The United States continues to face a growing obesity epidemic. The number of people living with excess weight has tripled since 1975, standing at 39% of the American population. Carrying extra pounds is linked with lifelong illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.
How we eat looks a lot different today compared to 40 years ago in terms of how much and what we consume. The Pew Research Center analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and found that in 2010, Americans ate around 23% more calories than in 1970. That adds up to about 2,481 calories a day, more than the suggested 1,850 to 2,000 calories adults need to maintain their current weight. The Pew report also shows that we are eating less meat, dairy, sweeteners, fruits, and vegetables today than in 1970.
Along with diet, exercise has also changed over the years. The field of exercise science began in the 1800s to better the health of working-class people using dance and sports. By the end of World War II, more Americans worked in factories, resulting in less strenuous activity than farm work. The sedentary lifestyle culminated in the invention of the television, which kept more people at home and less active.
In the 1950s, a global study revealed that American children were less fit than their counterparts in other countries. The study prompted the establishment of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. The council began to take shape under the John F. Kennedy administration, launching a national campaign on physical fitness and physical education curriculum for schools across the country. The council and its programs are credited with changing public attitudes and improving fitness nationwide.
You may wonder how exercise fits into a weight loss program. Unfortunately, you probably will not see significant weight loss from exercise alone. Many people overestimate the number of calories they burn by exercising, which can lead to misjudging the number of calories they can consume. Exercise may also trigger hunger or the idea that you can splurge calories on a treat because you went to the gym. Research shows that changes to your diet – eating fewer calories and more nutrient-dense food – are a better strategy for long-term weight loss.
While it may not help you lose weight, exercise still offers many potential health benefits, like better sleep, lower anxiety, and weight maintenance. In recent years, Marissa Quinones of Grand Prairie, Texas, has prioritized exercise as part of her daily life. Quinones, the director of medical affairs strategy for a biopharmaceutical company, began participating in fitness challenges through Women of Color in Pharma (WOCIP), a network of more than 900 female professionals working in the pharmaceutical industry. Each season, WOCIP hosts the Nike Run Club, an 8-week challenge that encourages members to log at least 25 hours of walking, running, or jogging miles per month. The challenges have fostered a spirit of friendly competition in Quinones, and a love of walking, hiking, and the outdoors.
“I prefer to be out in nature. It helps to clear my mind and get ready for the day,” she says. Compared to indoor exercise, walking outdoors also helps her focus more on enjoying exercise and less on the time spent doing it. ”I’m not really good at the treadmill. It wasn’t fun for me.”
Quinones walked almost 250 miles in 2021; by September 2022, she had already surpassed that number, with the goal of reaching 300 miles by the end of the year. Beyond the physical benefits, she views walking and other exercise like yoga as self-care for her mental health. Science confirms this idea – an extensive study of 1.2 million people living in the U.S. published in The Lancet Psychiatry found a meaningful link between physical exercise and improved mental health, depending on the type, duration, and frequency of the exercise.
Despite gains in physical activity, more Americans have become overweight or obese over nearly 50 years, which has led to the rise of a culture of dieting. An imbalance between the calories you consume and the number your body burns causes obesity. Losing 5% to 10% of your body weight can lower blood pressure, triglycerides, and blood sugar. Dieting for weight loss usually involves including more of a particular food or food group while excluding others. We use a wide variety of methods to shed pounds, from low-carb, high-protein diets, to fasting and cutting out all animal products. But which ones actually work to lose weight and keep it off? First, it may be helpful to look at the different types of diets. Most fit into one of three categories:
Controlling macronutrient content. This involves managing the nutrients you consume. For example, eating more protein and fewer carbohydrates on the Atkins diet. Or diets that require you to cut back on certain types of fat.
Restricting or eliminating certain foods. Vegan, paleo, gluten-free, and Mediterranean diets fall into this category. They all require you to stop eating specific foods or food groups.
Controlling the timing of when you eat. Many people use intermittent fasting as a way to lose or control weight. This is when you stop eating and drinking for a certain period. Common types of intermittent fasting include periodic fasting, alternate day fasting, time-restricted feeding, and religious fasting.
Scientists have examined whether these diets are effective for weight loss and maintenance. A 2019 study from a researcher at Harvard Medical School looked at several popular diets and eating methods. In the short-term, high-protein, low-carb diets and intermittent fasting could help “jump start” weight loss and boost the amount of weight you lose, according to the study. But researchers caution that these diets may come with side effects such as weakness and headaches.
Over an extended period, the type of diet you choose may not matter as much. Research shows that different diets resulted in similar amounts of weight loss. The bottom line is that no one way of eating works universally for weight loss. What matters most is the quality of your food, burning more calories than you consume, and sticking with a diet for the long term.
To lose weight and keep it off, experts recommend lifestyle changes such as eating fewer calories, more nutritious foods, and participating in physical activity. It may also require things like therapy, medication, or even weight loss surgery.
It’s also important to note that although many doctors and scientists use body mass index (BMI) to measure whether a person is overweight or obese, it’s not a definitive test. It is a single measure in a larger picture of your overall health.
Plus, BMI definitions are based on white bodies. Race and ethnicity can determine the makeup of your body, including body fat percentage and amount of muscle mass. This means BMI may be a less accurate measure for some people of color. Your doctor should also look at other things like blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar to get a more detailed view of your health.