32,000 fatty calories may sound insurmountable (not to mention disgusting.) Before you panic at the thought of shedding five digits of caloric fat, first know that post-holiday weight loss is easier to achieve today than ever before. With the good strategies listed below, all scientifically proven by numerous studies and in my lab at Tufts University, you can soon be back to what you weighed in October—or even October of a few years ago, if you want.
We are great creatures of habit when it comes to food, and fortunately bad old habits are quite easily overwritten by good new ones.
1. Go After Weight Loss Ferociously Research in my lab has shown that many people actually do better in the long term if they go after weight loss vigorously—the conventional slow-and-steady wisdom is actually wrong in this case. If you start today with a 1,200-calorie diet for women (1,600 for men), you can reasonably hope to lose two pounds of real fat per week, plus the amount of water that is naturally stored with body fat, and be back to normal weight in a way that is sustainable by the end of this month.
• Arthur Agatston: Born to Eat Cake? 2. Don't Rely on the Gym Alone Let's dispel another weight-loss myth while we're at it: Exercise, contrary to popular belief, will only help you a bit. Since my first raising the topic in this column in the spring of 2009, writers with Time magazine, The New York Times, and several other publications have finally been brave enough to stand up say what exercise scientists have known for a while: that exercise is great for health and great for preventing weight gain, but of limited use when it comes to actually taking off pounds. This is because you get hungry and have to eat more, which minimizes weight loss. If you relied on workouts alone, it would require about 1.5 hours a day of strenuous exercise for at least two full months to lose 10 pounds—which is fine for folks on The Biggest Loser, but not a feasible target for those of us with busy lives.
3. Lose Fat, Not Water One more piece of bad news before we get to the good stuff. Purges and very-low-carb (ketogenic) diets will certainly appear to get 10 pounds off quickly, but they are unhealthy, usually have many side effects, and only appear to work well in the short-term because they make you excrete a lot of water, which will come right back with your first good meal. The flab that you actually want to lose is fat, and that will only come off to the extent that you cut calories from what you eat.
• Daily Beast Analysis: Which Diets Really Work?4. Follow Your Meal Plan Exactly I'm proud and humbled to say that I believe the feasibility of losing weight and keeping it off changed forever in 2009 with the publication of my new Instinct Diet (re-released today in paperback and renamed The "i" Diet). The "i" Diet has set a whole new standard of success by giving average weight losses of 30 pounds—four times more than research studies show for previous diets and programs such as Weight Watchers. And a big part of this success, I believe, comes from the "i" Diet menus. The "i" menus are the best way to get started with weight loss because they have been meticulously optimized to transform the best weight-loss research into simple meal plans, meal by meal and snack by snack. To make it easy to follow the plans exactly there are several different "i" menus—with-meat for carnivores, vegetarian plans for others, with-recipe plans for those who cook, and cooking-free options those who don't—and you can mix and match between the different tracks for flexibility and enjoyment. Most "i" Dieters find it an exciting experience to follow the menus really carefully for a while and realize that, far from being hopeless at dieting, they are in fact very good at it and genuinely love healthy "i" food. You can find some sample 1,200-calorie menus on my Web site and get started today.
5. Eat at the Same Time Every Day One way the "i" Diet cures cravings is not only by having you eat the right foods, but also having you eat them at regular times. You get three meals and two snacks daily, and with few exceptions (see tip No. 8) should not eat anything outside those five times. That doesn't mean you have to follow unsustainable rules like never eating after 5 p.m. as some diets have you do (you get to decide what time of day your five meals and snacks take place). But regular eating times are important because they train your food brain to look forward to food at set times, which adds to the enjoyment, and to stop pestering you with fake hunger signals and cravings to eat at other times. We are great creatures of habit when it comes to food, and fortunately bad old habits are quite easily overwritten by good new ones. Within a week or two of being careful to only eat satisfying meals and snacks at designated times, even people who thought they were emotional eaters usually find an extraordinary decrease in cravings and hunger.
6. Start Snacking It’s not just what and how regularly you eat that counts—the number of times per day you eat is also important. In my experience, three daily meals plus two snacks is an optimal number of eating occasions because it allows your body to never run out of just-digested calories. This helps because actively digested calories are one of the signals for hunger and satiety that your brain uses to decide whether you need to eat again. So don't bundle those snacks with meals just because it is more convenient—make weight loss easier by finding ways to keep your snacks exactly on schedule, even if you have a busy life.
7. Pace Your Calories Many diets encourage you to save up calories during the day so you can have a big, satisfying dinner, presumably on the grounds that feeling satisfied at least once a day will make deprivation at other times more palatable. Not true! In fact I would say that this poor strategy is responsible for a huge number of failed diets. When you save calories like this, you build up a huge reservoir of dissatisfaction that makes it hard not to overeat once you start. What you actually want is 24/7 satiety by not only eating the most satisfying foods with every meal and every snack, but also by spreading those calories evenly so you stay full throughout the day.
8. Ignore the First Food That Pops Into Your Mind So now you're following all these guidelines to keep you from craving. But what if you occasionally find yourself starving and it isn't your time to eat? Then go eat and get satisfied! The important thing here is to not eat what your mind first turns to (say, brownies or chips) but to instead have some high-fiber cereal such as All Bran Extra Fiber or Fiber One Original (but not those Fiber One bars, which in my view are much less effective) and milk, or an apple. Eating these wonderful self-limiting foods when you are hungry not only solves the immediate got-to-eat problem, but—just as important—also starts the process of re-training your brain to love diet foods. I realize this might sound hokey, but getting the science of weight regulation right fortunately requires what sometimes seem like small changes.
9. Defy the Plateau Sometimes "i" Dieters do plateau briefly, but it's usually because their early success has caused them to become more casual about their eating habits and they're no longer eating the "i" menus exactly, not because their metabolism has dropped. The solution, of course, is getting back to the original menus, and putting substitutions on hold until it is time for weight maintenance. It's an unpalatable fact that most diet substitutions add calories and reduce satiety, and in doing so take away from weight loss and lead to plateaus. The good news is that getting back on the original menus really does work, and I have yet to see an "i" Dieter who couldn't blow through an apparent plateau and go on to lose more weight.
10. Take a Multivitamin Last but not least,as when starting any diet, you should always take a multi-vitamin. It's good insurance when you're changing your food habits, even for the better. Take a once-a-day multivitamin and 500 mg of calcium (at separate times, since the calcium interferes with other mineral absorption in the vitamin.) Losing weight and keeping it off by improving what and how you eat is a great health boost, and making sure you don't run short of micronutrients in the process only adds to the benefits you experience.
Dr Susan Roberts is a professor of nutrition and professor of psychiatry at Tufts University, and author of The "i" Diet. She has not taken money from food companies for the food endorsements in this article. She welcomes comments on the program through her Web site and encourages you to become her friend on her just-started Facebook site, where she is setting up an interactive process to further improve The "i" Diet with new recipes and menus.