Despite what the weight-loss industry would have you believe, there are no quick fixes in life. A few weeks of deprivation won't help you achieve your body goals — and if your primary concern is how to get skinny or lose weight as quickly as possible, then it may be time to change your mindset. Diets aren't sustainable, and that's because restricting what you eat is only a temporary solution. Rather than dieting, the best way to achieve healthy weight loss over time (and, more importantly, support long-term weight maintenance) is to make a few simple lifestyle changes.
Of course, every body is different, so the healthy weight loss strategies that work for someone else may not work for you. It's also important to remember that a smaller body is not necessarily a healthier one. Long-lasting health gains come from improving your diet and incorporating exercise in ways that you can sustain, and while those results may include a shrinking waistline, try not to focus on a goal weight.
We spoke to nutritionists and dietitians to find out the natural weight loss and weight maintenance strategies that actually work, and here's what they had to say.
Since your body burns more calories when digesting and metabolizing protein than carbohydrates, a high-protein diet can help boost metabolism. Plus, "protein metabolizes slowly, meaning that it will keep you feeling fuller longer," registered dietician MaryKate O'Riordan, RDN, LDN, tells Woman's Day. "And, as an added bonus, protein keeps blood sugars stable."
You don't need to fill your diet with large cuts of meat in order to feel the effects, either. "A good rule of thumb is to pair a protein with each meal or snack," says O'Riordan. According to registered dietician Maya Bach, MPH, RDN, plant-based proteins are the way to go, since they're rich in antioxidants and fiber and cholesterol-free. "Although higher in sodium, meat-free alternatives can be excellent sources of protein, fiber, and iron," she says. "Start small by swapping out an animal protein, like chicken, for beans, tofu, or edamame."
Think skipping breakfast will help you lose weight? Think again. If you wait hours to eat after waking up, your blood sugar levels tend to drop earlier in the day, meaning you'll be starving by lunchtime (or even earlier!) and less likely to make healthy choices.
Of course, not all breakfasts are created equal. Foodtrainers founder Lauren Slayton, MS, RD, says you should skip the carbs and start your day with protein-heavy picks. "If you have your typical breakfast foods (like toast, cereal, or even oats), then you’ll eat more and crave more carbs at other meals," she says. "Instead, steer yourself toward eggs, protein smoothies (without fruit juice), Greek yogurt and fruit, or chia pudding."
Drink plenty of water.
Not only is staying hydrated important to maintaining overall health (especially when exercising) but we also sometimes confuse the feeling of thirst for hunger, according to the Mayo Clinic. "Staying hydrated is key for weight management and for health overall," registered dietitian Jackie London told Woman's Day.
While it can be tempting to turn to sugary beverages such as soda, juice, and coffee with sweeteners when you're thirsty, try to get into a habit of reaching for water instead. Keep a pitcher of water at your desk to help remind you, and carry around a reusable water bottle when on the go. Bach also suggests drinking water first thing in the morning. "Because most of us haven't been drinking water overnight, we wake up mildly dehydrated," she explains. "Drinking water supports your gut health and energy levels and ensures you're starting your day hydrated."
Avoid diet soda.
Liquid calories come in many forms—juice, smoothies, sodas, and more. What makes them dangerous, according to studies, is that liquid calories are not as satiating as solid calories, so you end up adding those calories on top of food before you feel full. And no, despite being classified as "diet soda", artificially-sweetened options aren't a healthy alternative to sugary sodas and juices.
Admittedly, artificial sweeteners are controversial. While some studies show that they don't affect weight, other research suggests that calorie-free drinks may cause weight gain by stimulating hunger. To be safe, nutrition and weight loss expert Dr. Lori Shemek advises avoiding them completely. "Diet sodas set the brain up for wanting more sugar, and many people get addicted to them," she says.
Keep healthy snacks handy.
When it comes to snacking, choose foods that'll keep your energy levels soaring all day long. "It's easy to overeat when you are starving come mealtime," says O'Riordan. "Making a routine of having go-to snacks available for between meals is a pro tip to maintaining healthy meal portions and properly fueling your body."
Bach suggests storing fresh, minimally processed foods — like fruits and nuts — at eye level in your fridge or pantry. "When you're hungry, you are more likely to reach for what's easily within sight and reach, and storing foods you'd like to eat more makes 'eating well' the easy choice," she says. For instance, you can store precut veggies in a clear container alongside your favorite dip, like hummus or ranch, in the fridge.
