How to Lose Weight, According to a Dietitian

The clickbait is everywhere with snazzy headlines saying “Drop 10 lbs Fast” or “Fit Back into Your Skinny Jeans.” But what if you feel like you have an overwhelming amount of weight to lose and you just don’t know where to start?

You may have tried keto, celery juice, detoxes, low-carb, low-fat—you name it. You might even be pretty good at losing weight—the problem is you can’t seem to keep it off.

If this sounds like you, keep reading.

“Mindset is like 90% of the work.” That’s what my client, Sarah, said to me regarding the 50 pounds she lost and has maintained. I’m sharing tips directly from her on how to get started—and stick with it—when you’re not quite sure where to start on your weight-loss journey.

jamie Vespa

1. Embrace the Long Game

Changing habits requires repeating the new behaviors over the long term, according to 2021 research in Psychology & Health. This includes setting realistic expectations.

A safe, sustainable amount of weight to lose is about 1/2 pound to 2 pounds per week. In reality, however, that might look more like 2 to 3 pounds per week in the beginning, then perhaps 1/2 pound down the next week, then up a pound the next week, then maintaining for a few weeks before dropping a pound again.

Your weight-loss graph will look more like a staircase or a squiggly line than a perfectly straight line. If it’s jumping all over the place, but trending down overall, you’re doing alright.

2. Rely on a Professional to Help

This is not the time to try another detox or strict meal plan that an Instagram influencer is promoting. Those are diets in disguise—they work for the short term but not for the long term.

Long-term weight loss is about small habit changes you can keep up with over time. Those who are successful at losing weight usually work with professionals, typically, a healthcare professional, registered dietitian and therapist.

Yes, a therapist. “I’ve crash dieted and lost 100 pounds before and I was physically thinner but not at all mentally healthier, so patience and persistence and the ability to fall down and get up over and over again are key,” says Sarah. “Also, if you feel you have an eating disorder, like binge eating, seek help from a counselor that specializes in that.”

This journey is hard alone. It can also be hard with close friends and family. Healthcare professionals provide two important things: science-based weight-loss recommendations and accountability from someone who isn’t a close friend.

Weekly, or even daily, check-ins are key to help you stay on track. “I think the most important things for me have been getting accountability that best matches my personality, always allowing the 20%, perfecting the art of moving on and always zooming out and focusing on the long game,” reports Sarah.

Many insurance plans cover visits with registered dietitians and therapists, so check with yours to see if your visits may be covered.

3. Adopt the 80/20 Philosophy

So what is the 20% that Sarah mentioned? Think of it as all of the foods you restrict when you’re dieting but eventually end up bingeing on.

Sustainable weight loss is about ditching the all-or-nothing mentality, letting go of the idea that one meal can make or break your efforts and embracing balance. Aim to follow the MyPlate guidelines about 80% of the time throughout the week. That means trying to have at least two meals per day, most days, filling your plate with about one-half of vegetables and fruits, one-quarter of whole grains and one-quarter of protein with some healthy fat.

Then, don’t stress about the rest. It’s “flexible structure.” No guilt allowed.

4. Understand Set Point Theory

The body likes balance. Body temperature stays within a narrow range of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The pH of blood is around 7.4. Your body has a weight range it likes to stay within too: It’s called your set point.

Unfortunately, it’s easier for this range to move up than it is to move down. This is for various reasons scientists are still trying to figure out. For example, a 2022 study in the journal Obesity suggests, like other studies, that weight loss decreases metabolic rate (the number of calories burned at rest). Weight loss has also been shown to increase ghrelin, the hormone that signals hunger, per a 2021 study in NPJ Breast Cancer.

With that said, lowering your set point is not impossible. After all, there are numerous success stories, like the people in the National Weight Control Registry who have lost 30 pounds or more and kept it off for at least one year.

So, how do you do it?

According to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) at Harvard, crash dieting is not the answer. Instead, aim to lose 5 to 10% of your body weight at one time. “That’s the amount of weight you can lose before your body starts to fight back,” BIDMC reports on its website.

Then, and here’s the hard part, work to maintain that loss for six months before trying to lose another 5 to 10%. This is the time during which people often throw in the towel or opt for the crash diet their friend is doing.

But, if you can stay the course and ride out the maintenance for six months, “You can repeat the cycle and reset your set point again by losing another 10%. Through small, gradual changes in your daily habits, you’ll be able to stay at that new, lower weight for the rest of your life. This prescription is vital to outsmarting the body’s natural tendencies to regain weight,” according to the BIDMC website.

You may also have to reassess your initial weight-loss goal. If you reach a point where you feel great, are healthy and have habits you can sustain for months but the number on the scale is higher than you’d like, it may be time to embrace a new number.

5. Track Your Food (at Least to Start)

Research, like the 2019 study in the journal Obesity, suggests that those who track their food are most successful with losing weight and keeping it off.

While tracking isn’t meant to be done forever, it can be a helpful tool until new habits stick. A habit is an automated behavior. The more habits you create, the fewer decisions you have to make and the more brain space you have to think about other things.

Starting your weight loss journey by tracking your food intake may give you a better idea about what a serving of oatmeal looks like in your bowl, or how many random handfuls of chips you munch on as you try and figure out what to make for dinner. You can track food in a written diary, by taking photos, in a calorie-counting app or a combination of these.

If you’ve never tracked calories, it can be a good place to start so you can become familiar with portion sizes and macronutrients (fat, protein and carbohydrates). A word of caution, though— calorie counting can become obsessive and backfire, leaving you out of touch with your hunger and satiety signals. You may be more likely to turn to an app to tell you what and when to eat, instead of listening to your body.

