In the New Year, many of us are focused on making dietary and lifestyle changes to lose weight and enhance our overall health. Unfortunately, whether you’re trying to eat less, exercise more or make better food choices, it can be difficult to change. It seems that bad habits creep up without notice and good habits take forever to develop.
Speaking of new behaviors, just how long does it take to form a new habit? A common myth is that it takes 21 days. But, in reality, the amount of time can vary depending on the behavior you’re trying to modify.
Getting yourself to drink a glass of water instead of a soda each day will probably take far less effort than forcing yourself to workout at the gym at least two nights a week.
As a first step in making positive change, I recommend reading the book, The Slight Edge, by Jeff Olson. The book is about how the small changes you make today can have a huge impact down the road. These small, seemingly inconsequential behaviors, compounded over time, lead to measurable results.
For example, replacing potato chips with an apple for an afternoon snack, contributes to a small calorie deficit each day. However, over time, these calories add up to weight loss. As the author points out, these incremental steps are easy to do. Yet, they are easy not to do. Early in the process, making small changes in your behavior is often uncomfortable. But, by taking responsibility for your health and being disciplined over time, you will reach your weight loss goal.
Small Steps for Weight Loss
Not sure what changes you should make to lose a few pounds? Below you’ll find 21 dietary and lifestyle tips to help you get started. Try them all or experiment with just a few. Whatever you select, stick with them at least month so that you can start to develop a new habit.
Track Your Calories
Most dieters underestimate the number of calories they consume. Using a tracking program helps you track calories and identify areas where you need to cut back. A wide range of tracking programs are available on the internet and many are free. See our review of the top 10 weight tracking sites.
Enlist Help from Others
Whether you walk with a friend or lift weights with a trainer, both relationships force you to workout. Need a nudge or encouragement? Most tracking sites like SparkPeople offer online communities which provide support and answers to your weight loss questions.
Only a third of adults exercise on a regular basis. Physical exercise gives you more wiggle room on your diet and boosts your mood. Aim for at least 30 to 40 minutes, five days a week. To lose a pound a week, most women need about 1,200 to 1,300 calories a day. If you exercise, that gives you an additional 350-500 calories to play with. Not sure how to start? Check out our article, “A Little Exercise Goes a Long Way.”
Plan Your Upcoming Week
You’ve worked a long day, its 8:00PM, and you’re tired and hungry. There’s nothing in the fridge so you grab takeout on the way home. This is a recipe for diet disaster. Planning and purchasing the items needed for the upcoming week’s healthy meals ensures your success. This approach requires more preparation, but the benefit is that you’ll stay on track.
Shop the Grocery Store Perimeter
When shopping at the supermarket, stay away from the inside aisles, where packaged and processed foods are located. These heavily marketed foods are typically higher in calories, trans-fats, sugar and sodium. Instead, shop the perimeter of the store where meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables are featured. When selecting fruits and vegetables, select those that are in-season. In January, citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit are at their peak. For recipe ideas, use the search function on our site to find information on a specific fruit or vegetable.
Learn How to Cook
As more women juggle work and child care, less time is available to prepare meals. In the process, many young adults have grown up with limited cooking skills. Preparing meals at home not only saves money, but helps you to better control portion size and the amount of calories, fat, sugar and sodium. Sites like Cooking Light offer a wide range of healthy recipes that are easy to prepare.
Prepare Homemade Soups
Learning to make soups offers many benefits including saving money, time and calories. If you make a batch on a Sunday, then you can eat soup during the week for lunch. Soups also freeze well. Broth based soups made with beans and vegetables help fill you up but are lower in calories and fat than cream based soups. Most store bought soups are loaded in sodium. By making them yourself using a low-sodium broth, you can keep the sodium content at a reasonable level. Don’t know how to make soups? Refer to this great article written by Mark Bitten at the New York Times. Also, refer to our article, “Soup’s On: A Healthy Start to the New Year,” which provides 12 healthy, easy and delicious soup recipes.
Try Meatless Mondays
Protein plays an important role in a healthy diet. However, the type of protein you eat can impact your cardiovascular health. When compared with vegetable proteins (beans & peas), animal proteins, especially red meat, contain a large proportion of saturated fat. By going meatless once a week, you may reduce your risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. It can also help reduce your carbon footprint and save precious resources like fresh water and fossil fuel. Meatless Monday is a non-profit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, in association with the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. For more information and recipe ideas visit their website.
Use Smaller Plates & Silverware
Compared with 50 years ago, today’s dinner ware is much larger, encouraging diners to consume too many calories. To keep portions in control, use a salad plate for dinner and smaller bowls for salad. When treating yourself to dessert, use a nappy dish instead of a large bowl (used in restaurants for side veggies). Use a salad fork instead of a dinner fork for meals; use a teaspoon instead of a large soup spoon for soups, yogurt, oatmeal, etc.
Don’t Skip Breakfast
If you think that you can kick start your weight loss program by skipping breakfast, consider this: 78 percent of successful dieters from the National Weight Control Registry regularly ate breakfast. Breakfast provides nourishment after a fasting period. By skipping, you increase the odds of overeating at your next meal or making poor choices because you’re so ravished. Bottomline? Eating breakfast is part of a healthy weight loss plan.
An ideal breakfast consists of complex carbs to provide sustained energy, some lean protein and a little fat to keep you feeling full until lunchtime. Great choices are non-fat Greek yogurt mixed with fresh fruit; scrambled eggs with tomato slices; and steel cut oats naturally sweetened with berries.
