Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Just walk for exercise
“Walking is a form of transportation and a good place to start, but it is by no means a finish line in your quest to stay young, stay healthy, and be strong,” says Eric Von Frohlich, an expert fitness trainer and cofounder of Row House and other exercise studios in New York City. For a very overweight person, a short daily walk may be the best starting point, increasing distance by about 10 percent each week. But ultimately, everyone needs weight training to strengthen muscles and bones, and cardiovascular exercise intense enough to get the heart pumping.
It’s all about portion control
Eating off smaller plates or constantly trying to stop yourself from eating is not the way to go. “Don’t change the portion but change the combination of what you’re eating,” says Joe Colella, MD, a weight-loss specialist and author of The Appetite Solution. Specifically, replace most (but not all) starchy foods with protein and non starchy vegetables. For example:
Your plate now: One-third chicken, one-third potatoes, one-third broccoli.
Your new plate: Double the amount of chicken, shrink the potato to about one-third the original amount, and fill the rest with broccoli or other non starchy vegetables.
Breakfast: Always include protein, such as eggs or smoked salmon. If you prefer cereal, eat oats or other whole grains and replace milk with a low-sugar (less than 5 grams), ready-to-drink protein shake.
Needless to say, this means that you should eat meals, rather than snacking at your desk or in front of the TV. But if you eat enough protein and a variety of multicolored, non starchy vegetables, snacking urges should take care of themselves-not instantly, but within about a week. If you’re hungry between meals, a ready-made protein shake is a good choice.
“Doubling up the protein and increasing non starchy vegetables impacts the way other foods you eat are absorbed and processed, which people don’t think about,” says Colella. “It shifts your metabolism from fat storage into fat breakdown and fat disposal.”
As a rule of thumb for weight loss, Colella recommends eating 1.5 to 2 grams of protein per pound of your ideal weight, and for weight maintenance, between 1 and 1.5 grams of protein per pound.
Fruit is off limits
Although fruit naturally contains sugar, it also contains fiber and a wide range of nutrients. If you’re eating meals with plenty of protein and vegetables, your body shouldn’t have a problem with the sugar content of fruit, and will definitely benefit from its nutrients, according to Colella.
Refined sugars and starches should not be on the menu. “But the big point is, the elimination of those things starts to happen on its own when you start to put the good things in, in the quantities I’m talking about,” he says.
Eat everything in moderation
An NIH-funded study of 6,814 people found the opposite to be true. After five years, waist sizes among those with the greatest diversity of food types were 120 percent larger than among those who ate a narrower range of wholesome foods.
“Americans with the healthiest diets actually eat a relatively small range of healthy foods,” says senior study author Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, at Tufts University in Boston. “These results suggest that in modern diets, eating ‘everything in moderation’ is actually worse than eating a smaller number of healthy foods.”
At Duke University in Durham, N.C., researchers identified the most obesity-promoting foods in diets of more than 4,000 adolescents in the United Kingdom. Liquid calories were the worst. Potato chips, breaded or coated chicken or fish, French fries, processed meats, refined grains such as white bread, desserts, sweets, and milk were other top contributors to weight gain.
Slow weight loss is best
Medical guidelines usually recommend a loss of no more than 1-2 pounds per week, but slow weight loss may be less likely to be successful. A study of 200 obese Australians compared a slow diet, cutting 500 calories per day for 36 weeks, and a fast diet of only 400-800 calories daily for 12 weeks. Only half of those on the slow diet lost at least 12.5 percent of their weight, compared to 81 percent in the fast diet. There were no differences in weight regain during the next three years.
Researchers found that fewer people dropped out of the fast diet, likely because quick weight loss was more motivating. In addition, because the very low-calorie diet contained fewer carbohydrates, it helped to reduce appetite.
You’ll be hungry all the time
“The big mistake people make-even many nutritionists, personal trainers, dietitians, and weight-loss doctors-is to tell people to eat a restricted-calorie diet and increase physical activity at the same time,” says Colella. Starting with this combination of a low-calorie diet and exercise will set anyone up for failure because, he says, these are “the two most appetite-stimulating events.”
Restricting calories also impedes production of your thyroid hormones, which slows down metabolism and elevates stress hormones, which, in turn, leads to more fat storage. With that in mind, it’s best to begin a weight-loss program by changing the types of food you eat, establishing a healthy eating pattern for a couple of weeks, and then starting a workout regimen.
No pain, no gain
“People think that they have to be tortured to be successful,” says Von Frohlich, but that isn’t the case. To improve, you do need to go beyond your comfort zone, but not too far. “You want to work hard enough to get benefit,” he says, “but not so hard that you don’t want to come back and do it again the next day.”
On five or six days each week, your routine should include weight training that challenges muscles enough to make them stronger, and short bursts of intense cardiovascular activity, interspersed with moderate intensity. There are a variety of methods to incorporate both types of exercise. The first step is always learning how to do the movement safely and effectively, and then increasing the weight, duration, and/or intensity.
Working with a trainer, one-on-one or in a small group, is a good way to begin or improve a fitness program. And, since consistency is key, it’s important to find activities you enjoy.
You have to get up earlier to hit the gym
Many people find it easier to make time for exercise first thing in the morning, but physiologically that isn’t necessarily the best time. “We want to be energized when we go into a workout because we’ll be able to push a little harder and get more out of it,” says Von Frohlich. The peak time of day is different for each person, but for many it’s about three hours after waking up. In an ideal world, that would be your best exercise time, but realistically, do it when it’s practical-just do it regularly.
If early-morning workouts are best for your schedule, that means going to bed early enough to get enough rest. “Lack of sleep raises your cortisol levels, and that slows down your metabolism,” says Von Frohlich. “A slowed-down, depressed metabolism means storing more of the calories that you’re eating instead of using them.”
Diet soda will help you lose weight
Drinks sweetened with stevia or other natural sugar-free sweeteners may be a practical option. However, several studies have found that artificially sweetened diet soda promotes weight gain. (The nonprofit consumer advocacy group, U.S. Right to Know, is asking federal regulators to ban the “diet” label on such sodas-see details at usrtk.org.)
On the flipside, the combination of polyphenols and caffeine in tea help to promote weight loss, according to several studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Green and other teas slightly increase the amount of body fat that is used for fuel, and overall, regular tea drinkers have less body fat.
Weight-loss supplements don’t work
“Supplements are aids,” says Harry Preuss, MD, professor and researcher at Georgetown University, and author of The Natural Fat-Loss Pharmacy. Rather than replacing the need for a healthy diet and exercise, they can improve the way food is metabolized and help suppress appetite-if you choose and use them correctly.
Preuss recommends selecting ingredients that have been studied and found to be safe and effective. Product labels and company websites should provide this information, along with a phone number for the manufacturer. If you have questions, ask in-store personnel or call the manufacturer.
Equally important: Weight-loss supplements should be taken as they were in studies that demonstrated effectiveness. This means following usage instructions, including the dose and frequency, with or without food, as recommended. And know what to expect. For example, with HCA (short for hydroxycitric acid, extracted from the Indian tamarind plant, Garcinia cambogia), changes in body shape may be noticeable before a loss of pounds during the first couple of weeks, but the scale will eventually drop. Preuss recommends a studied form of HCA that is bound with either potassium or magnesium. And, it should be taken on an empty stomach with water, as taking it with food will reduce benefits.
Even in some studies, Preuss has seen supplements taken incorrectly, leading to inconsistent results. “If you don’t comply,” he says, “don’t complain.”