A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that almost half of Americans tried to lose weight within the past year — up from 43 percent when people were last surveyed between 2007 and 2008. But deciding how to go about it can be confusing, especially since there’s wild variation in advice from popular dietary approaches, like intermittent fasting, the ketogenic diet, or even a non-diet approach.
So how do you choose the best plan of attack to finally shed the extra weight? Instead of committing to just one plan, steal the best advice from all the popular diets to piece together a routine that will deliver the best results. Here’s some healthy eating advice you can borrow from the most popular programs.
Takeaway: Focus on whole foods.
The Whole30 program focuses on eating real food, which is solid advice. Specifically, it calls for piling your plate with veggies, lean proteins, natural fats, some fruits and lots of herbs and spices. Here’s why it works: A trip down the manufacturing process makes ultra-processed foods easily digestible so your body doesn’t have to work as hard to break them down and take what it needs.
While some find the diet plan restrictive since it eliminates staples like legumes and whole grains, you can still apply the philosophy to your diet (and reap the benefits) without giving up these foods completely. Case in point: One study illustrated this by comparing the post-meal calorie burn of two cheese sandwiches — one made with whole-grain bread and cheddar cheese; the other made with pillowy white bread and American cheese. The sandwiches were matched for calories and comparable in terms of protein, fat and carb levels. Study subjects were given each version of the sandwich on different days. After eating the whole-food sandwich, participants experienced a 50 percent boost in post-meal calorie burn compared to when they ate the processed cheese sandwich. As this study (and others) demonstrate, whole grains help you burn more calories and are linked with healthier body weights. Setting grains aside, multiple studies have linked heavily processed foods with being overweight and obese, so choosing more whole foods over highly processed ones is one of the best things you can do for your waistline.
Takeaway: Get your fiber from diverse sources.
The Paleo Diet is meant to mimic the way our hunger-gatherer ancestors lived and they apparently ate loads of fiber from non-starchy veggies and lower-carb fruits. The latest survey suggests that modern Americans take in just 16 grams of fiber per day — about half the recommended amounts. Yet eating fiber from diverse fruit and veggie sources can lead to healthful changes in your microbiome that may promote a healthier body weight. It might be that certain bacteria strains make it easier to store fat or that some strains are more likely to promote feeling full, thereby reducing the tendency to overeat. Or it may be that shifts in your microbiome impact the chronic, body-wide inflammation that can play a role in insulin resistance, which in turn, prompts more fat storage. We’re still learning just how this intricate species of bacteria impacts our health, but it’s pretty clear that more fiber is needed to promote gut wellness and diversity. Aim for 25 to 38 grams per day — an amount that’s much easier to achieve if you’re piling fruits and veggies on your plate.
Takeaway: Add a mindfulness practice like meditation to your wellness routine.
In case you haven’t heard, Weight Watchers has updated its name and its philosophy. WW, as its now known, has a newer focus on overall wellness and with that comes a new emphasis on mindset via a partnership with the meditation app, Headspace. A meditation practice can support weight loss in a number of ways. Let’s start with sleep. Poor sleep disrupts your hormones and can lead to increased hunger and cravings for sugary and carb-rich fare. Meditation can help you fall asleep faster as well as improve sleep quality and duration, which may help you reach for healthier food when you’re awake. Meditation can also put you in better control of impulses, so if you’re prone to making last-minute purchases at the checkout counter or unplanned snacking, it can help give you more control over your food choices. And if you’re the type to turn to a bag of chips after a bad day at the office, a mindfulness practice can reduce this type of emotional eating. Though you can make a big difference in your healthfulness by eating better, the impact can be amplified if you adopt other practices, such as meditation.
Takeaway: Add non-starchy veggies to every meal.
Sure, the keto diet is known for next-to-nothing carb levels, along with heaps of protein, but it also includes non-starchy veggies at every meal. That means you might have spinach with your eggs at breakfast, a bed of greens with tuna or salmon for lunch, and a cup of cauliflower with your steak dinner. Ninety percent of Americans aren’t meeting produce needs, so eating them throughout the day is a smart strategy and a good way to fill this gap.
Takeaway: Don't be afraid of healthy fats.
One of the main pillars of the Mediterranean Diet is to eat more healthful fats from foods like olive oil, avocados and nuts. In case there is a shred of doubt, let’s get something clear: The fat content in healthful food shouldn’t be vilified — even if weight loss is the goal. Some of the best evidence points to the fact that the fat-filled foods on the Mediterranean menu can help. In one five-year study among more than 7,000 middle-aged adults who were instructed to include more fat from either nuts or olive oil, or to consume a low-fat diet, those who enjoyed the higher-fat fare reduced their body weight more than those eating low-fat foods. And while all the middle-aged participants gained some belly fat along the way (even though they shed pounds), those whose menus were rich in olive oil or nuts gained less in their midsections. What’s interesting is that the participants weren’t instructed to count calories or lose weight.
It might be that these healthful fats give you a metabolic edge, as one study found, or it could just be that nuts, avocados and high quality oils add flavor and interest to meals, which might limit the desire to overeat. Plus, these antioxidant-rich foods may promote feelings of fullness, thereby reducing the chances you’re reaching for seconds or snacking excessively. Foods rich in these healthful fats also lower the inflammatory response that’s thought to enlarge fat cells and raise the risk of health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, memory problems and cancer. Saute veggies in extra virgin olive oil, snack on nuts or add them to stir-fries, and enjoy avocados in anything from omelets to healthier treats.
Takeaway: Close down the kitchen after dinner.
You can get many of the benefits of intermittent fasting by curtailing nighttime eating and allowing your body a 12-hour span between dinner and breakfast. Putting this guardrail in place helps you avoid the mindless munching that can occur during a post-dinner Netflix binge, and it allows your body sufficient time to digest before bed. In addition to ensuring you’re not overeating, this 12-hour fast aligns with how your body is meant to function, so it promotes a hormone response that’s linked to a healthier body weight.
Intuitive Eating (aka the anti-diet)
Takeaway: Ditch the restrictive diet mentality.
There’s a lot to be said for rejecting fad diets, overly restrictive eating, and unrealistic body types — a few key pillars of the anti-diet movement. Being too restrictive and focused on a specific weight goal takes up a lot of mental energy that could be freed up for more important things — like your love life, your friends and family, and your killer career. This form of dieting can also take an emotional toll. It’s a good idea to move away from a restrictive diet mentality and to prize both your physical and emotional health. Forget what you’ve heard about ideal body weights and find the place where you can live most healthfully and happily.
WHAT A NUTRITIONIST WANTS YOU TO KNOW
Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.