We all know that in order to shed a few pounds, we need to spend more calories than we take in. While that formula might sound simple, it’s often anything but.
“It’s not like people don’t know what to do to lose weight, it’s that they have trouble doing it,” says Gale Maleskey, MS, RD, a private practice nutritionist in Bethlehem, PA. “The people I see already know what they’re supposed to eat, so it’s what else we can do,” she adds. Here are 16 weight-loss tips and tricks from Maleskey and other registered dietitians to help make the process a little smoother.
Get more sleep.
“We tend to put sleep on the back burner,” says Jennifer McDaniel, MS, RDN, a nutritionist in private practice in St. Louis, MO. “We think we have to get the laundry done, or the house needs to be perfectly clean or we get lost in a TV show, but people have to be serious about getting consistent, regular sleep if they want to get the most weight loss.” She points to studies where people who got 8 hours of sleep, compared to 6.5 hours or less, had much more weight loss, particularly in the abdominal region. Another study out of Brigham Young University suggested that following a regular sleep schedule led to less body fat. McDaniel adds that when people are already on lower-calorie diets, they’re more successful when they get more sleep.
Don’t skip breakfast.
“Usually people say they’re not hungry for breakfast, but I tell them they should train themselves to be hungry in the morning,” says Jodi Greebel, MS, RDN, a dietitian in private practice in New York. “If you skip breakfast, you end up going 15, 16, 17 hours without eating, and it almost makes your body think it’s starving,” she says. And when your body thinks it’s starving, it wants to hold on to its calories. Greebel notes that your body is more efficient at burning food when it’s fed. “Having breakfast is really important to get your metabolism going,” she adds. If you’re always rushed in the a.m., give these quick breakfast recipes a try.
Give probiotics a chance.
“Certain strains of bacteria found in some probiotics can improve a sense of satiety and raise blood levels of mood-improving biochemicals, like serotonin,” says Maleskey. “I often suggest to people who have tried and failed with other weight-loss measures—and they have some other reason where probiotics would help (like digestive issues)—that probiotics might help.” Several strains of Lactobacillus, including L. rhamnosus and L. plantarum, have received a lot of research; various studies have shown an improvement in cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as a reduction in BMI, belly fat and food cravings. That said, Maleskey cautions that “you can’t take a probiotic for a week and lose 5 pounds, but I think, over time, it can be helpful.”
Research also suggests that a strain of bacteria produces serotonin, the “feel good hormone.” It can help reduce food cravings and depression, so you may actually eat less. Says Maleskey, “There’s no doubt that your gut produces serotonin, and if you have more of it circulating in your body, you’re less likely to get depressed.” In some people, feeling bad drives eating behavior, leading to poorer food choices. A blue mood “certainly makes it harder for people to impose another form of self-discipline,” like a diet, she adds.
Eat more often.
Generally, you should be feeding your body every 3 to 4 hours (except when you’re sleeping, of course), notes Greebel, cautioning that “more often doesn’t mean continuously.” It means eating breakfast, possibly a snack before lunch, lunch, possibly another snack, then dinner. It goes back to metabolism and keeping your body fed. Greebel suggests that the best snacks combine various food groups, so, rather than having just a piece of fruit, have it with protein and fat. “It’s more filling,” she adds. An apple is a great snack, but she recommends adding string cheese, yogurt or a handful of nuts. Here are some other healthy high-protein snack combos to try.
Don’t wait too long between meals.
“Hangry” might be a word you toss around to excuse your bad moods, but it can actually impact your waistline. “When you get really hungry,” says Greebel, “you eat too quickly, and you don’t listen to your body’s cues when it’s full.” You also make poorer choices because “when you feel like you’re starving, you want the fastest food, which is often not the healthiest.” If you know you’re going to walk in the door after a long commute and nosh a bag of chips before you even turn on the oven, make sure you have a healthy snack before you get in the car.
Practice hunger management.
“There’s a big caloric difference between being energized and being stuffed,” says McDaniel. “I tell my clients all the time, ‘Eat until you’re comfortable, not until you’re full.'” She suggests slowing down when you eat and paying attention to how you feel after you’re done. “This really helps when you’re in situations where you don’t have control over the food, like in restaurants, on vacation or at a party, when the food is right there in front of you,” she adds.
Load up in the morning.
“Metabolically, we’re just not as efficient at night as we are during the day,” says McDaniel. “If you’re still digesting at night, you’re not sleeping as well,” she adds. McDaniel recommends eating your heavier, carby meals earlier in the day and getting from 2 to 3 hours between your last meal of the day and bedtime. She refers to the “king-prince-pauper” approach: eat a larger breakfast (with a hefty dose of protein), a smaller lunch, and a lighter dinner. This can lead to fewer cravings and better hunger management throughout the day. “Many people like saving up their calories for the rest of the day, so they skip breakfast,” says McDaniel but several studies have shown that eating later in the day or at night can lead to weight gain.
Keep junk food out of sight.
If you’re ever heard the saying, “out of sight, out of mind,” the same concept holds for unhealthy foods. You don’t have to banish it from your house, but the key is to keep it in opaque containers or in the cupboard. If you have such foods in eyesight—whether it’s on the counter, on your desk or even in your car—every time you see it, you subconsciously say, “I’m not going to eat it.” Greebel explains, “You can pat yourself on the back that 24 times today you didn’t eat the item, but most likely that 25th time, you’re going to eat it.” It’s very hard to resist if you’re always looking at it, she notes, but when it’s put away, you won’t have to go through that exercise at all. And skipping those couple hundred calories a day can make a great difference: cut 500 calories a day, and you could lose one pound in a week. (If you’re really craving the taste of junk food, give these healthy versions a try.)
