You’ve seen the ads in magazines and on television. The infomercials promise you that you can “eat anything you want and lose weight!” That’s a nice fantasy, but honestly, unless “anything you want” includes lots of healthy whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and heart-friendly fats, it’s just not true. No matter how strongly you believe it, you won’t lose weight on a steady diet of Big Macs, hot fudge sundaes and fried chicken with gravy. That doesn’t mean you can never eat those foods again if your goal is weight loss and fitness. It just means that they should be an occasional treat rather than your regular go-to meal.
So exactly how should you eat to lose weight?
If you’re looking for prescriptive diet plans – menus that tell you exactly which foods to eat and in what portions – you’ll probably be disappointed. While those plans do exist – and you can even subscribe to weight loss meal plans that deliver prepared diet meals directly to your door – they don’t all work for everyone. And while it might be nice to believe that everyone who doesn’t lose weight on a strict diet must be cheating and sneaking in the sweets and fatty foods, that doesn’t seem to be true either. It seems that weight loss and metabolism are affected by many different factors, and one of the most important ones is the balance of foods that you eat.
Despite individual variations, though, there are some things that science has settled about weight loss, fitness and health. These guidelines can help you work toward eating a healthier diet and get you to your weight loss goals at a steady, even pace.
It’s Still About the Calories
Like it or not, the facts are clear. If you spend more calories than you take in, you’ll lose weight. If you eat more calories than you spend, you’ll gain weight. The problem is that it can be difficult to measure exactly how many calories you’re expending. People’s bodies seem to metabolize foods at different rates for many different reasons. There are some medications, for example, that encourage your body to store energy as fat rather than burn it off.
Timing Is Important
Science has known for a long time that our bodies will go into “starvation mode” when faced with severe reductions in caloric intake. In fact, it appears that our bodies go into storage mode far more quickly than we ever realized. This suggests that one of the keys to weight loss and healthy weight maintenance is eating more frequently to provide a steady flow of fuel for your body’s energy needs. More and more diet doctors recommend eating 5 meals/snacks daily and dividing your daily caloric intake fairly evenly among them.
Processing Remove Nutrients
Most processed foods provide a lot of empty calories – calories that add to your weight without providing much in the way of actual fuel for your body. The more processing is involved in making a food, the more likely it is that the food is high in calories and short on actual nutrients. Whenever possible, choose whole grains over processed grains – that is, brown rice is better than white rice, which is better than instant rice, and steel-cut oatmeal is better for you than little packages of oatmeal flakes loaded with sugar and artificial flavorings.
Variety Is the Key to Health
The more varied your diet, the more likely it is that you’ll get all the nutrients your body needs to process foods efficiently. Include fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins in your menus every day, and color code your plate to ensure that you’re getting a wide range of vitamins, minerals and other important dietary elements.
Eat Your Breakfast
Avoid skipping meals at all if you can help it, but make especially sure to eat breakfast. Research has repeatedly shown that people who eat breakfast routinely eat fewer calories and make healthier food choices throughout the rest of the day – and that’s true of every age group and demographic. For best results, start your day with whole grain, fresh fruit and protein to get your mind and body working at optimal levels.
Portion Control Is Important
It’s not enough to eat the right foods. You also have to eat them in the right portion sizes. Americans in general have a wildly distorted idea of appropriate portion sizes. When you first start trying to lose weight and eat healthier, it’s important to measure everything so that you get an accurate idea of portion sizes. Once you get used to cooking and eating appropriate portions, you won’t find it necessary to measure your food any longer.
Do a Balancing Act
Lots of fad diets depend upon depriving your body of specific nutrients by restricting certain classes of foods. While it’s possible to lose weight by cutting out an entire food group, it’s not healthy. Your body needs the right balance of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, fats and protein in order to function properly – and proper functioning includes metabolizing your food and burning it for energy. Typically, you should get about 45% of your daily caloric intake from grains and carbohydrates, 30% from protein and 25% from healthy fats.
Savor Your Food
One surprising fact about eating to lose weight is that people who enjoy their food are far more likely to lose weight and maintain their weight loss. Don’t eat mindlessly. Make a point of preparing meals for yourself and set the table even if you’re eating alone. Choose foods you enjoy and take the time to savor every bite. The more attention you pay to the foods you put into your mouth, the more your body will learn to recognize when it is satisfied. That helps you avoid overeating and encourages you to eat consciously.
Believe it or not, water is one of the most important ingredients in a healthy weight loss plan. It helps your body flush out waste products and properly digest foods. Even low levels of dehydration can affect your metabolism, making it less efficient. If you drink sugared soft drinks, replace them with fresh, cool or cold water and you’ll save hundreds of calories a day. Diet soft drinks have also been implicated in obesity. They may have fewer calories, but scientists are beginning to recognize that the chemicals in diet soft drinks also seem to make it harder for people to lose weight.
Looking for specific tips on eating to lose weight? Check out our sections on preparing healthy weight loss meals and how to stock a healthy weight loss pantry and freezer.