Everywhere you turn, there’s a different diet book or plan promising you’ll lose weight fast. But what actually works? Here, we asked nutritionists to share what they believe are the most critical secrets to really losing weight and keeping it off.
1. Don’t focus just on carbs.
“Cutting carbs can lead to weight loss, but only if it results in an overall calorie deficit,” says Georgie Fear, RD, nutrition coach and author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss. “If you cut out all carbs but add lots of oil and nuts in their place, you might not lose weight because you aren’t reducing overall calories. You can even gain weight, as I have seen many people do.” Instead of demonizing or glorifying one single nutrient, try to reduce the overall number of calories you take in.
2. Skip the scale.
“One of my top tips is to avoid the scale and instead use your pants as a guide to your weight,” says Jessica Levinson, RD, nutritional counselor and consultant at Nutritioulicious. (But no elastic-waist pants allowed!) “The number on the scale can be an important measurement for health, but it can fluctuate based on so many different factors, like time of day, fluid intake, and exercise. How our clothes fit often tells a more accurate story.” (Find out what happens when you stop weighing yourself.) If it’s tough to button your jeans, then it’s time to take a look at your food intake. Don’t freak out just because the scale says you’re 3 pounds heavier than you were yesterday—it could be sodium intake or that you haven’t been to the bathroom yet.
3. Enjoy what you eat.
Here’s a shocker: If you’re not taking the time to actually pay attention to what you eat, you’ll never lose weight. In other words, mindlessly shoveling food down your gullet while you check e-mail or watch TV will likely cause you to overeat. Instead, give your food your full attention, says Mitzi Dulan, RD, nutritionist for the Kansas City Royals and author of The Pinterest Diet. Research shows that people who eat their food mindfully are 34% less likely to be obese than people who don’t. How can you become more mindful at mealtimes? “Only eat at the kitchen table,” Dulan says. “This trick helps to avoid the unconscious eating that is often done on the couch, in bed, or at the office.” (Want to learn more about mindful eating? Enroll in our 21-day course that will teach you mindfulness skills and totally transform your relationship with food.)
4. Don’t rely on tech trackers.
While it seems like everyone’s sporting a flashy new wristband or app that tracks calories burned and calories consumed, putting your trust in these devices can cause you to gain, not lose weight, says Fear. “It’s crucial to bear in mind that these devices only give estimates,” she says. “Use your personal outcomes as the gold standard. If you aren’t losing weight, you aren’t in a calorie deficit, no matter what your tracker and apps say.”
5. It’s as much about what you do drink as what you don’t.
You already know to skip soda and fancy coffee drinks that are loaded with sugar and calories. But do you know what you should be drinking instead? “Three 24-oz servings of ice cold water per day will help you burn an extra 100 calories,” says Dulan (the ice cold beverage prompts your body to expend energy maintaining a 98.6-degree temperature).
And you should definitely adopt a daily java habit if you don’t have one already (try Prevention’s Don’t Burn Out Roast Organic Coffee Beans). “Coffee’s caffeine ups your metabolism, so it can help you burn more calories,” says Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, coauthor of The Calendar Diet. “It’s also been shown to improve endurance, so it may help you work out longer and harder.” Just don’t go crazy with add-ins: Loading up your coffee with sugary syrups and nondairy creamers definitely won’t help you lose weight.
6. Look at losing weight like a marriage, not a Tinder hookup.
Diets that promise fast and dramatic weight loss are exciting. Unfortunately, science shows that you’ll almost always regain any lost pounds as soon as the plan ends. The smarter way? “Don’t do anything to lose weight that you are unwilling to do forever,” says Fear. “If you aren’t sure how bad something will be, test drive the habit for 2 weeks and then decide if it feels like something you can sustain.” If you can’t make a strategy last without losing your mind, skip it.
7. Always travel with a snack.
“Many people are able to stick to their diets when they’re in their normal daily routine, but things fall apart when they travel for business, eat out with friends, or go on vacation,” Ansel says. “So it’s like they’re always taking one step forward and then another step backward.” But when it comes to weight loss, consistency is key, so be prepared before you deviate from your daily routine. Check out these healthy foods you can get at the gas station and tips for eating clean when you dine out if you’re not sure how to eat well outside your own house.
8. Eat foods you love less often.
The practice of eating mini-meals all day long was once en vogue among nutrition pros, but newer research shows that strategy is pretty flawed. Instead, Fear suggests, eat just three or four times per day and make sure you’re actually filling yourself up. Eating fewer, more substantial meals helps you obsess about food less during the day.