A guide to beginning your weight-loss journey and making healthy choices a habit.

Treating obesity and excessive weight while attaining desirable and sustainable weight-loss goals can be challenging. There’s so much information and misinformation that it’s often difficult to decide what to do and who to listen to. Here are three important steps to take before starting this journey:

  1. Consult your physician before starting any weight-loss effort.
  2. Don’t look for a miracle cure. You will just waste precious time and, most likely money.
  3. Plan. You want to set goals that are realistic, attainable and specific.

To achieve and maintain weight loss, you need to think about these three aspects:

Choosing a diet plan

When you decide to diet on your own, don’t attempt any extreme plans that may not
be safe or appropriate. Aside from commonly known general recommendations — including: reducing portions, eliminating high-calorie/nutrient-poor foods, decreasing sugar intake, and increasing consumption of vegetables, fruit, lean protein, beans and whole grains — you need some structure and a plan.

There are apps and websites that can help you accomplish those goals. Calorie trackers help determine weight and calorie goals. They hold you accountable, explain caloric and nutritional value of foods and help you make better choices by comparing food options. Many of these apps also send alerts about the foods that you record, as well as reminders if you fall off track.

The need to exercise

Your exercise plan should not harm you. Talk to your physician to discuss any physical limitations.

The reality is that most of us cannot “outrun the fork.” Unlike a professional athlete, who has the ability to burn thousands of calories per day, most of us burn much less. This is why you need to have a sound diet along with an exercise plan. Exercise not only helps burn calories, it also counteracts a phenomenon called metabolic adaptation to weight loss. Basically, if someone diets without exercising, their body may enter a state similar to hibernation where energy is conserved and metabolism decreases. This results in what we know as “weight-loss plateau,” and often weight regain if the metabolic rate falls significantly.

The core of a weight loss exercise plan is aerobic exercise, or cardio — anything that increases your heart rate. The intensity of the exercise routine is also important. Fitness trackers can be helpful in determining whether the intensity is appropriate, mostly by checking heart rate. They can send alerts when the intensity is too low or high. Don’t rely on trackers to measure calories burned. It is not always accurate and may skew daily calorie goals.
Guidelines for weight loss and weight maintenance are more rigorous than general health recommendations. The American Heart Association states that 250 minutes of exercise per week are needed, while the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 400 minutes per week.

These numbers may be overwhelming, but the most important message is to start at a level you are comfortable with. For someone who does not exercise, start with 15 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, 3-5 times per week. Once you have a good aerobic base, try adding resistance training, using resistance bands, weights, etc. Weight training does not aid weight loss unless you are doing aerobic exercise as your foundation.

Changing habit and behaviors

Is your environment weight-loss friendly? Look through your pantry, cabinets and drawers. Eliminate junk food and high-calorie snacks — out of sight and out of mind (at least to a point).

Make sure that you eat in the kitchen or dining room. Avoid eating in other areas like in your TV room as “mind hunger” and thoughts about food may be triggered as you sit down to watch a movie if you always eat on your couch.

Avoid places where you have difficulty controlling your food choices. For example, if driving daily by a certain coffee shop will make you stop there for a pastry, try a different route. Talk to your family and friends about your health and weight goals and ask for help. You may find that your partner would be happy to accompany you on your daily walks.

Be kind to yourself. Even the best can stumble and fall. The key is to get up and persevere. Acknowledge your progress and reward yourself (albeit not with food).
Think about your lifestyle changes as lifelong changes as opposed to quick fixes. As you start your journey to better health, keep in mind that it all starts with planning your trip. “Slow and steady wins the race.”

If you are interested in learning more about weight and how it impacts health, check out the Obesity Action Coalition’s FREE Challenge — Your Weight Matters.

Nadia B. Pietrzykowska, M.D., FACP, is a board- certified and fellowship- trained obesity medicine and physician nutrition specialist. She is the founder and Medical Director of Weight & Life MD, a New Jersey center dedicated to medical weight management, nutrition, fitness and lifestyle. She strongly believes in a personalized, as well as long-term, approach to treating the chronic disease of obesity.