Different views of successful, healthy weight loss
Pick up any diet book and it will claim to hold all the answers to successfully losing all the weight you want—and keeping it off. Some claim the key is to eat less and exercise more, others that low fat is the only way to go, while others prescribe cutting out carbs. So what should you believe?
The truth is there is no “one size fits all” solution to permanent healthy weight loss. What works for one person may not work for you, since our bodies respond differently to different foods, depending on genetics and other health factors. To find the method of weight loss that’s right for you will likely take time and require patience, commitment, and some experimentation with different foods and diets.
“Calories in/calories out” view of weight loss
Some experts believe that successfully managing your weight comes down to a simple equation: If you eat fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight. Sounds easy, right? Then why is losing weight so hard?
- Weight loss isn’t a linear event over time. When you cut calories, you may drop weight for the first few weeks, for example, and then something changes. You eat the same number of calories but you lose less weight or no weight at all. That’s because when you lose weight you’re losing water and lean tissue as well as fat, your metabolism slows, and your body changes in other ways. So, in order to continue dropping weight each week, you need to continue cutting calories.
- A calorie isn’t always a calorie. Eating 100 calories of high fructose corn syrup, for example, can have a different effect on your body than eating 100 calories of broccoli. The trick for sustained weight loss is to ditch the foods that are packed with calories but don’t make you feel full (like candy) and replace them with foods that fill you up without being loaded with calories (like vegetables).
- Many of us don’t always eat simply to satisfy hunger. We also turn to food for comfort or to relieve stress—which can derail any weight loss efforts before they begin.
Low carb view of weight loss
A different way of viewing weight loss identifies the problem as not one of consuming too many calories, but rather the way the body accumulates fat after consuming carbohydrates—in particular the role of the hormone insulin. When you eat a meal, carbohydrates from the food enter your bloodstream as glucose. In order to keep your blood sugar levels in check, your body always burns off this glucose before it burns off fat from a meal.
If you eat a carbohydrate-rich meal, your body releases insulin to help with the influx of all this glucose into your blood. As well as regulating blood sugar levels, insulin does two things: It prevents your fat cells from releasing fat for the body to burn as fuel (because its priority is to burn off the glucose) and it creates more fat cells for storing everything that your body can’t burn off. The result is that you gain weight and your body now requires more fuel to burn, so you eat more. Since insulin only burns carbohydrates, you crave carbs and so begins a vicious cycle of consuming carbs and gaining weight. To lose weight, the reasoning goes, you need to break this cycle by reducing carbs.
Control emotional eating
We don’t always eat simply to satisfy hunger. All too often, we turn to food when we’re stressed or anxious, which can wreck any diet and pack on the pounds. Do you eat when you’re worried, bored, or lonely? Do you snack in front of the TV at the end of a stressful day? Recognizing your emotional eating triggers can make all the difference in your weight-loss efforts. If you eat when you’re:
Stressed – find healthier ways to calm yourself. Try yoga, meditation, or soaking in a hot bath.
Low on energy – find other mid-afternoon pick-me-ups. Try walking around the block, listening to energizing music, or taking a short nap.
Lonely or bored – reach out to others instead of reaching for the refrigerator. Call a friend who makes you laugh, take your dog for a walk, or go to the library, mall, or park—anywhere there’s people.
Permanent weight loss requires making healthy changes to your lifestyle and food choices. These tips can help you to stay motivated:
Find a cheering section. Social support means a lot. Programs like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers use group support to impact weight loss and lifelong healthy eating. Seek out support—whether in the form of family, friends, or a support group—to get the encouragement you need.
Slow and steady wins the race. Losing weight too fast can take a toll on your mind and body, making you feel sluggish, drained, and sick. Aim to lose one to two pounds a week so you’re losing fat rather than water and muscle.
Set goals to keep you motivated. Short-term goals, like wanting to fit into a bikini for the summer, usually don’t work as well as wanting to feel more confident or become healthier for your children’s sakes. When temptation strikes, focus on the benefits you’ll reap from being healthier.
Use tools to track your progress. Smartphone apps, fitness trackers, or simply keeping a journal can help you keep track of the food you eat, the calories you burn, and the weight you lose. Seeing the results in black and white can help you stay motivated.
Get plenty of sleep. Lack of sleep stimulates your appetite so you want more food than normal; at the same time, it stops you feeling satisfied, making you want to keep eating. Sleep deprivation can also affect your motivation, so try to get about eight hours of quality sleep a night.
Cut down on sugar and refined carbs
Whether or not you’re specifically aiming to cut carbs, most of us consume way more sugar and refined carbohydrates than is healthy. Eliminating candy and desserts is only part of the solution, though. Sugar is hidden in foods as diverse as bread, canned soups and vegetables, pasta sauce, margarine, and many foods labelled “low fat” or “no fat.” All this hidden sugar amounts to nothing but a lot of empty calories.
