Hi. My name is Jessica and I used to be a Diet-o-Holic.
I started on my first diet at age 12. (For the record, that is not the right age to start on a diet.) Over the next 13 years or so, I went on more diets than I can remember.
- Low-carb diet? Check.
- Cabbage soup diet? Check.
- Raw foods diet? Check.
- Juice diet? Check.
- Ketogenic diet? Check.
- Blood type diet? Check.
- Low-fat diet? Check.
Give me the name of a diet and there’s a pretty good chance I tried it out at one point. I loved the thrill of a new diet and the anticipation of losing a few pounds, so I tried just about everything. Needless to say, when it comes to losing weight, I have some experience with what works and what doesn’t, so in this article I thought I’d pass along some of what I’ve learned to you.
1. Watch your sugar* and artificial sweetener intake.
*When I say “sugar,” I mean the sugar added to our food. I don’t mean sugar that occurs naturally in foods like fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.
As you may have noticed on this site, I don’t exactly have warm-and-fuzzy feelings for sugar. Not only can excessive sugar consumption increase your likelihood of developing a plethora of nasty health problems, sugar is essentially “empty calories.”
Your body doesn’t need sugar, and it provides no nutritional value. A handful of gummy bears isn’t going to give your body a valuable nutrient that it can’t get elsewhere. For that reason, there’s little to no value in consuming a lot of sugar when you’re trying to lose weight.
Even scarier, sugar can trick your brain into wanting more food.1 Hyper-palatable (aka super-delicious) sugar can increase your appetite, leaving you wanting more. To quote an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine: “Sugar calories promote fat storage and hunger.”2 I think that sums up why you should be mindful of your sugar intake when you are trying to lose weight.
Sugar can trick your brain into wanting more food.
Artificial sweeteners aren’t much better. Many people think they can just reduce their sugar intake and increase their artificial sweetener intake and they’ll magically lose a lot of weight, but it’s not quite so simple.
Studies have shown that artificial sweeteners can increase the appetite by sending false signals to the brain and body.3 Their intense sweetness tricks the brain into thinking calories are about to be consumed, but when they aren’t (since artificial sweeteners are calorie-free or close to it), a freak-out ensues, leading to an increased appetite.4
Many people find that the less they include sugar and artificial sweeteners in their diet, the easier it is to lose weight. The reason for this is two-fold: Not only do they enjoy the appetite-suppressing effects of removing these additives, they also remove a lot of high-calorie, low-nutrition processed foods from their diet in the process.
2. Stick to whole, unprocessed foods.
I would like to think that nature is pretty smart. And nature has provided us with a lot of pretty amazing food. Take a look:
If you’re not drooling at the sight of some of those goodies, your taste buds are probably hooked on processed foods. Don’t feel bad—it’s happened to the best of us. (Including me; I used to be seriously hooked on sugar and was stuck in a nasty sugar binge cycle for many years.)
When you focus your weight-loss diet on whole, unprocessed foods (like fruits, vegetables, eggs, healthy fats, meats, poultry, fish, beans, and minimally processed grains), you give your taste buds an opportunity to experience real food. When you eat real food, your body and brain aren’t going crazy with the confusing signals that hyper-palatable processed foods send you. Overeating hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes is tough; overeating a bag of salty potato chips is easy.
Overeating hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes is tough; overeating a bag of salty potato chips is easy.
Plus, when you focus on whole, unprocessed foods, your sodium intake falls naturally. Processed foods contain an absurd amount of sodium, which can make you retain water. Retained water = a higher number on the scale.
3. Weigh everything you eat for a week.
I’m not a big fan of calorie counting for weight loss. It can work, but I don’t love the mindset it can instill. Instead of looking at food as a source of nutrients and energy, it reduces food to a simple number that doesn’t take into account nutritional value or how the food makes us feel.
What I am a big fan of is skilled portion control. By this, I mean you need to learn what a reasonable portion looks like and be able to serve it to yourself without the help of a scale. You need to develop the skills to look at your plate or bowl and say, “This is the right serving of food for me.”
You need to develop the skills to look at your plate or bowl and say, “This is the right serving of food for me.”
