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The best way to lose weight boils down to these three things

The evidence shows that there isn’t one better way to lose weight, but diets that work all have these things in common.
by Samantha Cassetty, RD /  / Updated 
Image: Woman cooking in the kitchen
Whatever diet appeals to your appetite and way of life, focusing on whole foods is something that all healthy plans promote.Getty Images
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Call it what you will: An eating plan, a lifestyle, a diet, a philosophy, but few things garner such heated debate as how to lose weight. The truth is, whether you’re on a low-carb keto program, devoted to the Paleo lifestyle, all in to the Whole 30 or remain committed to low-fat eating, these plans have more in common than you think. What’s more, follow any one of them religiously, and you’ll likely notice results.

In a new study, Stanford University researchers put more than 600 overweight adults on either a healthy low-fat or low-carb diet. It turns out, participants had similar levels of weight loss success on each plan. Researchers looked for clues (such as insulin levels and gene patterns) to see if there are any factors that might make someone more successful on either diet, but after combing through the data, they were not able to make any connections. Since it may take years before scientists discover individual traits that could lead to more success on one plan compared to another, for now, we can learn a lot — and lose a lot! — by recognizing the dieting advice that all experts agree on.

Here are three commandments that cross over all types of weight-loss approaches.

1. Eat more vegetables

Considering that only 1 in 10 Americans meet their produce requirements, it’s pretty safe to say you need to eat more veggies. And no matter what food philosophy you subscribe to, veggies are a big part of the program. Vegetables have a lot going for them: They fill you up for very few calories, and they flood your body with the nutrients it needs to fight diseases, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.

If you follow food trends, you might think you have to fall in love with cauliflower and kale to reap all the rewards that veggies offer, but that isn’t the case. Be it broccoli, sweet potatoes, carrots, red peppers, cabbage, spinach, or any other vegetable, the idea is to eat a variety of them and find plenty of ways to enjoy their goodness. So if you just can’t stomach steamed Brussels sprouts, try them roasted, or give sautéed Brussels sprouts a try. If raw zucchini isn’t your thing, see if you like it spiralized into noodles or grilled on a grill pan.

Considering that only 1 in 10 Americans meet their produce requirements, it’s pretty safe to say you need to eat more veggies.

Using a layered approach is another great way to build a good veggie habit. For example, start with a food you already enjoy — say, pasta — and layer some veggies into your bowl. This can help you explore a new food with one you already love eating, and from there, you can try new ways to savor it. Take spinach, for instance. After trying it with pasta, you may want fold it into an omelet or another favorite food, or explore it on its own with different cooking techniques (sautéed or steamed) or different flavor additions (garlic or golden raisins). The possibilities are limitless!

2. Eat less sugar

You can blame biology for your sweet tooth. We’re hardwired to have a preference for sweets, and this drive is universal and begins early on, according to research on the subject. Sugar makes food taste good, so food companies add it to everything from breads to soups to salad dressings to cereals, yogurts and more. This adds up to way too much sugar!

On average, Americans consume more than 19 teaspoons of sugar per day—far in excess of the American Heart Association’s 6 teaspoon limit for women and 9 teaspoon limit for men. This is not doing your waistline any favors, which is why every weight loss plan advocates eating less sugar.

There has been some confusion that a low-fat diet means you can feast on low-fat cookies and other treats, but this, again, is the food manufacturers’ influence. The true intent of low-fat dining is to eat more healthful foods that are naturally low in fat: fruits, vegetables, beans, lean proteins and whole grains.

There is plenty of research to support a low-fat lifestyle, just as there is strong evidence that you can lose weight by cutting carbs. Different approaches work for different people, but if you want to slim down, cutting back on added sugars is consistent advice across all programs.

One more note on added sugars: Whether you call it agave, cane juice, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, fruit juice concentrate, date sugar or any of the 61 names for added sugar, they all spell trouble for your health and your waistline.

3. Eat more whole foods

I’m in favor of any program that promotes whole foods over hyper-processed fare, and this is one thing the popular diet plans can agree on. Overly processed foods have been linked to weight gain, perhaps because many unhealthy packaged foods (think: potato chips, ice cream, frozen pizza, cookies and the like) lack the fiber found in many whole foods, including vegetables. Fiber helps fill us up, and research suggests that by simply adding more fiber to your menu, you can lose weight nearly as well as a more complicated approach. Consistently choosing whole foods is one way to do this.

Whole foods include fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, eggs, seafood, chicken and so on. Food philosophies may differ around which of these foods to emphasize, but that’s okay, since the evidence shows that there isn’t a single best way to lose weight. The goal is to select an approach that feels sustainable to you. If you can easily live without pasta, perhaps a low-carb method centered around veggies and quality proteins, like seafood, chicken, and lean beef would be a good fit. Vegans and vegetarians can lose weight by choosing fruits, vegetables, whole grains and plant proteins. Nut lovers may do well shedding pounds with a Mediterranean-style menu. Whatever diet appeals to your appetite and way of life, focusing on whole foods is something that all plans promote.

Samantha Cassetty is a registered dietitian in New York City. For more great tips that make it easier to eat well and live better, follow her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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