Once you’ve made the decision to lose weight, the "where to start" part can seem more overwhelming than the resolve to begin in the first place. How do you change your eating habits in a healthy way? Cut back your calories? Purge certain food groups from your pantry? Go on a fad diet? Join a support group? Start tracking on an app? All of the above? Mix and match?
Ideally, any weight-loss journey includes a good combination of diet and exercise, but numerous studies have shown it's the former that really means the difference between success and failure. Put simply, you cannot out-train a bad diet. You can walk on the treadmill an hour every day, and it won’t do you any good if your diet still largely consists of the dollar menu at your local drive-thru, since most people are not good at estimating their calorie expenditure versus intake.
And, to add insult to injury, even if you use a tracker to record your calories in and out, it turns out there is also a point at which your body just stops burning them. Herman Pontzer, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at The City University of New York discovered that the number of calories burned during exercise plateaued when he and his team measured the activity levels and energy expenditure of more than 300 men and women in five countries over one week’s time.
"As we move from moderate activity levels up to more and more activity, our bodies adapt, so that energy expenditure per day stays basically the same, even as we're more and more active," Pontzer said to CBC News.
So, while exercise is integral to weight loss and an overall healthy lifestyle, getting your diet together should be top priority. Easier said than done, for sure. While what works for one person won’t always work for another, there are some general practices that can set you up for success. And, if you feel frozen in fear of where to begin, know you are not alone.
Organize Your Food
There you are, standing in front of your open pantry or food cabinets without a clue where to begin. It’s a tough place to be, but if you summon all your courage and just get started, you’ll find the perfect first step in the right direction.
Cheryl Russo, a certified personal and health coach, suggests keeping the 80/20 rule in mind, in which you eat healthy 80 percent of the time and for the remaining 20 percent of the time you allow yourself foods that you really enjoy in moderation—such as dessert twice a week.
"The best way to start a healthier lifestyle is to slowly eliminate something, or replace it with a healthier alternative that does not feel like you are depriving yourself. Allow yourself to eat healthy 80 percent of the time to start off. This puts you in the proper mindset, [so] that you are not starving [yourself] or forbidding yourself to eat something," she says.
Russo recommends tackling the pantry items as follows:
1. Eliminate any expired food. Most people have expired items in their cabinets and fridge, and no one needs to eat expired food.
2. Learn how to read labels, then throw out or donate anything that may contain trans fats or is overly processed.
3. Think of your trigger foods and get rid of them so they won’t be a temptation. If you think you can’t open a bag of Oreos without eating every last one, out they go.
4. If a family member likes potato chips, try substituting a healthier alternative to the salty snack such as rice cakes, pretzels or lightly salted nuts.
5. If family members are not on board with your lifestyle change, think of what they may snack on that you do not enjoy. For instance, if you don’t care for nuts but you love chocolate, and your husband’s tastes are just the opposite, then a good compromise is to keep peanut M&M’s in the house as his snack, because you know you will not eat them.
6. Put other family members’ foods in a separate cabinet. Yes, it still calls for self control on your end, but if you don’t need to open that cabinet, it may act as a deterrent.
Go about tackling the fridge in much the same manner. Throw away expired items, donate what you can and move unhealthy foods to a drawer you don’t touch. Pat Barone, an ACE-certified personal trainer, weight management counselor and yoga instructor, suggests designating your own desired food items in a place that is both close and hidden.
"I kept one of the veggie bins in the refrigerator for my own vegetables, fruit, cold cuts, dairy foods, etc. I discovered if I left yogurt or sliced turkey on the main shelf of the fridge, it would be gone quickly, leaving me with no protein for a snack when I got home from a workout. That’s frustrating and a setup for failure," she says. "I also had a drawer in the freezer and a shelf in one of the cabinets for dry foods, like brown rice pasta or canned tuna, and it was not a cabinet normally used for food—a little hidden from [other family members]."
Research & Restock
Once you’ve cleared and rearranged your cabinets and fridge, it’s time to restock them. Before you head to the store armed only with your newly formed resolve, do some research. Come up with some healthy recipes you might like to try, make a list of healthy foods that appeal to you and some you’d like to incorporate into your new lifestyle, and consider some smart swaps. If you love the salt and crunchiness of chips, consider swapping them for air-popped and lightly salted popcorn. Don’t expect to give up Doritos and suddenly adore and crave the taste of kale chips. If you still give in to the tastes you love in a healthier way, you’ll be much more likely to stick to your weight loss goals.
Strategies for Overcoming Your Cravings
Your pantry and fridge have been purged and restocked with healthier items and you’re all set up for success, right? If only it were that easy. Remember, you are only human–but with the right knowledge and mindset, you’ll be able to tame your cravings going forward and deal with any setbacks.
1. Eat often. Eating small amounts of food every two to three hours can help stave off hunger, keep your blood sugar levels stable (which minimizes your sugar cravings) and maintains your metabolism and muscle mass. You can accomplish this by eating three healthy meals and two snacks a day. Arrange your meals and snacks into the times that best fit your schedule and when you find yourself to be the most hungry.
2. Get busy. It’s more difficult to reach into the freezer for that pint of Ben & Jerry’s when you’re on a walk a mile away from home. It’ll be harder to crave it, too. Distract yourself with exercise, journaling, a conversation with a friend or yard work. Even playing video games such as Tetris helps calm your craving by forcing your mind to stay busy rather than focusing on that plate of nachos.
3. Eat protein. Adding protein to your diet with lean meats, fish and non-meat sources will help you stay fuller, longer because it takes longer to digest than carbs. A study at the University of Missouri found that adding protein to your breakfast results in a greater reduction in your sweet and savory food cravings.
4. Hydrate. Drinking one eight-ounce glass of water when cravings strike can help banish or suppress your need to nosh in most cases. You could also be confusing thirst with hunger. Keep a water bottle nearby so you can easily banish the thirst and with it, the hunger and cravings.
5. Keep your mouth busy. Chew, chew, chew—gum, that is, not food. Chewing sugar-free gum can give your brain what it wants—the sensation of chewing and tasting—without added calories. If gum isn’t your thing, try brushing your teeth. A mint-flavored toothpaste will cleanse your palate and banish the taste of the thing you crave. Mint also acts as a natural appetite suppressant, so if you don’t like it on your toothpaste, try it in gum or tea and be craving-free!
6. Give in. Have you tried every trick and you still want that chocolate lava cake? Then give in, but just a little. If you’re out to eat, split a decadent dessert with your significant other or spouse. If you’re alone, cut off a small piece of the cake, pour a child-size bowl of chips or have just a few fries and put the rest away, in the fridge or pantry, wrapped up and out of sight.
Losing weight is hard work, but if you take the time to set yourself up for success at home, you’ll be that much more likely to stick to your plan and reach your goals. Everyone has slip-ups now and then, so don’t beat yourself up if you give in to a craving now and then.