The latest stats show that more than 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, and while many regain that weight, an important study that tracked successful dieters via the National Weight Control Registry found that over a ten-year period, the majority kept it off. I’ve spent much of the last two decades helping people on their weight-loss journey, and through my endless hours of research and writing, plus one-on-one coaching, I’ve picked up some important insight and great tips. Let me share them with you!
1. Forget what you know about calorie math
I’ve spent much of my career talking about the calories in vs. calories out equation, but I now know that you can’t rely on this paradigm. Instead, what the science shows is that as people lose weight, their metabolism changes; it takes fewer calories to maintain a smaller body size so the calorie rule doesn’t hold up. This cool online tool is based on that research, and shows you how you would need to adjust your calories over time in order to maintain the weight you lost.
The other thing I’ve learned about calories is that quality is probably more important than quantity — even when it comes to weight loss. For instance, there is good evidence that the Mediterranean diet, with unrestricted nuts and olive oil, can lead to improvements in belly fat over a five-year period compared with a low-fat regimen. And while nuts themselves are high in calories and fat, studies show that they are helpful with weight loss. Importantly, nuts taste good — even indulgent — so including them on your menu may help you get more enjoyment out of your meals, and the fat helps keep you fuller, longer.
Newer research suggests that overly processed foods are especially easy to overeat because they can be eaten more quickly and they don’t produce the same level of contentment as more wholesome foods. On the flip side, whole and minimally processed foods typically take a longer time to eat and are linked with appetite-regulating benefits, so you’re more likely to fill up on portions that are right for your needs. In one particular study, folks were offered either a highly processed diet or a minimally processed diet for two weeks at a time. During the two weeks of the heavily processed diet, they gained two pounds, but on the whole foods diet, they lost that much. What’s interesting is that these were the same people who participated in each arm of the study. And all the meals were closely matched for macros (protein, carbs, fat) and calories. This suggests that your internal feel-full mechanisms kick in better when eating more whole and minimally processed foods, even if they’re identical in calories.
2. Eat more veggies
The one thing all diets have in common is veggies, and if you want to lose weight, you should start eating more of them. I’ve converted a lot of veggie haters to veggie eaters with a few simple strategies, starting with making veggies more fun! For example, try riced cauliflower to replace some (or all) of the grains with your favorite stir-fry. Or consider blending spaghetti or linguini with spiralized veggie noodles. (You can buy the pre-spiralized noodles in many supermarkets if you don’t want to invest in the gadget.) Or try adding a fistful of greens to smoothies, prepared soups and pasta sauce. If you’re not currently eating veggies with lunch and dinner, challenge yourself to try one new veggie recipe each week until you have a rotating menu of veggies you enjoy.
The idea isn’t to eat like a rabbit or substitute baby carrots when you’re craving potato chips. It’s about expanding your palate and being open to the possibility that there is a veggie lover inside of you waiting to come alive! If you’re looking for some inspiration, you can transform cauliflower in to just about anything, experiment with fresh, filling, and seriously delicious salad combos, or try veggie-centric dishes inspired by the Mediterranean diet. The key is to keep exploring the wide world of veggies until you find ways to enjoy them every day.
3. Don’t be afraid of carbs
Sure, a low-carb plan can help you lose weight, but plenty of research also supports carbohydrates — even whole-grain wheat — for slimming down. One recent study comparing grain avoiders to grain eaters found that the people who ate grains were less likely to be overweight or obese, and had a lower risk of metabolic complications, like type 2 diabetes. By contrast, avoiding grains was linked with a higher BMI and waist circumference, despite the fact that it was also linked with consuming fewer calories.
Another recent study showed that people who eat whole grains burned close to 100 more calories per day compared to people consuming similar calories but eating refined grains instead.
What I’ve learned is that you don’t need to take an all-or-nothing approach to carbs. Most often, I consider grains a side dish rather than an entrée, but I still eat them every day. What is important is that you consistently choose whole grains over their refined counterparts. That means mostly eating brown rice instead of white, whole-grain bread over the pillowy, white sandwich bread you may have grown up loving, and choosing whole-grain cereals, whether cold or hot, over hyper-processed refined versions.
4. Don’t attempt to out-exercise a bad diet
Exercise has many benefits, and everyone needs to do it, but the truth is, your workout routine may not be helping you slim down, and even worse, it may be stalling your weight loss. There are a few things at play here. First, we tend to drastically overestimate how many calories we burn while exercising, particularly if we’re doing something intense, like spinning or running. Exercise is so physical — you’re sweating, you’re toughing it out — so it seems as if you’re doing all the work. But it’s only a fraction of the job.
Research shows that even high-tech watches and other devices can overestimate the calories we’ve spent working out. For people tracking what they’re eating and burning through exercise, the faulty math might be problematic.
It’s also common to reward yourself with food after a workout, which can interfere with your progress. (The reverse is true, too — people often punish themselves with workouts after overeating.)
Women, in particular, tend to eat what we expend in exercise, according to research on the matter. In plain terms, our bodies are well-regulated to know when we’ve done a session of HIIT or spent time on the elliptical. Unknowingly, we put a little more food on our plates or have a heftier snack in order to replenish what we burned off.
