Achieving and Maintaining a Healthy Weight

A registered dietitian explains the fundamentals of losing weight and maintaining ideal weight for optimal health.

Last updated: Feb 25th, 2020
Maintaining healthy weight

If there were an easy way to lose weight, all of America and the rest of the world would be slim. But sadly, no such easy way exists. Long-term weight loss requires long-term effort. While many people look to "breakthroughs", potions and restrictive diets, those who are successful find some middle ground between deprivation and indulgence, and they maintain some level of effort for their entire lives.

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There are many paths to a healthy plate and a balanced diet. If you look around the world, you'll see several examples. Mediterranean, Asian, Latin American and other people around the globe enjoy unique foods and have various healthful eating patterns. You can be healthy and slim as a vegetarian, a vegan or a meat-eater. You can be healthy and slim if you eat three moderate-sized meals per day or six smaller ones. You can eat a large breakfast and a small dinner or the other way around. There is no one perfect eating pattern. The key to losing weight and being healthy is to find one of the many balanced plans and to stick with it long term. Falling into the trap of severely limiting your food intake for several weeks or months until you lose 20 pounds, fit into your black dress, get married, walk your daughter down the aisle or party at your high school reunion and then returning to your previous poor eating habits will not bring lasting results.

Balanced Eating Plans


Using the USDA MyPlate is one of the simplest ways to plan your meals. For weight loss, you will need smaller portions, so use a smaller plate. Very simply, fill one side of your plate with vegetables and fruits. Then divide the other side of your plate in half. One section is for meat or another protein-rich food like black beans or lentils. The last spot is for grains. Finally, pour yourself a glass of milk to round out your meal. That's all there is to it. Though oils are not part of the MyPlate icon, they are still an important part of your diet. Use them in moderate amounts to dress your salad, saut� vegetables or to use with other cooking methods.

MyPlate's Food Groups:

  • Fruits provide vitamins, minerals, fiber and a host of phytochemicals (plant compounds that work together to protect our health). Many fruits are excellent sources of potassium, which is important for healthy blood pressure and may also help prevent both bone loss and the formation of kidney stones. Fruits are naturally low in sodium, fat, calories and contain no cholesterol. Diets rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers. And because they contain relatively few calories per serving and tend to be filling, they may even help you control your weight.
  • Vegetables contain many of the same nutrients and offer similar benefits as fruits. They are frequently lower in calories, and thus, very helpful to weight watchers. Vegetables also are cholesterol-free and low in sodium and fat. A serving contains more protein and less carbohydrate than does a serving of fruit. The starchy vegetables tend to be higher in calories than the non-starchy vegetables, but you should still eat them because they are important sources of nutrients. The starchy vegetables include green peas, corn, green lima beans, sweet potatoes and white potatoes. Beans and peas such as black beans and split peas are counted as either vegetables or protein foods.
  • Grains include more than just the usual wheat, rice and oats. Stretch your palate and enjoy barley, faro, millet, quinoa and wild rice. Diets rich in whole grains may be protective against heart disease, cancers of the gastrointestinal tract and obesity. Refined grains like white bread and white pasta are often fortified with several nutrients including folic acid which protects against certain birth defects. Many grains are sources of fiber, B vitamins, iron and magnesium.
  • Dairy foods are important sources of protein, calcium, potassium and vitamin D. They're linked to improved bone health and lowered risks of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. For weight loss, choose fat-free and low-fat dairy foods to keep your calories down.
  • Protein foods include beef, pork, lamb, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, nuts and seeds, and processed soy products such as tofu and tempeh. All of these are important sources of protein, vitamins and minerals. Some fish provide omega-3 fatty acids. Nuts and seeds as well as beans and peas offer fiber and an array of important phytochemicals. For good health and weight loss, choose lean protein foods and cook them in healthful ways such as baking, braising and stewing instead of frying.

Oils are technically not a food group, but since they are important to health and provide essential fatty acids, vitamin E and other nutrients, we will discuss them here. Oils are fats that are liquid at room temperature. As discussed in Understanding Fats and Lipids, oils are more healthful than solid fats, which are linked to higher cholesterol levels and other health problems.

