Add one of these simple tweaks to your everyday routine—and see why the best way to lose weight may also be the easiest.
It’s a perennial cycle: You notice that your favorite jeans are a little snugger than they were last year. You get winded after a flight of stairs. Or maybe you’re just feeling a renewed commitment to well-being after a holiday sugar bender. Then come the promises— a three-day juice cleanse, the treadmill every day for a month, no sugar (or is it no carbs?) ever. But then real life sneaks up on you—and before you know it, you’ve abandoned the entire plan.
Turns out, there’s nothing wrong with your willpower. Instead, you might be biting off more than you can chew (no pun intended). The reason diets bomb so often is the all-or-nothing extremism people tend to apply to weight loss. “Our culture gives people two options: Take big action or do nothing,” says James O. Prochaska, Ph.D., a professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Rhode Island, in Kingston, and the author of Changing for Good. When the big action inevitably fails, people become demoralized and go back to doing nothing.
“The rare individual can make a dramatic lifestyle change and stick to that very quickly,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., the dean of the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition. For the rest of us mortals, the answer to sustainable weight loss probably lies in the middle ground—making small, incremental changes or meaningful shifts that can make a difference, without affecting quality of life.
Research shows that the trick to sticking to a nutrition and fitness plan—and seeing results—might be finding the one small change that works for you, explains Lesley Lutes, Ph.D., an associate professor and director of clinical training in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan Campus, who has published four studies on a “small change” approach to weight loss. “There is no one small change that works for everybody,” she says.
She treats patients in her clinical trials and practice with a program that works like this: For one week, participants record everything they eat and track their steps with a Fitbit. They then look at those records for places to make three to five small diet changes of about 100 calories each, meaning they consistently consume several hundred fewer calories a day. (Think reducing the amount of milk in your coffee or taking the cheese off your salad.)
The great news: In Lutes’s first study, overweight and obese volunteers who participated in the small-change program lost seven more pounds in the first four months than did those who received traditional weight-loss treatment, which included regular meetings with a nutritionist to learn about U.S. government guidelines on diet and fitness. Plus, they kept it off in the following months.
Lutes says that, according to patients, this less restrictive approach is more manageable and maintainable over time compared with trying to follow a specific diet plan. Even better: When you succeed at a small goal—rather than failing at a big one—you feel motivated to tackle further goals, says Prochaska. Which means, in the long run, that small changes can add up to big changes. Inspired? Here are 15 small changes for big results.
Remember: The Best Days Start With Protein
Protein can support both weight loss and maintenance, according to a 2015 research review published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. And while eating about 24 to 35 grams of high-quality protein is important at every meal, it’s key in the morning, says lead researcher Heather Leidy, Ph.D., an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri, in Columbia. (Most people consume 10 to 15 grams at breakfast or skip it altogether.) “Protein increases satiety throughout the day,” says Leidy, “and this leads to reductions in food cravings and unhealthy evening snacking.”
This could be the equation for the ideal weight-loss breakfast: a two-egg omelet + low-fat cheese + two ounces of lean meat (such as lean ground beef or turkey). No time to cook eggs? Try Greek yogurt with nuts.
Focus On Can, Not Can’t
Start by telling yourself that you can have as many fruits and vegetables as you want. Seriously, go crazy. “The virtually unlimited aspect of it is psychologically powerful,“ says Donald Hensrud, M.D., an associate professor of nutrition and preventive medicine at the Mayo Clinic. Also keep in mind that “it’s better to eat 800 calories of healthy food than 600 calories of junk food,” says Mozaffarian. Indeed, his research has linked the consumption of foods such as potato chips, sugary beverages, and processed meats to weight gain, whereas increasing consumption of foods such as vegetables, nuts, and yogurt had the opposite effect.
Talk to Yourself
Ask, Does it taste good? How hungry am I? “We often eat whatever is in front of us,” says Linda Bunyard, a registered dietitian at the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, in Baltimore. “We can avoid a lot of unwanted calories by becoming aware of our tendencies and cutting back on some of the unnecessary eating.” And say no entirely to food that’s just plain unsatisfying. (Stale. Movie. Popcorn.) “Have you ever eaten just because everyone else was?” asks Bunyard. “Or because food was right there in front of you? Break this habit. You have only a limited number of calories to spend in a day, so save them for the yummiest ones.”
Forget What You’ve Heard About The Scale
Conventional wisdom dictates that you shouldn’t weigh yourself too often. The assumption: You risk being discouraged by frequent fluctuations due to water retention or undigested meals. But people who weighed themselves every day lost more weight—and kept it off more successfully—according to a study published last year in Journal of Obesity.
“Stepping on that scale affects your decisions through the 24 hours that follow,” says David Levitsky, Ph.D., the lead study author and a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University. In other words, that A.M. reality check might remind you to choose a salad instead of mac and cheese come lunchtime. As for those daily fluctuations, Levitsky suggests recording your weight each day (paper and pen work just as well as an app) and noting long-term patterns instead of daily numbers.
Try The Golf-ball Trick
Leave about one-quarter of your normal serving off your plate for every food at every meal for two to three days. Then, as you’re eating, leave two tablespoons of every food (roughly the size of a golf ball) on your plate. “Thirty minutes after each meal, if you remember, check to see if you’re hungry,” says Bunyard. “If you don’t remember to do this, you are probably not hungry.” Finally, she suggests, “check again at the end of the day. Are you still physically hungry? Most of us will find that we are satisfied with smaller servings.”
