Going on a diet is a losing game. Some research suggests more than nine out of every 10 people who try to diet will fail.
Even people who are able to diet successfully often fight a tough battle against the body’s evolutionarily savvy attempts to store extra energy. In fact, scientists have found that the bodies of severely overweight people who lose weight can actively work against them: as they slim down, their metabolism drops, making it harder to lose more weight.
Experts agree that extreme diets and juice cleanses aren’t good long-term strategies for maintaining a healthy weight. To that end, the US News & World Report’s 2018 ranking of the best diets put the trendy ketogenic diet dead last.
But there are a few simple things you can do to stay trim and satisfied in the long run.
We asked dietitian Jason Ewoldt from the nation’s top-rated hospital, the Mayo Clinic, for his simplest, sanest ideas for staying lean. Here’s his advice:
Stay hydrated. If you hate drinking water, zest it up with citrus or drink it carbonated (without adding empty calories into your diet).
Ewoldt noted that patients often end up misinterpreting thirst for hunger.
“A lot of times, people just seem to be a little dehydrated,” he said.
A 2016 study of more than 18,000 people in the US found that those who drank more water were consistently more satisfied and ate fewer calories on a daily basis. They also consumed lower amounts of sugar, fat, salt, and cholesterol than more dehydrated participants.
There’s also some limited evidence that drinking water can help you burn through more calories, at least for a little while. So keep sipping.
Whatever you drink, it’s best to steer clear of sugar and probably artificial sweeteners, too.
But researchers are starting to discover that consuming drinks with fake sugar may not be any better when it comes to developing dangerous diseases.
Scientists studying the blood vessels of rats discovered that while sugar and artificial sweeteners act in very different ways inside the animals’ bodies, they can both up the odds of developing obesity and diabetes.
The researchers think that artificial sweeteners may mess with the way our bodies process fat.
Aim for seven to eight hours of shut-eye per night.
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Most of us like to think we can operate well without a full night’s sleep. But neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker says that’s wrong. According to Walker, a lack of sleep is literally killing us.
And it makes us eat more unhealthy food, too.
Research published in 2013 in the journal Nature Communications revealed that sleep-deprived eaters are more likely to reach for high-calorie foods and gain weight than well-rested people. That’s because being sleepy also snoozes the region of the brain that helps tell us when we’re full.
Taking time to enjoy breakfast and lunch is a good way to avoid overeating later in the day. Try to eat before you get irritable and impulsive.
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The advice is almost a cliché at this point, but more and more research still suggests that breakfast-eaters stay trimmer and avoid putting on belly fat compared to people who don’t eat in the morning.
Recent Mayo Clinic research found that people who skip breakfast put on roughly five to eight more pounds in a single year than regular morning eaters.
Ewoldt said your breakfast doesn’t have to be big, but you should eat something to help avoid impulsive hunger-fueled binges of fatty or sugary food.
“When we’re hungry, we’re going to go with what’s quickest and easiest,” he said.
Often that translates to more processed, high-calorie foods with little nutritional value.
Consider incorporating a healthy mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack into your daily routine.
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“If you have a small, healthy, filling snack, you’re still hungry for lunch, you’re just better able to manage choices,” Ewoldt said.
Ewoldt said he often opts for a cheese stick, banana, or other piece of fruit. Nuts are also a good option, since they’re full of protein.
Plan ahead by getting your veggie chopping and meal prepping done before you’re hungry.
When we’re hungry, it can be hard to say no to processed foods, which are bad for your waistline and are associated with a higher risk of cancer.
Ewoldt said having a daily plan “makes healthy eating a heckuva lot more attainable.”
He packs his lunch for work at least four days a week and picks out foods that will keep him satisfied for hours. He stocks up on chicken patties, crunchy vegetables and hummus, as well as guacamole.
Make your days a little nuttier.
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Nuts are a fatty, wonderful way to stave off cravings between meals, and a healthy source of protein.
A study of more than 81,000 people in North America found that people who ate just a handful of mixed nuts or seeds each day reduced their risk of developing heart disease. Getting a little nutty also helped the study participants lower the “bad” LDL cholesterol levels in their bodies.
Work out in the morning.
Studies have shown that people who work out in the morning on an empty stomach can burn up to 20% more body fat during their workouts, since they have to use more stored-up fat as fuel.
Some evidence suggests that exercising on an empty stomach won’t increase your appetite (though the scientists behind that research gave study participants a chocolate-flavored recovery drink right after their morning workouts).
Incorporating more movement into your routine at any time of day will lead to major benefits. Exercise has been shown to provide a smorgasbord of health improvements: it can help stave off depression and keep your heart, lungs, and mind healthy to a ripe old age.
Chew more filling whole grains like quinoa and brown rice.
Whole grains like oats, cracked wheat, and brown rice are a great way to satisfy your appetite and stay full. Plus, they’re also rich in potassium, iron, and B vitamins.
These fiber-rich foods take more time for the body to break down, and can fuel us for hours. That makes them a better choice than processed, nutrient-stripped grains like those in white breads, crackers, and white rice.
Enjoy some fruit.
Fruits are another great way to incorporate hunger-satisfying fiber into your diet. Plus, they’re a great source of vitamins and water.
Ewoldt likes to sprinkle some berries onto Greek yogurt in the morning for a simple, quick breakfast.
Harvard physician Monique Tello has a similar go-to breakfast: Icelandic-style (high protein) yogurt with a combination of berries and a mix of nuts, seeds, and rolled oats.
Treat yourself sometimes.
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If there’s one thing dietitians and food experts agree on, it’s that deprivation and villainizing “bad” foods leads to binging and diet failures.
So indulge once in a while, Ewoldt said – in moderation.
If it’s wine you crave, he suggests limiting your intake to one 5-ounce glass (that’s about a fifth of a bottle) and “really sip and really enjoy it.”