Other notable research found that for those new to exercise or for those exercising less frequently, there may be a slight impact on energy expenditure, meaning it might provide a small (but meaningful) drop on the scale. But here’s the bad news: Workouts among people doing the most exercise didn’t show up on the scale. They likely experience other benefits — improved mental health, lower risk of heart disease, for instance — but they don’t have an edge when it comes to weight loss.
When it comes to losing weight, it’s more about what you put in your mouth than what you’re burning off.
I’m not saying you should take a lifelong pass on fitness, but what I am saying is that if you’re killing it on the cardio machine merely to burn calories and squeeze into your extra-skinny skinny jeans, you may need to re-think this strategy. When it comes to losing weight, it’s more about what you put in your mouth than what you’re burning off. Among participants in the Weight Control Registry, walking is the most frequent form of exercise, and there was no difference in weight maintenance after three years among people who participated in the most physical activity compared to those exercising the least.
My advice: Find movement experiences that you enjoy and that are sustainable for you. In other words, exercise shouldn’t feel like punishment and it’s probably unsustainable if you’re only exercising to burn calories and lose weight. Instead, try moving in ways that feel good to your body.
5. Make peace with the scale
This means different things to different people. Some people find the scale emotionally triggering, in which case, it’s not a useful tool. But research shows that other people benefit from daily or weekly weigh-ins and it doesn’t always lead to issues. In fact, studies suggest self-monitoring, which may include weigh-ins and tracking food, are predictors not only of weight loss, but maintenance, too. Your scale provides data points, allowing you to recognize small gains that might not be apparent in your clothing.
Weight fluctuates all the time, so the idea isn’t to get caught up in the actual day-to-day variations, but to notice trends. If you spot a trend upwards, it offers a chance to analyze your behaviors. Have you eaten out more frequently? Are you skimping on the veggies? Perhaps you’ve had a few extra causes for celebration lately. Whatever the case, monitoring your weight can allow you take action early, when it’s easier to manage.
As with all things, the decision to weigh yourself is highly personal so do what works for you. If it brings up negative emotions, there are plenty of other ways to monitor how your body is doing. Your lab results — for example, your blood sugar and blood pressure — are other helpful measures.
6. Redefine your ideal weight
Clients often come in with weight-loss goals that line up with when they graduated high school 10 or more years ago. Yet, some share that even at their thinnest, they felt broken inside. The reality is that it’s not necessary to be the thinnest version of yourself to be the happiest and healthiest version.
And keep in mind that you get massive benefits, like reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, by losing just 5 percent of your weight, according to research. If you’re motivated by a goal weight, consider aiming for this goal, and when you achieve it, you can decide where to take it from there.
7. Be prepared for hard work
Anyone who has lost weight, or even those who have maintained a healthy weight, knows that it takes some effort. But with time and practice, it becomes much easier. For those who have struggled with past attempts, I’ve found taking a micro-step approach works well. Start by setting mini goals, like adding a fruit or vegetable to your menu each day. With each success, take a moment to recognize your accomplishment. The satisfaction you gain from accomplishing these micro goals helps to strengthen your determination to tackle the next one. These mini successes add up over time and can lead to sustainable habits.
Though it takes some effort, be kind to yourself if you can’t give it 100 percent. Sometimes, life gets in the way of your intentions and you might only be putting in a little effort to stay healthy or reach a more comfortable weight; other days, you might have a lot of energy to devote to it. As long as you’re not putting in zero effort, it’s okay.
8. Do an immediate U-turn
Taking a break from your healthy habits — say, by ordering the plate of nachos at happy hour — is part of the journey. The reality is, these so-called slip ups are just part of a normal, healthy life. We all give in to the occasional indulgence. Where I’ve seen people go astray is to take that tiny slip and turn it into a massive binge or throw in the towel altogether. But I ask: If you took the wrong turn while driving, would you keep going? No! Nor would your GPS shame you for going in the wrong direction. Instead, the GPS provides a gentle reminder to get back on track. Take that mentality to your next food detour and remind yourself to do a U-turn at your next eating occasion.
9. Don’t give up
No matter how many times you’ve tried losing weight in the past, there is still hope. People who have successfully lost weight tend to continue to manage those behaviors and foods that got them there. In other words, they continue to practice.
Too often, I find people treat dieting like a hop-on-hop-off bus. After reaching their goals, they hop off the bus, reverting back to their unhealthy foods or behaviors. They may hop back on the bus and lose some weight again, but over the long-term, there is a yo-yo pattern.
To be successful at weight loss, you need to make sustainable changes. It’s less about what diet you follow (low-carb, Paleo, Mediterranean, etc.) but more about what works for you so you can stick with the changes you’ve made. So the next time you’re hopping back on the weight-loss bus, consider where you’ve struggled in the past. Make sure to address those issues by making adjustments this go-around.
CORRECTION (Feb. 21, 10:15 a.m. ET) A previous version of this article misstated the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. It can lead to improvements in belly fat over a five-year period, not body weight.
WHAT A NUTRITIONIST WANTS YOU TO KNOW