According to Science Daily, the number one reason diets fail is because dieters underestimate the amount of calories they consume.
In reality, it goes far deeper than that. Miscounting calories isn’t the problem. That’s only an indicator of a far greater issue: that the dieting measures most people take are overly prohibitive.
Many of us associate dieting with restriction and sacrifice — doing things we don’t want to do in order to improve ourselves. That association (and the subsequent actions we take as a result) is typically what trips us up when it comes to losing weight.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. I have discovered that you can lose weight and keep it off without making any drastic lifestyle changes. Furthermore, I’ve made it my personal goal to reveal this truth to as many people as possible, which is why you’re reading this.
Before I get onto the specifics, I want to discuss something far more important than any dieting tip I can give you: your mindset. Regardless of how effective my tips are, they’ll be worth little if you don’t approach diet from the right perspective.
The biggest mindset adjustment you need to make is your desire for quick results. Why? Because quick results require great sacrifice and are typically unsustainable in the long run.
Here’s an example. A pound of fat is equal to approximately 3,500 calories. Therefore, if you want to burn 3lbs of fat per week, you will need to consume a deficit of 10,500 calories per week, or ~1,400 calories per day. If your recommended daily intake is 2,000 calories, that means (in theory) that you must consume no more than 400 calories per day. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it?
I refer to calories only to underline just how onerous the task of quick weight loss is, because I don’t actually want you to focus on your calorie consumption. My approach to diet is far more intuitive and relies upon a subjective observation of how you look and feel over a period of weeks and months, not days. But my point remains: you must divorce yourself from the desire to lose weight quickly.
Doing so is easier than you might think. The reason why most people are keen for quick weight loss is because they want to get off the diet as soon as possible (because it is overly prohibitive). That in itself should highlight the fatal flaw in dramatic dieting: that you’re likely to put all the weight back on when you come off the diet. Such dieting represents a vicious cycle.
Instead of that, you can create a diet that results in gradual, sustainable weight loss and requires little to no willpower. A diet that you can maintain for the long term. A diet that allows you to eat all of the things that you love. A diet that you can (dare I say it) actually enjoy.
In this case, the tortoise beats the hare almost every time, and does so without even breaking a sweat.
So let’s get down to it. If you adopt even just a couple of the tips below and make no other changes to your diet, you are likely to see positive results. And if you employ enough of them, you will observe sustained weight loss.
1. Consume Protein at Breakfast Time
A good breakfast is a protein-packed breakfast. In an article on WebMD about hunger-curbing foods, Purdue University nutrition professor Wayne Campbell, PhD had the following to say about the satiety benefits of protein:
You are most likely to feel fuller after eating protein than other nutrients, including fiber, and one of the theories behind why higher-protein diets work well with weight loss is because it helps you not [to] feel hungry.
That statement was on the back of two studies from Purdue in which it was argued that you are likely to feel less hungry after eating a protein-rich breakfast when compared to an equivalent meal made up of carbohydrates.
I’m sure we can all think of a protein-rich breakfast meal that we would love to eat. Now you can do so without guilt, safe in the knowledge that it can help you to lose weight. When I do eat breakfast (which is rare these days), my meal of choice is grilled bacon and poached eggs.
Speaking of eggs, in a study presented at the 2007 Experimental Biology meeting, researchers at Pennington Biomedical Research Center compared weight loss between two groups of dieters. The first group ate bagels for breakfast, the second group ate eggs. Researcher Nikhil V. Dhurandhar, PhD concluded the following:
Compared to the bagel eaters, overweight women who ate two eggs for breakfast five times a week for eight weeks, as part of a low-fat, reduced-calorie diet, lost 65% more weight, reduced waist circumference by 83% [and] reported higher energy levels.
When people eat [sic] eggs, rich in protein, at breakfast, they felt more satisfied and consumed fewer calories throughout the day, compared to those who ate a primarily carbohydrate meal like a bagel.
The moral of the story is this: a high protein breakfast helps to keep you full and, by extension, can help you to lose weight.
