One of the main reasons that diets generally don’t work—and that people avoid them at all costs—is because they force you to cut out foods you probably love. The good news: experts agree that that’s the entirely wrong way to achieve healthy and long-term weight loss. “When people change too much about their diet at once, they tend to give up before they reach their goals,” says Christen Cupples Cooper, Ed.D., R.D.N., assistant professor and founding director of the Nutrition and Dietetics Program at the College of Health Professions at Pace University. “We believe that small changes add up to big success—small changes at a time, which eventually become habits, make for lasting weight success.” So, before you toss out everything in your pantry, give these small diet changes a try.
Don’t fear fat.
Sure, there are plenty of fat-laden foods that are terrible for you, such as those that contain saturated and trans fats. But, there are also “good fats,” such as omega-3s, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. Foods containing these good fats include avocados, walnuts, olive oil, salmon, tuna, dark chocolate, and flaxseed. “These good fats have been proven to aid in weight loss,” says Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, registered dietitian and founder of TLB Nutrition in New York City. “Try to incorporate these foods into your diet and you may see some changes to the waistline.”
Exercise portion control.
Unless you take time to peek at the nutrition labels on the foods that you eat, you probably aren’t aware of the recommended portion size for that particular food. These are important, notes Beckerman, who recommends that her clients never eat straight from the box or bag. “It is so hard to conceptualize how many servings you are eating if you do not measure it out beforehand,” she says. “This can also be a challenge when dining out because we live in a culture of supersizing.” Also, remember that you don’t have to eat every last morsel of food on your plate. Ask for half of your meal to be put in a to-go container before it’s even served to you. Take your leftovers home and enjoy the meal again the next day!
Eat the colors of the rainbow.
The hue of a fruit or vegetable is often dictated by which kinds of nutrients it contains, which is why it’s important to incorporate a variety. This helps ensure that you’re eating a well-rounded diet. “Making sure that your plate has at least three different colors on it will help you focus on creating more balanced meals, not to mention it is also easy on the eyes (or makes that perfect Instagram post!),” says Beckerman. “Different colored fruits and vegetables also provide nutrients and vitamins, which will not only help with weight loss but [also] overall health.”
Boost your protein intake.
Most Americans get more than their fair share of protein, but if you’re constantly dieting, you may not be getting enough to meet your body’s needs, says Cooper. She recommends adding in small amounts of protein to keep your body chugging along. “Add a palm-sized portion of lean meat, like chicken, fish, or legumes, to salads and swap out carb- and calorie-heavy items like bagels, replacing them with protein-rich eggs, cheese, or nut butter or yogurt to your diet,” she says. “But, remember: If you add in protein, take out something else. Calories matter!”
When you’re rushing out the door in the morning, it can be easy to forget to grab something to eat. But, breakfast is the most important meal of the day for a reason. In fact, experts say that breakfast is the best time to fill up on the most nutrients you’ll likely enjoy all day. “While counterintuitive, people who eat a good breakfast of protein, carbohydrates, and fiber gain less weight or lose more,” says Robert Herbst, personal trainer, weight loss and wellness coach, and powerlifter. “Having breakfast gives people needed nutrients and evens out the blood sugar so [that] people are less likely to binge on calorie dense junk later in the day.”
Americans aren’t drinking enough water—women especially, according to a U.S. National Health Nutrition Examination Survey. Not only is water obviously vital to surviving, but being properly hydrated helps prevent unnecessary snacking. “Often people think [that] they are hungry, but they are really thirsty,” says Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D., medical advisory board member and member of the Nutritional Magnesium Association. She recommends drinking at least half of your body weight in ounces of water a day.
Swap your snack for something healthier.
This might sound simple—it is—but small diet changes such as replacing a bag of chips with a piece of fruit or an ounce of cheese—adds up. “If you’re having 200 calories of a processed, salty, or sugary food, the fruit will be a healthy and tasty substitute,” says Cooper. “The average piece of fruit runs around 100 calories, so you’ll cut calories and gain nutrients with just that small change.” Additionally, she notes that the high water and fiber content of fruit will also help satisfy your hunger.
Replace emotional snacking with a fun activity.
If you tend to turn to food when you’re feeling sad, lonely, or stressed, you may be emotionally eating. This tendency can very quickly lead to weight gain since your body doesn’t need the energy in calories. It’s your mind and emotion centers craving a boost. Cooper recommends working to identify your “true hunger” and also trying alternatives to eating when you might not be actually craving food. Going outside for a walk, taking a warm, relaxing bath, or reading a book are all excellent solutions to help ease your stress and sadness, without turning to food.
Don’t drink your calories.
You might love your venti white chocolate mocha beverage, but that thing has over 500 calories (aka the equivalent of more than ten Oreo cookies!). “These calories add up, and if you would not eat ten Oreos once or twice a day, you should scale back on the [sugary] drinks,” says Herbst. Instead, he recommends having a satisfying lower calorie cup of tea and saving the coffee fraps for once or twice a week.
You don’t have to undergo any massive dietary changes to lose weight. In fact, it’s often much easier than we think to shed unnecessary and unhealthy calories throughout the day with just a few small diet changes.