Losing weight seems to require an advanced degree in chemistry, titrating fat grams and balancing the pH of your digestive tract by eating starches with vegetables. (Or is it starches with fruits?) But it turns out you can simplify things — just by eradicating a specific (and especially tempting) food. “Sometimes cutting out just one type of food can make a huge difference in weight loss,” says Jennifer Warren, a doctor specializing in weight loss at the Physicians Healthy Weight Center in North Hampton, New Hampshire.
There's a reason your colleague's stocked candy jar just sprang to mind. All those Hershey's Miniatures and Twizzlers rank right up there with the emptiest of empty calories. Or maybe candy isn't your problem; maybe your diet is simply padded with extra calories from cocktails, cheese, white bread, or seemingly healthy broiled strip steak. “When you give up just one diet-sabotaging thing, you can save yourself hundreds and hundreds of calories a day,” says New York City nutritionist Lauren Slayton, founder of foodtrainers.net. The weight loss is often speedy enough that you can do this as a safer, far more sensible alternative to a crash diet (if you need to drop a size in time for your ex's wedding in three weeks, say). But you can also incorporate the change, with a little leeway, for the long term. And that's a lot easier than all that dissertation research.
Cut out: candy
Potential calorie savings: At least 300 calories a day, but likely much more.
Since so much candy — especially the chewy stuff, such as Skittles and Swedish Fish — is essentially pure sugar, it hardly registers on your sense of fullness. “Snacks that have protein and some fat will affect your shutoff mechanism in a way that candy doesn't,” Slayton says. Simple carbohydrates such as candy (and white bread, for that matter) are “digested very rapidly, raise your blood sugar quickly, drop your blood sugar just as quickly, and leave you wanting more,” Warren says. Subsequently, you just keep shoveling it in. Katie, 36, a designer in New York City, admits she used to buy a big bag of jelly beans every afternoon and “would eat more than half of every bag while sewing.” And yet, when she got home from work, she was always ready for dinner.
Katie finally decided to give up candy: “It was my first meeting with my trainer, and he asked me about my eating habits,” she recalls. “I'd just had a bag of M&M's, and our session was at 6 A.M.” She started bringing baby carrots, cucumber spears, and apple slices to her studio. As Slayton points out, “When you're a candyholic and still crave something, I know it's not the same, but try something sweet like mango or another fruit.” As Katie started shedding weight — she went from 140 pounds to 117 in about four months — saying no to candy became easier: “When offered it, I would think, ‘I don't eat that’ or ‘I have control’ or ‘My body is more important than that candy.’” Her body also felt a lot better: “I was nearly euphoric,” she says. Slayton suggests that you don't have to live without candy forever: After a few weeks of total prohibition, “you can see that you don't have to gorge on it,” she says. “You can try maybe once a week to get a reasonable portion” — like a mini Snickers bar — “and eat it and enjoy it.”
Unexpected bonus: You can lose your taste for other sweet things, such as sugary drinks and soda, too.
Cut out: alcohol
Potential calorie savings: About 500 calories a day, if you have two frozen margaritas; about 300 if you have two cosmos.
The number of calories in a mojito isn't too far from that in Peanut M&M's. Plus, when you drink socially, you tend to eat more. Then, just to stretch it into a two-day mistake, you're also more apt to make bad food choices the morning after (along with snooze-buttoning right through that 7 A.M. Spinning class). The desire to inhale a bacon-egg-and-cheese croissant isn't caused by fuzzy-headedness or a hangover; alcohol consumption can result in waking up with excessively low insulin levels, according to a study from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. “Overnight, you develop low blood sugar and wake up with an appetite that's through the roof,” Warren says. “Sometimes it can start a carb binge that lasts all day.”
When Theresa, a restaurant publicist, was in her early 30s, contracting asthma meant she had to stop running. She treated the asthma with a steroid inhaler (with the side effect of weight gain), and she treated her newfound after-work free time with Pinot Gris … and soon found herself ten pounds heavier. Even after seeing a trainer for several months, she hadn't lost weight. One night, when she dropped a Diet Coke can into the recycling, she noticed something startling — four empty wine bottles in the bin. “I had consumed those bottles in a one-week span all by myself.” She decided to give up alcohol for a month. “I lost the bloat within a few days,” she says. “Within a few weeks, I'd lost two inches from my waist.”
Notably, significantly curtailing alcohol — drinking just one night a week, or giving it up as a kind of monthlong detox — also has happy benefits. For instance, Jennifer, 41, a television programmer in New York City, quits drinking for the month of January every year as a way to atone for the usual December debauchery, and to peel away the resultant weight gain. “It's the time of year that my stomach is the flattest,” she says.
Unexpected bonuses: You avoid the calories in mixers like triple sec and sour mix, you won't scarf bar snacks like mini pretzels or mixed nuts, and you'll sleep better.
Cut out: white bread
Potential calorie savings: Up to 1,000 — if you eat a bagel for breakfast, pizza for lunch, and dig into the bread basket at dinner.
A slice of white bread might as well come individually wrapped in cellophane and pierced with a lollipop stick, because, as Warren puts it, “white bread is essentially sugar. Its greatest virtue is that it holds your sandwich together.” White bread's simple carbohydrates are easy to eat, lead to spike-and-crash energy, and contain slow-to-burn calories that end up as fat.
Banishing white bread is difficult, especially considering its convenience, abundance, and general deliciousness: “I used to eat a bagel with butter for breakfast, a sandwich at lunch, and then something bready or white-flour-y for dinner,” says Stephanie, 43, an economist in Boston. Whole-grain bread, with complex carbohydrates and blood-sugar-regulating fiber, is certainly a better choice nutritionwise, but it often contains more calories per serving than its pasty-white (and just plain pasty) counterpart. “If you're thinking short-term and want to see weight-loss results, don't reach into the bread basket at all,” says Slayton. (If you long for a sandwich, eat it between two large leaves of romaine lettuce.)