- Opt for low sugar products and use fresh or frozen ingredients instead of canned goods whenever possible.
- Soft drinks (including soda, energy drinks, shakes, and coffee drinks) are one of the biggest sources of hidden sugar. One can of soda or a medium shake can contain between 10-12 teaspoons of added sugar.
- Switching to diet soda isn’t the answer as it can trigger sugar cravings and contributes to weight gain. Instead, try switching to carbonated water with a splash of juice or unsweetened iced tea.
- By slowly reducing the sugar in your diet a little at a time, you’ll give your taste buds time to adjust and be able to wean yourself off the craving for sweets.
- To avoid unhealthy spikes in blood sugar, avoid refined carbs such as white bread, white rice or pasta, and opt for their whole-grain counterparts instead.
Less sugar can mean a slimmer waistline
A lot of belly fat surrounds the abdominal organs and liver, and is closely linked to insulin resistance and diabetes. Calories obtained from fructose (found in sugary beverages such as soda and processed foods like doughnuts, muffins, and candy) are more likely to add to this dangerous fat around your belly. Cutting back on sugary foods can mean a slimmer waistline as well as a lower risk of disease.
Think good fat, not low fat
Walk down any grocery store aisle and you’ll be bombarded with low-fat or fat-free snacks, dairy, and packaged meals. But while our low-fat options have exploded, so have obesity rates. Clearly, low-fat foods aren’t delivering on their weight loss promises.
Part of the problem is that many of us have swapped dairy and animal fats for the empty calories of refined carbohydrates and sugar. Instead of eating whole-fat yoghurt, for example, we’re eating low- or no-fat versions that are packed with sugar to make up for the loss of taste.
Be smart about saturated fat
Prominent organizations such as the American Heart Association maintain that eating saturated fat from any source increases the risk of heart disease. However, there’s evidence to suggest that not all saturated fat is the same. Studies show that eating whole-milk dairy is actually linked to less body fat and lower levels of obesity. This may be because full-fat dairy keeps you feeling satisfied for longer, helping you to eat less overall.
Adding a little tasty fat, such as butter, to a plate of vegetables, for example, can make it easier to eat healthy food and improve the overall quality of your diet. Some nutritionists also warn against swapping butter or lard for industrially manufactured vegetable oils due to the damaging heat and solvents used in processing.
While some people would be wise to limit the amount of saturated fat they consume, others may find that enjoying healthy sources of saturated fat can help weight loss. See: Choosing Healthy Fats
Fill up with fruit, veggies, and fiber
Even if you’re cutting calories, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to eat less food. High-fiber foods are higher in volume and take longer to digest, making them filling—and great for weight-loss.
Fruits and vegetables – Enjoy whole fruits across the rainbow (strawberries, apples, oranges, berries, nectarines, plums), leafy salads, and green veggies of all kinds.
Beans – Add beans of any kind (black beans, lentils, split peas, pinto beans, chickpeas) to soups, salads, and entrees, or enjoy them as a dish on their own.
Whole grains – Try high-fiber cereal, oatmeal, brown rice, and multigrain bread.
Easier than counting calories
Counting calories can quickly become tedious, but you don’t need an accounting degree to enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s generally okay to eat as much as you want—you’ll feel full before you’ve overdone it on the calories.
Eat vegetables raw or steamed, not fried or breaded, and dress them with herbs and spices or a little olive oil or butter for flavor.
Add nuts and cheese to salads and use healthy salad dressings, such as olive oil.
Add fruit to low sugar cereal—blueberries, strawberries, sliced bananas. You’ll still enjoy lots of sweetness, but with fewer calories, less sugar, and more fiber.
Bulk out sandwiches by adding healthy veggie choices like lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, cucumbers, and avocado.
Snack on carrots or celery with hummus instead of a high-calorie chips and dip.
Add more veggies to your favorite main courses to make your dish more substantial. Even pasta and stir-fries can be diet-friendly if you use less noodles and more vegetables.
Start your meal with salad or soup to help fill you up so you eat less of your entrée.
Tune in when you eat
We live in a fast-paced world where eating has become mindless. We eat on the run, at our desk while we’re working, and in front of the TV. The result is that we consume much more than we need. To practice “mindful” eating:
Pay attention while you’re eating. Eat slowly, savoring the smells and textures of your food. If your mind wanders, gently return your attention to your food and how it tastes.
Avoid distractions while eating. Try not to eat while working, watching TV, or driving. It’s too easy to mindlessly overeat.
Mix things up to focus on the experience of eating. Try using chopsticks rather than a fork, or use your utensils with your non-dominant hand.
Stop eating before you are full. It takes time for the signal to reach your brain that you’ve had enough. Don’t feel obligated to always clean your plate.
