When clients ask, "What is my ideal weight?" it's important to understand the meaning of the question.

"Thanks for referring your personal training client to me," your friend, a registered dietician, says. "Our session went well, but she started out by asking my least favorite question: 'What is my ideal weight?' I always want to answer this question by telling people, especially overweight people, to forget about ideal weight! You'll probably never get there anyway, so why set yourself up for disappointment? Of course, that's not what they want to hear, and they always believe that, for them, it will be different. So I took her through my weight-loss goal-setting routine, and I think she felt a little disappointed that I didn't promise her fast, effortless weight loss. Hopefully, the more realistic goals that we set together will help her feel more successful in the end, and to focus more on lifestyle than weight."

What is ideal weight?

For years, fitness professionals and nutritionists used the term "ideal weight" to refer to the weight that a person should weigh, were they to have good body composition. The term is problematic in several ways.

First, what exactly is "good" body composition? A body composition that tends to be associated with good health? Good looks? Body composition certainly varies widely as a function of body type, genetics and many other factors. Picking a "good" number for body composition is difficult. If you estimate body composition, you probably give your clients a range of values that are considered normal, or healthful, rather than one number.

Similarly, it is difficult to pick one number to represent the best weight for a person. Weight depends to some degree on body composition. Since most body composition measures are estimates, even these values are somewhat inaccurate. So even if you know your client's body composition, the error of measurement makes it difficult to calculate one number that would represent a "best" weight.

When thinking about ideal weight, we must also ask, ideal for what? Ideal weight for a sprinter has a different meaning from ideal weight for a hockey goalkeeper. The word "ideal" also gets us into trouble because many people believe that an ideal weight is a low weight, given current ideas regarding what sort of physique is considered attractive.

Should we use the term "normal" weight, instead of "ideal" weight? This is not helpful, either, as norms have become increasingly heavy. Indeed, in the U.S., "normal" is overweight, at least according to weight-for-height measures such as body mass index.

Successful weight-loss goals

When clients ask, "What is my ideal weight?" it's important to understand the meaning of the question. Sometimes they are asking, "Is my weight OK?" Clients who are not particularly overweight may just want to be reassured that their weight is not the issue, but that regular exercise is.

Overweight clients may ask this question seeking your advice on setting a weight-loss goal. Setting weight-loss goals is a tricky business, because most overweight people never reach them, and become so discouraged they quit exercising and eating well. Researchers believe the best strategy is to encourage overweight clients to set realistic goals, rather than try to achieve unrealistic textbook weight.

Studies have found that people who lose just 5 to 10 percent of their body weight experience improvements in many health variables, including blood pressure, blood sugar levels and measures of blood lipids. This amount of weight loss is also more likely to be achieved and maintained (the important and most difficult part!) by your clients. While your clients may come in with hopes of losing 25 percent or more of their body weight, encourage them to think more realistically, and to focus on lifestyle change rather than on dramatic, and unrealistic, weight loss.

REFERENCES

1.Foster, G.D., T.A. Wadden, R.A. Vogt and G. Brewer. What is a reasonable weight loss? Patient's expectations and evaluations of obesity treatment outcomes. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 65: 79-85, 1997.

2.Thompson, J., and M. Manore. Nutrition: An Applied Approach. Benjamin Cummings: San Francisco, Calif., 2005.

3.Yes, but is weight loss the be-all and the end-all? Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter 22:5: 1, 4-5, July 2004.