How do you know if you are at a healthy weight for your body? or what that might be?
You’ve seen the ads: “Lose 20 pounds in 30 days!,” “Eat whatever you want and lose weight.” If you haven’t already figured it out, fad diets and nutritional gimmicks are not the way to achieve a healthy weight and keep it for the long haul.
Running is a great calorie-burner–depending on your weight, you expend roughly 100 calories per mile–but many women start running to lose weight and get frustrated when the pounds don’t melt away. That’s because exercise alone doesn’t lead to successful weight loss. It’s better to aim for a lean, healthy body through a combination of fitness training and smart eating habits. Here’s the complete guide to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, without the gimmicks.
Find Your Healthy Weight
Before starting to lose weight, make sure you really need to. Dr. Carol Otis, author of The Athletic Women’s Survival Guide and a sports medicine physician, stresses there isn’t a perfect formula to determine a woman’s correct weight, because every body is so unique.
“No tables exist for listing the weight you should be, and there’s no specific number on the scale you should aim for,” she says. “Your age, height, hormonal status and the thickness of your bones, as well as your body type–factors that are genetically predetermined and not under your control–affect your weight, including the ease at which you lose body fat and build muscle.”
Be honest about what you hope losing weight will do for you. Don’t assume your performance will automatically improve, especially if your body fat is already at a reasonable level.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, no additional benefits to sport performance occur when body fat drops below 16 percent for women under age 55 (20 percent for those over 55), but health risks such as eating disorders, osteopenia and other health problems related to poor energy and nutrient intake increase.
Most female runners reach and maintain a leaner weight only after they develop a more positive body image. Disordered eating (erratic eating habits such as “forgetting” to eat, being compulsive about only eating nonfat foods or eliminating entire groups of foods) driven by body dissatisfaction is an indication you struggle with respecting your body.
A Ball State University and Arizona State University study found as many as 72 percent of female athletes do not eat enough to sustain them, taking in 1,500 calories or fewer when they likely need 2,700 to 3,000 calories a day.
“The scale is either a tool or a weapon,” says Emily Edison, a sports dietitian and certified fitness trainer in Seattle who works with the University of Washington’s NCAA women’s cross country team. “Use it, if at all, only as an occasional check, and not to measure self worth.”
To find the weight that’s healthiest for you, first assess your daily caloric needs. Based on your exercise level, the following formulas (for both women and men) give a ballpark estimate. The moderately active to very active range means you consistently train or work out at moderate or higher intensity five to six days per week. Most active females should use the lower-to-mid ranges:
Less active (20 to 30 minutes two to four times a week): Body weight in pounds x 13.5 to 15 calories = daily calories
Light to moderately active (45 to 60 minutes a day of purposeful moderate intensity exercise, most days of the week): Body weight in pounds x 16 to 20 calories = daily calories
Very active (60 to 120 minutes or more 5 to 6 days a week): Body weight x 21 to 25 calories = daily calories.
Whether you maintain, gain, or lose weight is a matter of energy balance. To lose a pound, you must create a deficit of 3,500 calories–by eating less, moving more or preferably, a combination of the two. Slashing 500 calories a day to lose a pound per week is too much for most female runners, who end up consuming too few of the nutrients needed for good health and performance. Trimming 200 to 300 calories a day is more realistic.
Make Your Calories Count
You have to eat in a way that allows you to train well both physically and mentally, says Edison. This type of diet, often referred to as high-performance eating, prepares your body for exercise without loading it down with unnecessary calories.
High-performance eating leaves you physically and mentally prepared to exercise, and it’s not just for elite athletes or those planning to run a marathon. It’s a common misperception that high-performance eating leads to weight gain, but it won’t if done properly.
It’s crucial to get balance and variety from a wide selection of foods. Figuring out exact percentages of carbohydrate, protein and fat isn’t necessary. In fact, even the U.S. Department of Agriculture has realized one-size-fits-all diets don’t work. Its 2005 dietary guidelines (available at mypyramid.gov) include 12 versions of the food pyramid, each slightly different, depending on a person’s age, sex and level of physical activity.
