Your weight is a balancing act, but the equation is simple: If you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight. And if you eat fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight.
Since 3,500 calories equals about one pound of fat, if you cut 500 calories from your typical diet each day, you'll lose approximately one pound a week (500 calories x 7 days = 3,500 calories). Simple, right? Then why is weight loss so hard?
All too often, we make weight loss much more difficult than it needs to be with extreme diets that leave us cranky and starving, unhealthy lifestyle choices that undermine our dieting efforts, and emotional eating habits that stop us before we get started. But there’s a better way! You can lose weight without feeling miserable. By making smart choices every day, you can develop new eating habits and preferences that will leave you feeling satisfied—and winning the battle of the bulge.
Not all body fat is the same
Where you carry your fat matters. The health risks are greater if you tend to carry your weight around your abdomen, as opposed to your hips and thighs. A lot of belly fat is stored deep below the skin surrounding the abdominal organs and liver, and is closely linked to insulin resistance and diabetes.
Beware of "Sugar Belly"
Calories obtained from fructose (found in sugary beverages such as soda, energy and sports drinks, coffee drinks, and processed foods like doughnuts, muffins, cereal, candy, and granola bars) are more likely to add to this dangerous fat around your belly. Cutting back on sugary foods can mean a slimmer waistline and lower risk of disease.
Getting started with healthy weight loss
While there is no “one size fits all” solution to permanent healthy weight loss, the following guidelines are a great place to start:
- Think lifestyle change, not short-term diet. Permanent weight loss is not something that a “quick-fix” diet can achieve. Instead, think about weight loss as a permanent lifestyle change—a commitment to your health for life. Various popular diets can help jumpstart your weight loss, but permanent changes in your lifestyle and food choices are what will work in the long run.
- 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—so that you can get the encouragement you need.
- Slow and steady wins the race. Aim to lose one to two pounds a week to ensure healthy weight loss. Losing weight too fast can take a toll on your mind and body, making you feel sluggish, drained, and sick. When you drop a lot of weight quickly, you’re actually losing mostly water and muscle, rather than fat.
- 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 frustration and temptation strike, concentrate on the many benefits you will reap from being healthier and leaner.
- Use tools that help you track your progress. Keep a food journal and weigh yourself regularly, keeping track of each pound you lose and inch lost from your waist. By keeping track of your weight loss efforts, you’ll see the results in black and white, which will help you stay motivated.
Keep in mind it may take some experimenting to find the right diet for your individual body. It’s important that you feel satisfied so that you can stick with it on a long-term basis. If one diet plan doesn’t work, then try another one. There are many ways to lose weight. The key is to find what works for you.
Reducing calorie intake promotes weight loss—the type of diet isn’t important
A major study concluded that it doesn’t matter which diet program you choose, as long as it is one that reduces your calorie intake and is healthy for your heart (low in saturated fat and cholesterol). In other words, the best diet is the one you’ll stick to, not necessarily the one currently topping the bestseller list.
Diets, especially fad diets or “quick-fix” pills and plans, often set you up for failure because:
- You feel deprived. Diets that cut out entire groups of food, such as carbs or fat, are simply impractical, not to mention unhealthy. The key is moderation. Eliminating entire food groups doesn’t allow for a healthy, well-rounded diet and creates nutritional imbalances.
- You lose weight, but can’t keep it off. Diets that severely cut calories, restrict certain foods, or rely on ready-made meals might work in the short term. However, once you meet your weight loss goal, you don’t have a plan for maintaining your weight and the pounds quickly come back.
- After your diet, you seem to put on weight more quickly. When you drastically restrict your food intake, your metabolism will temporarily slow down. Once you start eating normally, you’ll gain weight until your metabolism bounces back—another reason why starvation or “fasting” diets are counterproductive.
- You break your diet and feel too discouraged to try again. Just because you gave in to temptation doesn’t mean all your hard work goes down the drain. Healthy eating is about the big picture. An occasional splurge won’t kill your efforts. Diets that are too restrictive are conducive to cheating—when you feel deprived, it’s easy to fall off the wagon.
- You lose money faster than you lose weight. Special shakes, meals, and programs are not only expensive, but they are less practical for long-term weight loss and healthy weight maintenance.
