it. Don't shop when you're hungry.
- Don't keep many foods high in fat or sugar in your home.
- Dish up smaller servings. At restaurants, eat only half your meal and take the rest home.
- Eat at the table. Turn off the TV so you don't overeat.
- Be realistic about weight-loss goals. Aim for a slow, modest weight loss.
- Seek support from family and friends.
- Expect setbacks and forgive yourself if you regain a few pounds.
- Add moderately intense or vigorous physical activity to your weight-loss plan. This kind of activity increases your heart rate and makes you break a sweat. Examples are brisk walking, swimming, and dancing.
How much physical activity do I need?
According to the Government's physical activity guidelines, healthy adults should regularly do aerobic and strengthening activities. See the Additional Links section for more information on how to find these guidelines.
Aerobic activity uses your large muscle groups (chest, legs, and back) to increase your heart rate. This activity may cause you to breathe harder. You should be able to speak several words in a row while doing aerobic exercises, but you should not be able to have a long chat.
Aim for at least 150 minutes (2 1/2 hours) each week.
Studies suggest that being fit at midlife may help prevent heart disease and stroke as you get older. To get more health benefits or to lose weight, you may need to do more activity. Aim for 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate activity like walking at a pace of about 4 miles an hour.
Choose aerobic activities that are fun. People are more likely to be active if they like what they are doing. Getting support from a friend or a family member may also help. Try one of these activities or others you enjoy:
- brisk walking or jogging
- bicycling (with a helmet)
- playing basketball or soccer
Benefits Of Aerobic Activity
Regular aerobic activity may help you …
- Control weight. Aerobic activity burns calories, which may help you manage your weight.
- Prevent heart disease and stroke. Regular aerobic activity can strengthen your heart muscle and lower your blood pressure. It may also help lower "bad" cholesterol and raise "good" cholesterol.
- Maintain strong bones. Weight-bearing aerobic activities that involve lifting or pushing your own body weight, such as walking, jogging, or dancing, help to maintain strong bones.
Activity to Strengthen Muscles
These activities make you push or pull against something, such as gravity, weights, or exercise bands.
Aim for at least 2 days a week.
Strengthening exercises should focus on working the major muscle groups of the body, such as the chest, back, abdominals, legs, and arms. Allow at least 1 day of rest for your muscles to recover and rebuild before working the same muscle groups.
Try these options:
- Lift weights.
- Use canned food or books as weights.
- Do push-ups or pull-ups.
- Work with resistance bands (large rubber bands).
- Do heavy gardening (digging, lifting, carrying).
Benefits Of Activity To Strengthen Muscles
Doing regular activities to strengthen your muscles may help you …
- Use more calories. Not only do strengthening exercises burn calories, but having more muscle means you will burn slightly more calories throughout the day—even when you are sitting still.
- Reduce injury. Stronger muscles improve balance and support your joints, lowering the risk of injury.
- Maintain strong bones. Doing strengthening exercises regularly helps build bone and may prevent bone loss as you age.
How do I get started?
You don't have to be an athlete to benefit from regular physical activity. Even modest amounts of physical activity can improve your health.
If you have been inactive for a while, you may want to start with easier activities, such as walking at a gentle pace. This lets you build up to more intense activity without getting hurt.
Start with small, specific goals, like walking briskly 10 minutes a day, 3 days a week, and build up slowly from there. Keep an activity log to track your progress. You can refer to the sample activity log. As you become more fit, slowly increase your pace, the length of time you are active, and how often you are active.
Try these activities to add more movement to your daily life:
- Choose parking spots that are farther away from where you are going and walk the last few blocks. (Make sure the places you park and walk are well lit.)
- Walk around the inside of a mall in bad weather.
- Rake the leaves, wash the car, or do brisk housecleaning.
- Visit museums or the zoo. Many of these places are free. You and your family can walk for hours and not realize it.
- Take a break from sitting at the computer or TV. Go for a short walk or stretch.
- If your time is limited, do 10 minutes of exercise at a time. Spread these bursts of activity out throughout the day. Every little bit counts!
Being Good To Yourself
Many people feel stress in their daily lives. Stress can cause you to overeat, feel tired, and not want to do anything. Healthy eating and regular physical activity may help offset the effects of stress.
Try some of these other ideas to help relieve stress and stay on track with improving your health:
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Practice deep breathing while relaxing your muscles one at a time.
- Take a break and go for a walk.
- Add short stretch breaks to your day.
- Try a new hobby or any activity that sparks your interest.
- Surround yourself with people whose company you enjoy.
A balanced eating plan, regular physical activity, and stress relief may help you stay healthy for life.
Lifespan Tip Sheet For Adults
- Eat breakfast every day. People who eat breakfast are less likely to overeat later in the day.
- Choose whole grains more often. Try whole-wheat breads and pastas, oatmeal, or brown rice.
- Select a mix of colorful vegetables each day. Vegetables of different colors provide different nutrients. Try collards, kale, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.
- Have low-fat, low-sugar snacks on hand at home, at work, or on the go to combat hunger and prevent overeating.
- At restaurants, eat only half your meal and take the rest home.
- Visit museums, the zoo, or an aquarium. You and your family can walk for hours and not realize it.
- Take a walk after dinner instead of watching TV.
- Get plenty of sleep.