Successful weight loss requires changing your behavior, altering your diet, and increasing your physical activity. The following research-based diet strategies have been used by people who have lost weight and kept it off. Use them to construct your own weight-loss program.
1. Figure out how many calories you should eat in a day. Calculate the number of calories needed to maintain your current weight. This is about 15 calories per pound of body weight for a moderately active person (someone who gets at least 30 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity every day). A completely sedentary person needs just 12 calories per pound to maintain weight.
One pound of body fat contains 3,500 calories. To lose 0.5 to 2 pounds per week—a gradual and safe rate of weight loss—you must consume 250 to 1,000 fewer calories per day than what is needed to maintain your weight. (This calorie cutback can be somewhat less severe if you also begin to exercise regularly.) Calorie intake should not drop below 1,200 calories a day in women or 1,500 calories a day in men (unless the diet is medically supervised), because it can be difficult to get all the nutrients your body needs on a very low-calorie diet.
2. Increase your intake of whole grains, vegetables and fruits. Studies show that adults who eat more whole grains—especially those that are high in fiber—have a lower body weight compared to those who eat fewer whole grains. That makes sense, since fiber helps you feel full without adding calories. Also, a diet rich in these foods is low in calorie density, meaning that foods are high in water and/or dietary fiber and have fewer calories per gram. This way of eating may be associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
3. Consume no more than 10 percent of calories from solid fats and added sugars. Added sugars—high fructose corn syrup, white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup—contribute an average of 16 percent of the total calories in American diets. The more solid fats and sugar you consume, the less room you have in your diet for calories from healthy foods containing dietary fiber and vitamins and minerals. The most common sources of solid fats in the American diet are grain-based desserts; pizza; full-fat cheese; sausage, frankfurters, bacon and ribs; and fried white potatoes. The main sources of added sugars are soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks, and grain- and dairy-based desserts. Eat fewer and smaller portions of foods and beverages that contain solid fats and/or added sugars. Trim fat from meat and use less butter, stick margarine and table sugar. Replace solid fats with low-fat alternatives, like fat-free milk, and choose foods and beverages that have no or are low in added sugars.
4. Do not add fat during cooking. Avoid sautéing foods in butter or oil. Use nonstick pans; coat them lightly with cooking spray if necessary, or try using broth, wine, fruit juice or even water for sautéing. When you do use oil to saute, use a small amount of a heart-healthy vegetable oil such as olive, canola, safflower, sunflower or soybean. Bake, broil, steam or roast foods instead of frying them.
5. Choose lean cuts of meat and poultry. Meat and poultry are rich in nutrients and are good sources of protein, but they can also contain a lot of fat. Top round, eye of round and round are the leanest cuts of beef; tenderloin, top loin and lean ham are the leanest pork cuts; and white-meat chicken and turkey are leaner than dark meat. Trim all external fat from meat before cooking. Do not eat poultry skin—it contains a lot of fat. But you can leave the skin on during roasting or baking to help keep the meat moist and tender; just be sure you do not cook the poultry with other ingredients, such as potatoes, that could absorb the fat released from the skin as it cooks. Limit portion sizes to 3 ounces—about the size of the palm of your hand or a deck of cards—and round out the meal with plenty of grains and vegetables.
6. Switch to low-fat or fat-free dairy products. Whole milk and cheeses can contain more fat than meat products. For example, a 1-ounce piece of cheddar has the same amount of fat as a 6-ounce chicken breast or a 3.5-ounce sirloin. But do not eliminate dairy products: They are an important source of calcium and protein. Moreover, some studies suggest that a reduced-calorie diet that includes three or more daily servings of dairy products leads to greater weight loss—most notably in the abdominal region—than just cutting calories or cutting calories and taking a calcium supplement. Researchers believe that the combination of nutrients in dairy products may speed up metabolism and improve the body’s ability to burn fat.
7. Read food labels. Nutrition labels required on all packaged foods provide important information about calorie and fat content.
8. Experiment with reduced-fat, low-fat and fat-free versions of foods. From fat-free milk to reduced-fat salad dressing and cream cheese, these foods can help you cut fat from your diet. But just because a food is low in fat does not mean you can eat unlimited quantities. Many of these fat-reduced foods, particularly fat-free cakes and cookies, contain as many—or even more—calories than the regular versions, because manufacturers add extra sugar to compensate for the flavor lost when the fat is removed. Compare food labels to make sure that the reduced-fat foods you choose actually contain fewer calories than the full-fat versions.
9. Use fat substitutes sparingly. While fat substitutes definitely reduce the number of calories you consume from fat and saturated fat, their impact on your total calorie intake and body weight (as well as your general health in the long term) is uncertain.
10. Watch out for hidden fats. It is easy to overlook the fat and calories in toppings such as margarine, cream sauce, mayonnaise, salad dressings, peanut butter, sour cream and cheese. For example, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter contain almost 200 calories. Limit the amounts of these toppings, choose low-fat versions (for instance, low-fat or nonfat sour cream or mayonnaise) or find substitutes (such as tomato sauce instead of cream sauce on pasta).
11. Consider the calories in beverages. Although regular soda, fruit juices and alcoholic beverages are fat free, they contain a lot of calories. With the exception of citrus juices, these beverages are not a good source of vitamins and minerals. They also don’t satisfy your hunger as much as food, so you don’t necessarily eat fewer calories from food. Instead, choose calorie-free beverages—water or seltzer and moderate amounts of coffee and tea—more often. When you want a sugary beverage, drink a smaller portion—and make sure you’re not exceeding your daily calorie limit. Finally, monitor your intake of alcohol. Keep in mind that mixers add calories to your drinks.
12. Eat smaller portions of food and beverages—especially those that are high in calories. Small portions are associated with weight loss and maintenance. While fat consumption has dropped in the past 20 years in the United States, serving sizes and total calorie consumption have increased. The average daily calories available per person in the food marketplace has increased by about 600 calories over the last four decades. Also, Americans tend to eat large portions of food, especially meat, and what many people think of as a serving is usually more than the amount that is listed on food labels.
To get an accurate picture of the amount of food you normally eat, serve yourself a typical portion, then use a measuring cup, measuring spoons, or food scale to measure or weigh the food. Next, try serving yourself a smaller portion. You can stop weighing and measuring food once you become accustomed to estimating smaller portion sizes. When you’re eating at a restaurant, order a smaller meal (like an appetizer), share a meal or take home part of the meal. If the menu provides calorie information, choose the lower calorie option.