One of the most common complaints I hear in my primary care practice is about the struggle with trying to lose weight. We live in a culture so food-oriented, it's difficult to convince people to adopt the lifestyle changes necessary to achieve and maintain a normal weight. Unlike other addictions, where you can say “I’ll never take another drink, or take another puff on a cigarette,” one can never say “I’ll never eat another bite.” This is the great dilemma with controlled eating. However, it's possible to lose weight without depriving yourself.
The first thing I tell people is that if there is a particular food group that you really have trouble controlling, then eliminate that altogether, at least for a while. For example, if chocolate is the problem, then eliminate that from your diet. If it is salty snacks, like chips, eliminate those. For some it is bread. For others, it is pasta. Most people find that if they eliminate the food type they crave the most, eventually that craving wanes. There is no easy way to lose. Every diet out there works in the short term. I have found that the weight loss from any diet that is drastically different from “normal” eating tends to be harder to maintain in the long run. The bottom line is that weight loss truly is a matter of diet and exercise: calories in minus calories out. You cannot lose weight with exercise alone, unless you are running marathons! Most exercise just doesn’t burn enough calories. However, what exercise does is prevent the drop in metabolism that happens when you cut the calories without exercising. Even 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week makes a difference, including brisk walking.
To lose just a pound a week, you have to cut out 500 calories a day from what you eat normally when you have not been gaining. It sounds like a lot, but it is amazing how many calories are in the foods we eat every day. I recommend that you keep a diet diary for a few days before you start a diet, to help identify where you can most easily find those 500 calories. The highest calorie items are those that are high in carbs and fats. There are many apps for smart phones these days that can help with this.
Don’t put anything into your mouth unless you have an idea of how many calories the item contains. Sometimes just stopping to check can give you enough of a pause to be able to resist. What you will find is that the money is in fruits and vegetables when you are trying to save calories. In fact, the current concept of good nutrition is the “plate” concept: half of every plate, every meal should be fruits and/or vegetables; a quarter of the plate whole grain carbs (like brown rice, whole wheat pasta, sweet potato) and a quarter of the plate lean protein. A meat serving should be about the size of a deck of cards. When you are trying to lose, you will do better to cut back on the carb portion. Fill up on salad instead.
Drinking diet soda and using artificial sweeteners can actually make it harder to lose weight. Some studies show that artificial sweeteners change the bacteria in the gut so that you end up absorbing more calories from your food! Others suggest you never lose the craving for sweets when you use artificial sweeteners, which are actually much sweeter than sugar. It is possible that the “natural” low-calorie sweeteners such as stevia, which is plant-based, may be less of a problem, but the jury is not out on that yet. The take home message here is to drink water when you are thirsty.
Think realistically about how long it will take you to reach your goal: If your goal is to lose 10 pounds, it will take 10 weeks, assuming you stick to the program. When you reach your goal, you can never go back to old habits. That doesn’t mean you are “dieting” for a lifetime, but it means you're eating differently.