12 Healthy Things You Can Do to Lose Weight and Keep It Off
I’ve been writing about weight loss for years. But I have also counseled real people for decades, and here’s what I know: What makes headlines, generates buzz, or becomes trendy doesn’t always pan out in everyday life. I’ve talked to countless clients whose attempts with cleanses, extreme diets, and popular weight-loss tactics completely backfired, leaving them right back where they started (or worse).
While I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to losing weight, the reality is that there are a few truths that apply to nearly everyone. For one, if your weight-loss method leaves you feeling hungry, cranky, run-down, or socially isolated, it’s probably not healthy or sustainable. Losing weight should enhance your health, not come at the expense of your health. Also, if your weight loss approach doesn’t become a lifestyle, you’ll likely slip back into old habits, and the weight will creep back on.
So, what does work? Here are a dozen strategies that truly hold up in my experience working in the trenches. Each has the power to support healthy weight loss, while simultaneously enhancing health (the ultimate win-win), and they all have an essential criterion: stick-with-it-ness.
Eat real food
A calorie isn’t a calorie. Three hundred calories worth of cooked oats topped with blueberries, cinnamon, and nuts isn’t going to have the same effect on your body as a 300-calorie blueberry muffin made with refined carbs, sugar, and artificial additives.
In addition to offering more overall nutrition, whole foods are more filling, satiating, and energizing, and they create a different impact on blood sugar and insulin regulation, digestion, and metabolism. I have seen numerous clients break a weight-loss plateau or start losing weight simply by switching from processed foods to whole foods-even without eating fewer calories. The effect is backed by research, but it also just makes sense. If you do nothing else, upgrade the quality of what you eat, and make this goal the foundation of your weight loss (and ultimately weight-maintenance) plan.
Eat more veggies
According to the CDC, just 9% of adults eat the minimum recommended intake of two to three cups of veggies per day. In my practice, I see that even health-conscious people often miss the mark. But for both weight loss and optimal health, consistently eating more veggies is one of the most important habits you can foster.
Non-starchy vegetables-like leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, and onions-are incredibly filling and nutrient rich, yet they provide just 25 calories or less per cup. Their fiber, prebiotics, and antioxidants have been shown to reduce inflammation, a known obesity trigger, and alter the makeup of gut bacteria in ways that enhance immunity and improve mental health.
I advise my clients to build meals around veggies, so they’re never an afterthought. Aim for one cup (about the size of a tennis ball) at breakfast, two cups and lunch, and two cups at dinner, with the portions measured out before cooking if cooked (such as spinach, which shrinks way down). At breakfast, whip greens into a smoothie, fold shredded zucchini into oats, add veggies to an egg or chickpea scramble, or simply eat them on the side, like sliced cucumber or red bell pepper. Go for salads or bowls at lunch, instead of sandwiches or wraps, with a large base of greens and veggies. At dinner, sauté, oven roast, grill, or stir-fry veggies, and make them the largest component of the meal.
There is no downside to this goal, and it has a healthy domino effect on nearly every other aspect of wellness, from healthy sleep to beauty benefits-in addition to truly working for sustainable weight loss.
Drink more water
You’ve probably heard this one a million times, and it helps. But in my practice, I find that most people don’t follow through. Water is needed for every process in the body, including healthy circulation, digestion, and waste elimination. Studies show that water does indeed help rev metabolism, and while the effect may be slight, it can snowball to create a greater impact over time.
Drinking water before meals has also been shown to naturally reduce meal portions, which may help prevent slight overeating, which inhibits weight loss. According to the Institute of Medicine, women 19 and older need 2.7 liters of total fluid per day (over 11 cups) and men need 3.7 liters (over 15 cups). About 20% of your fluids come from food, but that still leaves 8–12 cups based on the IOM guidelines, not including additional needs due to exercise.
As a minimum I recommend eight cups a day. Think of your day in four blocks: 1) from the time you get up to mid-morning; 2) mid-morning to lunchtime; 3) lunchtime to mid-afternoon; and 4) mid-afternoon to dinnertime. Aim for two cups (16 ounces) of water during each of these blocks. Set your cell phone alarm as a reminder if you need to. And if you’re not a fan of plain water, spruce it up with healthful add-ins, like lemon or lime, fresh mint, sliced cucumber, fresh ginger, or slightly mashed bits of seasonal fruit.
Eat on a regular schedule
This is a biggie. In my experience, a consistent eating schedule helps to regulate appetite and better support metabolism, energy, and digestive health. My clients who eat at erratic times tend to be more prone to over or undereating. Both are problematic, as undereating can stall metabolism and lead to rebound overeating.