The problem is, most of us don’t have a clue what a portion looks like. Most restaurant meals are super-sized, and many containers and packages of food contain far more than we need in one sitting. Countless studies have shown that an increase in portion size leads to an increase in consumption (a two-fold increase in portion size leads to a whopping 35% increase in consumption!)5, so knowing how to get your portion size right is incredibly important.
That’s why you need to weigh everything you eat for an entire week to make sure you’re consuming the recommended portion size. It’s easy to plop a big spoonful of almond butter into your oatmeal and think it’s “about” a tablespoon … when it’s really nearly two tablespoons. Small miscalculations like that can add up to a lot of additional calories.
Even better than weighing your food for a week is weighing your food for one week a month until you feel like you are an expert at determining appropriate portion sizes. How will you know when you’ve reached this status?
- You’re not surprised by the difference between what you’ve served yourself and the suggested portion size.
- You still (depending on your goal) lose or maintain weight throughout the rest of the month when you’re not weighing what you eat.
Weighing your food might feel tedious at first, but it can be a great learning experience. Once you have a feel for how much you should be eating, you’ll easily recognize when you’re eating too much.
4. View exercise as something you get to do, not something you have to do.
So many of us have the wrong mindset about exercise and that can lead us to dread it and loathe every second of it, sometimes to the point that we skip out on it altogether. We think of it as something we have to do … and that makes it a chore. Who gets excited about a chore? No one!
Admittedly, working out isn’t always fun (if it were, it’d be called “funning out”), but you shouldn’t look at it like it’s a chore. In fact, you should look at it like something you are incredibly lucky to be able to do. Working out is a privilege, and it’s one that not everyone has.
Working out is a privilege, and it’s one that not everyone has.
I say that as someone who doesn’t have the ability to work out to the degree I’d like. I have medical problems that restrict my ability to work out, and those restrictions have unfortunately increased over the years. The increased restrictions have taught me a valuable lesson, though: Working out is something I get to do, not something I have to do. I know that the level at which I currently work out may not be the level at which I work out in the future, so it’s important that I enjoy every moment of it (even when it’s hard).
The funny thing about building a positive mindset about exercise is that when you look at it positively, you’ll probably do it more. Instead of thinking of a million reasons why you shouldn’t go on a run or lift weights or bike to work, you’ll look forward to it because you’ll realize you’re so lucky to get to do it.
One more important point: Never, ever, ever look at exercise as a method of burning calories. If it were up to me, I’d ban the “calories burned” tracker you find on cardio machines because I think it does more harm than good. Not only are the counts frequently inaccurate, they instill a mindset that the purpose of exercise is to cancel out the calories you have consumed. Exercise should be about building a healthier body and mind, not about punishing yourself for consuming calories.
5. Most importantly: Stop looking for articles with titles like this one.
This article title wasn’t really a “gotcha!” title (the information it contains can definitely help you lose weight), but I did choose it to make a point.
The honest truth about weight loss is that it’s about what you do every second of every day, not what you do for four short weeks (or until your wedding, or for the three months before your trip to Spain, or whatever deadline you impose on yourself). When you look for quick fixes, you’re not just setting yourself up for failure—you’re scheduling failure.
When you look for quick fixes, you’re not just setting yourself up for failure—you’re scheduling failure.
While it’s true that some dietary approaches can help you lose 15 pounds in a month (it also depends on your starting weight: the more you weigh, the more you can lose in a short period of time), you should focus your efforts on creating sustainable dietary changes.
I used to think it was well worth it to nearly kill myself with an extremely strict diet and exercise program so I could lose a bunch of weight and then “relax” and “enjoy life” (aka overeat) once I reached my desired goal. The problem is, this simply created a perpetual diet-and-binge cycle that left me spinning my wheels. I was scheduling failure because I could not maintain my strict diet for the long term.
When you truly change your lifestyle—consuming less sugar and fewer processed foods, watching your portion sizes, changing your mindset about exercise—weight loss will almost certainly be the result. It might not be 15 pounds in one month, but it could be 15 pounds in six months … and you’ll actually keep those 15 pounds off rather than gain them all back when you throw caution to the wind and eat terribly.
My excessive dieting past taught me that the best diet is one you can stick to for the rest of your life. Whole, nourishing foods, reasonable portion sizes, and a healthy mindset about exercise constitute a diet we can definitely all stick to for the rest of our lives. It might not be sexy or exciting or crazy, but it’s effective, sustainable, and healthy.