- You feel isolated and unable to enjoy social situations revolving around food. Without some practical, healthy diet strategies, you may feel lost when dining out or attending events like cocktail parties or weddings. If the food served isn’t on your specific diet plan, what can you do?
- The person on the commercial lost 30 lbs. in two months—and you haven’t. Diet companies make a lot of grandiose promises, and most are simply unrealistic. Unfortunately, losing weight is not easy, and anyone who makes it seem that way is doing you a disservice. Don’t get discouraged by setting unrealistic goals!
We don’t always eat simply to satisfy hunger. If we did, no one would be overweight. All too often, we turn to food for comfort and stress relief. When this happens, we frequently pack on pounds.
Don’t underestimate the importance of putting a stop to emotional eating. Learning to recognize the emotional triggers that lead you to overeat and respond with healthier choices can make all the difference in your weight loss efforts.
To start, consider how and when you eat. Do you only eat when you are hungry, or do you reach for a snack while watching TV? Do you eat when you’re stressed or bored? When you’re lonely? To reward yourself?
Once you’ve identified your emotional eating tendencies, you can work towards gradually changing the habits and mental attitudes that have sabotaged your dieting efforts in the past.
Strategies to combat emotional eating
- If you turn to food at the end of a long day, find other soothing ways to reward yourself and de-stress. Relax with a book and a steaming cup of herbal tea, soak in a hot bath, or savor a beautiful view.
- If you eat when you’re feeling low on energy, find other mid-afternoon pick-me-ups. Try walking around the block, listening to energizing music, or doing some quick stretches or jumping jacks. Another alternative is taking a short nap—just keep it to 30 minutes or less.
- If you eat when you’re 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, find a fun activity to do, or go out in public (to the library, the mall, or the park—anywhere there’s people).
- If you eat when you’re stressed, find healthier ways to calm yourself. Try exercise, yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises. Better manage stressful situations by either changing the situation or changing your reaction. See related articles below to learn more about stress management.
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 screen. The result is that we consume much more than we need, often without realizing it or truly enjoying what we’re eating.
Counter this tendency by practicing “mindful” eating: pay attention to what you eat, savor each bite, and choose foods that are both nourishing and enjoyable. Mindful eating will help you lose weight and maintain your results.
Mindful eating weight loss tips
- Pay attention while you’re eating. Be aware of your environment. 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 and feels in your mouth.
- Avoid distractions while eating. Try not to eat while working, watching TV, reading, looking at your phone, using your computer, or driving. It’s too easy to mindlessly overeat.
- Chew your food thoroughly. Try chewing each bite 30 times before swallowing. You’ll prolong the experience and give yourself more time to enjoy each bite.
- Try mixing things up to force yourself 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. Avoid the temptation to clean your plate. Yes, there are children starving in Africa, but your weight gain won’t help them.
To lose weight, you have to eat fewer calories. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to eat less food. You can fill up while on a diet, as long as you choose your foods wisely. The key is to add the types of food that can keep you feeling satisfied and full, without packing on the pounds.
Fiber: the secret to feeling satisfied while losing weight
If you want to lose weight without feeling hungry and deprived all the time, start eating foods high in fiber. High-fiber foods are higher in volume, which makes them filling. They also take longer to chew, which makes them more satisfying to eat. High-fiber foods also take a long time to digest, which means you’ll feel full longer. There’s nothing magic about it, but the weight-loss results may seem like it.
High-fiber heavyweights include:
- Fruits and vegetables – Enjoy whole fruits across the rainbow (strawberries, apples, oranges, berries, nectarines, plums), leafy salads, and green veggies of all kinds.
- Beans – Select beans of any kind (black beans, lentils, split peas, pinto beans, chickpeas). Add them to soups, salads, and entrees, or enjoy them as a hearty dish of their own.
- Whole grains – Try high-fiber cereal, oatmeal, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, whole-wheat or multigrain bread, bran muffins, or air-popped popcorn.
Focus on fruits and veggies
Counting calories and measuring portion sizes can quickly become tedious, but you don’t need an accounting degree to enjoy produce. When it comes to fruit and vegetables, it’s generally safe to eat as much as you want, whenever you want. No measuring cups or calorie tables required.