Clean up your space.
Having an organized kitchen can help manage your weight, says McDaniel. One study showed that people with extremely cluttered homes were more likely to be overweight or obese. “When we feel organized, it’s easier to access healthy foods and know where things are; it makes it easier to make the right choices,” says McDaniel. But before you go full KonMari on your kitchen, take heart: this doesn’t mean your cupboards have to be alphabetized, just straightened up.
Drink water with meals.
Thirst is often confused with hunger, notes Greebel. “If you’re thirsty, it means you’re already dehydrated.” She advises drinking water throughout the day because “it’s good for you,” but with meals, it “helps fill up your stomach and slows down your eating so you know when you’re full.” She adds that “most of your calories should come from eating not drinking,” so skip the high-calorie beverages; she recommends flavored seltzer (which is naturally sugar free) or even unsweetened tea with your meals.
Try intermittent fasting.
Some research suggests that periods of fasting trigger something in the body that cause you to burn more fat for calories. “If it’s easier for some people to not eat anything for a day, rather than monitoring what they eat all day,” says Maleskey, “then it does seem to work for them.” But you can’t just do it once, she notes, adding that “it has to be regular, and a short fast probably won’t work; studies indicate it has to be at least 12 hours.” Fasting works by depleting the liver of stored sugar, so the body has to switch over to another energy source, such as fatty acids. It essentially changes what you’re using for fuel so you can burn more fat. “Otherwise, your body doesn’t really want to use fat for energy,” says Maleskey. “It wants to use sugar because that’s easier.” Fasting also stimulates the release of the hormone adiponectin, which helps break down fat. Maleskey cautions that people with diabetes shouldn’t fast without close medical supervision.
Get moving (even a little bit).
When we sit for long time periods, we become what’s called “metabolically inflexible,” a phrase coined by Dr. James Hill. This means we more easily store what we eat, compared to someone who’s lightly moving around during the day. “It’s the sitting disease,” says McDaniel. She suggests finding ways to get more movement throughout the day without breaking a sweat. For example, “I’m not just sitting or standing when I’m on the phone, I’m walking around.” When her husband tried this, she says he got 5,000 more steps in a day. “Moving our bodies is so important,” she adds. A standing desk is good. Walking or riding a bike instead of driving is also good. “People think they get their 45 minutes of exercise in and they’re done, but that’s not good from a metabolic standpoint. Your body goes into rest mode and it’s going to look more like it’s sleeping, and that’s not good.”
Eat the whole egg (not just the whites).
You know those times when you’ve had a carb-heavy meal, particularly at breakfast, and then found yourself scrounging for food 30 minutes later? It could be because the meal was lacking in protein and healthy fats. Enter, the egg. “Egg yolks have gotten a bag rap,” says Greebel, but eating the whole egg gives you protein and fat, a combo that is much more satiating, she adds. While the white has the protein, the yolk has the fat. Plus, almost all of the nutrients are in the yolk.
Use smaller plates.
Whether it’s at an all-you-can-eat buffet or a fancy restaurant with tiny portions on big fancy plates, we eat with our eyes. Subconsciously (or even consciously), we decide from that first plate whether we’re going to be hungry from the meal—and whether we’re going to go back for seconds. By using smaller, lunch-size plates and smaller bowls, says Greebel, “we automatically think we’re going to be more full.” A big plate that’s not as filled up makes you think you’re not filling up. “I don’t think you ever need to eat on a 10-inch plate,” adds Greebel. This is also a really easy way to manage portions without measuring it out, she notes.
Beware of processed foods.
“Certain food additives seem to promote overeating and weight gain by causing insulin resistance,” says Maleskey. She points to research out of Harvard University that focused on propionate, a food preservative, anti-browning agent and mold inhibitor found in manufactured foods with long shelf lives. Think: bread and other baked goods, pizza dough, cereal, condensed and dry milk, pasta and some processed meats. “It’s a very long list,” notes Maleskey; it’s also in sports drinks, some diet foods, condiments, dried mushrooms, soups, beans and nut butters. Researchers studied mice and found that propionate can cause the liver to produce more sugar, which leads to greater levels of insulin in the blood, and “insulin drives hunger,” says Maleskey. While Maleskey notes that more research needs to be done to compare propionate to other food additives, you can check labels for these names: calcium propionate, sodium propionate, proprionic acid, calcium salt or calcium dipropionate. “It certainly makes a good argument for baking your own bread,” Maleskey says. Since not everyone has time for that, be sure to be a savvy label reader.
“There’ve been a few studies that show when women are less hard on themselves, or shame themselves less for ‘blowing’ their diet or not getting their exercise in, they are able to get back on the saddle more quickly,” notes McDaniel. She adds that women who roll with the punches sabotage themselves less. “Also, the negativity that runs through the mental loops in our heads—that negative talk increases inflammation in our bodies,” she says. “If you have more self-compassion, and find enjoyment in the journey of getting to where you want to get, once you get there it’s going to be like, ‘Now what else can I do?’ and less likely you’ll plateau or gain that weight back.” This is advice we can all benefit from.