Which is what Stephanie finally decided to do one day. “I realized there was no middle ground with me. I had to give up all bread, all crackers, all pizza,” she says. “It was really hard in the beginning, but after a month or so, I didn't even want it.” And she certainly didn't miss how it made her feel and look: “full and bloated.” Granted, carbohydrates still dominate her daily diet, “but they're stuff with protein and fiber, like yogurt and fruit.” Since she gave up bread, she's lost at least eight pounds and, she says, “gained visible abs.”
Unexpected bonus: You eat less butter, cheese, and deli meat.
Cut out: cheese
Potential calorie savings: Several hundred calories in one sitting, considering that a piece of Humboldt Fog that's slightly larger than a die has 100 calories.
Imagine taking out a brick of milk chocolate and slowly slicing away at it, eating each piece on a cracker. That is, essentially, the caloric equivalent of what we do with cheese. “Cheese is one of the highest-calorie foods we eat, and research shows that the higher in calories a food is, the more we like it” and eat it, says Susan Roberts, author of “The Instinct Diet” (Workman Publishing Group) and director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Tufts University nutrition center. What's more, cheese is (misguidedly) considered a snack food, she says, “and typically eaten before dinner when you are hungry.”
Cheese isn't even especially healthy. Jennifer Warren points out that “certain characteristics of food tell your brain when you're full and when to stop eating: fiber, water content, protein. But cheese is almost all fat, and fat in itself isn't particularly satiating.” Regular cheese is, in fact, chockablock with saturated fat — which can lead to increased appetite and weight gain even when you don't consume extra calories, according to a study in the American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology, and Metabolism. Forgoing cheese won't set off a sudden bone-disintegrating calcium deficiency, either: “You just need to be cognizant to find it elsewhere: in leafy greens, in nonfat yogurt, even in a calcium supplement,” Slayton says.
If you must snack on something when you get home from work, Roberts recommends a few high-fiber crackers and the slightest sliver of an intensely flavored, lower-fat cheese, such as Asiago. When Kelly, a nurse in Topsfield, Massachusetts, gave up cheese, she did so initially as part of a weeklong cleanse that eliminated all dairy. “For the first time in forever, I would wake up clearheaded, with a ton of energy,” she recalls. That feeling prompted her to cut cheese out of her diet for several months. “The first three days, when I saw someone eating it, it almost made me crazy,” she says. “But after that, I stopped craving it.” After two months, she had lost 11 pounds. She has since slackened her strict rules: She might have cheese in a restaurant salad or when she's out at a cocktail party. But she no longer indulges her cheese-and-cracker habit at home, and when her family gets pizza, she says, “I've definitely ‘peeled’ it.”
Unexpected bonus: If you tend to eat cheese with bread or crackers, you'll forfeit a good number of those carb-laden calories, too.
Cut out: red meat
Potential calorie savings: 200 calories a serving, if you switch from red meat to a larger portion of a lean white meat or fish.
“When you eat red meat, it's really hard to remember what a serving is,” Slayton says. It is, in fact, three or four ounces, a cut about the size of a standard iPod. And red meat seems especially perilous to overeat, considering its myriad side effects: “Its saturated fats contribute to changes in your blood, like more inflammation, and it makes your blood vessels less resilient, so your risk of heart attack goes up in the next 24 hours,” Warren says. Omega-3 fats, like those found in fish oil, do help you feel satiated, unlike the saturated fat in cheese and red meat. “You can reverse the [constant hunger] and weight gain caused by diets high in saturated fats in as little as four weeks,” Warren says. Interestingly, she notes, the same study that found that eating saturated fat such as cheese can increase the appetite also suggests that “switching to a diet with unsaturated omega-3 fat helped. Switching to a lower-fat diet didn't seem to help.”
When Sally, a 37-year-old landscape architect, first gave up red meat (“cold turkey, or, really, cold cow”), she says, “I was substituting high-calorie carbohydrates that weren't high in protein and didn't give me a feeling of fullness. It took me a long time to realize that eating something small with protein in it, such as nuts, could do the trick.” She still eats chicken and fish, “and when you limit yourself to those things, especially at restaurants, you end up eating lighter.”
Another way to limit — if not completely eliminate — red meat is to do the opposite: Allow yourself red meat only at restaurants, and even then very rarely. For instance, Carol, 40, a marketer in New York City, doesn't cook red meat at home, and she no longer orders cheeseburgers at unspectacular diners or bistros. So when she does order beef at restaurants, be it filet mignon or braised short ribs, she aims for organic or grass-fed. “I don't order it anywhere except those places where I feel they have exemplary purveyors,” she says.
Unexpected bonuses: When you give up red meat, you don't find yourself in the path of French fries as often. And at restaurants, you often end up eating much healthier fish.
If you're not quite ready to give up candy or cheese, consider a smaller step:
- Give up processed food for a few days. “Try not eating anything out of a package for a day,” Slayton says. “It makes you eat fruits and vegetables.”
- Avoid high-fructose corn syrup. “The brain doesn't seem to register the calories that it gets from high-fructose corn syrup,” Warren says, which is especially troublesome considering that the hypersweet goo is found on essentially every shelf in every aisle of the grocery store. “You really have to hunt for stuff without it,” she says. That gets you in the habit of reading food labels.
- Eat fish instead of meat. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are linked to losing body fat. If you're worried about going all Jeremy Piven with mercury poisoning, don't. Nutritionists find those warnings overblown. Still, look for shrimp, salmon, or flaky whitefish: They're lower in mercury.