Although there’s no foolproof plan for weight loss, tried-and-true strategies for success do exist.
1. Commit to change.
Acknowledge that losing weight—and maintaining that loss—requires lifetime dedication. Instead of focusing on a “diet,” cast a wider net, and instead imagine a lifestyle overhaul. Once you’ve made the commitment, you can develop an action plan and get started.
2. Set SMART goals.
Keep your goals SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Trackable. “Cut out all dairy, sugar, meat, and carbs” is neither practical nor reasonable. “Drop two dress sizes in the next six months” is both. Despite the monster weight losses broadcast by sweat-soaked reality TV competitions, the surest way to achieve safe, permanent weight loss is to shed 1 to 2 lbs. per week. That means burning 500–1,000 more calories than you consume per day.
3. Combat portion distortion.
Portion sizes have exploded during the past few decades. Families of two shop at bulk foods stores, and restaurants serve pasta in buckets instead of on plates. A tongue-in-cheek study published in the April 2010 issue of the International Journal of Obesity looked at the meals depicted in 52 of the best-known paintings of the Last Supper and found that in the past 1,000 years, the main courses grew by 69 percent, the plate size by 66 percent, and the bread size by 23 percent.
But oversized portions will 100 percent sabotage your get-slim efforts. An easy way to keep serving size in mind is to compare food to everyday objects. For example, one serving equals
- one slice of whole-grain bread or pancake (the size of a CD case).
- 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta (the size of a cupcake wrapper).
- half a bagel (the size of a hockey puck).
- 1 cup of cold breakfast cereal (the size of a yogurt container).
- 1/2 cup of cooked vegetables (the size of the bulb part of a light bulb).
- one small baked potato (the size of a computer mouse).
- one medium apple (the size of a baseball).
- 3 ounces of chicken breast, fish, or lean beef (the size of a deck of cards or the size of your palm, minus the fingers).
- 1 ounce of cheese (the size of a pair of dice or the size of your thumb, from tip to base).
- 2 tablespoons of nut butter (the size a whole walnut shell).
- 1 cup of yogurt or milk (the size of a standard yogurt container).
4. Freshen up your diet.
Instead of viewing your new eating habits as restrictive, think of the glass of skim milk as half-full. You can lower your overall calorie intake and still incorporate full-flavored foods into your diet. Be adventurous, and replace apples and bananas with more pomegranates and mangoes. Swap boring brown rice for more exotic (and often even more nutritious) quinoa, amaranth, Israeli couscous, or chia seeds. Make lean ostrich or buffalo burgers instead of using artery-clogging ground beef. Trade your morning cereal for fantastically creamy no- or low-fat Greek yogurt mixed with honey, flaxseeds, and berries, topped with a little high-fiber cereal. You’ll pep up your taste buds and won’t feel deprived while incorporating nutritious powerhouses into your new diet.
5. Fill up on fiber.
A 2010 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found fiber to be protective against weight gain. High-fiber foods take longer to digest, so you’ll feel full longer. Plus, many fruits and vegetables—typically high in fiber—contain water, which provides calorie-free volume. Integrate fiber-rich foods such as oatmeal, whole-wheat pastas and tortillas, high-fiber cereals, flax seeds, apples, pears, and prunes into your snacks and meals.
6. Download to drop weight.
Keeping a food diary is another proven tool in your weight loss arsenal. A 2008 study from Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research, funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health, found that daily food recorders lost twice the weight as those who didn’t write down what they ate. Taking the time to jot down "tuna on pita bread with carrot sticks" or "fontina mac and cheese" forces you to reflect on your choices. It also provides helpful fodder for meetings with your nutritionist or trainer, who can easily identify patterns.
If writing “caramel brownie” in a food diary encourages you to eat fewer calories, the same theory might apply to Facebook posts like “Michelle…enjoyed yogurt with blueberries for breakfast” or “Bridgette…is off to yoga,” especially if a group of friends commits to a change with an agreement to regularly post progress and send reaffirming comments. A 2008 New England Journal of Medicine study showed if a person quit smoking, a friend's likelihood of ditching cigarettes was 36 percent higher. Tap into the power of peer pressure to fuel your weight loss success.
7. Get moving.
Yes, you will lose weight by cutting calories. But committing to a daily workout will boost your burn and significantly ramp up results. In addition to incinerating calories, you’ll slash your risk of a host of chronic medical conditions and lengthen your lifespan. Here’s one easy, inexpensive way to get and stay motivated: Buy a pedometer. The widely accepted goal is 10,000 steps per day; people who meet that goal are more likely to net 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most, if not all, days per week and may enjoy reduced blood pressure and increased weight loss.
8. Seek emotional support.
Whether it’s your significant other, a coworker, an online support group, a healthcare professional, or a trainer, make sure you have someone who will hold you accountable, listen to you when you’re frustrated or tired, and cheer you on. Research shows that social support directly correlates with weight loss maintenance.
9. Identify your roadblocks.
Be honest with yourself, and identify potential sticky situations before they arise. Then make a plan for dealing with them when they do. If you’re a parent of a toddler and often find yourself finishing his leftover noodles and chicken nuggets, pop a piece of mint gum while he’s eating to discourage mindless nibbling. Chocoholics can prepare for cravings by storing individually wrapped, bite-size pieces in the freezer. When the longing for fudge hits, unwrap and eat one piece at a time – that way, you’ll have to wait for each serving. The wait may in-and-of-itself prevent overindulging. Or store sugar-free hot cocoa in your pantry for a low-cal chocolate fix.
10. Push past plateaus.
Weight-loss plateaus can—and will—happen to even the most dedicated dieter. A plateau occurs when your metabolism slows as you lose lean tissue, aka muscle (a normal part of healthy weight loss.) After a few months of continuous weight loss, you may find your progress stalled as the scale refuses to budge. This can be incredibly frustrating, especially because you’re still being conscious of your diet and working out regularly. To break through, you’ll need to increase activity or decrease caloric intake even further to start shedding pounds again. Try cutting 200 calories from your daily meal plan (as long as this doesn’t put you below 1,200 calories total.) Bump up your workout time by 15 or 30 minutes, or ramp up the intensity. Incorporate some more walking throughout the day by getting off of public transportation one stop early or walking instead of driving to the grocery store for a few odds and ends. And remember, plateaus happen to everyone; you can and will move past them to reach your goal weight.