For most of my clients, a good rule of thumb is to eat within about an hour of waking up, and not let more than four to five hours go by without eating. This may mean something like breakfast at 7 a.m., lunch at noon, a snack at 3 p.m., and dinner at 7 p.m. Once you get into a groove with meal timing, your body tends to respond with hunger cues at expected meal/snack times and crave balance, meaning a drive to stop eating when full. I also recommend allowing at least two to three hours between the last meal and bedtime. This provides time for digestion, and averts eating during your least active hours, when your body is preparing for sleep and unable to burn an unneeded surplus of fuel.
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Be strategic about meal balance
The bulk of my last weight loss book, Slim Down Now, was based on the idea of building your meals like you build your outfits. When you get dressed, you need a top, bottom, and footwear. You can get away without wearing socks, but you wouldn’t wear two pairs of pants and no top, and you can’t wear two pairs of shoes at the same time.
In the same way, there are three core pieces that make up the foundation of a healthy meal: non-starchy veggies (think top); lean protein (think bottom); and good fat (think shoes). These foundation foods provide the building blacks that support metabolism, and the ongoing maintenance and repair of cells in your body-from immune cells to hormones, red blood cells, enzymes that digest food, hair, skin, and organs.
To this core trio, add what I refer to as an “energy accessory” (aka healthy carb), which you can think of as an add-on to a meal, like putting on a jacket over your top, carrying a bag, or wearing a hat or scarf. These good carb foods, which include whole grains, starchy vegetables, pulses (the umbrella term for beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas), and fruit, provide energy to fuel the activity of your cells and help them perform their roles. Cutting them out completely can lead to fatigue, and rob your body of important nutrients, including fiber, prebiotics, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. But overdoing it on carbs can result in overfueling (over accessorizing), which interferes with weight loss.
To strike the right balance, match your carb portion to your body’s energy demands, much like putting on a heavier jacket when it’s cooler out, and a lighter hoodie when it’s balmy. This outfit analogy can help you see where you’ve been out of balance, and how to tweak meals that allow for weight loss while still nourishing your body. For example, the alternative to a burrito isn’t veggies and protein only-it’s something like veggies and protein along with avocado and a small scoop of brown rice.
Contrary to what many people believe, balanced meals do result in weight loss (albeit more slowly), and extremes aren’t necessary in order to shed pounds. This kind of sensible meal balance is also far more sustainable long term.
Time your meals sensibly
Intermittent fasting is currently a huge trend. While the research is young, it does look promising. However, in my practice, I still see a consistent pattern. People who eat most of their food during their more active hours, and eat less or fast during their least active hours, get better results than those who do the opposite. In other words, the timing of your “eating window” matters.
If you decide to try intermittent fasting and limit your eating to eight to 10 hours a day, eat when you’re up and about, moving, and exercising, not when you’re resting and winding down. Over and over I have seen clients lose weight by simply shifting the timing of their meals. For example, for clients who do practice time-restricted eating, those who eat between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. typically get better results than those who eat between noon and 8 p.m.-if they’re sedentary in the evening, that is. And I think it’s worth noting that I’ve seen many, many clients successfully lose wright and keep it off without practicing intermittent fasting or time-restricting eating at all, if they implement many of the other principles laid out here.
Cook at home more often
This one may be pretty obvious, but it’s tried-and-true. Takeout and restaurant meals are notorious for oversized portions and a generous use of starch and sugar. And it’s really difficult to not eat too much, whether that’s due to the tastiness, or not wanting to waste food-even if it’s more than your body needs.
The caveat to cooking at home is that it generally needs to be fast and easy, especially when you’re tired and hungry! I advise my clients to select a few staple meals, and keep the ingredients on hand. When you know what to make, how to make it, how long it’s going to take, what it will taste like, and how you’re going to feel afterward, you’ll be a lot more likely to get in the kitchen.
Healthy shortcuts and minimal ingredients are encouraged. A few go-tos my clients like include: ready-to-eat leafy greens tossed with salsa fresca, topped with a crumbled veg burger patty, sliced avocado, and a scoop of black beans; or a scramble made with veggies, extra virgin olive oil, Italian seasoning, sea salt, black pepper, eggs, or chickpeas, and a side of fresh fruit. Find a few meals you enjoy that leave you feeling simultaneously full, satisfied, and energized, and that aren’t too time intensive.
In addition to supporting healthy weight loss, you can also save a considerable amount of money, and you can use your cooking time to unwind, listen to a podcast, or catch up with your partner.
In addition to providing calories, alcohol tends to lower inhibitions and stimulate appetite. I think we’ve all experienced eating foods we wouldn’t touch sober, and/or overeating with abandon while tipsy. So alcohol is a bit of a double whammy when it comes to weight loss. Many of my clients who cut out the two glasses of wine or cocktails they typically sip with dinner have dropped a size without making any other changes.
