by A.J. Henley
The weather’s getting warmer, and beach season feels like it’s just around the corner. It’s that time of year again…when you pledge to overhaul your diet for the sake of your waistline and your well-being. You’re a paragon of virtue to start, but just a few weeks (or even days) in, your motivation begins to flag. Feeling “hangry”—hungry and angry about all that deprivation—you scarf down two pieces of sheet cake at an office birthday party, and then scrap your evening salad for Mexican takeout and a heaping bowl of ice cream.
Before you blame a lack of willpower (or those cake-loving co-workers!) for your poor follow-through, look at your goals with a critical eye. Ask yourself if they can really be accomplished within the time frame you’ve allotted and what you’ll do specifically to support them on a daily basis. “Without an attainable, detailed action plan in place, you won’t make it to the finish line,” says nutritionist Lisa Jubilee, MS, CDN, a cofounder of Living Proof Nutrition Strength Pilates in New York. “It’s also important that the strategic steps be things that you’re willing and able to work into your schedule.” If you spend long hours on the job, for example, telling yourself you’ll cook every night will only set you up for failure. “It’s more effective to be consistent,” she says, opting for modest vows you can live with (say, two home-cooked meals a week) rather than lofty ones you can’t.
To inject momentum into your best intentions, Jubilee and other experts came up with 11 very doable goals. Adopt a few to start, adding more as the first ones stick. By staying flexible and being patient, these good-for-you behaviors will soon become second-nature, helping you make those weight-loss ambitions a reality.
1. Picture a slimmer, stronger you. “Like any work project, you should have an idea of what the end result will be” before you begin, says Katherine Tallmadge, MS, RD, the author of Diet Simple: Lose Weight & Get Healthy Without Dieting (LifeLine Press, 2011). She suggests visualizing your life when you’re at your ideal weight at least once a day, be it walking into a party looking fabulous, or clad in workout wear, killing that spin class. The ritual will help boost your confidence, she says, which is a proven prerequisite for success.
2. Commit to three squares. Consuming small, frequent meals might seem like a no-brainer for keeping hunger and energy dips at bay, but it’s not necessarily the best way to slim down. “It depends on your personality and schedule, but I find mini meals make people more obsessed with food,” Tallmadge says.
There’s a physiological downside to grazing as well: “When you continually eat throughout the day, your body has no reason to tap into fat reserves for fuel,” Jubilee explains. “For most people, consuming moderately sized, nutrient-rich meals less frequently will give the body a greater chance of reaching glycogen depletion and enable fat loss to occur.”
3. Eat more consciously. Multitasking—say, munching while watching TV, reading or texting—can be a recipe for overindulging. Instead, sit down to eat. Clear your desk of distractions and make your dinner table a tech-free zone so you can focus solely on your meal. “Chewing each bite of food until it’s almost liquefied forces you to slow down and allows the body to absorb more nutrients,” says Joel Fuhrman, MD, author of The End of Dieting: How to Live for Life (HarperOne, 2014). “It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to receive signals from digestive hormones that you’re full.”
4. Allow yourself a daily treat. Nothing not to like here! If chocolate, a bag of chips or a glass of wine is calling your name, go for it—within reason, of course. “Banning foods is not sustainable,” says Susan Moores, MS, RD, a nutrition consultant in St. Paul, MN. “A ‘forbidden fruit’ becomes a bigger draw and a point of focus.”
“A healthy diet is about balance, not extremes,” adds Jubilee. “That’s why I tell my clients to first feed their body what it needs, and save a little room for what it purely wants.” Many successful weight losers and maintainers follow the 80/20 rule, making sure 80 percent of their calories consumed are healthy and saving the remaining 20 percent for an indulgence. Others simply factor a portion-controlled 100- to 150-calorie snack into their daily calorie tally. But be sure to make that treat count; for a sweet or salty snack to truly satisfy, it should be something you’re craving, whether that’s a cup of fruit-flavored Greek yogurt or a few squares of dark chocolate. And if you’re tempted to go back for seconds? Keep in mind that you’ll have another chance to partake tomorrow—and every day after that.
5. Keep tabs. Writing down everything you put in your mouth may be annoying and feel like a lot of work, which is why many people don’t do it. But journaling can up your chances of following through with the changes you need to make, Tallmadge says. In addition to keeping you accountable, jotting down what you eat, as well as your motivation for losing weight and the feelings surrounding every meal and milestone, is a process that’s vital to staying confident and strong.
But don’t shy from documenting the little slips along the way as well. “Negative reinforcement is sometimes just as important as positive reinforcement,” she says. If you’re reading about the stomachache you had after a junk-food binge, you may think twice about polishing off a box of doughnuts or a big plate of fries.
6. Institute Fish Fridays. “Like the concept of Meatless Mondays, this is a clever way to include seafood on your menu,” says Moores. Ounce for ounce, fish contains fewer calories than beef and even poultry, and provides an important dose of omega-3 fatty acids—nutrients linked to a healthier heart and brain. “Still, it’s not a blanket pass,” she cautions. “It hinges on the way the fish is prepared, what it’s eaten with and many other elements.”
There’s one other catch, too: You can easily cancel out the benefits with seafood that’s contaminated with mercury, antibiotics or harmful chemicals like PCBs. To play it safe, look for sardines, mackerel, wild Alaskan salmon, pole-caught albacore tuna and Arctic char. For additional options, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Super Green” list at www.seafoodwatch.org; you can find the best picks for your state or download its free app to your smartphone.