Diets work, until they don’t. If you can’t keep eating a certain way forever, you won’t see long-lasting results. But if you want to lose weight, where does that leave you? Instead of a restrictive diet, making these changes can help you lose weight and keep it off.
1. Get a baseline
Think about what you ate yesterday. Can you recall everything? You can’t change your eating habits if you don’t know what they are. Try writing down what you eat in a diary, using an app like MyFitnessPal or taking photos of your food. Doing this tracking can feel tedious, but it can also help you figure out where to start making small, lasting changes.
“When working with clients, I find that tracking fiber intake, workouts, water and servings of vegetables can be very beneficial to losing weight,” says Mallory Spendlove, M.D.A., R.D.N., dietitian at Daily Habits Nutrition. “By choosing one of these habits to track, you can make it automatic over time. Then your habits can build on each other to create lasting weight loss.” If you find tracking tedious, remember that you don’t have to track everything you eat forever, but for many people it’s a good starting point.
2. Work with a dietitian
This isn’t a habit per se, but working with an expert like a registered dietitian can help you make changes and create habits that stick. Otherwise, after you track your food, how do you know what changes to make? The danger of relying solely on a calorie counting app is falling into the “calories in, calories out” thinking, where you think if you just eat less and workout more, you’ll lose the weight. Instead, this often backfires leading to a restrict-binge cycle that doesn’t set you up for long-term success. “Your body isn’t a math equation. It’s more of a biology project,” says Megan Kober, R.D., registered dietitian at The Nutrition Addiction. Kober educates women on how to burn fat by focusing on hormones and metabolism, instead of calorie counting.
Dietitians are able to work with you holistically and teach you how different foods are digested in the body, how much you should be consuming for weight loss and how to do it in a balanced way that allows you to enjoy all foods.
3. Make half your plate vegetables
Follow the MyPlate or Healthy Plate framework at most lunches and dinners: ½ vegetables, ¼ whole grains and ¼ protein. One cup of vegetables has about 30 calories, while one cup of pasta has 200 calories. You need a calorie deficit for weight loss but the quality of calories matters too. Vegetables are chock-full of fiber, which aids weight loss by slowing digestion and keeping you full longer. And excess fiber isn’t stored as fat, unlike extra protein, carbohydrates and fat. Fiber also slows the spike in insulin after meals, the hormone that signals to store extra sugar as fat.
A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that just focusing on eating 30 grams of fiber per day led to almost as much weight loss as the American Heart Association’s diet for heart disease that includes eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fatty fish and less sugar, alcohol and fat. In other words, instead of focusing on changing several aspects of your diet, just change one: your fiber intake. Most Americans only get 11-15 grams per day, but the recommendation is 25-35 grams per day (try our high-fiber meal plans to get more in your diet).
Other fiber-boosting ideas? Add a side salad to dinner, mix spinach and mushrooms into pasta, stir fry broccoli into a peanut sauce, blend vegetables into a smoothie or roast them with olive oil. The more color and the more variety, the better.
4. Start the day with a balanced meal of protein, fiber and healthy fat
To eat breakfast or not eat breakfast? The research is mixed. A 2019 meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal found that eating breakfast was associated with weight gain and eating more total calories in a day. Intermittent fasting—in which people fast for 12-16 hours overnight and often skip breakfast— is also associated with weight loss.
But don’t skip brekkie just yet. Eating white toast with jam is not the same as scrambled eggs with spinach, and not all studies differentiate the type of breakfast consumed. While intermittent fasting leads to weight loss, research shows it doesn’t lead to anymore weight loss than a calorie deficit overall.
The most important thing is to include fiber, protein and healthy fat at the first meal of the day, whether that’s at 7 am, 10 am or 12 pm. Eat when you get hungry and don’t wait until you’re starving or you’ll set yourself up to overeat. Aim for 10 grams of fiber and 15-20 grams of protein at the meal. Protein suppresses ghrelin, the hormone that tells you you’re hungry, and increases fullness hormones. One study compared eating eggs at breakfast with eating a bagel and after eight weeks, the group that had eggs had a 61% greater reduction in body mass index, a 65% greater weight loss, and a 34% greater reduction in waist circumference.
Try eggs with spinach (Spanakopita Scrambled Egg Pitas, pictured above) or an egg with avocado toast on whole-wheat bread. Plain Greek yogurt with berries and nuts or whole-wheat toast with nut butter, chia seeds and fruit also packs protein, fiber and fat for an energizing start to your day. Skip refined carbohydrates like white toast and sugary cereals, which can spike blood sugar and insulin, driving the body into fat-storing mode instead of fat-burning mode.
Exercise, with no change in diet, won’t lead to sustainable weight loss. Changing diet but not exercising will lead to weight loss, but research shows you’ll likely gain it back. Calorie needs decrease with weight loss because smaller bodies don’t need as many calories as larger bodies (and your metabolism can slow down). It’s difficult to keep cutting calories in a world where food is everywhere—plus, your body needs nourishment (these are the 5 best exercises for weight loss, according to research).
Changing diet and exercising together is the most effective way to lose weight and keep it off. The National Weight Control Registry, a database of people who have lost 30 lbs and kept it off for one year or more, reports that 90% of members exercise for one hour a day. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise each week, but others recommend 30-60 minutes per day for weight loss and 30-90 minutes per day for weight maintenance. The exact amount and type varies by person.
Cardio or strength training?
The short answer is both. Cardio exercises, like running and spinning, burn a lot of calories during the session but often rev up appetite leading you to eat back all the calories you burned. Walking counts as aerobic activity and may not make you as hangry.
Resistance training—lifting weights or using your own body weight—builds muscle, which increases daily calorie burn. The body continues to burn calories in the 24 hours following a strength training sesh, an effect called excess post-oxygen consumption (EPOC). Resistance training also boosts fat burn. But you may not see a change on the scale. Five pounds of muscle and five pounds of fat weigh the same but muscle takes up less space.
Bottom line for exercise: Include a mix of cardio and strength aiming for 30-60 minutes per day and 2-3 strength training sessions each week that are at least 15-20 minutes.
How to keep going after you’ve lost the weight
“When creating weight loss habits, start small,” says Spendlove. “Habits can be stacked onto each other over time so that your new habits become automatic before adding in something new. That way, the habits that help you lose weight are second nature so you won’t have to think about them over time.” We like that better than constantly thinking about food and exercise!
Weigh yourself once a week
Self-monitoring weight and food are associated with maintaining weight loss (although it’s not for everyone. Learn more about how often you should weigh yourself). Seventy-five percent of members in the National Weight Control Registry continue to weigh themselves once per week. Seeing the number on the scale weekly can help you stay on track and self-correct before your pants feel too tight. But keep in mind, “Our weight fluctuates 2-4 pounds per day based on how much we eat, drink or even the time of day, so it can be misleading [to weigh daily]. Other great indicators of progress are getting stronger at a work out, having clothes fit better, or comparing photos from before and during a weight loss journey,” says Spendlove.
Track food again
If the number on the scale starts to creep up, consider tracking your food again for 1-2 weeks and make changes accordingly.
Mix up exercise
If you’ve been doing a lot of strength training, add cardio and vice versa. Increase the frequency, duration, or intensity of workouts. Once your body gets good at doing something it doesn’t burn as many calories doing it anymore—aka pick up some heavier weights!
Find someone to keep you accountable
Most of us know what to do; we just need help doing it. If you’re feeling stuck or unmotivated, find a friend or professional who can keep you on track. Take a workout class or hire a trainer. Others tend to push us harder than we push ourselves.