You might think that you’re being a multitasking hero, eating breakfast in the car or grabbing a handful of pretzels on your way to a meeting. But even if the food is healthy, it could be sabotaging your diet. That’s because eating on the go is a form of “mindless eating” and can result in consuming more calories later in the day, according to 2015 research published in Journal of Health Psychology.
Study participants who ate a cereal bar while walking ate five times more chocolate in a subsequent taste test than did people who socialized (and sat) while eating. The on-the-go group also consumed more than did a third group, who watched a five-minute clip of Friends. Eating in front of screens is mindless eating, too, but moving may be particularly distracting—and could even make you think that you’re burning calories.
The solution: no more eating and running. “Tell yourself, ‘This is a meal,’” says Jane Ogden, Ph.D., the lead study author and a professor of health psychology at the University of Surrey, in England. “And make sure that you take this time out so you will remember you have eaten and will be less tempted to snack later on.”
Eat Vegetables First
The key is to put an unprocessed vegetable on your plate and consume it before any other type of food hits the table at both lunch and dinner, says Traci Mann, Ph.D., a professor of social and health psychology at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, and the author of Secrets From the Eating Lab. Her research shows that this leads to eating fewer calories. “At the beginning of a meal, you’re most hungry and you’re most likely to eat something that you don’t like as much,” she says.
Set the Alarm (to Sleep)
You’ve probably heard that there’s a serious connection between sleep and weight. Serious is right: Losing just 30 minutes of sleep on weeknights can lead to long-term weight gain in adults, according to preliminary findings presented at the annual meeting of the Endocrine Society last year. So if you can’t commit to getting the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep, aim to clock just a little extra each night. “If you can get an extra half hour, that’s better than none at all,” says Philip Gehrman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and a sleep researcher at the University of Pennsylvania (who wasn’t involved in the study).
If setting the alarm clock 30 minutes later during the week isn’t an option, try this trick: Set an alarm clock to remind yourself to go to sleep, says Gehrman.
Plan Your “Just This Once”
Surprises can derail a careful diet plan. Instead of giving in to a “just this once” mentality, Mann suggests mapping out a strategy for out-of-the-ordinary occasions so that they don’t sneak up on you. Come up with if/then plans: “If I end up at a fancy party, then I’ll have one appetizer. After that, I’ll carry a drink in one hand and a napkin in the other.” Repeat your intention several times before you go. “When you’re in the situation, the plan will stick,” says Mann.
Head for the Water
Obese participants instructed to drink two cups of water before meals for 12 weeks lost almost three more pounds than did those in a control group, in a 2015 study published in the journal Obesity. One (pretty obvious) reason? “Water fills your stomach and seems to increase satiety, which appears to lead you to eat less at your main meals,” says Helen Parretti, Ph.D., the lead study author and a lecturer at the University of Birmingham, in England.
Remember—It’s a Scenic Walk
Whether you think of that run as drudgery or a break from the drudgery might affect how likely you are to pig out afterward. People who were prompted to think of breaking a sweat as fun (that is, a “scenic walk” instead of an “exercise walk”) ate less or made healthier choices later on, according to a study published in the journal Marketing Letters.
Reframe your workout to focus on its most rewarding aspects, like “listening to your favorite music while running, or chatting with a friend during a brisk walk,” suggests Carolina O.C. Werle, Ph.D., the study author and an associate professor of marketing at Grenoble Ecole de Management, in France.
Employ the List of 10
Write down 10 ways to make yourself feel good without calories. “Make it a great list. Remember—each item has to feel even better than food!” says Bunyard. “List one item you can do at home, one you can do at work, one you can do in five minutes, and one that will take the whole afternoon.”
Some ideas: Watching a favorite TV show, reading a magazine, calling a friend, walking around outside, taking a bath, listening to a favorite song, window-shopping, or sipping a cup of hot tea. And since “your plan is already in writing, you just have to pull out your list,” she says.
Use Laziness to Your Advantage
“Studies show that if there are candies right by your hand, you’ll eat a bunch,” says Mann. “If you make it so that you just have to straighten your arm, you’ll eat much less. You’ll eat even less if you have to walk across the room.” In fact, women who kept breakfast cereal and soda on their counters weighed at least 20 pounds more than did their neighbors who didn’t, according to a recent Cornell Food and Brand Lab study. And those who had fruit nearby weighed about 13 pounds less.
“Use your laziness to your advantage,” says Mann. Some simple ways: Put tempting foods in higher cabinets, so you’ll need a chair or a stool to reach them; serve yourself a reasonable portion of dinner, then store the leftovers in the refrigerator before you sit down to eat; and cover sweets with foil instead of plastic wrap so you won’t see them every time you’re in the kitchen.
Cook Just One More Meal at Home
For each restaurant meal that you replace with a home-cooked meal, you can save 200 calories (and more than 400 milligrams of sodium). So plan ahead and have ingredients on hand at the beginning of the week. And as you get used to cooking a dish, you’ll become more efficient and can add it to your weekly repertoire, says Hensrud. (He suggests some beans, a whole-wheat tortilla, a little cheese, and fresh peppers with salsa for a basic, healthy burrito.)
Are you looking for somewhere to get started? Real Simple’s sister brand, Cooking Light, has an updated healthy-meal-planning tool, called the Cooking Light Diet, with customized menus based on your weight-loss goals and the foods that you like to eat.