2. Skip Breakfast
Past studies have claimed that eating breakfast provides many benefits for health and weight loss: it boosts your metabolism, prevents you from overeating, positively affects your mood and more (depending upon who you speak to).
However, these claims are typically based upon dated or small-scale studies that follow spurious lines of reasoning. More recent studies have concluded that breakfast is no more important than any other meal when it comes to weight loss.
I mentioned above that I rarely eat breakfast these days — probably once per week. Why? Because it is by far the easiest and least challenging way to lose weight that I know of.
Several studies have concluded that by skipping breakfast, you are likely to consume far less over the course of the day. One such study measured a net calorific deficit of 400 calories per day amongst subjects that skipped breakfast. That’s 2,800 calories per week, which is approximately equivalent to 0.8lbs of fat.
The old argument that you make up for lost calories from skipping breakfast later in the day has been discounted. Although you are likely to consume more calories later in the day than you would have otherwise, the net result will be a calorific deficit.
However, what about the negative side effects commonly attributed to skipping breakfast, such as hunger pangs and decreased alertness? While it is true that you are initially likely to experience what you consider to be hunger pangs, your brain is fooling you. After all, you can survive for weeks without any food; I think you can manage a morning. The “hunger pangs” you feel are nothing more than your body expecting food out of sheer habit. Go without breakfast and after a period of time (possibly just days), the hunger pangs will reduce to a more than tolerable level and eventually disappear altogether. I say this from personal experience.
As for decreased alertness, some studies on children have argued that skipping breakfast can lead to decreased cognition and academic performance, but findings are sketchy at best. A systematic review of 45 studies conducted between 1950 and 2008 concluded as follows:
The evidence indicates that breakfast consumption is more beneficial than skipping breakfast, but this effect is more apparent in children whose nutritional status is compromised … Few studies examined adolescents. Studies of school breakfast programmes suggest that such interventions can have positive effects on academic performance, but this may be in part explained by the increased school attendance that programmes encourage.
So if you’re a malnourished child who is likely to skip school if you don’t have breakfast, you should probably eat breakfast. Otherwise, I wouldn’t worry about it.
I’ll conclude with a simple suggestion: try skipping breakfast for a few days and see how it goes. Give your body a chance to adjust. Drink plenty of fluids to combat your hunger pangs and look forward to an even more satisfying lunch. It could be all you need to do to lose weight.
3. Give Up Liquid Calories
There are generally three reasons why people want to (or are happy to) drink liquid calories:
The first reason isn’t good enough – after all, you can get caffeine from all sorts of non-calorific sources (as demonstrated in this chart).
The second reason represents a lack of appreciation for how many liquid calories you are consuming (in which case I’ll refer you back to the aforementioned chart).
The third reason is somewhat understandable, but ultimately an issue of perspective.
I mentioned at the top of this article that any weight loss is to be celebrated. So, let’s say for a moment that you wanted to lose just ½lb per week, which is equivalent to around 1,750 calories per week or 250 calories per day. A 500ml bottle of Coca Cola is equal to 210 calories per day. Cutting out that bottle a day would lead to a deficit (over your existing diet) of 1,470 calories per week, equal to approximately 0.42lbs per week. By just cutting out those liquid calories, you can theoretically lose nearly ½lb per week without doing anything else.
Even if you really enjoy your Coca Cola, you can replace it with Diet Coke. Although it may not taste quite as good as what you’re used to, you will find that your taste buds adjust over time (mine certainly did). There is almost always a good zero-calorie substitute for whatever liquid calories you are currently consuming.
4. Use ‘Sensory Overload’ to Stop Hunger Pangs
When it comes to hunger pangs, my strategy of sensory overload is foolproof in the sense that if you are still experiencing hunger pangs when you have completed the process, you can be sure that you are genuinely hungry and should perhaps therefore eat something relatively substantial. However, the chances are that you will rarely get to that point.