Eat sugar sparingly.
Added sugar is simply not good for you. In fact, consuming too much added sugar is linked with a variety of diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer — not to mention it can lead to weight gain. "Your body can only handle so much at one time. If you overdo it, you store it as fat," says registered dietitian Carla Heiser, MS, RD, LD.
Of course, that doesn't mean you should cut out sugar completely. "Figure out what your body can handle," Heiser suggests. Do you feel tired and bloated after a few cookies? Based on your reaction, you'll know if you should cut back. After all, food is supposed to make you feel good, and minimizing your intake of added sugar is a great way to improve your diet and general wellbeing.
Watch your sodium intake.
Just like with added sugars, most Americans consume more sodium than they need, which increases your risk of developing high blood pressure... and also makes it far more difficult to maintain your weight. Avoiding processed foods is one of the best ways to cut back on your salt intake. "It's essential to find ways to limit the amount [of sodium] you're getting from processed foods," explains Bach.
While foods with low-fat or low-calorie labels may sound good in theory, the problem is that they're often heavily processed and high in sodium. Choosing whole, single-ingredient foods is a far better choice than heavily-processed "diet" foods, especially since whole foods are naturally very filling. In addition to whole foods, Bach also suggests looking for lower-sodium versions of products like bread, cereals, canned beans, and pasta sauces.
Take it easy with refined carbs.
Though carbohydrates get a bad rap and are not inherently unhealthy, it's best to limit your intake of refined carbs, also known as simple carbs or processed carbs. Because refined carbs have had most of their beneficial nutrients and fiber removed, they're easily digested, which studies show can increase your risk of overeating and weight gain. Examples of refined carbs include white flour, white bread, white rice, and pastries.
Again, while carbohydrates are an important part of everyone's diet, research demonstrates that low-carb diets are very effective for weight loss, as limiting carbs and eating more fat and protein reduces your appetite and helps you eat fewer calories. Just note that extreme low-carb diets, such as the keto diet, aren't sustainable long-term and shouldn't be considered a lifelong lifestyle change.
Eat at the table.
Between work, school, sports, and everything else, there's a good chance your schedule is pretty packed. However, it's important to carve some time out of your day to enjoy a sit-down meal. Not only is this time you can use to bond with your family, but sitting down for dinner is also great for your health, as mindful eating has been shown to have significant effects on weight.
If you're not familiar with the term, mindful eating is a method used to increase awareness while eating, and eating at the table is just one way you can make conscious food choices and increase your food awareness. "Eating mindlessly while doing other things leads to overconsumption," O'Riordan explains, "and more likely than not, you will be making poorer food choices."
Condense your consumption.
When it comes to health and weight, timing is everything. According to Slayton, condensing your eating hours can help you lose weight naturally — even if you're not changing your diet. "Start to look at when you eat," she says. For her, a good rule of thumb is to keep your consumption for the day (excluding water, black coffee, or tea) within a 12-hour range, so that your last bite of the day isn't more than 12 hours after your first bite.
Slayton also suggests that you try not to eat solid food at least two hours before going to bed, as studies demonstrate that people who eat before bed are more likely to gain weight. But remember: The goal of time-restricted eating is not to cut calories, but rather to minimize when you're getting those calories across the day.
Use smaller plates.
Speaking of mindful eating! This one may seem strange, but it makes sense that a larger plate means more room to pile on food — perhaps more food than you actually need. Most people tend to fill their plates, regardless of plate size, and studies have shown that using smaller plates actually helps you eat less, due to the fact that it changes how you see portion sizes.
When you use a plate that's too big, you might end up giving yourself too-big portions — it's as simple as that. "Using a smaller plate, like a salad plate, at meals helps to maintain portions," says O'Riodan. Using a smaller plate can also help you stay mindful of how much food you're consuming with little to no effort.
Get your beauty rest.
When you're busy, the first thing that takes a hit is sleep. But if you want to maintain your weight, research shows that sleep takes top priority. In fact, on days when you're sleep deprived and you have to choose between an extra hour of shuteye or waking up early to work out, Dr. Shemek actually suggests snoozing instead of hitting the gym.