The high water and fiber content in most fruits and vegetables makes them hard to overeat. You’ll feel full long before you’ve overdone it on the calories.
- Pour a little less cereal into your morning bowl to make room for some blueberries, strawberries, or sliced bananas. You’ll still enjoy a full bowl, but with a lower calorie count.
- Replace one of the eggs and some of the cheese in your omelet or scramble with vegetables. Try tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, spinach, or bell peppers.
- Swap out some of the meat and cheese in your sandwich with healthier veggie choices likelettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, cucumbers, and avocado.
- Instead of a high-calorie snack, like chips and dip, try baby carrots with hummus, a sliced apple, or the old-favorite: celery with peanut butter (just don’t overdo it on the peanut butter).
- Add more veggies to your favorite main courses to make your dish “go” further. Even dishes such as pasta and stir-fries can be diet-friendly if they’re less heavy on the noodles and more focused on vegetables.
- Try starting your meal with a low-density salad or soup (just watch the dressings and sodium) to help fill you up, so you eat less of your entrée.
Don’t love vegetables? You’re probably not preparing them right. Veggies can be delicious and full of flavor when you dress them with herbs and spices or a little olive oil or cheese.
Fruits and vegetables to eat in moderation
Fruits and vegetables of all colors, shapes, and sizes are major players in a healthy diet, but you still need to watch out for the following potential diet busters.
- Veggies that have been breaded or fried or doused in heavy sauces are no longer low-calorie, so tread with caution. Opt for healthier cooking methods, such as steaming, and use low-fat dressings and spices for flavor.
- Salads are guilt-free—unless you drench them in high-fat dressing and toppings. By all means, add some nuts or cheese, but don’t overdo it. As for dressing, a little fat is healthy (try a vinaigrette made with olive oil), but again, moderation is key.
- Dried Fruit. Be careful when it comes to dried fruit, which is high in calories and, often, in added sugar. You can eat a whole lot more fresh fruit for the same number of calories. If you do choose to snack on dried fruit, keep your serving size small.
- Fruit Juice. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a glass of juice every now and again. But remember that the calories quickly add up, without doing much to make you feel full. Also make sure that your drink of choice is made from 100% fruit juice and contains no added sugar.
Try not to think of certain foods as "off limits"
When you ban certain foods or food groups, it is natural to want those foods more, and then feel like a failure if you give in to temptation. Instead of denying yourself the unhealthy foods you love, simply eat them less often.
If you’ve ever found yourself polishing off a pint of ice cream or stuffing yourself with cookies or chips after spending a whole day virtuously eating salads, you know how restrictive diet plans usually end. You probably blame yourself, but the problem isn’t your willpower—it’s your weight loss strategy. Deprivation diets set you up for failure: you starve yourself until you snap, and then you overdo it, cancelling out all your previous efforts.
In order to successfully lose weight and keep it off, you need to learn how to enjoy the foods you love without going overboard. A diet that places all your favorite foods off limits won’t work in the long run. Eventually, you’ll feel deprived and will cave. And when you do, you probably won’t stop at a sensible-sized portion.
Tips for enjoying treats without overeating
- Combine your treat with other healthy foods. You can still enjoy your favorite high-calorie treat, whether it’s ice cream, chips, cake, or chocolate. The key is to eat a smaller serving of it along with a lower-calorie option. For example, add strawberries to your ice cream or munch on carrot and celery sticks along with your chips and dip. By piling on the low-cal option, you can eat a diet-friendly portion of your favorite treat without feeling deprived.
- Schedule your treats. We are creatures are habit, and you can use this to your advantage when trying to lose weight. Establish regular times when you get to indulge in your favorite food. For example, maybe you enjoy a small square of chocolate every day after lunch, or a slice of cheesecake every Friday evening. Once you’re conditioned to eat your treat at those times—and those times only—you’ll stop obsessing about them at other times.
- Make your indulgence less indulgent. Find ways to reduce fat, sugar, or calories in your favorite treats and snacks. If you do your own baking, swap out half the butter or oil in the recipe with applesauce, and cut back on the sugar, making up for it with extra cinnamon or vanilla extract. You can also eliminate or reduce high-calorie toppings and sides, like whipped cream, cheese, dip, and frosting.
