Obesity is a complicated disease. Both genetic and environmental factors come into play, and people with the condition are often at higher risk for other medical conditions, which can make it difficult to treat.
But changes that include healthy eating habits, regular exercise and other lifestyle tweaks can help combat obesity and result in a better quality of life. Here's how to get started.
What Is Obesity?
People are considered obese when they have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 and above, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
1. First, Talk to Your Doctor
Before beginning any weight-loss journey, it's a good idea to discuss your intentions with your doctor. Sometimes underlying factors, such as thyroid conditions or Cushing's syndrome, or even medications you're taking, can be at least partly responsible for your weight gain (or make it harder to lose weight). A doctor can examine you, make a diagnosis and suggest proper treatment.
Your doctor can also help you nail down a healthy and realistic goal weight based on your current weight, medical history and other factors.
2. Set Smaller Goals in the Beginning
Once you get the green light to pursue weight loss, set an initial goal to lose 5 to 10 percent of your total weight, because, per the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, this amount of weight loss lowers your risk of heart disease and other obesity-related health conditions.
That makes it a good place to start. And because losing weight when you have obesity is a journey and not a race, you'll want to set smaller goals along the way to keep you motivated and working toward your ultimate goal weight.
"It often takes a long time to put on weight, so it could take some time to lose weight," says dietitian Catherine Champagne, PhD, RDN, professor and director of the Dietary Assessment and Food Analysis Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research. "Strive for small losses so that you can feel a level of achievement that you have been successful. Once you reach your short-term goal, then go for more if you want to."
The key is to aim for slow and steady weight loss. Gradually losing weight at a rate of 1 to 2 pounds per week by creating a deficit of 500 to 1,000 calories every day is the safest path to follow, according to the Mayo Clinic. Losing at a faster pace might make you shed water and muscle rather than fat, which can negatively affect your metabolism. Plus, rapid weight loss is harder to maintain.
3. Adjust Your Diet for Weight Loss
Diving headfirst into the deep-end of dieting can be pretty overwhelming, but it doesn't have to be.
"The first thing I'd recommend is to seek the help of a registered dietitian who can guide you along your journey," Champagne says.
Beyond that, she offers the following nutrition guidelines when weight loss is your goal:
- Eat foods from all food groups, but watch your portion sizes. Even too much of a healthy food can stall your progress if you're eating more calories than you're burning.
- Limit or avoid refined carbs and processed food (think: packaged foods with a long list of ingredients, including a few you likely can't pronounce). Both have been linked to weight gain.
- Consider following a specific, research-backed diet plan, such as the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean diet encourages meals to be made at home with fresh and whole foods. It emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish and low-fat dairy, Champagne says.
A March 2019 review in Nutrients linked the Mediterranean diet to weight loss, lower body mass index and smaller waist size.
"For long-term maintenance, the diet you can stick with is always the best," Champagne says.
4. Exercise for Weight Loss
Adults should do at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity cardio (think: walking, biking) or 75 minutes a week of high-intensity aerobic activity (think: running, HIIT) to reap maximum health benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). Physical activity should be spread out through the week.
If that sounds like a lot, know that you don't have to get there right away — those numbers are something you can work toward. Having patience with yourself is key, Max Gomez, ACE-certified personal trainer, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"It can get very discouraging very quickly when people don't see the result they would like in the time they want," Gomez says. "We have to understand that we must allow our body to take its course and adjust to this new healthy lifestyle. Rather than just throwing everything at the body at once, I would encourage someone to do a little at a time."
Still, there are so many different forms of exercise — where should you start?
It turns out, some activities may be better than others when it comes to reducing obesity:
Exercises That Can Help Combat Obesity
1. Walking or Jogging
Walking is a great way to start on your fitness journey. According to the Mayo Clinic, if you walk briskly for 30 minutes, you can burn about 150 more calories a day. And the more you walk and the quicker your pace (working up to a jog), the more calories you'll burn.
