6 Steps to Permanent Diet Changes
There is so much information about how to lose weight floating around on the internet that it is easy to get lost and confused. I recommend a very simple approach to start, which can be refined as you go, versus a drastic change that is nearly impossible to maintain. This feeds into a lot of yo-yo dieting, which actually wreaks havoc on your body. For more information regarding that, read this (Yo-Yo Dieting and Heart Risk). Rather than trying to trim down 10 pounds for the beach, instead think of some lifestyle diet changes that can easily be made permanent.
Step 1 – Figure out your current lifestyle. How much do you currently eat? How active are you currently? Take a week and record exactly what you ate and exactly how active you were. Don’t try and make any changes yet, just keep a record. You will probably be tempted during this time to start eating a little healthier, but right now you are just trying to get an honest assessment.
Step 2 – This can be combined with Step 1, or just done at the end of the first week. Now it’s time to do some calculations. You need to find out how many calories you eat per day on average and how much time you spend being active. Be diligent and as honest as possible. If you ate out, most restaurants have nutrition information available, but if you are somewhere that doesn’t provide that information, check a similar meal at another restaurant. There are websites all over to help with this. They will give you a calorie count for almost any food item, can calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR), and calculate how many calories you burned while active. Try to be as accurate as possible.
Step 3 – Find out how much you are supposed to be eating. Weight loss, gain, and maintenance is (almost) as simple as calories eaten compared to calories burned. While there are ways to tweak this, to start I just recommend finding out how much you should be eating to maintain your ideal weight. Once you know how much you currently eat and burn, you have to ask yourself a few questions. Can you restrict your diet to only eating the amount of calories needed to maintain your ideal weight at your current activity level? Be honest, because it will help you in the long run. If you can’t then you will need to incorporate a gradual step down approach. If you can, great, you are almost ready to go – skip to Step 5.
Step 4 – Set a realistic goal of how much you can restrict your diet. If you need to be at 2000 calories per day, but you are currently eating 3000, then it’s unlikely you can make that jump directly. If you think you can only cut 100 calories, then start there. If it is 250, then make that your goal. The next step is to start eating your reduced calories. Each month re-evaluate, and reduce your calories an additional amount. Continue this process until you get to the right amount of calories for your body and lifestyle. Don’t try to cut extra calories either. If your ideal weight requires 2000 calories, stick with 2000, don’t aim for 1600. Eating less than you need for your ideal weight will lead to burnout and can have undesired health effects.
Step 5 – Adapt to your lifestyle. Now that you are conscious of what you are eating and how active you are, feel free to add in more activity to try to burn some extra calories while you are getting down to your ideal weight. Here is the trick though, don’t try to add more activity than you are ready to handle and don’t count the extra calories burned towards your nutritional lifestyle change. This way if you don’t stick with the extra spin class per week, it won’t affect your overall weight management. Also, during this phase don’t be too hard on yourself. Did you go over on calories one day? Don’t fret, go right back to your appropriate calories the next day. Be aware of how much you went over and think about how many days of normal eating it will take to cancel out those extra calories. Did you skip a workout? No problem, since you are focusing on an improved diet, the weight loss should continue regardless of gym days. Plan for events. Are you going out to eat, or have a party to attend? Try and restrict your calories earlier in the day so you can indulge. If you want to have a snack in the evening, try cutting some calories from your lunch to leave room for that. At this point in the process, you should be figuring out what works for you and what you can consistently do. Don’t avoid foods you love, even if they are bad for you, just plan for them through the rest of your daily diet. Be aware of how portions affect calorie count too. Maybe you love having juice in the morning. Keep the juice, but try drinking 4 ounces instead of 8 or 12. You might find you’re just as satisfied if you mix even less with some water. Experiment and find what works for you.
Step 6 – During this process, if you have consistently eaten the appropriate amount of calories, you will have lost weight until you hit your ideal weight. The reduced calories will assure you of it. It may have been a long process, weeks, months, even more than a year depending on where you started. The time frame isn’t important, because, as always, we focus on long term lifestyle changes, not short term improvements that are unsustainable. At this point, you probably have a pretty good idea of what portions and foods work for you. Now the goal is to ease away from having a strict calorie count each day and work towards just eating those foods in those portions regularly. Monitor yourself, if you start to creep up in your weight, then you probably aren’t being honest in what and how much you are eating.
Bonus — Remember this is a lifestyle change. This isn’t a program that you follow and complete, it ultimately should be a process that you continue to re-work and refine throughout your entire life. There is no exact approach that works for everyone, so be willing to try a number of things until you settle on what is most effective for you. Maybe you are prone to a mid morning snack, then you need to make your breakfast a little more protein heavy to keep you feeling full until lunch. Maybe if you want a nighttime snack while you unwind with your favorite TV show, you will need to trim your dinner down a little to allow for the right amount of calories. Figure out what works for you. While you are improving the amount you eat, you can start improving what you eat. As you become more calorie-aware you will start realizing how many calories some foods pack, or conversely how few calories some things pack. To get even more benefits from this process, you can start refining your diet to healthier foods and improve the quality of the food you are eating.
Warning — You might initially feel tempted to try to “maximize” your calories by eating the low calorie, low fat, fat free, or diet alternatives of foods. I highly encourage you to avoid this practice. For one, these products often use fillers that can have adverse health effects. ( See Diet Soda Intake and Metabolic Disruption) More directly relevant to this article is that these products are actually linked to long term weight gain (See Fueling The Obesity Epidemic). What I have found is that I get and stay full off of a smaller portion of the non-diet version of a food than the diet version. This helps lower my overall calorie intake throughout a day.
1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19151203: Diet Soda Intake and Metabolic Disruption
2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18535548: Fueling The Obesity Epidemic