Take charge of your food environment
Set yourself up for success by taking charge of your food environment: when you eat, how much you eat, and what foods you make easily available.
Cook your own meals. Cooking meals at home allows you to control both portion size and what goes in to the food. Restaurant and packaged foods generally contain a lot more sugar, unhealthy fat, and calories than food cooked at home—plus the portion sizes tend to be larger.
Serve yourself smaller portions. Use small plates, bowls, and cups to make your portions appear larger. Don’t eat out of large bowls or directly from food containers, which makes it difficult to assess how much you’ve eaten.
Eat early, weigh less. Studies suggest that consuming more of your daily calories at breakfast and fewer at dinner can help you drop more pounds. Eating a larger, healthy breakfast can jump start your metabolism, stop you feeling hungry during the day, and give you more time to burn off the calories.
Fast for 14 hours a day. Try to eat dinner earlier in the day and then fast until breakfast the next morning. Eating only when you’re most active and giving your digestion a long break may aid weight loss.
Plan your meals and snacks ahead of time. You can create your own small portion snacks in plastic bags or containers. Eating on a schedule will help you avoid eating when you aren’t truly hungry.
Don’t shop for groceries when you’re hungry. Create a shopping list and stick to it. Be especially careful to avoid snack and convenience foods.
Drink more water. Thirst can often be confused with hunger, so by drinking water you can avoid extra calories.
Limit the amount of tempting foods you have at home. If you share a kitchen with non-dieters, store indulgent foods out of sight.
The amount exercise aids weight loss is open to debate, but the benefits go way beyond burning calories. Exercise can increase your metabolism and improve your outlook—and it’s something you can benefit from right now. Go for a walk, stretch, move around and you’ll have more energy and motivation to tackle the other steps in your weight loss program.
Lack time for a long workout? Research shows that three 10-minute spurts of exercise per day are just as good as one 30-minute workout.
Remember: anything is better than nothing. Start off slowly with small amounts of physical activity each day. Then, as you start to lose weight and have more energy, you’ll find it easier to become more physically active.
Find exercise you enjoy. Try walking with a friend, dancing, hiking, cycling, playing Frisbee with a dog, enjoying a pickup game of basketball, or playing activity-based video games with your kids.
Related HelpGuide articles
- Emotional Eating vs. Mindful Eating: How to Stop Stress Eating and Satisfy Your Needs with Mindfulness
- Choosing Healthy Fats: Good Fats, Bad Fats, and the Power of Omega-3s
- Healthy Eating: Tips for Planning, Enjoying, and Sticking to a Nutritious Diet
Resources and References
Weight loss and dieting basics
Healthy Weight – Guide to healthy weight loss covers what causes weight gain, what leads to weight loss, and lessons from successful dieters. (Harvard School of Public Health)
Losing Weight – Learn about healthy weight loss and dieting, including tips for recognizing roadblocks and keeping the weight off. (American Heart Association)
Aim for a Healthy Weight: Guide to Behavior Change – Covers behaviors that will help you lose weight and maintain your healthy weight loss efforts. (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute)
Weight-loss Goals: Set Yourself Up for Success – After you’ve made the commitment to start losing weight, set goals that are realistic, specific, and measurable. (Mayo Clinic)
Weight-loss and Nutrition Myths – Debunking myths about food, dieting, and exercise. (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease)
Training your brain to crave healthier food
Pilot trial demonstrating reversal of reward system responsivity – Details of Tufts University study that indicates the brain can be reprogramed to crave healthier foods. (Nutrition & Diabetes)
iDiet – Participants in the study were enrolled in the iDiet program which emphasizes behavioral change. Note: this is a commercial site that charges for its online program. (iDiet)
Dieting and food choices
Cutting Calories – Illustrated healthy weight loss guide, with strategies for eating more while still losing weight, avoiding portion size pitfalls, and using fruits and vegetables to manage weight. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Losing Weight: A Healthy Approach – Offers a low-fat vegetarian plan for weight loss. Includes meal suggestions, foods to avoid, and healthy weight loss tips. (NutritionMD)
How to Spot a High-Calorie Food – Lists some useful ways to spot high-calorie foods that can sabotage your weight-loss and dieting efforts. (NutritionMD)
Portion sizes and healthy weight loss
Just Enough for You: About Portion Sizes – Offers tips for managing portion sizes at home, and when eating out. (Weight Control Information Network)
Portion Distortion – Are you a victim of portion distortion? Many of us eat oversized servings without realizing it. This site helps you regain perspective. (National Institutes of Health)
Sleep and healthy weight loss
Lack of Sleep Boosts Food Purchases – How shopping while sleep deprived can have the same effect as shopping while hungry. (Harvard Health Publications)
Why a Lack of Sleep Can Make You Fat – How a lack of sleep changes your appetite and what you can do to avoid gaining weight. (Health.com)
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