Just be careful not to overdo it — you may burn out, your muscles may become sore or your joints may take a hit.
2. Biking or Cycling
Biking is a good option for low-impact aerobic exercise that still burns a nice number of calories.
"Biking is another great one because it's not a constant slamming exercise. It's fluid and is good for the joints," Gomez says.
Like walking, the more you cycle, the quicker your pace will become and the more calories you'll burn.
Swimming can be excellent cardio and easy on the joints. While in the water, you can stretch your muscles and increase your mobility, per the Obesity Action Coalition.
You also have 80 to 90 percent less weight pulling and pressing at your bones and joints while swimming. And because of this, you'll be more likely to exercise with less pain, which will allow you to workout longer, burning more calories.
4. Strength Training
Gomez highly recommends resistance and strength training because increasing muscle mass increases your metabolic rate (the speed at which your body burns calories).
"In my opinion, strength training is the most beneficial way to lose weight," Gomez says. "You may not burn as many calories during the workout, but your body continues to burn calories up to 72 hours after the workout in an effect called 'EPOC' (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption)."
Lastly, Gomez notes that it can be difficult for a person with limited exercise knowledge to create a plan that will work for them. Working with a qualified personal trainer can help take the guesswork out of things.
5. Get More Sleep
Sleep deprivation is found to increase belly fat accumulation, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Researchers found that people who slept fewer than five hours at night gained more belly fat over several years, compared to those who slept more than six hours. Sleep deficits were linked to increased food intake, decreased energy expenditure and changes in appetite-regulating hormone levels, according to a July 2014 review in Annals of Medicine.
Poor sleep is also linked to excessive use of technology and media, like watching television and spending time on the computer, which also promotes a more sedentary lifestyle.
6. Track Your Efforts
Take advantage of an app on your phone, like LIVESTRONG.com's MyPlate app, which can help you monitor your calories, water and macronutrients. Granted, doing so can be a little tedious, but it may be worth it.
Being able to monitor your progress and all the positive changes you're making may keep you motivated. In order for these kinds of apps to be useful, according to Harvard Health Publishing, you'll need to stay consistent in using them.
You might also consider investing in a fitness watch.
"Wearing a smartwatch is a great way to track calories burned and steps taken, and some even track the quality of your sleep," Gomez says. "It can also help with motivation. A lot of people use the Apple Watch system in which they try to 'close activity circles' throughout the day. Smartwatches can also track friends' progress and activity levels, which adds some camaraderie."
7. Seek Out a Support System
Research shows that social support groups can help with weight loss, according to the American Psychological Association.
Sharing tips, recipes, exercises, achievements and even bad days can make the journey a little less overwhelming (and lonely).
For some people, a weight-loss program like Weight Watchers or Noom can be effective because of the built-in support. Others might turn to social media to find a network of like-minded people for their weight-loss journey. There are plenty of these groups on Facebook, including LIVESTRONG.com's Challenge Group.
8. Learn About Weight-Loss Medications
Your doctor may discuss the possibility of taking a prescription medication to help you lose weight, especially if you have obesity-related health problems, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
There are several different types of medications; some may help you feel less hungry overall, or full sooner, while others may make it more difficult for your body to absorb fat from the foods you're eating.
There are a lot of factors that go into the decision to take a weight-loss medication. Your doctor will help you work through the benefits, side effects and cost to determine the best course of action for you.
Important to note: Weight-loss medications work best when combined with a healthy diet and consistent exercise plan. There's no such thing as a "magic pill" for weight loss.
9. Ask Your Doctor About Weight-Loss Surgery
Bariatric surgeries lead to weight loss by making your stomach smaller and restricting the amount of food you're able to eat, or by changing your small intestine, causing malabsorption of calories or nutrients, per the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery.
Bariatric procedures also often cause hormonal changes.
