You can achieve healthy weight control without getting caught up in fad diets that are very restrictive or have complex rules. There is usually no scientific evidence to support these fad diets and while they might appear to work in the short term, they are eliminating entire food groups to cut out calories. And their rules are hard to stick to and you will likely regain the lost weight.
Rather than rely on such gimmicks, consider the 18 evidence-based keys for healthy weight control that we present below. You don’t have to follow all of them, but the more of them you incorporate into your daily life, the more likely you will be successful at losing weight and—as important—keeping the weight off long term. Consider adding one of these suggestions every week or two, but keep in mind that not all of them work for everyone. That is, you should pick and choose those that feel right for you to customize your own weight-control plan.
Of course, any healthy weight control plan should start with a healthy diet—one that’s rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes and low in refined grains, sugary foods, and saturated fats. You can include fish, poultry, lean meats, and dairy products (choosing low- fat or nonfat dairy saves calories). Aim for at least 20 to 35 grams of fiber a day from plant foods, since fiber helps fill you up and slows absorption of carbohydrates.
- Keep portions moderate, especially of high-calorie foods. You can eat all the broccoli and spinach you want (assuming they are prepared without fats or sauces), but for higher-calorie foods, portion control is essential. Check serving sizes on food labels—some relatively small packages contain more than one serving, so you have to double or triple the listed calories, fat, and sugar if you plan to eat the whole thing. Popular “100-calorie” food packages do the portion controlling for you (though they won’t help if you eat several packages at once).
- Eat mindfully. This involves increasing your awareness about when and how much to eat using internal (rather than visual or other external) cues to guide you. It means giving full attention to what you eat, savoring each bite, acknowledging what you like and don’t like, and not eating when distracted (such as while watching TV, working on the computer, or driving). Such an approach will help you eat less overall, while you enjoy your food more. Research suggests that the more mindful you are, the less likely you are to overeat in response to external cues, such as food ads, 24/7 food availability, and supersized portions.
- Eat slowly, chew well. A component of mindful eating, this allows more time for satiety signals to reach the brain (it takes about 20 minutes), so slow eaters tend to feel fuller and eat less. The process of chewing itself may also stimulate satiety signals. In addition, eating slowly makes you more aware of the smell, taste, and texture of the foods, which can lead to greater satisfaction with fewer calories. Keep in mind also that the most pleasure often comes from the first few bites of a food; after that, it’s the law of diminishing returns.
- Don’t rely on willpower. Instead, control your “food environment” so that you don’t unconsciously overfill your plate and eat when you’re not hungry. That means, for example, not having junk foods at home or at least keeping them out of sight—and changing your routines so you don’t regularly encounter temptations. Use smaller plates, bowls, cups, and utensils—or consider investing in portion-controlled plates that delineate what reasonable serving sizes are. Portion out snacks into small bowls or bags; don’t eat from large bags or boxes. You may not have control over everything in your food environment, but being aware of hidden food triggers and traps may be enough to keep you from overeating.
- Identify emotional triggers that may be making you overeat, such as eating when you are stressed, depressed, upset, angry, lonely, or even happy and excited—and find non-food-related activities you can do instead, such as going for a brisk walk. To identify if you are eating because you are actually hungry (or for other reasons), you can rate your hunger/fullness levels before, during, and after eating on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “beyond hungry” or “starving” (with associated headaches, lightheadedness, and weakness) and 10 being “beyond full.” Ideally you should eat when you are at level 3 (hungry but not yet uncomfortable) and stop at level 7 (full and satisfied).
- Go for foods low in energy density (that is, foods that have fewer calories relative to their weight and volume). Such foods increase satiety and allow you to fill up on fewer calories. In general, the best way to lower the energy density of your diet is to eat more foods that are high in water and fiber (notably fruits, vegetables, broth-based soups, tofu, most beans, and nonfat yogurt) in place of low-moisture or high-fat foods (such as cheese, crackers, cookies, and fried potatoes).
- Get adequate protein (and include some with all meals). Protein generally increases satiety more than carbohydrates do—and it helps limit muscle loss during weight loss. Some research suggests that distributing your protein throughout the day is better than eating the bulk of it at, say, dinnertime. Higher-protein diets (25 grams of protein at each meal in one study) may also help reduce appetite, though people with or at high risk for kidney disease have to be cautious about their protein intake.
- Eat regularly (don’t skip meals). Many people find that going longer than a few hours without food makes them more likely to overeat later (often high-calorie treats). Find a meal-timing pattern that works best for you. If you eat between meals, plan ahead with healthful “mini-snacks” (100 to 200 calories).
- Limit variety at meals. Variety in your overall diet is important to ensure that you get a range of nutrients and other substances that contribute to good health. But having too many choices at once can lead to overconsumption (the “smörgåsbord effect”) because foods with different flavors and sensory qualities whet the appetite, even if you are full. It’s also easier to overfill your plate when you have a large number of choices. In contrast, you’re likely to eat less if you have less variety, since foods similar in taste and texture dull the palate. Be especially careful at par- ties and all-you-can-eat buffets.
