How to Lose Weight When You Don't Know Where to Start, According to a Dietitian
The clickbait is everywhere with snazzy headlines saying "Drop 10 lbs fast" or "Fit Back into Your Skinny Jeans." But what if you feel like you have an overwhelming amount of weight to lose and you just don't know where to start? You may have tried keto, celery juice, detoxes, low-carb, low-fat, you name it. Actually, you might be pretty good at losing weight—the problem is you can't keep it off. If this sounds like you, keep reading. "Mindset is like 90% of the work." That's what my client, Sarah, said to me regarding the 50 pounds she lost last year and maintained for the past six months. I'm sharing tips directly from her on how to get started—and stick with it—when you're not quite sure where to start again on your weight-loss journey.
1. Embrace the long game
If you want to not only lose 50 pounds but also keep it off, set realistic expectations. A safe, sustainable amount of weight to lose is about 1/2 pound to 2 pounds per week. In reality, however, that might look more like 2 to 3 pounds per week at the beginning, then perhaps 1/2 pound down the next week, then up a pound the next week, then maintaining for a few weeks before dropping a pound again. Your weight-loss graph will look more like a staircase or a squiggly line than a perfect, linear trend. If it's jumping all over the place, but trending down overall, you're doing it right. There are 52 weeks in a year, so be ready to commit to at least one year of changing your habits. Even longer-term, try to only adopt habits you think you can stick with for the long haul.
2. Rely on a professional to help
This is not the time to try another detox or strict meal plan that an Instagram influencer is promoting. These are diets in disguise—they work for the short term but not for the long term. Long-term weight loss is about small habit changes you can keep up with over time. Those who are successful at losing weight usually work with health care professionals, usually a doctor, registered dietitian and a therapist. Yes, a therapist. "I've crash dieted and lost 100 pounds before and I was physically thinner but not at all mentally healthier, so patience and persistence and the ability to fall down and get up over and over again," are key, says Sarah. "Also, if you feel you have an eating disorder, like binge eating, seek help from a counselor that specializes in that."
This journey is hard alone. And it's hard with close friends and family. Health care professionals provide two important things: science-based weight-loss recommendations and accountability from someone who isn't a close friend. Weekly, or even daily, check-ins are key to help you stay on track. "I think the most important things for me have been getting accountability that best matches my personality, always allowing the 20% (that is key for sustaining weight loss), perfecting the art of moving on and always zooming out and focusing on the long game," reports Sarah. Many insurance plans cover visits with registered dietitians and therapists, so check with yours to see if your visits may be covered.
3. Adopt the 80/20 philosophy
So what is the 20%? Think of it as all of the foods you restrict when you're dieting but eventually end up bingeing on. Sustainable weight loss is about ditching the all-or-nothing mentality, letting go of the idea that one meal can make or break your efforts, and embracing balance. Aim to follow the MyPlate guidelines about 80% of the time throughout the week. That means trying to have at least two meals per day, most days, fit this plate: one-half vegetables and fruits, one-quarter whole grains and one-quarter protein with some healthy fat. Then, don't stress about the rest. It's "flexible structure." No guilt allowed.
4. Understand set point theory
The body likes balance. Body temperature stays within a narrow range of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The pH of blood is around 7.4. Your body has a weight range it likes to stay within too: It's called your set point. Unfortunately, it's easier for this range to move up than it is to move down. This is for various reasons scientists are still trying to figure out like the fact that weight loss decreases metabolic rate (the number of calories burned at rest) and increases ghrelin, the hormone that signals hunger. However, lowering your set point is not impossible (here's more about what happens to your metabolism when you lose weight).
After all, there are numerous success stories, like the people in the National Weight Control Registry who have lost 30 pounds or more and kept it off for at least one year. So how do you do it? According to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) at Harvard, crash dieting is not the answer. Instead, aim to lose 5 to 10% of your body weight at one time. "That's the amount of weight you can lose before your body starts to fight back," BIDMC reports on their website. Then, and here's the hard part, work to maintain that loss for six months before trying to lose another 5 to 10%. This is the time during which people often throw in the towel or opt for the crash diet their friend is doing. But, if you can stay the course and ride out the maintenance for six months, "You can repeat the cycle and reset your set point again by losing another 10%. Through small, gradual changes in your daily habits, you'll be able to stay at that new, lower weight for the rest of your life. This prescription is vital to outsmarting the body's natural tendencies to regain weight," according to the BIDMC website.
You may also have to reassess your initial weight-loss goal. If you reach a point where you feel great, are healthy and have habits you can sustain for months but the number on the scale is higher than you'd like, it may be time to embrace a new number.
5. Track your food (at least to start)
Research shows that those who track their food are most successful with losing weight and keeping it off. Tracking isn't meant to be done forever but it can be a helpful tool until new habits stick. A habit is an automated behavior. The more habits you create, the fewer decisions you have to make and the more brain space you have to think about other things. You certainly don't need to do this forever, but it may give you a better idea about what a serving of oatmeal looks like in your bowl, or how many random handfuls of chips you munch on as you try and figure out what to make for dinner. You can track food in a written diary, by taking photos, in a calorie-counting app or a combination of these. If you've never tracked calories, it can be a good place to start so you can become familiar with portion sizes and macronutrients (fat, protein and carbohydrates). But, calorie-counting can become obsessive and backfire, leaving you out of touch with your hunger and satiety signals. You may be more likely to turn to an app, instead of listening to your body. Work with a registered dietitian who can help you figure out the best tracking approach for you and can also review your meals so you have accountability.
