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Chapter 8. Energy

Dietary, Behavioral, and Physical Activity Recommendations for Weight Management

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We have just considered the gravity of the obesity problem in America and worldwide. How is America combating its weight problem on a national level, and have the approaches been successful? Successful weight loss is defined as individuals intentionally losing at least 10 percent of their body weight and keeping it off for at least one year.[1] Results from lifestyle intervention studies suggest fewer than 20 percent of participants are successful at weight loss. An evaluation of successful weight loss, involving more than fourteen thousand participants published in the November 2011 issue of the International Journal of Obesity estimates that more than one in six Americans (17 percent) who were overweight or obese were successful in achieving long-term weight loss.[2] However, these numbers are on the high end because many similar studies report fewer than 10 percent of participants as successful in weight loss.

The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) tracks over ten thousand people who have been successful in losing at least 30 pounds and maintaining this weight loss for at least one year. Their research findings are that 98 percent of participants in the registry modified their food intake and 94 percent increased their physical activity (mainly walking).[3]

Although there are a great variety of approaches taken by NWCR members to achieve successful weight loss, most report that their approach involved adhering to a low-calorie, low-fat diet and doing high levels of activity (about one hour of exercise per day). Moreover, most members eat breakfast every day, watch fewer than ten hours of television per week, and weigh themselves at least once per week. About half of them lost weight on their own, and the other half used some type of weight-loss program. In most scientific studies successful weight loss is accomplished only by changing the diet and by increasing physical activity. Doing one without the other limits the amount of weight lost and the length of time that weight loss is sustained. On an individual level it is quite possible to achieve successful weight loss, as over ten thousand Americans can attest. Moreover, losing as little as 10 percent of your body weight can significantly improve health and reduce disease risk.[4]

You do not have to be overweight or obese to reap benefits from eating a healthier diet and increasing physical activity as both provide numerous benefits beyond weight loss and maintenance.

Evidence-Based Dietary Recommendations

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans offers specific, evidence-based recommendations for dietary changes aimed at keeping calorie intake in balance with physical activity, which is key for weight management. These recommendations include:

Follow a healthy eating pattern that accounts for all foods and beverages within an appropriate calorie level that includes:

  • A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
  • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils

A healthy eating pattern limits:

  • Saturated fats and trans fats
  • Added sugars
  • Sodium

Key quantitative recommendations are provided for several components of the diet that should be limited. These components are of particular public health concern in the United States, and the specified limits can help individuals achieve healthy eating patterns within calorie limits[5]:

  • Consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars
  • Consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fats
  • Consume less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day of sodium

If alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation—up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men—and only by adults of legal drinking age.

Evidence-Based Physical Activity Recommendations

The other part of the energy balance equation is physical activity. The Dietary Guidelines are complemented by the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in an effort to provide evidence-based guidelines for appropriate physical activity levels. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines provide guidance to Americans aged six and older about how to improve health and reduce chronic disease risk through physical activity. Increased physical activity has been found in scientific studies to lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, colon, breast, and lung cancer, falls and fractures, depression, and early death. Increased physical activity not only reduces disease risk, but also improves overall health by increasing cardiovascular and muscular fitness, increasing bone density and strength, improving cognitive function, and assisting in weight loss and weight maintenance.[6]

The key guidelines for adults are the following (those for pregnant women, children, and older people will be given in Chapter 13):

  • Even small amounts of activity are beneficial to your health.
  • More substantial health benefits are obtained by doing at least two hours and thirty minutes per week of moderate-intensity, or one hour and fifteen minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination thereof. Aerobic activity has better benefits if performed for at least ten minutes at a time, spread throughout the week.
  • More extensive health benefits occur when moderate-intensity physical activity is increased to five hours per week, or to two hours and thirty minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or a combination thereof. Additional health benefits are gained by going beyond these recommended amounts of physical activity.
  • Muscle-strengthening activities at moderate or high intensity involving all major muscle groups two or more days per week provides additional health benefits to aerobic exercise.

The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines broadly classify moderate physical activities as those when “you can talk while you do them, but can’t sing” and vigorous activities as those when “you can only say a few words without stopping to catch your breath.”[7]

Table 8.7 Moderate and Vigorous Physical Activities[8]

Moderate Activities Vigorous Activities
Ballroom/line dancing Aerobic dance
Biking on level ground Biking (more than 10 miles per hour)
Canoeing Heavy gardening (digging, hoeing)
Gardening Hiking uphill
Baseball, softball, volleyball Fast dancing

Campaigns for a Healthy-Weight America

On a national level, strategies addressing overweight and obesity in the past have not been all that successful, as obesity levels continue to climb. However, in the recent past (2007–2011) several newly created initiatives and organizations are actively reinforcing strategies aimed to meet the challenge of improving the health of all Americans.