Vegan and Vegetarian Diets

If planned properly, vegan and vegetarian diets can provide you with a bounty of nutrients. Frequently, people who follow either of these eating patterns are leaner and have less heart disease and cancer. But just like any other eating plan, it's possible to eat a vegan or vegetarian diet and gain weight by eating portions that are too large or by eating a lot of junk food. Vegan diets include no animal products including eggs, dairy and honey. A vegetarian diet typically omits red meat and poultry and may or may not include fish, eggs and dairy. The Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine shares the Power Plate, an easy-to-understand icon for vegan meal-planning. Additionally, you can find both vegan and vegetarian menu patterns in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

New American Plate

The American Institute for Cancer Research offers the New American Plate. It emphasizes both proportion and portion. For proportion, aim for at least 2/3 of your plate to be covered with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans and no more than 1/3 with animal protein. To control your weight, use a small plate and shrink your portions.

Mediterranean-Style Diet

Compared to a typical American diet of excess refined grains, solid fats and added sugars, the diet common in those countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea is linked to lower rates of heart disease, dementia and some cancers, among other health benefits. A Mediterranean-style diet is built on fruits, vegetables, grains (mostly whole), beans, nuts, seeds, olive oil and herbs and spices. Fish and other seafood are eaten frequently. Poultry, egg, cheese and yogurt are eaten commonly, but in small amounts. Meats and sweets are eaten infrequently. Water serves as the primary drink and wine is consumed regularly, but in moderation. Flavors of the Mediterranean pop with the help of citrus, vinegars, and herbs and spices rather than salt, heavy sauces and greasy cooking methods. You can learn more about the Mediterranean diet at Oldways where you can also find the Mediterranean Pyramid.

Calories Count

You can achieve and maintain a healthy weight by following any of the above eating patterns and others. However, if your calories are not sufficiently trimmed, your weight cannot drop. There are many methods to estimate calorie needs (see Understanding Calories). One such method uses a formula that accounts for your age, gender, height, weight and activity level. You can find that formula at the MyPlate website to estimate your calorie needs.

Fad Diets vs. Smart Diets

Fad Diets

Most fad diets will help you lose weight - for a short time only and usually in an unhealthful way. Use these red flags to help you identify a fad diet.

  • The plan suggests you can eat all you want.
  • You're told you don't have to exercise.
  • The program helps everyone lose weight.
  • Calories don't count.
  • The weight you lose will stay off forever.
  • You can drop 10 pounds in one week.
  • The diet is a "breakthrough", "secret", "cure", "miraculous" or other such description.
  • The plan is expensive or includes supplements that you can buy only by participating in the plan.
  • The diet omits a lot of foods.
  • The diet requires that you eat odd combinations of foods and has many rules you must follow.

Smart Diets

Instead of a fad diet, make small changes to your current diet. Then make a few more and a few more. Trim portions. Don't skip meals. Double up on vegetables. Switch from whole milk to 2%, then to lowfat and finally to skim. Keep a food record because it makes you think about what you're eating. Record as you eat, not a day later. By then, it's too late to do much about it. Slow down long enough to really notice your food. Pay attention to the taste, texture, appearance and aroma.


The other half of the calorie equation is the amount of calories you use. And the only part of that you have much control over is physical activity, which includes both planned exercise and activities of daily living such as walking to work, cleaning house, gardening and any other activity that makes you move your body. Exercise is especially important if you have little to lose or if you've already lost a lot of weight. If you are just beginning to exercise, start slowly. For example, you might begin with a 10-minute walk and work up to an hour before you start jogging. If your health is fragile, you've been inactive for some time or if you're not sure if you are fit to exercise, seek the approval of your physician before starting any program. Once you start, make small, reasonable goals and stick with them long term, just like you should with your dietary changes. Remember that every little bit counts. You may plan to exercise for 30 minutes, but find that you have only 10 free minutes. Use those 10 minutes, or 8 or even 5. They all add up.

Keep It Off

Weight control requires lifelong effort. For the most part, your strategies to lose weight will be the same ones you need to keep the weight off. The National Weight Control Registry provides a list of people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a year or longer. Researchers have studied the strategies and behaviors that have helped them maintain their weight loss. Below are some of the strategies that are common among those who remain successful.

  • Maintain a similar diet day to day, even on weekends and vacations
  • Eat breakfast
  • Weigh frequently
  • Consume a moderate amount of calories
  • Watch television no more than 10 hours per week
  • Eat fast food no more than once weekly
  • Exercise about one hour per day

Just like many smokers attempt to quit numerous times before they really do, many people struggle with a variety of diets before they successfully lose weight. It's important to keep trying, but stick with what is safe and healthy. Ignore any quick weight loss scheme. You may do better with a diet buddy or in a group setting or working one-on-one with a registered dietitian. You may prefer to count calories or simply cut portions. There are many paths to success. Keep working at it until you find yours.