Diet is a four-letter word. For people who struggle with weight, the word conjures images of hardship and long lists of what we shouldn't be eating and doing. The basic equation is simple: To lose weight, expend more calories than you consume; do the opposite to gain. Maintaining healthy weight means changing your habits.
"To lose weight on a permanent basis, people have to realize it's going to take time and effort," says Donna Speed, a dietician and the nutritional services director with the Mississippi Department of Health. "... We just don't realize what we have to do."
Fad diets, crash diets and "miracle" diets aren't realistic, Speed says. Most leave you feeling deprived because they eliminate entire food groups. While some may deliver spectacular short-term results, they are often nutritionally deficient, which can be dangerous, and they don't instill what you need: balanced, healthy, life-long habits.
So what does work?
Reset your focus: Your brain has a big role in success. If your lens is negative (I look terrible; I can't eat that), your results will reflect that negativity, leaving you defeated even if you make progress. A positive focus (I do what works for my body) retrains your brain to see wins instead of faults.
Commitment: Being healthy is a way of life. Bad habits didn't happen overnight, and they won't magically disappear in 24 hours. Allow time for new, healthy habits to take root, and try not to beat yourself up for every little setback.
Start where you are: Take an honest inventory. For a week or two, log the types and amounts of food you eat, and all of your physical activities. It will provide a baseline and heighten your awareness to prepare you for lasting changes.
What's healthy for you? Every body is different. If you're naturally curvy with a slow metabolism, you're unlikely to achieve fashion-model gauntness. Conversely, if you're fine-boned and have to work to gain weight, Rubinesque probably isn't in your future. That's OK. Genetics, age, hormones, ability—everything factors in.
Be realistic: Sudden, big adjustments can lead to disappointment. When you're overweight or obese, losing one or two pounds a week might seem achingly slow, but it works. "With that kind of weight loss, you're going to keep it off," Speed says.
Losing just 2 percent to 10 percent of your current weight will make a big difference. Set a few small goals instead of attempting wholesale changes.
Drink more water: Sugary sodas and fruit juices add empty calories, and even artificially sweetened drinks will leave you craving more sweetness. Instead, eat whole fruits, which are filling, have fiber and essential nutrients, and drink water, Speed says.
Watch portions: Your stomach is about the size of your fist, and you don't need more food to be full. It can take your brain up to 20 minutes to send the "full" signal, though, so slow down and savor your food. If you're used to big meals, bring the size down gradually. Learn to read labels to accurately judge portions.
Substitute: Your eyes play a part, too. Use a smaller plate and increase healthier foods a little at a time, decreasing high-fat and starchy foods while keeping your plate full. Cut down on processed, packaged foods (most of which contain high levels of salt, sugar and fat), and eat more fresh foods and even canned or frozen veggies. "You don't have to eat meat at every meal," Speed says. Dried beans or peas with brown rice are just as nutritious, provide fiber for good digestion and are much cheaper.
Love your sweat: Sweating is a sign your body is working. Even if you're very heavy or completely out of shape, you can probably manage chair-based exercise or a daily five-minute walk, so start there. Your long-term goal is 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise five days a week, but that may take a while. Anything that gets you moving is better than nothing.
Balanced commercial diets such as Weight Watchers can be highly effective, Speed says, as can medically supervised programs that combine education with prescribed meals. And gyms and classes are great. But you don't need to spend money. The Mississippi Department of Health provides a wealth of information, tools and easy recipes at no charge. Visit healthyms.com to get started today.