6. Rethink the scale
No one likes the scale. But like it or not, the research shows that people who track their weight are most successful with losing weight and keeping it off. Here's the caveat: weight should not be the only metric you track. And, you need to understand what the scale measures. The scale does not measure fat. It's a measurement of everything in your body, mostly fluid but also bones, organs, fat and muscle. Think of your weight within a 3 to 4 pound range. The scale goes up and down for various reasons—you poop, it goes down. You eat salty takeout food, it goes up. A strength-training workout can bump it up. You don't lose or gain fat overnight. So think about shifting the range down instead of focusing on one single number. (Here are 7 Things That May Move the Scale but Don't Actually Make You Gain Weight.)
For some people, daily weigh-ins do more harm than good, so weighing once a week might be a good frequency. However, when you learn to see the number on the scale for what it is (not a measurement of fat), it could be more helpful to weigh daily. Sarah was stressing so much about what the scale would say every Monday that she decided to weigh every day and found it more helpful. "Personally, weighing daily has helped because it's normalized the fluctuations for me and helped me realize when I'm averaging in the wrong direction. There are great apps that plot the average trend of your weight which helps, but I think overall daily weighing has truly been helpful," she said. (If you hate the scale, or find it more harmful than helpful, don't worry. You don't need to use it, here's why.)
7. Track other metrics
I have several clients who haven't seen the scale move in months, but they've lost inches and feel amazing. In addition to weekly weigh-ins, take waist circumference measurements and progress photos once a month. Five pounds of fat and five pounds of muscle weigh the same, but muscle takes up less space (and it means you're getting stronger!) so these metrics help you see body composition changes and will motivate you to keep going.
In addition to how you look, take note of how you feel. Can you walk farther, run faster or do a pushup? If you know what they were when you started, have your cholesterol levels or blood sugar numbers improved? Consider including some goals around what your body can do, rather than how you look.
8. Get moving
Diet matters more than exercise for weight loss but exercise is crucial for keeping off the weight (plus, exercise has plenty of other benefits). If you are sedentary and then start moving, you will start burning calories, which will create a calorie deficit. "Finding exercise you love helps to maintain the weight loss," reports Sarah. Don't know where to start? Start walking. Create small, attainable goals like 15 minutes per day and work up to 30 minutes. If you currently walk 2,000 steps per day, don't try to walk 10,000. Start with 4,000 per day and add more every couple weeks.
Next, add strength training, using either weights or your body weight. Start with one day per week and work up to 2 to 4 times per week. Strength training builds muscle, and muscle burns calories even when you're sitting at your desk all day. It's the fat-loss pill no one wants to take. Cardio exercise, like running, biking or swimming, is great too, but keep in mind that higher-intensity workouts tend to spike hunger later in the day, which can lead to overeating. A good balance is daily walking, strength training 2 to 4 times per week and cardio or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) 1 to 3 times per week. But, the best exercise is the one that you'll keep doing.
9. Focus on fiber
A calorie deficit is needed for weight loss but instead of focusing on what to restrict, focus on what to add. The body breaks down protein, carbohydrates and fat from food and absorbs the nutrients. If you're eating more calories than your body needs, the extra will be stored as fat. However, the body doesn't absorb or store fiber. Fiber passes through the stomach and intestines largely unabsorbed, bulks everything up and then you poop it out. Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes.
By making half your plate vegetables and fruits at most meals, you automatically shift the caloric composition of your meal. For example, 1 cup of pasta or rice is 200 calories but 1 cup of vegetables is about 30 calories. So not only can you eat more vegetables for fewer calories but you also get the added benefit of the fiber (as well as vitamins and minerals), which moves through your system slowly keeping you full longer.
Fiber also expands and slows emptying of the stomach, which sends signals to the brain that you are full. Gut bacteria feed off fiber and produce short-chain fatty acids like acetate and butyrate, which research shows may help burn fat. Aim for 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day or about 8 to 10 grams per meal. One cup of raspberries has 8 grams of fiber, 1 cup of broccoli has 5 grams of fiber and 1/2 cup of black beans has about 7 grams of fiber. (Try eating more of these high-fiber foods.)
10. Eat protein at every meal
Along with fiber, eat protein at every meal, especially breakfast. Studies show that when people eat a high-protein breakfast, they have fewer cravings and eat less later in the day. Protein suppresses the hunger hormone, ghrelin, and is digested slowly, keeping you full longer. When protein is eaten with carbohydrates, it slows the rise of blood sugar, which prevents the spike-and-crash effect that leaves you craving carbs an hour after you ate. Include protein, fiber and healthy fat at each meal.
Protein needs are based on weight, but about 20 grams per meal is a good starting point. A serving of Greek yogurt packs 15 grams of protein and you can pair it with berries for fiber. Three ounces of chicken, about the size of a deck of cards, has 23 grams of protein. Beans are a protein-packed vegetarian option. (Here's how to calculate how much protein you need in a day.)
If you feel overwhelmed with how much weight you have to lose, start small. Don't try to tackle everything at once. In order to lose weight and keep it off, you need to embrace a long-term mentality and focus on small habit changes. Get professional help so you have accountability and can focus on the habits that move the needle most. Track other metrics, along with the scale. Finally, move your body most days, focus on making half your plate vegetables at meals, get out of the all-or-nothing mentality and celebrate your success along the way!
Lainey Younkin is a weight-loss dietitian who helps women ditch diets, change their habits, and create a healthy lifestyle that lasts. She writes on a variety of topics including weight loss, gut health, pregnancy, breastfeeding and trendy diets. When she's not writing or counseling, you can find her on a run, out to brunch, or with coffee in hand trying to keep up with her two little boys.