If only the diet industry would stop touting that weight loss is simply the result of eating less and exercising more, says clinical nutritionist Jennifer Cassetta. “For some people that do eat way more than their bodies need, then yes, this strategy can often lead to weight loss,” she says. “However, that is not always the case.” In other words, there isn’t one perfect solution – and the thing that might work for you may not even be on your radar yet.
To help you reach your goals, we asked top dietitians and nutritionists for the strategies that actually get results.
Yes, you read that right. The key to improving your health might just be to focus on healthy behaviours like moving more and eating more fruit and vegies. “One of the best ways to lose weight and maintain that weight loss is to make lasting lifestyle habits that you can keep up for the long run,” says plant-based registered dietitian Amy Gorin. “This is typically easiest to put into place by initiating many small changes, such as adding exercise to your day, even in small doses, swapping high-calorie desserts for fruit, and being more mindful while you eat.”
In other words, think about what changes you can make that you can sustain. Consider what you enjoy in terms of exercise and make a list of healthy foods you actually find tasty. Then try to make those things a more prominent part of your life.
“I find that when people are trying to lose weight, they become obsessed with avoiding one thing, like carbs or sugar. But staying away from certain food groups or one specific thing won’t help you lose weight,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Tara Collingwood and author of Flat Belly Cookbook for Dummies. “Instead, look at your overall diet and caloric balance. Increase your burn a little bit each day with more movement and exercise and skip extra calories you won’t miss, like that bite of your husband’s meal when you dine out or dipping into the lolly jar at work.”
If you don’t loosen the reins once and while you’re bound to overdo it when you finally give in to your cravings. That’s why registered dietitian and personal trainer Kristin Reisinger, schedules a weekly indulgence.
“A large cheat meal can actually help you reach your goals faster. It revs the metabolism, helps the body burn fat, and prevents your body from slowing down or adapting to calorie restriction.” Just be sure you stick to an overall healthy eating pattern. To maintain a healthy diet, you should wholeheartedly enjoy that indulgent meal and then return to eating a balanced diet ASAP.
If you can’t diet, what should you do? Registered dietitian Kara Lydon, an intuitive eating counsellor and blogger at The Foodie Dietitian, says you must focus on self-care – and give up on dieting. A review of 25 studies on dieting published in 2013 in Frontiers in Psychology found that dieting is actually a predictor of weight gain.
Instead, Lydon says, “If you place less focus on the number on the scale, you can spend more time and energy on health-promoting behaviours – like engaging in joyful movement and eating foods that are satisfying. Focusing on self-care can help boost self-esteem, which in turn helps people take better care of themselves and sustain improvements in healthy behaviours.”
“Whether it’s carbs, gluten or white sugar, people will often tell me what they’ve stopped eating, and then ask why giving up that particular thing hasn’t helped them lose weight,” Collingwood says. “I try to help my clients realise that giving up certain foods isn’t the answer. Even ‘healthy’ food can cause weight gain if you’re overeating them!” Having an idea of proper portions can help the scales tip in your favour. While it can be challenging recalling appropriate serving sizes for every single thing, it can help to know what an acceptable serving is for higher-calorie foods you often eat.
Just because a particular diet worked for your friend or a certain celebrity, doesn’t mean that the same approach will help you look and feel the same way. “Everyone has different nutrient needs and food preferences, so everyone’s ideal diet will look different,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Caroline Passerrello, a spokesperson for the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
For this reason, Passerrello suggests mindful eating – who follows the approach herself. “Rather than trying to eat a certain number of kilojoules or specific nutrients, I focus on how I feel and eat in response to physiological hunger.” Research in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests this approach can help ward off emotional eating and may help people consume fewer kilojoules, which, over time, can lead to weight loss.
If you typically grab a granola bar or a piece of fruit for breakfast, you may be setting yourself up to overeat later in the day. “I eat 20 to 30 grams of protein as part of my breakfast,” Collingwood says. “It keeps me satisfied for several hours and helps keep my appetite in check as the day goes on, especially in the evening.” Research confirms that it is an effective tactic. In a 2015 study in Nutrition Journal people who started their day with 30 to 39 grams of protein wound up eating about 700 fewer kilojoules at lunchtime, likely because protein stimulates the secretion of a gut hormone that triggers feelings of fullness.
Consider having a hard-boiled egg (6g protein) with a 150g container of plain Greek yoghurt (15g protein). Or enjoy a bowl of porridge made with a 3/4 cup of oats (7g protein), a 3/4 cup of lite milk (6g protein), and 3 tbls hemp protein powder (15g protein). For added flavour, add a drizzle of honey to your bowl.
Technology gets blamed for keeping us stationary and interfering with activity. But your smartphone could help you lose weight. “Several studies have shown that people who keep food logs are more likely to be successful in losing weight and keeping it off,” says registered dietitian Rebecca Ditkoff. She believes it’s especially helpful when you’re first getting a handle on what you eat and what you might need to change.
Ditkoff says you can write things down in an actual journal, or you can use an app like MyFitnessPal or MealLogger (this one allows you to track your food by taking pictures of your meals). After you’ve done this for a few weeks, you’ll likely start to see patterns emerge. Maybe you’ll notice that you’re not eating any fruit or vegetables until the evening, or perhaps your breakfast isn’t very filling and you always wind up grabbing a mid-morning snack. Once you make these realisations, you can start strategising ways on your own or with the help of a nutritionist to make choices that will help you slim down and improve your health.
Not only will your dentist love you, your belly will too: “Brushing and flossing right after dinner will reduce cravings for late-night eating, and clean teeth help signal that you are finished eating,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Sonya Angelone, a spokesperson for the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
From childhood, you’ve been told to finish your meal; it’s time to let go of that habit. Yes, it’s challenging to leave behind a delicious bite of chicken parma – even if you feel full. But doing so could help tip the scales in your favour. “I’m part of the ‘leave a few bites behind on my plate club’,” Collingwood jokes. While this strategy may not seem like significant kilojoule savings, you could save upwards of 200 to 400 kilojoules a day. In a year, that could yield a much slimmer you.
Not only are vegetables low in kilojoules, but they are also excellent sources of fibre and water, two things that can help boost feelings of satiety. For this reason, Collingwood always fills half her plate with vegies. “This helps me stick to the proper serving sizes of the other foods on my plate.”
While lean protein (meat, seafood, soy products, eggs, beans and nuts) is important to a smart diet, around 20% on your plate is all you need, according to the US Federal Occupational Health.
This story originally appeared on Reader’s Digest.