- If you want to lose weight and become more healthy, dieting may not be the best strategy.
- Gradual changes to what you eat can lead to better long-term results.
- If you need structure to succeed, a nutritionist or eating program may be helpful to get you started.
Whether you made a New Year’s resolution or not, you’ve probably been thinking about getting healthy in 2023.
That means going on a diet, right? Not necessary.
If you are looking for a temporary program to lose weight, a diet may be the answer. But many experts suggest an attitude adjustment to eating instead—because that strategy can lead to a longer, healthier life.
By improving what you eat, you can lose weight and avoid the yo-yo effect of weight loss that comes with fad diets. An international study of 14 diets published in 2020 in the British medical journal BMJ found that dieters lost weight after six months, but most regained the weight after a year.
“Unfortunately, when people reach their goal and stop the program, many regain the weight they lost and then some,” said Mimi Secor, M.D., a women’s health specialist and author of “Healthy and Fit at Any Age.”
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I want to lose weight and eat healthy. What foods should I choose?
For starters, don’t think of it as a diet. “I coach my clients to replace the word ‘diet’ as a temporary fix with the term ‘healthy meal plan’ because it’s more sustainable,” said Elana Paddock, a registered dietitian at the Cooper Clinic. Dallas, Texas.
A popular diet today is intermittent fasting, which often involves eating only 6-8 hours a day. But a recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found no link between meal timing and weight loss over a six-year period.
However, fewer and smaller meals were associated with weight loss.
“Additionally, skipping meals can lead to increased hunger and cravings, leading to overeating and difficulty making healthy food choices,” Paddock said. “In general, restrictive types of dietary approaches can lead to similar negative consequences.”
When you look at US News & World Report’s 2023 Best Diets, the top recommendations are “technically not the way we think of eating as restrictive,” Gretel Schueller, US News’ managing editor for health, told USA TODAY. “They’re a lifestyle approach.”
What good foods should be considered better eating plans?
The Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes vegetables, fruits, lean poultry, seafood, whole grains, nuts and unsaturated fat from extra-virgin olive oil, is “really more of an eating style and it’s really adaptable,” Schueller said.
“Diets that are done well don’t restrict whole food groups or make you feel like you’re missing out. A better way to think of them is as an eating pattern,” Schueller said.
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Two other major diets recommended on the US News & World Report list are the DASH diet — which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop High Blood Pressure — which limits foods high in saturated fat, as well as sugary beverages and the Flexitarian diet, a semi-vegetarian diet. On non-meat proteins like beans, peas or eggs – plus fruits and vegetables – as a way to reduce meat consumption.
Except for sodium restrictions on the DASH diet, these are “not restrictive and really focus on what we should be eating: whole foods, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and so on, and limiting our candy and processed foods,” Schueller said. .
What are the important factors to consider when choosing a diet or meal plan?
If a diet or eating plan is too restrictive, you’re less likely to stick to it. Other important questions to ask before starting a new eating strategy include:
- Favorite foods not allowed?
- Are all food groups included? What will our cash budget allow?
- What about other family members?
“If you’re cooking for the whole family, but one person is eating differently than everyone else at the table, that’s not very sustainable,” Schueller said. “The more complex the diet, the less likely you are to stick to it long term.”
Those foods that rank high on US News & World Report’s list can serve as the foundation for a long-term healthy eating plan. Each suggests limiting unhealthy foods and emphasizing portion control.
“Whatever you choose, it should consist of healthy foods and drinks — and allow you to treat yourself occasionally so you can stick to it,” Schueller said.
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I don’t want to go on a diet, but I do want to make some simple changes.
Start with small changes. Drink more water — eight 8-ounce glasses a day — and start recording your food intake with an app like MyFitnessPal, suggests Secor.
“Or maybe start going to bed 15 minutes earlier, or start walking around the block every day,” she said. “Don’t try to change everything at once. You’re more likely to get overwhelmed and throw in the towel until next year.”
Pick one or two specific changes to focus on and go from there, Paddock said. Some suggestions:
- Swap white bread or white rice for whole wheat bread or brown rice (these have more nutrients).
- Choose light popcorn instead of potato chips.
- Buy individual portions of nuts or snacks instead of large containers—or fill small snack bags for portion control.
- Instead of always opting for sweets or salty snacks, keep fruit on hand.
- Use small plates and bowls to keep portions small.
- When you eat red meat, eat lean protein like chicken or fish — or beans.
- Note that after dinner, the kitchen is closed until morning.
“You can consider a small-step approach with healthy exchanges and building one success on top of another that not only leads to positive change, but also motivation,” Paddock said.
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What if I want a more rigorous regimen?
- Find a registered dietitian. These nutrition experts “can be a valuable tool in developing a plan with you and navigating the choices that fit your needs and lifestyle,” Paddock said. You can find a nutritionist on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website.
- Try a program. If you’re not an experienced cook, try a program like Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, or Optavia, which has guidelines to help you with meals and portions to buy. “These more structured commercial diets can work for (the person), even if it’s only for a limited period of time to start a healthy diet,” Schueller said.
- Get a physical trainer. Diet is only part of a healthy lifestyle; Physical activity is another. But exercise is “part of a holistic approach to whatever healthy lifestyle you choose,” Schueller said.
Follow Mike Snyder on Twitter: @MikeSnyder.