But if cutting out alcohol altogether doesn’t suit your lifestyle, consider committing to a specific drinking strategy. Some of my clients limit alcohol to weekends only. Others curb their consumption to a one drink max per day. In some cases, finding new ways of socializing helps considerably. My clients that typically spend time with friends by eating and drinking have had success by expanding their activities to include outings that don’t heavily revolve around drinking like meeting for coffee, going to a museum, play, or doing something active, such as going for a hike or bike ride.
Develop a splurge strategy
It’s not realistic to go the rest of your life never having treats, including both sweet and savory favorites. Repeatedly I have seen that trying to do so causes people to give up, abandon their weight loss goals, and slide back into old, unbalanced habits.
Instead, build can’t-live-without goodies in a balanced way. First, identify your very favorites. I ask my clients to rank foods using a 0–5 scale, with 0 being ‘meh’ and 5 a special food they can’t imagine forgoing forever. If something doesn’t rate at least a 4, you’re probably going to be OK passing it up.
But make room for those true faves. For example, if French fries are your thing, combine them with a lettuce wrapped veg or turkey burger, along with salad, veggies, or slaw. If you’re craving a decadent cupcake, eat a generous portion of veggies and some lean protein for dinner, and savor every morsel of your dessert. This is not at all about willpower, diet “rules,” or restriction-it’s about balance, and it feels good.
Most of us have been programmed to live in the all or nothing, but the in-between is a much happier, healthier place to be. And trust me, you can do this and still lose weight. Let go of the notion that weight loss requires extreme limitations. The real key is consistency, and this approach, although seemingly unconventional, is highly maintainable.
Don’t starve yourself
I’ve eluded to this a few times, but let me be blunt: In my 20 years of counseling clients, I have never once seen someone lose weight and keep it off by starving themselves. Have I seen people lose weight this way? Yes. But, in every case they either got sick or became physically, emotionally, or socially unable to keep it up-and regained all of the weight (sometimes plus more).
As a health professional, my goal is to help people lose weight in a way that feels good, optimizes wellness, and reduces the risk of immediate and long-term health problems. Starvation checks not one of those boxes. I’ve seen clients pay tons of money to go to spas that underfeed and overexercise their bodies, try cleanses, extreme fasts, or adopt severely limited diets, and the side effects have been disastrous.
I completely understand the pull these types of methods can attract, but chances are you’ve already tried some version of this in your life, and it didn’t end well. If you’re tempted again, listen to your gut, and remind yourself that a quick fix is ultimately a dead end.
Differentiate mind hunger from body hunger
Many of my clients are surprised how much time we spend talking about this, but in my experience, it’s fundamental for both weight loss and a healthy relationship with food. Body hunger triggers signs that are physical in nature, like a slightly growling tummy and a need for fuel. Mind hunger has nothing to do with your body’s needs. It may be driven by habit, emotions, or environmental cues-like seeing or smelling food, or watching other people eat.
I use breathing, guided meditation, and mindfulness to help my clients differentiate between the two, and the results are profound. I’ve had many clients tell me they’re hungry one hour after eating a perfectly balanced meal. And when we drill down, they realize that it’s not hunger they’re experiencing, but anxiety, boredom, or maybe the desire for reward or comfort. We are practically programmed for birth to use food to meet non-physical needs. We celebrate with food, bring food to loved ones when something bad happens, use it to bond, show love, and even pass time. We also learn to self-soothe with food, and we pair eating with other activities, like watching TV or reading, which then become uncomfortable to uncouple.
Delving into your personal relationship with food, and the whys behind your eating choices, can provide a wealth of knowledge. If you keep a food journal, add your thoughts and feelings to it, including why you chose to eat when and what you did, and what body signals you were experiencing. Until you really understand your patterns, they’re nearly impossible to change. If you find that you often mistake hunger for emotional eating, test out some alternative coping mechanisms that address your feelings. You cannot transform overnight, but as you begin to replace food with other ways of meeting your emotional needs, you will alter how you eat forever. And for many people, this is the final piece of the weight loss puzzle.
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All of the previous tips focus on forming different habits, letting go of approaches that haven’t served you well, and developing a new normal. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And you may even have people in your life who are unsupportive or disruptive to your goals.
Find support from somewhere. It can be a professional like me, a friend, co-worker, neighbor, even an app, website, or a like-minded person you’ve connected with through social media. I’ve had so many clients get talked out of healthy approaches because someone in their life convinced them it wasn’t necessary or wouldn’t work. It’s difficult to see that happen when the approach in question felt right to the client and was helping them feel well. But this is bound to happen whenever you go public with any type of lifestyle change.
To counter it, find your person or people who will listen, allow you to vent, support your healthy choices, and even gently interject if your choices don’t line up with wellness-focused goals. Healthy weight loss is a journey, but it shouldn’t be a solo expedition. Find at least one resource to keep you from losing your way.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.
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