Work with a registered dietitian who can help you figure out the best tracking approach for you and can also review your meals so you have accountability.

6. Rethink the Scale

A 2021 study in Translational Behavioral Medicine suggests that those who self-monitored their weight lost more of it.

Here’s the caveat: Weight should not be the only metric you track. And, you need to understand what the scale measures.

The scale does not measure fat—and you do not lose or gain fat overnight.

The scale is a measurement of everything in your body, mostly fluid, but also bones, organs, fat and muscle. The scale will show your weight within about a 3- to 4-pound range, and goes up and down for various reasons. If you poop, it goes down. If you eat salty takeout food, it goes up (because salt encourages water retention). A strength-training workout can bump it up, due to a temporary increase in inflammation.

Daily weigh-ins do more harm than good for some people, so weighing once a week might be a good frequency. Or for some, the scale might need to go. If you find you obsess over the number, it stresses you out too much or you’re equating the number to your self-worth, ditch the scale. There are other ways to measure your progress.

Sarah was stressing so much about what the scale would say every Monday that she decided to weigh every day and found it more helpful. “Personally, weighing daily has helped because it’s normalized the fluctuations for me and helped me realize when I’m averaging in the wrong direction. There are great apps that plot the average trend of your weight which helps, but I think overall daily weighing has truly been helpful,” says Sarah.

7. Track Other Metrics

Several of my clients might not see the scale move in months, but they lose inches and feel amazing. In addition to weekly weigh-ins, consider taking waist circumference measurements and progress photos once a month.

Five pounds of fat and five pounds of muscle weigh the same, but muscle takes up less space (and it means you’re getting stronger) so these metrics help you see body composition changes and will motivate you to keep going.

In addition to how you look, take note of how you feel. Can you walk further, run faster or do a pushup? If you know what they were when you started, have your cholesterol levels or blood sugar numbers improved? Include some goals around what your body can do, rather than how you look.

8. Get Moving

Diet matters more than exercise for weight loss but exercise is crucial for keeping off the weight. Plus, exercise has plenty of other benefits.

If you are sedentary and then start moving, you will start burning calories, which will create a calorie deficit. “Finding exercise you love helps to maintain the weight loss,” reports Sarah.

Don’t know where to start? Start walking. Create small, attainable goals like 15 minutes per day and work up to 30 minutes. If you currently walk 2,000 steps per day, don’t try to walk 10,000. Start with 4,000 per day and add more every couple of weeks.

Next, add strength training, using either weights or your body weight. Start with one day per week and work up to 2 to 4 times per week. Strength training builds muscle, and muscle burns calories even when you’re sitting at your desk all day.

Cardio exercise, like running, biking or swimming, is great too. A good balance is daily walking, strength training 2 to 4 times per week and cardio or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) 1 to 3 times per week.

Progressively increasing your exercise frequency and intensity will help you stick to it. And the best exercise is the one that you’ll keep doing.

9. Focus on Fiber

A calorie deficit is needed for weight loss but instead of focusing on what to restrict, focus on what to add. The body breaks down protein, carbohydrates and fat from food and absorbs the nutrients. If you’re eating more calories than your body needs, the extra will be stored as fat.

However, the body doesn’t absorb or store fiber. Fiber passes through the stomach and intestines largely unabsorbed, bulks everything up and then you poop it out. Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes.

By making half your plate vegetables and fruits at most meals, you automatically shift the caloric composition of your meal. For example, 1 cup of pasta or rice is 200 calories but 1 cup of vegetables is about 30 calories. So not only can you eat more vegetables for fewer calories but you also get the added benefit of the fiber (as well as vitamins and minerals), which moves through your system slowly, keeping you full longer.

Fiber also expands and slows the emptying of the stomach, which sends signals to the brain that you are full. Gut bacteria feed off fiber and produce short-chain fatty acids, like acetate and butyrate, which may help burn fat, according to a 2019 review in Nutrients.

Aim for 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day or about 8 to 10 grams per meal. According to the USDA, 1 cup of raspberries has 8 grams of fiber, 1 cup of broccoli has 5 grams of fiber and 1/2 cup of black beans has about 7 grams of fiber.

10. Eat Protein at Every Meal

Along with fiber, eat protein at every meal, especially breakfast. A 2021 review in Nutrients suggests that when people eat a high-protein breakfast, they have fewer cravings and eat less later in the day.

Protein suppresses the hunger hormone, ghrelin, and is digested slowly, keeping you full longer. When protein is eaten with carbohydrates, it slows the rise of blood sugar, which prevents the spike-and-crash effect that leaves you craving carbs an hour after you ate. Include protein, fiber and healthy fat at each meal.

Protein needs are based on weight, but about 20 grams per meal is a good starting point. According to the USDA, a serving of Greek yogurt packs 15 grams of protein and you can pair it with berries for fiber. Three ounces of chicken, about the size of a deck of cards, has about 26 grams of protein. Beans are a protein-packed vegetarian option.

The Bottom Line

If you feel overwhelmed with how much weight you have to lose, start small. Don’t try to tackle everything at once. In order to lose weight and keep it off, you need to embrace a long-term mentality and focus on small habit changes. Get professional help so you have accountability and can focus on the habits that move the needle most. Track other metrics, along with the scale. Finally, move your body most days, focus on making half your plate vegetables at meals, get out of the all-or-nothing mentality and celebrate your success along the way!

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