In general, you should aim to eat enough fruit, vegetable, protein and grain servings every day to fuel your active lifestyle. Female runners need at least two cups of fruit, three cups of vegetables, six ounces of grains (make at least three servings whole grains), three servings of dairy, six ounces of meat or the equivalent from beans/ eggs and soy foods, and a minimum of 25 to 30 grams of fat (five to six teaspoons) daily.
“Eating to fuel yourself adequately not only enhances your running performance,” says Edison, “it’s the best path to a leaner, stronger body.”
At every meal, eat lean protein-rich foods. Besides being nutritional powerhouses, foods like eggs, fish, poultry, lean red meat, beans or soy and low-fat dairy help sustain a steady blood sugar level, which decreases the desire to snack every hour or two.
Also include healthy fats like avocados, nuts and nut butters, seeds and low-fat salad dressings as they help quell cravings that can spiral into binge eating. Eat fruits and vegetables daily to get the antioxidants you need to repair exercise-induced damage.
Dr. Barbara Rolls, a nutrition researcher at Pennsylvania State University and the author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan, found the nutrient density of the foods is key to feeling satisfied sooner. As a general guideline, the higher the moisture content of a given food, the lower its energy density.
In other words, you can eat more of it–a satisfying portion–for a very reasonable amount of calories. You’ll also feel fuller for longer after consuming it. Rolls found if you begin a meal with either a salad or soup, you’re more likely to consume fewer calories during the meal.
Use sports foods wisely–sports drinks, gels and energy bars serve a real purpose when used to supplement carbohydrate and energy needs; otherwise, skip them. It only takes 100 extra calories a day to gain 10 pounds in a year. That’s one high-calorie pre-run snack or bottle of sports drink you didn’t need.
Plan to eat every few hours during the day– three balanced meals and two to three snacks daily–and coordinate meals with your running schedule so you’re fueled before you go and to speed recovery afterward. Otherwise, losing weight healthfully and keeping it off is impossible.
And don’t forget to build in a few “fun” foods. We eat sweets, treats and salty snack foods because they taste good, not for their nutritional value. Allow yourself a few treats in moderation so you don’t binge.
“Eating too much pumpkin pie does not make someone a bad person,” says Edison. “So often, women feel guilty about their ‘mistakes’ with food and punish themselves, sometimes by vowing never again to eat the item. Unfortunately, this only sets you up for overdoing it again.”
Build Fitness and Muscle
In its Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends 60 to 90 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise most days of the week if you’re trying to lose weight. Running more miles (more minutes) per week is an option, of course, but the intensity of workouts is a key variable.
Fast-paced training such as tempo runs and interval workouts builds maximum fitness and burns more calories per minute than low-intensity running or walking. For example, a 10-minute-per-mile runner who improves her fitness and becomes capable of clicking off eight-minute miles for an hour will burn almost 150 calories more per hour of running.
Spending quality time in the weight room is also important, especially if you’re over the age of 30.
“Strength training balances your body, which reduces your risk for lower- body injuries, especially of hips and knees,” says Otis. But it also helps you lose weight: The average woman who strength trains two to three times a week for two months will gain nearly two pounds of muscle and lose nearly four pounds of fat, according to studies by Wayne Westcott, Ph.D.
The bottom line is if you want to lose weight, combine healthy eating with daily exercise. But that doesn’t necessarily mean running every day–your body needs rest days to recover and repair. On days you don’t run, choose a cross-training exercise, such as swimming or stationary biking, which are non-weight-bearing exercises. Or simply walk your dog or go for a hike–the key is to keep moving.
Keep It Off
You’ll need an action plan to keep pounds off permanently. Edison reminds her clients that autopilot isn’t always the best strategy. “Continue to listen to your body,” she says, “and always keep plenty of fruit and vegetables on hand for easy snacking.”
Last but not least, maintain a consistent but varied activity schedule. “Even runners need variety,” says Edison. Remember: Whatever it took to lose the weight, keep it up.
Suzanne Girard Eberle, R.D., C.S.S.D., author of Endurance Sports Nutrition-Second Edition, is a board-certified sports dietitian in Portland, Oregon. Find her at eatdrinkwin.com.