You want to lose weight. You know – by reading or by personal experience – that “going on a diet” does not solve the problem in the long run. You’ve tried a few changes here and there, but nothing seems to happen. Where can you turn to lose weight in a way that is actually sensible, supportive of your overall health, and not a short-term band-aid to a long-term problem?
Instead of making an all-new start by going on a “diet” that makes sense to somebody else, start with where you are right now. Research-based recommendations from the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology and The Obesity Society support a strategy of reducing your current calorie consumption by 500 calories a day. Does that sound like a recipe for going hungry? It doesn’t need to be, if you do it 100 (or maybe even 50!) calories at a time. Here’s how….
A Treasure Hunt
Think of this as a treasure hunt. You’re on a search for something valuable, indeed – calories you’re consuming that add up to keeping an unhealthy amount of fat stored in your body that you can subtract from your usual eating patterns without feeling deprived or going hungry. When they look with this outlook, many people I’ve worked with over the years have been surprised at how many calories they are consuming from habits they don’t mind changing.
You may be able to run through the following list mentally and find some changes you’d be willing to make – or at least take for a test drive – right off the bat. If not, don’t give up. Many of us are amazingly unaware of the true portion sizes we eat and the frequency with which we actually make choices that we tell ourselves are “occasional”.
The best way to discover what your true baseline is: keep some form of diary listing everything you eat and drink for three to five days. The key to getting anything out of this is that you need to identify the portions you really eat – including any second portions or bits you eat while cooking or cleaning up after a meal. That means measuring, not guess-timating, for those few days. It also means keeping track of the handfuls and on-the-go grab’s between meals and late at night, not just your meals.
Don’t let this turn into a guilt-producing effort focused on how “bad” you are. You can’t solve a problem until you know what it is. Focus on this as a treasure hunt that will lead you to eating habits YOU choose that help you reach and maintain the health and vitality to enjoy life.
Here are a few ideas to get you started on a search for extra calories you’ve been habitually consuming and can realistically cut or swap. Each will cut your calorie consumption by 50 to 150 calories. Choose a few of these and other ideas to add up to the 500-calorie cut recommended to lose weight healthfully.
Smaller Portions Without Bigger Hunger
- Change pasta portion from 2 cups to 1 cup, if you’re among the many people who serve more than they need and then eat it all “because it’s there”: cut 160 calories.
- Cut your pasta or potato portion but keep the same total amount of food, by swapping 1 cup of pasta for 1 cup of non-starchy vegetables: cut 110 calories.
- Change your 16- or 20-ounce cappuccino or latte to a 10- to 12-ounce size. It’s unlikely to leave you hungry, since research shows that our drinks don’t satisfy appetite in the same way solid food does: cut 30 to 60 calories. (If you need more liquid for hydration, order or pour a glass of water to drink along with your coffee.) If you also order a non-fat version, you’ll cut an additional 40 to 50 calories.
- If you typically start the day with a big 12-ounce glass of juice, cut that to 6 ounces: cut 75 calories. (Another option: You may find that switching to solid, rather than liquid fruit helps you feel more full on fewer calories.
Reduce Big Loads of Refined Carbs
- Instead of a deli bagel, have a whole grain English muffin or 100-calorie thin-sliced roll: cut 120 to 250 calories.
- Swap a 12- to 20-ounce regular soda for tap water, sparkling water with fruit essence (no calories, no sweetener), or tea (hot or unsweetened ice tea): cut 150 to 250 calories.
- If the switch to unsweetened ice tea is a challenge for you, check labels and look for one with less sugar, to cut 80 to 100 calories. Better yet, get unsweetened tea and add 1 teaspoon of sugar (or one packet if you’re out), and compared to high-sugar options you’ll cut 160 to 200 calories per bottle or tall glass.
Cut Back on Unhealthy Fat
- Switch that breaded chicken in a salad or sandwich to grilled chicken: cut 100 to 300 calories.
- Instead of bacon with your eggs, ask for fruit cup or melon slices: cut at least 100 calories.
- Ice cream season needn’t mean a bowl full of ice cream. Scoop a cup of berries or other fruit in a bowl, and add ice cream as a delicious topping. If you end up changing a 1½-cup portion of ice cream to ¾ cup, you cut 150 to 200 calories (depending on whether you eat regular or light, slow-churned ice cream with fewer calories).
Caveats in the Treasure Hunt Approach
As you search for calorie cuts, unless you currently have a major concentration of excess calories at one time of day, try not to choose all your calorie cuts from the same time period. Don’t cut calories from meals that are already too small. If you skimp on breakfast or lunch already, cutting back further will leave you low on energy and may lead you vulnerable to quick-grabs that more than make up for the calorie cuts you planned.
♦ Aim for calorie cuts that even out your calories through the day. Keep calories in snacks that you need to maintain energy and get you through to your next meal without feeling famished. Cut back on calories from snacks that you don’t need, or that aren’t in a form of food that actually sustains energy.
♦ Look for cuts of about 100 calories each that you can make from typical daily eating habits. If you make a 100-calorie switch in a choice you make only once a week, that averages out to 14 calories cut on a daily basis….great, but not enough to make a substantial move toward the 500 calories per day goal.
♦ Do not expect 500 calories cut per day to produce a pound of weight loss per week. I know you still hear and see this some places, but it’s been proven inaccurate. The target of 500 calories a day to cut is based on evidence that for many people, it’s an achievable cut that can be implemented healthfully.
♦ Is your calorie consumption already as low as you can comfortably go? First try keeping the diary noted above, since often people find extra calories they don’t know they’re consuming. However, for some people calorie-cutting isn’t the answer. Maybe you’re trying to reach a weight lower than what your body can healthfully achieve. Maybe you have such a sedentary lifestyle (not unusual these days!), that you simply can’t cut calories low enough to balance it, and boosting physical activity is the key for you. Maybe years of dieting combined with getting older has led to muscle loss and slowed your metabolism so much that cutting calories isn’t the answer for healthful eating.
These are examples of situations in which the professional expertise of a registered dietitian nutritionist (RD or RDN) may be what you need. Check your yellow pages, or go to the website of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (http://eatright.org ) or SCAN dietetic practice group (http://scandpg.org ), where you can enter your zip code and get names and contact information of RDs/RDNs in your area.
Let’s talk! Please share in the Comments section below changes you’ve made (or are trying out) to cut small blocks of calories in ways that support an overall healthy eating pattern. Let’s support one another on this journey to health.