Much has changed about our approach to healthy eating since I started writing about it 30 years ago; we know a lot more about which foods specifically to include in our diets for maximum nutrition. But in spite of new terminology and more attention to the psychological and behavioral aspects of eating, nothing has changed about the dynamics of weight loss. We like to say “eat healthy,” “eat mindfully,” or “eat clean,” which are all excellent suggestions, but for weight loss we still need to say “cut calories and eat less food.”
You can eat clean organic and natural foods, drink green smoothies, add more fiber to your diet, limit added sugar, and still gain weight if all that healthy food adds up to more calories than you’re burning off each day. Although there’s been a move away from counting calories and dieting over recent decades and, for the most part, that’s a good thing, calories still count more than anything else when it comes to controlling your weight, especially as you get older and your calorie-burning machinery slows down.
The idea of “going on a diet” is not only agonizing and old-fashioned, it’s the wrong mental approach to losing weight because it assumes that, at some point, you’ll go off your diet and back to some other way of eating. The best advice these days is to follow a portion-controlled healthy eating plan, which can take any of several forms and is best when tailored to fit your individual tastes and lifestyle. You don’t want a short-term diet; you want to develop an eating style that will last your lifetime. The key is consistency, and success takes time. Have patience. You want slow and steady loss, a pound or two a week at most, until you get to where you feel comfortable with your weight. One thing we know about the biology of weight loss (even though we don't know why) is that when you lose weight, your metabolism slows down, perhaps permanently, as your body fights to return to a higher weight. And you will find yourself constantly fighting back, which can throw you into an unhealthy cycle of gaining and losing, gaining and losing. The quicker and more drastic the weight loss, the more likely this will be the result.
Not everyone wants to lose weight or should lose weight. Sometimes the best goal is simply to prevent further weight gain. As with any other health issue, prevention is the best approach. But stopping weight gain in it's tracks requires the same approach as losing weight: increase physical activity of any kind, and eat a healthful, portion-controlled diet. The types of foods you choose to eat can make a difference in your overall health, but the amount of food you eat still matters when it comes to weight control.
The Best Diets
Healthy eating plans, such as a Mediterranean-style diet, the DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) diet, or the TLC (Therapuetic Lifestyle Changes) diet, provide the nutrients you need to stay healthy by eating foods and food combinations known to help reduce your blood pressure, control your cholesterol and keep your blood sugar steady. You don’t need to have a medical condition to start following one of these diets; just about everyone can benefit from any of these plans. If you know that high blood pressure or high cholesterol runs in your family, however, you may choose one of these diets over another. They all encourage you to eat “superfoods” like dark green leafy vegetables, fresh fruits and berries, legumes and nuts, and encourage a high-fiber diet with plenty of plant protein. They can all be adjusted for personal food preferences and food-related health conditions or allergies but each provides a good foundation for healthy eating.
The difference between these diets and many trendier diets of the past is that these are based on years of research that tells us the healthiest way to eat. They are not promoted as weight-control plans but you can and should use any of them as the foundation of a solid weight-loss plan. In other words, plan your meals around the individual foods and food combinations featured in one of these diets, but trim them down to the number of calories you want to consume while you’re trying to lose weight.
Why Calories Count
We say we “count calories,” but a calorie is actually a unit of measurement that tells us how much energy a food provides. Higher calorie foods provide more food energy. Simply put, if you don’t use the food you eat to produce energy, it gets stored in your body. Too much in storage, and you’re overweight. As with any other health condition, prevention is the best approach to overweight because it’s difficult to reverse weight gain, especially as you get older, your metabolism slows down, and other issues arise that can get in the way of exercising and eating well. If you’re at middle age or older, and overweight, you already know this.
At first, you may have to learn calorie counts for the foods you eat and count calories for every meal, until you understand how many calories are in the food you normally eat and learn to eyeball your plate to determine whether or not you’re eating the right amount of food for weight loss or weight maintenance. For instance, did you know that just three brazil nuts contribute 100 calories and 1/4 cup walnuts around 200 calories? Incorporating nuts into your diet every day is a very healthy habit for most people, but one that can easily get out of hand if you’re grabbing handfuls. Learning about calories can help control random eating, and help you pause and think twice before you grab a handful of food on the run.
Step-by-Step Beginner’s Plan
Here’s how to incorporate old-fashioned techniques into a new way of thinking about your diet.
Don’t aim for drastic weight loss. No matter where you're starting, take it a week at a time to lose no more than 1-2 pounds per week to help ensure that the loss is permanent. Fast weight loss may feel motivating, but it's water loss, not fat loss and it doesn't count in the long run. Aim for a healthier, more comfortable weight, not an unrealistically low weight, and you're more likely to be successful. To stay at too low a weight, your diet would have to be too low in calories for the rest of your life.
Check below for calorie guidance. Everyone’s calorie needs are different but there are some guidelines you can follow. If you’re not physically active, the following calorie limits will keep you at your current weight. Eat more than this without increasing your activity level, and you will continue to gain. To lose weight, you will need to eat fewer calories or increase your activity level or, ideally, both. And most importantly, you will need to stick to that calorie level until you reach your weight goal.
Age Calories Needed to Maintain Weight at Sedentary Level*
Never go lower than 1,200 calories a day without the supervision of a health care provider. If you are overweight, your doctor may have already suggested that you lose some weight. If not, discuss your weight loss plan—both your diet and exercise goals—with your physician or a dietitian before starting, to be sure that you are losing weight in a manner that is healthy for you.
Build Your Supports
The first few weeks of losing weight, or cutting back on food to maintain weight, are usually the hardest, as you adjust to eating less. This is where exercise—aerobic, strengthening, toning, mind-body, or simply walking more—helps in three ways: Physical activity is a distraction from eating, it elevates your mood, and it contributes to your goal of weight loss or maintenance. This is also where mindfulness comes into play. In simple terms, mindful eating just means think before you eat, eat slowly, and pay attention while you’re eating so you don't overeat. And this is also where getting enough sleep is important. (Read more about sleep and weight loss here.) If you’re middle-aged or older, you may need more help and reinforcement to break old habits (Read more about mid-life weight loss here.) Do what you can to stay motivated. [If you can’t do it alone, here are some tips for getting help. To stay inspired, make it a priority to read as much as you can about healthy eating and healthy living to get new ideas about food and exercise to keep things interesting.
Take these steps one at a time, but be sure to take them. All of these supports work together to help you get to and stay at a healthy weight. It may seem old-fashioned, but in terms of natural, drug-free, and surgery-free approaches, there is no other path to weight control.
*Source: NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute