There aren’t any magic weight-loss foods (sorry, grapefruit!) but there are specific dietary habits – we call them “diet do’s” – that work for most people. Some of them might not come naturally at first (like eating breakfast) and others may require a bit more effort (keeping a food diary), but stick with them for real results (no smoke and mirrors, promise!)
1. Drink ONLY liquids that you really love
And even then, drink only the smallest amount that you need to feel satisfied, says obesity expert Dr Yoni Freedhoff, author of The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work. So skip flavoured coffee drinks, fizzy drinks and juice as much as possible. Water is always best.
2. Eat an afternoon snack
What derails most people’s daily diets, says health coach and registered dietitian Hélène Charlebois, is the witching hour after 4pm, when cravings set in and lead to bad food choices. Keep hunger in check with a sensible afternoon snack, such as an apple with peanut butter or yoghurt and berries. And don’t worry about spoiling dinner come 6pm. “You want to ruin your supper – not to the extent that you won’t eat – but enough that you’ll make good choices.”
3. Eat breakfast
What your mother told you is true: breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And research backs this up: eating a healthy breakfast, especially one high in protein, reduces hunger and increases satiety throughout the day. In fact, 78% of participants in the US National Weight Control Registry (which tracks more than 10,000 individuals who’ve lost an average of 30kg and kept the weight off for more than five years), break their fasts shortly after waking up.
4. Plan ahead for the week
It may seem old-fashioned to spend Sundays dividing soups into batches or writing out a meal plan and grocery list, but the real people we spoke with plan what they’re going to eat that week to some extent. While it takes more time than making a blind grab from the fridge, it’s worth it.
5. Satisfy with fat
It seems counterintuitive, but healthy fats, including monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat and omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods such as olive oil, walnuts and salmon, respectively) can help control weight because they make you feel satisfied, says dietitian Desiree Nielsen, author of Un-Junk Your Diet. “You definitely want them as part of a healthy diet.” (Just pay attention to portion sizes.)
6. Fill half your plate with vegetables first
Then serve yourself protein (starch comes last). This formula works because vegetables are filling and nutritious and have fewer kilojoules than meat and pasta. “If we focus on eating less, we’ll feel deprived,” says Nielsen, “but if we focus on eating more healthy foods, such as vegetables, it’s a very positive, beneficial habit that’s a lot easier to maintain.”
7. Remove your danger food from the house
We all have a trigger food – the one that tempts us into eating the whole tub (ice-cream), bag (potato chips) or box (chocolates). If it’s not in the pantry or fridge, you can’t eat it on a whim. “Your house should be your safe place,” says Charlebois.
8. Give yourself time
Whatever diet you choose, or whatever changes you make, give yourself a chance to build your skills (including cooking and meal planning) and allow time to see results. “Take a flying leap at change and you’ll hurt your face. Take small steps and you might actually get somewhere,” says Freedhoff.
9. Count portions, not kilojoules
Counting kilojoules is a short-term fix, not a lifelong solution. It takes the joy out of eating and often leads you to less healthy choices because they have a lower kilojoule count. For example, you might choose the 420kJ snack pack of diet biscuits instead of the quarter-cup of nutrient-dense almonds, simply because it packs an extra 540kJ. In the long run, though, the nuts are a healthier choice because they’re also loaded with minerals, vitamins and good-for-you fats.
10. Cook your own meals
Take the time to prepare food using fresh ingredients. Don’t like to cook? Start gradually by eliminating one restaurant meal per week. “Cooking on your own tends to lower the salt, sugar and fat content in your food, all of which will have a slimming effect,” says Freedhoff.
11. Only make changes you can live with – forever
One reason diets fail is because people often take an extreme approach that’s not sustainable. Says Freedhoff: “There’s no diet on the planet that hasn’t worked for at least one person. The key question to ask yourself when you’re evaluating a diet is, ‘Do you like it enough to actually keep living with it?’”
12. Keep a food diary
The simple act of recording what you eat can have a big impact on a weight-loss plan. “Regardless of which programme you’re on, keeping a food diary – as long as it’s done non-judgmentally – is very useful,” says Freedhoff. It makes you more mindful of food choices (you’ll rethink that bag of chips if you have to write it down), exposes food groups you’re missing and helps you see emotional triggers that can jeopardise your efforts.
13. Include protein at every meal and snack
Protein helps with fullness and satiety. “The fuller you feel, the less you eat,” says Freedhoff. Eat fruit and nuts for a morning snack, add tuna or beans to a lunchtime salad, and choose carrots with hummus as an afternoon snack.
14. Live (and eat) by the 80-20 rule
Diets fail in part because we expect perfection. But if you’re eating fruits, vegetables and protein 80% of the time, then 20% of the time you can have the treats you truly enjoy, like a few squares of dark chocolate or the occasional dinner out.
15. Bulk up
Fibre keeps you regular, but it also helps you feel full and, perhaps most importantly, slows the rate at which your stomach empties its contents. “That gives you a more moderate increase in blood sugar, which helps maintain energy and decrease appetite for the long term,” says Nielsen.