Increase Your Fiber Intake
Most of us fall considerably short of the recommended daily target for fiber (25 grams for women and 38 grams for men). The World Health Organization has identified fiber as the only dietary ingredient with “convincing evidence” showing a protective effect against weight gain and obesity. That’s because fiber-rich foods take longer to digest and result in an increased feeling of fullness and satiety. Certain fruits (oranges, grapefruits, pears, prunes) and vegetables (Brussels sprouts, carrots, broccoli) are high in fiber along with whole grains (barley, oatmeal, oatbran) beans, peas, flax seeds and nuts. Add high-fiber foods to your diet to keep you feeling full longer.
Add a Little Protein to Each Meal
Adding a little protein to each meal is beneficial as this macronutrient is more satiating than carbs. Healthy protein sources means a combination of plant-based foods like legumes and nuts and a modest amount of poultry, fish and dairy. You should limit red meat consumption as even lean cuts are high in unhealthy fats. Replacing red meat with poultry is better; replacing it with fish or nuts is even better. When eating meats, aim for a portion about the size of a deck of cards.
Replace Simple Carbs with Slow Carbs
Simple carbohydrates are those foods that cause a rapid rise in blood sugar and include sugary beverages like soda along with bread, pasta, cereals, desserts and candy. These foods have a high Glycemic Index. Slow carbs include most vegetables and many fruits. By virtue of their fiber content, these foods cause a much slower rise in blood sugar. Substituting simple carbohydrates with slow carbs will not only save you calories but help to maintain your energy level.
Instead of having cereal, a bagel or muffin for breakfast, eat fruit with yogurt or oatmeal. For lunch, instead of a ordering a sandwich, opt for a salad with lean protein. For dinner, enjoy grilled chicken or fish instead of pizza or pasta. For a side-dish, choose two vegetables instead of a potato, rice or pasta. For dessert, treat yourself to a bowl of fresh berries instead of cookies or cake.
Opt for Non-Fat or Low-Fat Dairy
Dairy products include milk, butter, cheese, sour cream, yogurt and ice-cream. These foods are often perceived as healthy because they are a good source of calcium and other nutrients. But, dairy products also contain a lot of fat, which increases their calorie content. More importantly, the kind is saturated; a fat which promotes cardiovascular disease. While low-fat versions are better than their full-fat counterparts, be aware that the percent fat is based on weight. Example, 2% milk is two percent fat by weight. A serving contains 45 calories from fat or 37.5%! Try non-fat, plain Greek yogurt and add fresh fruit to sweeten the taste. Lighten your coffee with low-fat milk instead of cream.
Replace Sugary Drinks with Water
The #1 source of simple carbs is sugary beverages including soda, energy, sports and fruit drinks. Are you into coffee drinks? If so, that afternoon Grande Frappuccino from Starbucks will set you back over 400 calories. That’s equivalent to a meal! The best option is to drink water. Don’t like water? Then, try a sparkling water with lemon or lime flavoring. If you drink tea or coffee, limit the amount of milk and sugar you add.
Choose Healthy Snacks
A successful weight-loss program doesn’t mean that you always have to feel hungry. Snacking can aid weight loss if the right choices are made and snacking doesn’t occur too close to a meal. Unhealthy snacks include chips, cookies, candy bars, and granola bars. Healthy snacks are foods that can help you feel full without adding too many calories. An ideal snack includes a little protein, complex carbs or fiber and some unsaturated fat. Examples include peanut butter and celery; baby carrots with hummus; an apple and a handful of walnuts; non-fat, plain Greek yogurt with fruit. Non-starchy vegetables, fresh fruits, whole grain crackers and non-calorie beverages make excellent snack choices. The goal is to keep the snack around 100 calories per serving.
If it’s the holidays or a special event and the food is fabulous, then by all means have another small serving. Just don’t get into the habit of having seconds every night or cleaning up the dishes by eating the leftovers in the pan. Serve yourself a reasonable portion and slowly savor each bite. To avoid temptation, store leftovers right away before you sit down and eat.
Downsize Your Meals
When dining out, it’s virtually impossible to order reasonable sized portions. Ways to get around this include sharing with a friend or spouse. This not only cuts the calories in half but the bill too. If this is not an option, while the waiter is at the table, cut the portion in half and have him/her put into a doggie bag. If your waiter delivers bread or chips & salsa, politely ask him to take it far away. Request all dressings and sauces on the side.
Treat Yourself Small
It’s great to adhere to a disciplined program of healthy eating. But, as my brother says, “you can’t live like a monk” either. You have to reward yourself every so often. For me, it’s a piece of Ghirardelli dark chocolate each night. Each chocolate is individually wrapped and contains just 55 calories which helps to limit the damages. For you, it might be salty chips or a slice of pizza. Whatever the food, be sure to treat yourself every so often but don’t turn the practice into a bad habit.
Watch Your Alcohol Intake
Whether you enjoy a glass of wine, a beer or a cocktail, the calories in these alcoholic beverages can add up quickly. Mixed drinks like margaritas are even worse. I was surprised to learn that a 5 oz. glass of wine (which is a very small glass), contains about 120 calories. Keep in mind that more than one drink a day is not recommended for women. Plus, the more alcohol you drink, the more likely you’ll abandon your healthy lifestyle altogether.
Slow Down the Pace
I have a bad habit of eating really fast which I picked up during college when I waited tables. I also don’t like my food cold, so eating fast solves that problem. Studies have shown that we’re apt to eat less food when we chew each bite more slowly. This gives the brain time to catch up with the stomach and register that we’re full. In these hectic times, try to take the time to sit down and savor each meal. For dinner, turn off the distractions; set a nice table, use cloth napkins and the candles.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.