There are many diet plans out there. But did you know that dieticians are virtually unanimous about one piece of advice? Here it is: Eat small meals — as many as six — throughout the day. Why? When you refuel every few hours, you avoid the boom and bust cycle that makes you feel depleted and can also lead to overeating. If you rely on caffeine and simple carbohydrates (bread, pasta, and sweets) to keep you going at various times of the day, you’re just fooling your body. Yes, carbs give you the quick fix, but they don’t provide long-lasting energy or feelings of satiety. Instead, stick with foods that take the edge off and prevent rebound hunger, ideally meals that contain both complex carbohydrates—including whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables—and lean protein.
The research is unequivocal about breakfast. Even if all you have time for is a bowl of cereal, eating breakfast is one way to maintain a healthy body weight. But if you’re trying to lose weight, put some lean protein on your plate, suggest researchers from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La. In a 2007 study, the researchers compared weight loss in groups of women who ate either two eggs or a plain bagel for breakfast. The women who ate eggs for breakfast five times a week for eight weeks as part of a low-fat, reduced-calorie diet lost 65 percent more weight than the women who ate a bagel—even though they consumed comparable calories. Bonus: The egg eaters reported higher energy levels, too.
Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap thanks to the last decade’s fad diets, but they are actually the body’s main source of fuel. It’s just that in our culture, we tend to rely too much on the simple carbohydrates that are found in sweet and processed foods rather than on the complex ones found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans. It’s the complex carbs that make you feel comfortably full for longer. (This is why complex carbs are helpful for weight loss.) Whole grains, including whole wheat bread and whole grain pasta, have true staying power. You digest them more slowly than the refined grains, and they also keep blood sugar levels stabilized so you don’t feel like you’re running on fumes.
About 70 percent of your total daily calories should come from carbohydrates, ideally of the complex variety. One reason to limit processed carbohydrates, e.g., white flour and rice, is that eating them will make you feel hungry sooner than you would after eating the more fibrous complex carbs. This is because their fiber has been stripped away via processing, so you use the energy they provide quickly.
The other issue to consider is how much fuel your body needs on a given day. The American Dietetic Association has a formula that can help you figure out just how much energy you need, in the form of calories, to maintain (or reach) a healthy weight. Here’s how:
- Figure out your basic energy needs. Multiply your healthy (or ideal) weight in pounds by 10. For example, if you weigh 160 pounds, your basic energy need is 1,600 calories.
- Now figure out how much more fuel you need for physical activity. If you are sedentary, multiply your basic energy need by 20 percent; if you engage in light activity each day (housework, leisurely walking), multiply by 30 percent; if you engage in moderate activity every day (brisk walking, very little sitting) multiply by 40 percent; and if you are very active, multiply by 50 percent. For example, if you weigh 160 pounds and are moderately active, you would need 480 extra calories (1,600 x 0.30). Add this to your basic energy need to get 2,080 calories.
- Next figure out how much energy your body needs for digestion and nutrient absorption, and multiply by 10 percent: 2,080 x 0.10 = 208 calories.
- Finally, add the total number of calories together for your total energy needs. In this case, it’s 2,288 calories a day.