Small steps may be the best approach to long-term weight loss.
Anyone who's ever tried to lose weight knows it takes work. But it may not require as much as you think. Throwing everything at the problem might, in fact, be exactly why you fail at the latest plan you've sworn you'll stick to. "You have to start small," says Holly Wyatt, MD, a clinical researcher at the Center for Human Nutrition in Denver. "People tend to launch on a weight-loss program and try to change everything in their lives all at once."
Therein lies the problem, experts say. Such drastic attempts rarely ever work. The simple solution? Make incremental adjustments to your eating and exercise habits that can shave calories here and there for maximum impact.
For example, consuming just 100 fewer calories each day is enough to avert the 1 to 2 pounds the average person gains each year, says Wyatt, who co-authored a study in the Journal Science on battling obesity. To lose weight, you have to go a step further, she says, downsizing by 500 calories a day. But you don't have to slash them all from your plate. "You can eat 250 calories less and then burn 250 by walking for 30 to 45 minutes. Over a week, that will produce about a pound of weight loss," Wyatt says. You won't see dramatic changes immediately, but small tweaks like these can, and will, pay off over time.
1. Order two appetizers.
Instead of an entrée, that is. It's no big secret that serving sizes at restaurants have grown exponentially over the last couple of decades. According to a study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the average hamburger is 23 percent larger today than it was in 1977, and soft drinks are a whopping 50 percent bigger. So rather than ordering a main course that might leave a long-haul truck driver requesting a doggie bag, choose a pasta dish and salad or soup from the appetizer column. The smaller sizes here won't wreak havoc on your dietary goals.
2. Visit the vending machine.
Nibbling on single servings is better than digging your way to the bottom of a megabag of chips. Just don't bring a whole roll of quarters along during your next snack attack.
3. Start with salad...
and eat less during the rest of the meal, says a recent study from Pennsylvania State University. Researchers there had 33 women eat a variation on the same garden salad 20 minutes before a main pasta course. When the salads were topped with low-fat mozzarella and low-calorie Italian dressing instead of high-fat alternatives, the women ate 10 percent fewer calories over the course of the day.
4. Stick a fork in it.
If you prefer your salad dressing on the side, dip your fork into it before stabbing your greens. That little maneuver could cut 500 calories, say Lyssie Lakatos and Tammy Lakatos Shames, authors of the book Fire Up Your Metabolism: 9 Proven Principles for Burning Fat and Losing Weight Forever (Fireside). Plunging an already-loaded fork into the buttermilk ranch will pick up more of the creamy condiment–and the calories that come with it.
5. Watch coffee calories.
The fancy concoctions that are now the javas of choice for many people can contain as many calories as an entire lunch. A 16-ounce Starbucks Caffé Mocha with whole milk, for instance, packs 400 calories–the same number as in a grilled-chicken sandwich–along with 22 grams of fat and 33 grams of sugar. If a regular cup of joe bores you, slim down your latte by going with skim or 2 percent milk.
6. Walk and talk.
The next time a call on your cell phone keeps you yakking for a while, slip on your walking shoes, and stroll the halls at work or hoof it outside. If you did this for 10 minutes every workday at a moderate 3 mph pace, you'd burn about 1,000 calories a month and lose 3 pounds a year.
7. Crack a nut.
Dieters in a Harvard University study who ate a handful of peanuts or mixed nuts daily were more likely to keep weight off than a group whose regimen didn't include the high-fat snacks. Remember, though, that nuts are not only rich in heart-healthy fats but also calorie-dense: Count out 15 almonds or cashews or 30 pistachios to keep your consumption in check.
8. Don't just sit there.
The average person burns 100 calories per hour sitting and 140 per hour standing. Get on your feet two hours a day while you work, and you could drop an extra 6 pounds over the year. To this end, Frances Wilkins, publisher of MemoryMinder diet journals, put a counter-height worktable in her office. "As a result, I move around much more, and it gives me a break from that office-chair posture," she says.
9. Sleep well, lose more.
According to a recent study in The Lancet, sleep loss may hinder your efforts to lose extra pounds. Insufficient shut-eye appears to increase production of the stress hormone cortisol, which regulates appetite. High levels seem to worsen bingeing and hunger; moreover, too little sleep could keep your body from burning carbohydrates, which translates to more stored body fat.
10. Double your protein.
The high-protein, low-carb approach may help keep you from losing muscle along with fat, according to a new study published in The Journal of Nutrition. Twenty-four overweight women ate 9 to 10 ounces of lean meat, three servings of low-fat dairy, and at least five servings of vegetables a day–roughly double the protein and half the carbs of the average American. Over 10 weeks, the women lost 16 pounds, about the same number as a control group who ate according to the USDA Food Guide Pyramid. But the women who pumped up the protein lost 2 more pounds of fat while maintaining a pound more of calorie-burning muscle than the other subjects. The secret: the amino acid leucine, found in beef, dairy, poultry, fish, and eggs. According to study author Donald K. Layman, PhD, of the University of Illinois, it may help preserve muscle tissue.
11. Keep an exercise journal.
Writing down your fitness achievements is a great way to track your progress, give yourself positive feedback, and maintain focus on your goals. Molly Kimball, RD, a sports nutritionist at New Orleans' Ochsner Clinic, goes one better, encouraging her clients to share their exercise diaries with friends. This fosters accountability by making your accomplishments and aspirations a matter of public record.