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If you want look good in a bikini this summer, keep in  mind that quick weight-loss diets often sacrifice body tone and strength.
By Susan Moores, R.D. contributor
updated 3/23/2007 8:29:04 AM ET 2007-03-23T12:29:04

Swimsuit season is now closer than you think. That's why March, not January, is the peak month for dieting, according to surveys. No surprise there — trying on bathing suits in the spring can have that effect.

Come March, we want quick results and we're willing to try everything — from fasting and shakes to popular, often drastic, weight-loss regimens. 

If you’re looking for lasting success, restrictive, highly structured diets aren't the answer. They can get the weight off in a short time,but what happens after a month or longer is what really counts. Too much restriction and too little leeway in a weight-loss plan can make a diet difficult to stick with for long.

If you're determined to achieve a speedy slim down, keep in mind that weight loss should average no more than one or two pounds per week. But if you really want to keep the weight off long after summer, here's how:

Change it up
We tend to measure success by the numbers on the scale . It's better to think about the shape and strength of your body.

Lifting weights and exercising will help you burn calories and develop muscle tone. You may not see a rapid change on the scale by doing this, but the important thing is that you'll lookand feel slimmer.

On the other hand, quick weight-loss diets let you drop pounds quickly, but often at the expense of body tone and body strength.

Set your goals toward change — change of habits (take the stairs instead of elevator) and change in what, how and why you eat (hungry? Snack on fruit, not pretzels), and stick to those changes. The pounds will come off as a result, and you'll look great.

Know yourself
Snacking stats: Low fat vs. the real thing What do you need to do to keep yourself motivated? Is it essential to have noteworthy weight loss right off the bat, or is slow and steady just as good? Is losing weight a private affair or do you do better with a group of fellow dieters? Are there certain triggers to your eating, such as the time of day, watching TV, stress or being with certain friends? 

The more you're aware of your reasons for falling into bad eating habits, the better equipped you’ll be to clear the hurdles between you and success.

Remember, the tortoise won the race
The “lose weight fast” approach may be all right for a couple weeks, says registered dietitian Cathy Nonas, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “But these diets seriously lack staying power and for some people can be physically harmful." For example, skipping meals or cutting too many calories may rob your body of needed nutrients or send it into starvation mode, which could lead to loss of muscle mass and an unhealthy look.

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If you're looking for steady, yet painless weight loss that you can maintain, try cutting just 50 calories from each meal. Granted, you won't be losing weight as quickly as you might like, but the pounds will melt away slowly and steadily. Squeeze in regular exercise, and you'll be able to slip into that swimsuit even faster.

No matter what you do to get yourself going, Nonas emphasizes the importance of “next steps,” or transitioning from weight loss to weight maintenance. Those steps should move you closer to habits that can last a lifetime.

Be accountable to someone
Support from family and friends is linked to long-term weight-loss success. Dieters who have someone interested in their progress and willing to take on that shepherding role are often more apt to stay the course. Try signing up for an exercise class with a friend or making plans to walk your dogs together so you can act as support and encouragement for each other.

Starting a diet plan now gives you enough time to shape up before swimsuit season hits its full stride. Whether you start small or start big, remember: Those who fast won’t last. 

Patience, planning, persistence and gradual shifts in habits are a bikini body's best friends.

Susan Moores, R.D., is a nutrition consultant and spokesperson for The American Dietetic Association

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