Googled the word “diet” recently? If so, you’re in good company: trend data show that the popularity of this search term rises and falls every year with almost comic predictability—hitting its low point every December, then soaring to its annual peak in January. ’Tis the season when guilt meets good intentions! Alas, almost half the resolutions made to lose weight on January 1 fizzle within the first six months of the year. We’re not going to let that happen this year! Here are 10 weight-loss tips that really work.
Those New Year’s Champagne bubbles may have convinced you that you can overhaul your diet and start exercising every single day, but that’s kind of like hopping on a plane to Antarctica with no itinerary. “You need a plan,” says John Norcross, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Scranton, who has studied New Year’s resolutions. “What, specifically, are you going to do differently?” Experts recommend doing a brain dump of all the changes you want to make, then starting with one tiny, doable tweak—packing a healthy lunch or walking 20 minutes a day. Once that’s a comfortable part of your routine, put a bold checkmark on your list, then add another small change. Sure, baby steps take longer, but they work: a recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicinefound that people who made one small change a week lost nearly twice as much weight as those who followed broader “eat less, move more” guidelines. And imagine how gratifying it will feel to see those checkmarks add up as the pounds fall off.
When researchers compared women on two different diet plans—one that gave dieters a list of foods they could eat and a few easy-to-follow rules, and another more-complicated diet that allowed dieters more food choices, but required them to carefully track all of their eating and exercise—they discovered that those who found the latter plan difficult were the most likely to give up. “Complex diets can be burdensome, so opt for one that seems manageable,” says study coauthor Peter Todd, Ph.D., a professor of cognitive science and psychology at Indiana University in Bloomington and director of the IU Food Institute. (Try our easy-to-follow 500-calorie dinner plan.)“Everyone has a different tolerance, so the diet that works for your best friend might feel challenging to you. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed by a diet, switch to a simpler approach. That’s far better than quitting altogether.”
Let’s face it: the prospect of losing 20 pounds—or more—is daunting. That’s why Rachel Beller, M.S., R.D.N., author of Eat to Lose, Eat to Win, recommends setting a nearer-term goal weight that’s around half of the total amount you want to lose—and focusing on that. “Having an easier-to-reach goal can help keep you motivated,” she says. “And when you hit that first milestone, it gives you a chance to celebrate, re-evaluate your strategy and re-up your enthusiasm for the next stage.”
Last fall, researchers at the University of Minnesota did a series of studies in which they had participants eat vegetables before they put any other food on their plates—and even the researchers were surprised by what they found. “People consumed up to five timesmore veggies than usual,” says Traci Mann, Ph.D., who led the study. And participants who munched carrots before being offered M&Ms subsequently ate one-third less candy than those who were just given the candy first. Why does this trick work? Because when any food is put in front of us, we generally go for it—and the veggies aren’t competing with other foods on our plate (which we tend to go for first, if given the option). So start with a salad or crudités.
And, save the bread for the end of the meal. Eating simple carbs first dramatically increases blood sugar, which causes your body to pump out insulin and store the calories as fat—the opposite of what you want if you’re trying to lose weight, says obesity expert Louis Aronne, M.D., a professor of metabolic research at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Having some vegetables and protein before simple carbs blunts that unhealthy blood sugar response,” he adds.
Not long ago, Traci Mann and her colleagues showed study subjects a sad movie, then allowed some of them to eat their favorite feel-better food—such as brownies, cookies and ice cream. Others were given a granola bar, while a third group ate nothing at all. When the researchers assessed their subjects’ moods afterward, there was no difference among the three groups. In other words, brownies aren’t the surefire pick-me-up we think they are. Mann’s takeaway: “When you feel bad, you’re far better off calling a friend or going for a walk—both of which are proven to lift mood.” These options also have zero calories.
If the bathroom scale is an instrument of torture to you, it’s time to make peace! Studies show that people who successfully lose weight and keep it off long-term weigh themselves regularly. Otherwise you’re at risk of mindlessly regaining. In one study, a third of women didn’t realize they’d put on five pounds over the course of six months—and a quarter had no clue they’d gained nine. To get over your scale dread, remind yourself that the number isn’t an indictment of you as a person, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N. “Think of it as objective data—like the temperature on an outdoor thermometer—that can give you helpful information about whether you’re on track with your diet,” she says. And daily weighing might be best. “It demystifies the scale and takes away some of its power,” explains Carly Pacanowski, Ph.D., R.D., who has conducted weighing-frequency studies at Cornell University.
A series of new studies suggests that when you eat may be as important as whatyou eat. In one, participants who usually ate within a 15-hour window were told to confine it to 10 or 11 hours—and they dropped an average of seven pounds over the 16-week study, without changing anything else about their eating. “The timing of food intake affects the body’s internal clock, which in turn affects genes that play a role in metabolism,” says study author Satchidananda Panda, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. In other words, our bodies may burn calories more efficiently when we eat during a shorter window of the day. So consider eating your breakfast a little later and your dinner a little earlier.
Your purchases may not be as virtuous as you think. Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently analyzed Americans’ shopping habits and found that 61 percentof the calories in the food we buy are from highly processed items like refined breads, cookies, crackers, soda and chips. These foods also provide higher-than-optimal levels of saturated fat, sugar and sodium. To healthy-up your cart and help with weight loss, the study authors suggest buying mostly single-ingredient foods and shopping the perimeter of the store, where the fresher, healthier stuff like produce and fish tends to live. Chew some gum while you’re at it too. Research shows it could help you buy 7 percent less junk food when you shop (minty gum works best).
Ugh, I’m so fat!For many of us, that’s what passes for a weight-loss pep talk. “There’s this common misconception that being hard on yourself is the only way to achieve your goals,” says Kristin Neff, Ph.D., associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Self-Compassion.But treating yourself with kindness, research shows, is a better way to bolster your commitment to healthy behaviors. “Coach yourself through your ups and downs the way you’d coach a friend—with words of encouragement and support,” says Neff. “For instance, if you overeat or gain a few pounds, tell yourself, ‘Losing weight is hard for everyone—I’m not the only one struggling. I’m going to take it slowly and keep at it.’” Think of every day—even every meal—as an opportunity to start over.
Studies of successful dieters reveal a hard truth: “They remain fairly strict about their eating forever,” says James O. Hill, Ph.D., cofounder of the National Weight Control Registry, which keeps data on thousands of people who have lost weight and kept it off. Sound depressing? Think of it this way, suggests Eat to Lose, Eat to Win author Beller: “You just need to find a nutritional strategy you can live with long-term—like allowing yourself to have dessert (like these Chocolate-Beet Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting) or a cocktail or two every so often. It’s like moving to a new city. For the first year or so it’s difficult, but once you establish a routine you get comfortable. You might still miss things about your old life, but you’re happy with your new one too.”