- Engage all your senses—not just your taste sense. Instead of chowing down mindlessly, savor and prolong the experience. You can make snack time more special by setting an attractive table, lighting candles, playing soothing music, or enjoying your treat outdoors in a beautiful setting. Get the most pleasure—and the most relaxation—out of your treat by cutting it into small pieces, taking time to smell what you are eating, and by chewing slowly and thoroughly.
Your weight loss efforts will succeed or fail based largely on 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 are available.
- Start the day with breakfast. People who eat breakfast tend to be thinner than those who don’t. Starting your day with a healthy breakfast will jumpstart your metabolism, plus, it will help keep you from binge eating later in the day.
- Serve yourself smaller portions. One easy way to control portion size is by using small plates, bowls, and cups. This will make your portions appear larger. Don’t eat out of large bowls or directly from the food container or package, which makes it difficult to assess how much you’ve eaten.
- Plan your meals and snacks ahead of time. You will be more inclined to eat in moderation if you have thought out healthy meals and snacks in advance. You can buy or create your own small portion snacks in plastic bags or containers. Eating on a schedule will also help you avoid eating when you aren’t truly hungry.
- 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 sodium, fat, and calories than food cooked at home—plus the portion sizes tend to be larger.
- Don’t shop for groceries when you’re hungry. Create a shopping list and stick to it. Be especially careful to avoid foods at the ends of the aisles and along the perimeter, where grocers tend to sell high-calorie snack and convenience foods.
- Out of sight, out of mind. Limit the amount of tempting foods you have at home. If you share a kitchen with non-dieters, store snack foods and other high-calorie indulgences in cabinets or drawers out of your sight.
- Fast for 14-16 hours a day. Try to eat your last meal earlier in the day and then fast until breakfast the next morning. Early studies suggest that this simple dietary adjustment—eating only when you’re most active and giving your digestive system a long break each day—may help you to lose weight. After-dinner snacks tend to be high in fat and calories so are best avoided, anyway
Soda: The Secret Diet Saboteur
Soft drinks (including soda, energy drinks, and coffee drinks) are a huge source of calories in many people’s diets. One can of soda contains between 10-12 teaspoons of sugar and around 150 calories, so a few soft drinks can quickly add up to a good portion of your daily calorie intake.
Switching to diet soda isn’t the answer either, as studies suggest that it triggers sugar cravings and contributes to weight gain. Instead, try switching to water with lemon, unsweetened iced tea, or carbonated water with a splash of juice.
In addition to your food and eating-related choices, you can also support your weight loss and dieting efforts by making healthy lifestyle choices.
- Get plenty of sleep. Lack of sleep has been shown to have a direct link to hunger, overeating, and weight gain. Exhaustion also impairs your judgment, which can lead to poor food choices. Aim for around eight hours of quality sleep a night.
- Turn off the TV. You actually burn less calories watching television than you do sleeping! If you simply can’t miss your favorite shows, get a little workout in while watching. Do easy exercises like squats, sit-ups, jogging in place, or using resistance bands or hand weights.
- Get plenty of exercise. Exercise is a dieter’s best friend. It not only burns calories, but also can actually improve your resting metabolism. No 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. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or park in the back of the parking lot. Every bit helps.
- Drink more water. You can easily reduce your daily calorie intake by replacing soda, alcohol, or coffee with water. Thirst can also be confused with hunger, so by drinking water, you may avoid consuming extra calories, plus it will help you break down food more easily.
Free Toolkit Program
Resources and References
Weight loss and dieting basics
The Nutrition Source: How to Get to Your 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)
Tips for Setting and Meeting Your Weight Loss Goals – 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)
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. (National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion)
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)
Emotional eating and healthy weight loss
How to Stop Emotional Eating – Ways to curb emotional eating from sabotaging your healthy weight loss efforts. (Mayo Clinic)
How to Avoid Overeating – Offers seven strategies that can help defend against eating too much. (Harvard School of Public Health)
Mastering the Mindful Meal – Explains the effects of mindless eating, and offers exercises to help you become a more mindful eater. (Brigham & Women’s Hospital)
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)