Losing weight isn’t necessarily a matter of meat vs. plants or carbs vs. fats. Repeatedly, studies suggest you can lose weight with a number of different approaches, including the ketogenic diet, intermittent fasting, and WW (formerly known as Weight Watchers). Truth be told, losing weight is much easier than keeping it off. The last decade of research on weight loss points to the fact that once you lose weight, your body is in a battle with biology. It’s an unfortunate irony, but studies show that as you drop pounds, your levels of “I’m hungry” hormones increase, while your “I’m full” hormones decrease. At the same time, your body physically needs less fuel to operate your smaller size. It’s not an easy battle, but it isn’t impossible; you can march on. Here’s what we’ve learned about weight loss, and what you can do to take charge of your weight this year.
Ditch the ideals
Instead of ditching your diet and the pursuit of better health, it’s a good idea to ditch your idea of what healthy looks like. Lately, movements, like body positivity, health at every size and anti-dieting, have sparked a meaningful conversation about healthy bodies, and guess what? They come in all shapes and sizes. The number on the scale is just one indicator of health; your lab work (cholesterol and blood glucose levels, for instance), blood pressure levels, and measures of physical fitness are other factors. So is your emotional health.
That doesn’t mean you need to ditch the scale, though. Studies continue to point to the fact that monitoring your weight can be an effective strategy for losing weight and discouraging weight gain (another healthy pursuit) provided it doesn’t cause any emotional distress. Just don’t get married to a number on the scale or get caught up in a set number of pounds you’d like to lose. Instead, settle on how you’d like to feel. Maybe you’d like to be more energetic or perhaps you’d like to manage your health without the need for medications. You can accomplish these goals without losing much weight.
Focus on quality…
You know the drill: Replace refined, overly processed foods with more natural, whole foods. Sure, all foods fit, but they don’t all fit equally. Here’s why: Every time you eat, your metabolism increases as your body works to process your meal. Studies that compare the metabolic boost of calorie-matched whole foods to processed ones find that your body can burn up to 50 percent more calories after a meal made with more real food ingredients compared to a similar meal made with more processed fare. The fact is, your body has to work harder to break down whole foods in order to grab the raw materials it needs so if you exist on a lot of packaged foods and fast foods (think: chips, donuts and drive-thru fare), it’s going to be tougher to lose weight and keep those pounds from coming back.
A 2018 study among more than 600 adults who were tracked for a year concluded that while there are different paths to weight loss, the advice to limit added sugars and refined grains, add more veggies to your plate, and eat more whole foods — in other words, focusing on the quality of your diet — is the way to go. People who followed this advice lost weight without worrying about calories.
Get the better newsletter.
Fiber is found in beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, veggies, and whole grains and foods rich in fiber tend to lend themselves to weight loss. At the moment, just 10 percentof Americans are hitting fiber targets of around 25 grams per day. Studies that track what people eat over time suggest that there’s a connection between weight and fiber intake, with higher fiber intakes linked to lower body weights (the reverse is true, too). One review of 12 studies found that supplementing the diet with more soluble fiber helped people slim down. Another year-long study found that people who followed the simple suggestion to eat 30 grams of fiber each day lost about 5 pounds.
Fiber works its weight loss magic in multiple ways. It helps you feel fuller, longer so eating fiber-rich foods is the dieting equivalent of working smarter, not harder. Plus, fiber takes a long time to digest, so fiber-rich foods don’t cause spikes in blood sugar that can send your insulin levels soaring. On the other hand, when you eat the so-called bad carbs (the refined or sugary ones that lack fiber), you may wind up with an insulin response that promotes fat storage. The takeaway: More fiber equals less fat storage.
There’s also the impact fiber has on your gut health. By now you’ve likely heard of the microbiome—the trillions of bacteria that live in your digestive tract. It turns out that a predominance of certain strains of bacteria may encourage inflammation and weight gain, and eating fiber-rich foods can favorably shift this balance. While it’s too soon to say that changing your microbial makeup will prompt weight loss, it’s likely to send a “hey, stop gaining weight,” message.
Get enough protein
There’s a reason why protein takes center stage in many popular diet plans: it helps you feel full and stokes your metabolism enough to help you avoid the typical one or two pounds most adults gain each year. Your body burns slightly more calories after eating protein compared with fats or carbs, and protein from food also helps keep your muscles from deteriorating as you age. (Strength-building exercise is another important part of this process.) In order to get these benefits, you need to include protein at each meal, and getting adequate amounts of protein at breakfast — about 20 grams — is especially important. Making a beeline for the bagels or cereal means your body misses a key opportunity to rebuild muscle tissue, which naturally breaks down as you sleep. If this is your morning routine, your muscle mass will start to decline, and that means your metabolism will slow down. So skip the AM pastries and other carb-rich fare, and opt for an omelet or smoothie made with Greek yogurt or protein powder, instead.
Be more inclusive
Eating patterns that restrict certain food groups can certainly help you lose weight, but many people find it hard to continue to eat that way forever. If you want to think of your diet like a relationship, you don’t want to be in an “it’s complicated” or “on-again, off-again” situation. You want to find your match — a meal plan you can feel content with for the long haul. That doesn’t mean you have to ditch all of your favorite foods for eternity. It’s okay to flirt with the foods that make you swoon, but you don’t want to settle down with them. When your healthy habits are solid, enjoying your favorite foods sometimes is no big deal.
Make sleep a priority
We’re continuing to learn that shortchanging our sleep — even for just one night — can lead to less healthy food choices the next day. The latest study took a look at subjects’ MRI scans after a night of sound sleep and again after a night of sleep deprivation. The MRI scans showed that sleep deprivation activates an area of the brain that makes you view food as more desirable. In other words, it prompts cravings. This adds to other evidence showing that insufficient sleep increases hunger while also making us less likely to stay active. Taken all together, it means that a healthier sleep situation can encourage a healthier weight.
If you’re routinely skimping on the recommended seven to nine hours, or you have difficulty falling or staying asleep, it’s time to get serious about your bedtime rituals. Your better-sleep strategy includes: limiting caffeine past the early afternoon; sticking to alcohol caps of one drink for women, two for men (since alcohol can interfere with the quality of your sleep); and staying off the phone and iPad within an hour of bedtime.
Find someone to lean on
We all get by with a little help from our friends, and this is especially true of people who have lost weight and kept it off. In one study among women who went through a 12-week weight loss program, 74 percent of them maintained their loss or lost more in the three years after the program ended. Those who reported having a support system around eating well were more likely to keep the weight off. (Support around exercise didn’t seem to matter.) Another study found that the type of support you receive matters, too. Your friend who’s cheering you on isn’t likely to be as helpful as your friend who will pass on the fries when you’re trying to eat well. When you’re going out to eat, join friends who will support your healthy eating goals and go to a museum or movie with those who are less likely to be in it with you. Your pals who are in the trenches with you are more likely to hold you accountable, and that’s going to help you in the long run.
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.