I’m not going to pretend like this process is complicated – it is about as simple as it gets. But its simplicity does not detract from its effectiveness. Just follow these five steps:
- Drink a tall glass of water
- Drink a cup of tea or coffee
- Eat a piece of fruit (like an apple or a banana)
- Eat a healthy low-calorie snack (like a Nakd Bar – my personal favorite)
- Drink a tall glass of water
The idea here is that you are overloading your senses with a number of stimuli – a variety of tastes, textures and even temperatures, not to mention a considerable volume of liquid. Hunger pangs are often psychological (e.g. you crave chocolate because you like the taste) or habitual (e.g. you experience hunger pangs at lunchtime because your body is used to eating then, not because you need to eat) rather than physical, and overloading your senses with a variety of food can coax your brain back into a state of perceived satiety.
If you follow the above five steps and are still hungry after fifteen minutes or so, feel free to eat something more substantial. You’re almost certainly hungry in a physiological sense. But the chances of you still wanting to eat at that point (regardless of whether you actually feel hungry) will be pretty slim – you should feel pretty full.
This can also be a great process to follow when you are tempted to snack on unhealthy foods. Allow yourself to eat your snack of choice, but only after you have followed the above five steps. Once you’re done with the five steps, you may not feel like it anymore. If you do, have at it.
5. Keep a Food Diary
A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine observed 1,685 participants, all on calorie-restricted diets. The average weight loss per person after twenty weeks was 13lbs. But here’s the kicker: those who logged what they ate lost an average of 18lbs, compared to an average 9lbs for those who didn’t. By virtue of increased awareness, those who kept food diaries managed to lose twice as much weight.
The takeaway is this: you should probably be keeping a food diary. Don’t worry about the calories – just the simple act of writing down the meals and snacks you eat will increase your awareness of what you’re eating and aid you in your weight loss efforts.
I’m deliberately not linking to any online food diary apps here as they are typically bloated and tempt you to start tracking everything from calories to macronutrients. Instead, I advocate a simple approach to food logging: just use a text file, spreadsheet, or just paper and pen. If you want to stay electronic and link sync your data across devices, I recommend Evernote.
6. Work For Your Snacks
I’ll never suggest that you ban yourself from eating your favorite snacks. However, you certainly could benefit from making them a little less accessible.
Will this really help? Science says yes. It’s all to do with convenience.
In an article on overeating on This Emotional Life, Suzanne Phillips, PsyD, referenced a handful of studies that hammer home the effects of convenience on eating (paraphrased):
In one study, a dish of chocolate kisses was moved over the course of weeks to different locations in secretaries’ office: the corner of the desk, the top of the left hand drawer and on a file cabinet six feet from the desk. It was discovered that the further the dish was from people, the less they ate – a difference reflected in 225 extra calories a day. In the debriefing, the secretaries revealed that the longer the distance, the more time they had to talk themselves out of eating another piece!
In another study a cooler full of free ice cream was placed in a cafeteria. It was in the same place every day, but on some days the glass lid was left open and on other days it was closed. On the closed lid days only 14% of the diners had ice cream compared with 30% on the days it was left open.
We’re talking about a simple exercise in psychology: if you’re getting a craving for a particular snack then put yourself in a position where you have to put effort into get hold of it. Don’t make it as simple as opening a cupboard – make it so that you have to walk or drive to your local store.
That little extra effort required may be enough discouragement to convince you not to have the snack (or choose a healthier alternative that you already have in the house). Worst case, you’ll burn a few more calories making the trip to get the snack!
If you want a more challenging version of this and your local store is a semi-considerable distance away (say a mile or so), resolve to walk to the store if you want to get a snack. Your net calories consumed will be lower.
7. Measure Your Portions
In the past a typical serving of spaghetti for me would be anywhere from 160 to 200 strands of spaghetti, which equates to 525-700 calories (yeah – I like pasta). I would grab a healthy handful of spaghetti (perhaps 150 strands), then, fearing I was doing myself a disservice, grab a few more just for good measure.