- Watch out for liquid calories. Beverages are not as satiating as solid foods, and people usually do not compensate for liquid calories by eating less food. Some liquid calories come from healthy beverages, such as milk, but sugary beverages provide lots of calories yet few, if any, nutrients. What about diet beverages? The jury is still out on whether they help with weight loss. As the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans notes, artificial sweeteners in beverages (and foods)—including sucralose, aspartame, saccharin, and acesulfame potassium—“replacing added sugars with low- and no-calorie sweeteners may reduce calorie intake in the short-term and aid in weight management, yet questions remain about their effectiveness as a long-term weight management strategy.” If you drink alcoholic beverages, be aware of their calories and of the disinhibiting effect alcohol can have on eating control.
- Cook at home, often. That allows you to eat more whole foods and control how much oil, sugar, and other high-calorie ingredients you use. Studies have shown that people tend to eat more when they eat out—though you must still be careful to limit portion sizes at home. When cooking from recipes, look for healthy lower-calorie ones that include nutrition analyses, and stick to the serving sizes.
- When eating out, follow some simple rules. To find lower-calorie options, take advantage of calorie listings on menus (that’s more possible now, thanks to new menu labeling legislation that went into effect at chain restaurants and other venues in 2018). Because portions have ballooned at restaurants in recent years, consider sharing an entrée (or ask for half to be wrapped to take home before you start eating), have an appetizer or salad as your main dish, and don’t order anything that has been supersized. Request that dishes be prepared with little or no butter, oil, or other high-fat ingredients, and ask for salad dressing on the side so you can control how much you use.
- Allow for (controlled) indulgences. Most people find foods high in fat and sugar pleasurable, since these activate the body’s “reward system” (which releases chemicals in the nervous system relating to pleasure). Overly restricting such foods (or any other types of food you crave) can be counterproductive since it can increase your desire for them and lead to bingeing. An occasional treat is fine, as long as it doesn’t tip the scale with calories. You might, for instance, have a small daily treat or save up for some weekend treats. On the other hand, if you can’t eat just a little, you may be better off avoiding hard-to-resist foods altogether.
- Keep a food diary. Studies have found that dieters who regularly record what they eat lose more weight than those who don’t—but you must do it consistently and honestly (including even condiments and tastings you may take while cooking). This simple act makes you more accountable for what you eat and helps you see patterns in your eating habits that may be contributing to weight gain.
- Get enough sleep An often overlooked factor in healthy weight control may be your sleep habits. Though the optimal amount of sleep varies from person to person, too little sleep (fewer than six hours a night in one study) has been linked to weight gain because it may affect appetite hormones and lead to increased hunger and food intake, decreased calorie burning, and increased fat storage.
- Consider weighing yourself regularly, at least once a week. This increases self-awareness and can provide encouragement if the numbers are going in the right direction—or it can motivate you to get back on track if you detect an upward trend. But whether to do so or not, and how frequently, is a personal decision. Some people get discouraged by small fluctuations that occur naturally from day to day.
- Set realistic goals. Just as weight tends to creep up over time, shedding excess pounds takes time. Don’t expect to lose 10 pounds a week (any diet that says you can is counting on water losses, not fat loss). Small and steady losses—about one to two pounds a week—usually win the race in the long term. For most people, losing even just 5 to 10 percent of body weight will provide health benefits.
- Exercise and be active. Healthy weight control also depends on the other side of the energy equation: the calories you expend in physical activity. Exercise not only burns calories and makes you trimmer and fitter, it also helps prevent the loss of muscle mass and the drop in metabolic rate that usually accompany dieting. The government’s Physical Activity Guidelines, released in 2018, recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (such as 30 minutes, five days a week) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week for general health. More exercise may be needed, though, to lose weight and prevent weight regain. To meet the goals more easily, the guidelines encourage activity throughout the day in bouts that can be less than 10 minutes. Don’t have the time (or inclination) for a 30-minute workout at the gym or a run in the park? How about taking the stairs instead of the elevator or having a “walking meeting” with colleagues at work?
Prioritizing healthy weight control over fad diets and restrictive rules is essential for long-term success. By incorporating these evidence-based strategies into your daily life, you can achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
Remember, you have the flexibility to choose the methods that work best for you and customize your own healthy weight control plan. A healthy diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins forms the foundation. Portion control, mindful eating, and paying attention to hunger cues help establish a balanced relationship with food. Prioritizing whole foods, limiting liquid calories, and cooking at home promote healthier choices. Regular physical activity and adequate sleep also play significant roles in achieving and maintaining healthy weight control. By implementing these strategies and setting realistic goals, you can make gradual progress towards a healthier, more fulfilling lifestyle.