Walk into the diet and nutrition section of any bookstore and you’re likely to be amazed by the number of books offering the latest miracle diet to help you slim down. Low carbohydrate, no carbohydrate, high protein, low calorie, fruit, no fruit and even fasting—but do any of them work? Devotees of one or the other will swear they do, and maybe in the short-term they can help the average person drop a few pounds.
Unfortunately, fad diets tend to be tough to stick with for very long. Even worse, once they’re off the diets, people often feel deprived and end up piling the unwanted pounds back on—and then some.
Researchers say the best way to take off fat for good is slowly and steadily. That means a weight loss of no more than one to two pounds a week. Many fad diets drastically reduce your food intake and put your body into “starvation” mode, slowing your metabolism in an effort to conserve calories. That’s the exact opposite of what you want. Similarly, completely restricting certain foods—such as carbohydrates—can lead to cravings that will derail your efforts.
What’s more, some diets don’t take the benefits of exercise into account. Regular exercise is an important factor in weight control as well as in overall health. Without exercise, you may find it difficult to avoid gaining the weight you lost during your diet.
The tried and true
The following are real-life tips from nutrition and fitness experts to help your body look and feel its best.
- Rebalance your diet. For years experts told us that fat is bad and carbohydrates such as breads and pastas are good because they are low in fat. We’ve now learned that certain types of fats are actually beneficial to your heart, while refined carbs do more harm than good. Eating them can cause a spike in insulin, which can leave you feeling hungry again a short while later. If your diet is heavy on foods such as crackers, bagels, white rice, low-fiber cereal and pasta, make a conscious effort to substitute them with whole grains such as bulgur, brown rice, whole-wheat couscous, pastas enriched with soy and multigrain breads. To keep yourself feeling satisfied longer, combine carbs with a serving of protein. Add healthful fats to your repertoire. And, of course, don’t forget fruits and vegetables.
- Count calories. With all the hoopla over the past few years about fat, it’s easy to forget that calories matter, too. Simply put, to lose weight you have to ingest fewer calories than you expend. You can sweat off 300 calories on the treadmill, but if you stop at your local coffeehouse afterward to “reward” yourself with a syrup-and-whipped-cream-laden drink, you’re piling those calories right back on. Since you need to burn 3,500 calories to lose a pound of fat, experts recommend aiming for a 500-calorie deficit a day if you are overweight (500 calories multiplied by seven days equals one pound of fat lost each week).
- Emphasize weight training. When trying to slim down, you may naturally gravitate to aerobics or other cardiovascular exercise. But it’s crucial to incorporate strength training into your exercise program. Why? Resistance exercises build muscle, which burns more calories than fat does by increasing your metabolism. Not only that, the sleek, toned look you get from lifting weights will boost your confidence and make you appear slimmer, even if you haven’t shed a pound. Experts advise that you follow weight-training sessions with 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise several times a week. Good cardio exercises are fast walking, biking, swimming or low-impact aerobics classes.
- Spread out your meals. Eating small amounts often throughout the day boosts your metabolism and keeps hormones on an even keel. If you eat sparingly at breakfast and lunch but sit down to a 1,000-calorie dinner, your body may experience an insulin spike. A better plan is to aim for three roughly equal-sized meals, plus nutritious snacks in between. It’s particularly important to eat a good breakfast so you’ll have energy for whatever the day brings—plus, your metabolism is naturally higher during the day than in the evening, so you’ll be more likely to burn off whatever you consume then. If late-night noshing is undoing your diet, make an effort to stay busy after dinner: Take a walk, call a friend, climb into a relaxing bath or get immersed in an activity you can do with your hands, such as needlepoint.
- Ditch self-denial. You don’t need to avoid any one food or food group. The key to having it all? Making wise choices. Whole-wheat crackers with a spoonful of nut butter are a smarter snack than a bag of chips and give you a filling dose of protein to boot. Baked tortilla chips with melted low-fat cheese and salsa might keep you away from the nacho platter at your local Tex-Mex joint.