Getting enough sleep is incredibly important for weight loss (as well as to prevent future weight gain), and this is largely because sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on your appetite hormones, leading to poor appetite regulation. "Lack of sleep has hormonal effects that create weight gain and alter your appetite to prefer high-calorie foods," Dr. Shemek says. "Besides, you won't have the energy to exercise effectively without sleep."
Load up on fiber.
As you've probably heard, fiber-rich foods can help you feel fuller for longer, especially foods containing water-soluble fiber, since this type of fiber can help increase the feeling of fullness. There is also research indicating that fiber may delay stomach emptying, which promotes the release of satiety hormones and naturally compels you to eat less.
High-fiber foods like fruits and vegetables also tend to be lower in calories and rich in nutrients, which is all the more reason to fill your produce drawers. Studies have shown that people who eat more fruits and vegetables tend to weigh less, and veggies in particular are so important to your diet. "At a minimum, have two cups of veggies, twice each day," Slayton suggests. "At least half your plate should be veg. And try for 'top-shelf' veggies, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, asparagus, and kale."
Chew your food thoroughly.
Chewing is the first part of the digestive process, although it doesn't get as much attention as it should. Taking the time to chew properly can help the enzymes in your saliva break down your food so that it's more easily digested in your body. In addition to increasing the production of hormones that are linked to weight loss, chewing more slowly and thoroughly can also help you avoid overeating.
When you eat too fast, you're more likely to take in more calories than you actually need before your body realizes that you are no longer hungry. "It takes your brain about 20 minutes to signal that you are full," O'Riordan explains, "so if you take time to thoroughly chew your food and slow down mealtime, your body will have time to realize you're satiated."
Try not to obsess over calories.
While being aware of what you’re eating is always helpful when trying to lose weight, try not to let yourself get too wrapped up in calorie counting. As Heiser explains, there's a huge difference between how your body uses 1,000 calories of junk food and 1,000 calories of whole foods. Obsessing over calorie counts could make you deny yourself calorie-dense, yet nutritious, foods like fatty fish, avocado, oils like olive and coconut, nuts, and dark chocolate.
Focus on filling your plate with real foods with an emphasis on protein (fish, chicken, tofu), vegetables, and a source of healthy fat. Well-rounded meals coupled with heeding your hunger cues can keep you at a healthy weight, Heiser says.
Experiment in the kitchen.
Healthy eating is never boring when you're jazzing up your meals with herbs and spices. They amplify any dish's flavor and replace fat while still being just as satisfying, and according to studies, spicy veggies like chili peppers and jalapeños even contain a compound called capsaicin, which may boost metabolism and increase the burning of fat.
So go ahead and add a dash of smoked paprika, red pepper flakes, or cayenne in place of butter to your steamed broccoli, and rather than choking down a plain roasted chicken breast, sprinkle on a variety of dried herbs, garlic powder, and chili flakes. Variety is the spice of life, after all!
Make sustainable lifestyle changes.
Healthy weight loss and weight maintenance aren't about quick fixes. In fact, the reason most diets fail in the long term is because the entire focus is on losing weight rather than nourishing your body with healthy food and nutrients. If you want to become a healthier, happier, fitter person, then focus on making sustainable lifestyle changes for yourself rather than setting strict rules and regulations that you can't consistently follow.
Your diet as a whole is what keeps your weight steady, which is why balance is key. Practice mindful eating, add resistance exercises and cardio to your routine, focus on filling your body with whole foods, and take good care of yourself, and it won't be long before you see (and feel!) real changes that last. As Dr. Shemek says, "Treat yourself like you treat a loved one: with encouragement and affirmation."
Jessica Migala is a health writer specializing in general wellness, fitness, nutrition, and skincare, with work published in Women’s Health, Glamour, Health, Men’s Health, and more. She is based in the Chicago suburbs and is a mom to two little boys and rambunctious rescue pup.
Corinne Sullivan is an Editor at Cosmopolitan, where she covers a variety of beats, including lifestyle, entertainment, relationships, shopping, and more. She can tell you everything you need to know about the love lives of A-listers, the coziest bedsheets, and the sex toys actually worth your $$$. She is also the author of the 2018 novel Indecent. Follow her on Instagram for cute pics of her pup and bébé.
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