"Diet and exercise-based weight-loss programs and prescription weight-loss medications typically yield an average weight loss of around 5 to 8 percent of body weight," says Philip Schauer, MD, professor of Metabolic Surgery at Pennington Biomedical Research Center and director of the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute. "Studies have shown that success rates at losing more than 75 pounds for five years using a diet- and exercise-based program are less than 2 percent. Whereas patients who have bariatric surgery have an 85 percent chance of losing most of their excess weight and keeping it off for at least five years."
So, who is eligible for this type of surgery? Candidates usually have a BMI of 35 or higher, which generally means they are 75 pounds or more overweight, Dr. Schauer says. Most people at these weights have obesity-related complications such as diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, sleep apnea, fatty liver disease and/or arthritis. Some people with a BMI as low as 30 may be candidates for surgery if they have diabetes.
While there are many bariatric surgery procedures, the three listed below are the most common and have been found safe and effective, says Dr. Schauer:
1. Sleeve gastrectomy: During this procedure, about 80 percent of the stomach is removed, which limits the amount of food you're able to eat and prompts hormonal changes that help with weight loss, per the Mayo Clinic. It has the lowest complication rate but is the least effective in terms of weight loss, Dr. Schauer says.
2. Biliopancreatic diversion: In this procedure, a sleeve gastrectomy is performed and the person's small intestine is bypassed, meaning the end portion of the intestine is connected closer to the stomach. This limits how much you can eat and also reduces the absorption of nutrients, including protein and fat, per the Mayo Clinic. It has the highest complication rate but yields the most weight loss, Dr. Schauer says.
3. Gastric bypass: This surgery divides your stomach into a smaller upper section (where food goes) and a larger bottom section, and it connects your small intestine directly to the upper section, which helps you feel fuller faster and makes your body absorb fewer calories, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The procedure falls somewhere in the middle of the other two in terms of complication rate and weight loss result, Dr Schauer says. For people with diabetes, gastric bypass is generally a better option because it has a higher rate of diabetes remission than sleeve gastrectomy, he adds.
A Final Note on Obesity and Weight Loss
Losing a lot of weight isn't easy. Your whole lifestyle and mindset need to change, and this can be truly challenging.
"The more weight you have to lose, the harder it is," Champagne says.
This is why patience and perseverance are both really important to find success.
"It may take a long time to get to the weight you want to be, so make sure your goals for weight loss are realistic and achievable," she says. "Small steps, big rewards."
Ready to Lose Weight?
Set yourself up for success with LIVESTRONG.com's Weight-Loss Kickstart program.
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- Obesity Action Coalition: "What is Obesity & Severe Obesity?"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Adult Obesity Facts"
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Guide to Behavior Change"
- Mayo Clinic: "Why Do Doctors Recommend a Slow Rate of Weight Loss? What's Wrong with Fast Weight Loss?"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Physical Activity"
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Mayo Clinic: "Can I Lose Weight If My Only Exercise is Walking?"
- Obesity Action Coalition: "Swimming for Weight-loss"
- National Sleep Foundation: "Sleep Linked to Gains in Abdominal Fat"
- Annals of Medicine: "Sleep Debt and Obesity"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Can an App Help You Lose Weight?"
- American Psychological Association: "How Social Support Can Help You Lose Weight"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Prescription Medications to Treat Overweight and Obesity"
- American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery: "Bariatric Surgery Procedures"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Defining Adult Overweight and Obesity"
- Nutrients: "Mediterranean Diet and Cardiodiabesity: A Systematic Review through Evidence-Based Answers to Key Clinical Questions"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Intermittent fasting, Paleolithic, or Mediterranean diets in the real world: exploratory secondary analyses of a weight-loss trial that included choice of diet and exercise"
- Mayo Clinic: "Sleeve gastrectomy"
- Mayo Clinic: "Biliopancreatic diversion with duodenal switch (BPD/DS)"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Gastric bypass surgery"