Then I started measuring out my spaghetti to around 150 grams (which is around 150 strands). In doing so I saved myself from consuming an additional 35-175 calories. I didn’t feel like I was cheating myself either – I was just taking my greed out of the equation and measuring out an amount of spaghetti that I knew would satisfy me.
In my experience, knowing what amount of food will fill you up and making only that much can lead to weight loss with no perceived reduction in satisfaction and satiety. This is backed up by a compelling soup study (yep, you read that right) conducted by Cornell University. In the study, one group were given a normal bowl of soup to eat, while another group were given an automatically refilling bowl of soup. The outcome was telling:
Participants who were unknowingly eating from self-refilling bowls ate more soup than those eating from normal soup bowls. However, despite consuming 73% more, they did not believe they had consumed more, nor did they perceive themselves as more sated than those eating from normal bowls.
The conclusion was similarly compelling:
These findings are consistent with the notion that the amount of food on a plate or bowl increases intake because it influences consumption norms and expectations and it lessens one’s reliance on self-monitoring. It seems that people use their eyes to count calories and not their stomachs. The importance of having salient, accurate visual cues can play an important role in the prevention of unintentional overeating.
To put it another way, if a big portion of food is put on your plate, you brain tells you that you should eat it. On the other hand, a smaller portion can fill you up just as much and be just as satisfying (psychologically speaking) without the extra unwanted calorific load.
8. Use the Portion Reduction Method
This might feel like a tough one, especially for the kind of person I used to be: those who seemingly only feel satisfied when they eat to the point of slight sickness. It is however a highly effective way of eating fewer calories.
The method isn’t complicated: it begins with stopping when your body tells you that you’ve had enough at meal time. If you’re anything like me then it’ll take some time to rediscover this feeling, but it is there.
I appreciate that leaving food on the plate is often easier said than done. With that in mind, my suggestion is this: only put ¾ of the food you make on your plate. Then eat the meal slowly and give it fifteen minutes. If you’re still hungry then eat the rest – if not, put it in the bin. Yes, I know it’s a waste, but the quicker it’s in the bin, the sooner you can’t eat it. Then next time you know that you only need to make ¾ of the portion size (or even less, if you care to repeat the experiment). I call this the portion reduction method. It’s gonna be a thing.
I was talking about my spaghetti eating habits in the past tense above for good reason. These days, a serving of pasta for me is only about 75 grams — I just don’t have the appetite for a bigger portion these days. That is thanks to the portion reduction method.
9. Change Your Plates
According to Brian Wansink, head of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab and the author of Mindless Eating, dinner plate sizes have increased 36% since the 1960s. That corresponds with an increase in obesity in the US from ~15% in 1960 to ~30% in 2004. While correlation does not necessarily lead to causation, the relationship between these two variables is thought-provoking.
With the above in mind, you’ve probably read that if you use smaller plates you’ll eat less. However, that is not necessarily the case – a plate that is too small can simply convince you to go back for seconds or thirds, thus rendering the whole exercise pointless.
So instead of using smaller plates arbitrarily, find your ideal serving size then grab yourself a set of plates that makes your meals look suitably piled up. A mountain of food on a relatively small plate will seem bigger to you than a meal spread across a larger plate.
Over the past few months I have implemented all of the above strategies, and over those months I have been steadily losing weight. I’ve enabled myself to slowly develop habits that I previously would have thought unthinkable. It’s amazing how you can change your diet if you give your body the time it requires to gradually adjust.
I still enjoy all of the foods I love (sometimes in far too much abundance) and I never feel like I am restricting myself. I never thought that sustainable and enjoyable weight loss was possible, but that thought process was nothing more than a reflection of conventional wisdom. The simple fact is that all of the above tips cannot easily be tied to a product, which means that the dieting industry isn’t interested in talking about them. Fortunately, I am.
I am confident that the above tips can help you to lose weight. If you have any comments or questions, please do not hesitate to fire away below!