This article was originally published on January 22, 2022.
Packing on the pounds seems all too easy these days. Working from home has replaced those water cooler chats — and we eat more when we’re lonely or bored. Also, those trips from the computer to the closet and back probably aren’t helping much either.
“Many of us choose and eat far more than we realize we do,” says Debbie Petitpain, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Those few bites here and there can quickly set in on our midlines. And as those of us who have tried to lose weight already know, gaining weight is easier than shedding unwanted pounds for good.
Fortunately, diets are easy to find. We can try keto, ditch the carbsi’m going Paleoor try fasting or grazing to promote weight loss. But choosing the program is the easy part. Dieting is difficult because our the body reacts to fewer calories by slowing down our metabolism. After we’ve been on a diet for a while, our so-called “hunger hormones” start to change. Essentially, the levels of the hormones that make us feel full will decrease, while the hormones that make us feel hungry will increase.
We can also undermine our own efforts by focusing on a goal weight that is difficult to achieve and unrealistic for us to maintain. Dieting all the time “is not really ideal for an enjoyable life, which will make it difficult to maintain a diet,” says Tracy Mann, a nutritional psychologist at the University of Minnesota and author of Secrets from the Nutrition Lab.
Is the weight loss diet effective?
We always seem to be looking for the next diet, the one that will melt the weight off without making us obsess over food in the process. But we don’t need fad diets at all. The answer to weight loss is simple and unchanging. We need to add more fruits and vegetables to our diet while cutting out (or at least reducing) processed convenience foods and sweets. If we focus only on the numbers on the scale, we lose sight of what is most important to our overall health: making healthy food choices and making exercise a lifelong habit. But do not be surprised if the weight does fall when you adopt this mindset.
Even if we do manage to lose weight, studies show that most of us end up gaining the weight back within a year. If you need convincing, Petitpain recommends stopping by Barnes & Noble and noticing the shelf of diet books that runs the length of the building. Then turn around and look at your fellow Americans, most of whom will be overweight. “In some ways, there’s a disconnect between the quick fixes offered by diet books and our ability to either try them or stick with them,” she says.
Read more: When we diet, should we fast or graze?
We’re also hard on ourselves, and that doesn’t do us any favors. Once we notice those extra pounds, we often decide that we are must lose weight really fast so we can be healthy again, says Petitpain. But since we’ve put on that weight over several years, we probably won’t be waving goodbye anytime soon. Petitpain says the better approach is to take gradual steps towards healthy choices, such as cutting out processed food, watching portion sizes and adding physical activity to your routine. And at the end of the day, whether or not someone is healthy goes beyond being fat or thin.
“You can be overweight and physically fit and the risk of disease goes down,” says Petitpain. “We know there are people who are a normal weight but who don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables and their risk of disease increases.”
Balancing calories in with calories out is still important to shedding pounds, but obsessing over weight can be self-sabotaging. A better approach, says Mann, would be to accept our bodies — but don’t overeat. Fighting weight stigma. Exercise because it’s good for us and eat more vegetables.
What really works for weight loss
If you’ve tried a diet and succeeded for a while before veering off course, know that it doesn’t mean you’re weak. “There’s this idea that dieters or obese people have worse self-control than everyone else, and that just doesn’t work,” says Mann.
Depriving our bodies of calories exerts a powerful force on our biology—and our bodies fight back with a variety of physiological processes designed to keep our weight on. “Most people wouldn’t even have the … willpower you need to get through all of that,” says Mann. “It’s just too much to fight against.”
Resisting hunger for food day after day is difficult. A better approach is to make the tempting food harder to grab. If your partner insists on having candy in the house, for example, store those goodies in an opaque container, making them harder to see. When sweets are out of sight, they also tend to be out of mind.
Or forget about resisting your food cravings altogether and try a strategy Mann calls “vegetables first.” This trick is easy to incorporate—think of a salad before dinner. Before you eat anything – a slice of pizza or a steak – put vegetables on your plate. By doing this, you add nutrients to your diet and fill you up, making you less likely to overeat on fattening foods.
Mann and her team tested this idea in a field study conducted in an elementary school. The researchers aimed to test whether children would eat more vegetables if it was their only choice, or if the same vegetable was served alongside other foods. First, the researchers determined what the main consumption of carrots is during a typical school lunch when they are served with other foods. Three months later, the same meal was served, but this time the children were given carrots before the rest of the meal. The team found that children gobbled up more carrots when the vegetable was served alone, before the rest of their meal.
The researchers also tested their vegetables-first approach on college students and tracked their consumption of carrots and M&Ms depending on which food was served first. The students ate more carrots when they were served first, and as a result ate less candy.
No failures with these weight loss strategies
What matters in the long term for health are your overall eating habits, says Petitpain. The occasional heavy meal doesn’t negate the healthier choices you’ve been making every day. But know that if your goal is health, you need to make a regular habit of eating healthy foods, especially those that are minimally processed. They are easy to find because they are usually all you can pick up in the perimeter of the supermarket.
In addition to Mann’s vegetables-first plan, another healthy approach involves adding vegetables to every meal and finding creative swaps. Try adding salsa to eggs, spinach to smoothies, sliced mushrooms to burgers, or have veggies and hummus instead of chips.
If making tacos, the tortillas can be replaced with lettuce leaves. Beans are a delicious and fiber-rich addition to reduce or replace taco meat. You can’t miss the cheese and sour cream toppings if you add extra corn, onions and tomatoes.
For dessert, a similar strategy involves fruit. Try pears poached in wine sauce or pineapple with frozen vanilla yogurt. Or, if you’re looking for a portable snack for kids, bring cups of applesauce and ditch the sticky fruit-flavored snacks. These small changes make a big difference over time, says Petitpain.
With this approach, there’s no need to diet or do anything drastic, like develop a taste for a vegetable you don’t like or cut more vegetables at dinner. If you love carrots or broccoli, just eat them more often and find creative ways to sneak them into your meals.
Diet vs. Lifestyle Changes: A Self-Care Approach
Regardless of your weight or fitness goals, remember that wellness is about more than diet and an exercise regimen. Now more than ever, stress plays a vital role in our overall well-being. If stress and anxiety are causing poor sleep, you’ll be too tired to exercise or make the right food decisions.
It can be helpful to take a step back and realize that experiencing a traumatic year probably took a mental and physical toll. Just look at weight loss as part of an overall plan to get back on track and take small steps to improve your overall health.
“Maybe it’s better to think about the whole journey instead of being so hyper-focused on reaching an end point,” says Petitpain.
Think about how long it took you to gain that weight and be realistic about how quickly those pounds can come off. The American Obesity Society recommends a rate of one to two pounds per week, which is sustainable over time and provides some health benefits. Or find a nutritionist and get personalized help.
But whatever you do, don’t start a diet if you’re not emotionally ready to commit. “If you don’t currently have the capacity to deal with an aggressive diet, then don’t start one, because it might be worse to try and fail.” Instead, focus on taking care of yourself. Try to sleep better, move a little, eat a little healthier at every meal,” says Petitpain. “These are difficult times; you really have to prioritize.”