In 2010 the national campaign to reduce obesity was reinforced when First Lady Michelle Obama launched the “Let’s Move” initiative, which has the goal of “solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation so that children born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight.”[9] Another campaign, “Campaign to End Obesity,” was recently established to try to enable more Americans to eat healthy and be active by bringing together leaders from academia and industry, as well as public-health policy-makers in order to create policies that will reverse the obesity trend and its associated diseases.

The “Small-Change” Approach

Currently, most people are not obese in this country. The gradual rise in overweight is happening because, on average, people consume slightly more calories daily than they expend, resulting in a gradual weight gain of one to two pounds a year. In 2003 the idea was first published that promoting small lifestyle changes to reduce weight gain occurring over time in all age groups may better reduce obesity rates in the American population.[10]

Scientific studies have demonstrated that asking people to increase the number of steps they take each day while providing them with pedometers that count the steps they take each day successfully prevented weight gain. A “small-changes” study published in the October 2007 issue of Pediatrics evaluated whether families that made two small lifestyle changes, which were to walk an additional two thousand steps per day and to eliminate 100 kilocalories per day from their typical diet by replacing dietary sugar with a noncaloric sweetener, would prevent weight gain in overweight children.[11] The results of this study were that a higher percentage of children who made the small changes maintained or reduced their BMI in comparison to children of families given a pedometer but not asked to also make physical activity or dietary changes.[12] Several more studies funded by the National Institutes of Health and USDA are ongoing and are evaluating the effectiveness of the “small-changes” approach in reducing weight gain.

In 2009, a report of the Joint Task Force of the American Society for Nutrition, Institute of Food Technologists, and International Food Information Council proposed that the “small-changes” approach when supported at the community, industry, and governmental levels will be more effective than current strategies in gradually reducing the obesity rate in America.[13]

The HHS encouraged the approach and launched a “Small Step” website in 2008.


  1. Wing RR, Hill JO. Successful Weight Loss Maintenance. Annu Rev Nutr. 2001; 21, 323–41. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11375440?dopt=Abstract. Accessed September 22, 2017. Wing RR, Hill JO. Successful Weight Loss Maintenance. Annu Rev Nutr. 2001; 21, 323–41. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11375440?dopt=Abstract. Accessed September 22, 2017.
  2. Kraschnewski JL, Boan J, et al. Long-Term Weight Loss Maintenance in the United States. Int J Obes. 2010; 34(11),1644–54. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20479763. Accessed September 22, 2017.
  3. Research Findings. The National Weight Control Registry. http://www.nwcr.ws/Research/default.htm. Accessed September 22, 2017.
  4. Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults: The Evidence Report. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. 1998, 51S–210S. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK2003/. Accessed September 22, 2017.
  5. 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. US Department of Agriculture. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2010/DietaryGuidelines 2010.pdf. Published 2010.  Accessed September 22, 2017.
  6. 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. US Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/chapter2.aspx. Published 2008. Accessed September 22, 2017.
  7. 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. US Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/chapter2.aspx. Published 2008. Accessed September 22, 2017.
  8. Source: 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. US Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/chapter2.aspx. Published 2008. Accessed September 22, 2017.
  9. The White House, Office of the First Lady. First Lady Michelle Obama Launches Let’s Move: America’s Move to Raise a Healthier Generation of Kids.https://letsmove.obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/about. Published February 9, 2010. Accessed September 22, 2017.
  10. Hill JO. Can a Small-Changes Approach Help Address the Obesity Epidemic? A Report of the Joint Task Force of the American Society for Nutrition, Institute of Food Technologists, and International Food Information Council. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009; 89(2), 477–84. http://www.ajcn.org/content/89/2/477.long. Accessed September 22, 2017.
  11. Rodearmel SJ, Wyatt HR, et al. Small Changes in Dietary Sugar and Physical Activity As an Approach to Preventing Excessive Weight Gain: The America on the Move Family Study. Pediatrics. 2007; 120(4), e869–79. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/120/4/e869.long. Accessed September 22, 2017.
  12. Rodearmel SJ, Wyatt HR, et al. Small Changes in Dietary Sugar and Physical Activity As an Approach to Preventing Excessive Weight Gain: The America on the Move Family Study. Pediatrics. 2007; 120(4), e869–79. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/120/4/e869.long. Accessed September 22, 2017.
  13. Hill JO. Can a Small-Changes Approach Help Address the Obesity Epidemic? A Report of the Joint Task Force of the American Society for Nutrition, Institute of Food Technologists, and International Food Information Council. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009; 89(2), 477–84. http://www.ajcn.org/content/89/2/477.long. Accessed September 22, 2017.

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Dietary, Behavioral, and Physical Activity Recommendations for Weight Management by University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Food Science and Human Nutrition Program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.