1. Choose quality over quantity.
“If you expend more calories than you take in, you should lose weight,” says Alicia Romano, RD, LDN, a clinical registered dietitian at the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts. But you don’t want to be so hyper focused on calories that you skip out on a wholesome diet, she says.
If you focus on the quality of food, there’s a good chance you’ll eat more nutrient-dense options that leave you satiated, says Lauren Sullivan, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition.
2. Track your diet.
First, remember that no food is inherently good or bad, Dr. Seltzer says. And if the idea of jotting down everything you eat in a day makes you feel guilty or anxious, just skip this entirely.
That said, people who track what they eat tend to be more successful in losing weight because it raises awareness about what they’re noshing on, says Dr. Mayer-Davis. In fact, a series of studies published in the Journal of Personalized Medicine suggest that those using apps to monitor their diet and activity were more likely to experience an increase in weight loss.
Obviously, these apps (you know the ones) aren’t going to work if you don’t input everything you eat, says Dr. Mayer-Davis. You’ve gotta be consistent and honest about what you consume.
3. Focus on plants.
A 20-year study of more than 100,000 people, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found those who ate more whole grains instead of refined grains, incorporated more fruits and veggies than sweets, and preferred tea and coffee to sweetened drinks and juices, gained less weight long-term.
In another (small-ish) study of more than 1,000 people, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers found those following vegetarian and vegan diets, rich in whole grains, fruits, produce, nuts, and legumes, lost more weight than dieters on other plans—even the low-carb Atkins diet—over the same time span.
Because fiber (like protein and fat) slows the digestion process and optimizes fullness and nutrient intake at mealtime, a plant-based diet can help you feel satiated longer after eating, says Romano.
4. Opt. for low-glycemic carbs.
A food’s glycemic index (GI) refers to how quickly sugar from food enters the bloodstream and how slowly the food is digested. Foods with a glycemic load measuring less than 55 (i.e. green vegetables, most fruits, raw carrots, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils and bran breakfast cereals) enable your metabolism to run at a more consistent pace, which can positively impact weight loss, says Sullivan. Foods that rank 70 or higher (potatoes, white bread and short-grain rice) potentially slow your metabolism, which may make it harder for you to shed weight.
In a study of more than 100,000 people, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers linked diets with a high glycemic load to increased weight gain.
5. Make super small food swaps.
The best way to support sustainable weight loss is to incorporate small changes into existing habits, according to The European Journal of Obesity. So instead of giving up your daily BLT bagels in favor of an egg-white wrap, try ordering your sandwich on an English muffin. Or say you eat a snack bar every afternoon: Swap your 300-calorie bar for a 150-calorie alternative. “When we commit to small food swaps, we actually adapt new behaviors,” says Romano.
Whatever you choose, just make sure your focus is on “small manageable changes,” that way you’re more likely to follow through for an extended period of time, rather than just a few days or weeks, says Romano.
6. Don’t skip meals.
Eating at regular intervals during the day optimizes your blood sugar control, meaning you avoid the spike and crash that comes with eating a big meal on an empty stomach, says Romano. When you avoid eating when you’re hungry, you’re welcoming hunger pains, food cravings and drowsiness—all of which can lead to snacking on foods high in fat and sugar.
Plus, when you run out of calories before going out to dinner with friends or satisfying a bedtime craving, you’re more likely to fall victim to what Dr. Seltzer calls the “f*ck it” effect—when you break one “rule” and give up for the rest of the night.
Dietary protein is one of the most important tools in your weight-loss arsenal, partly because you expend more energy digesting protein versus carbs and fat, Dr. Seltzer says. But it’s often packaged with naturally-occurring fats that amp up the calories of each serving.
It’s why, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, leaner protein sources like chicken breast, white fish, and low-fat dairy have fewer calories than alternatives like bacon and burgers. Greek yogurt, cheese, and cottage cheese also make smart choices.
8. Pair protein with sweets.
When you combine a carbohydrate (like toast) with protein and/or healthy fats (peanut butter), it slows digestion, which makes you feel fuller than you would eating the carb alone, Sullivan says. Next time you’re craving sugar, pair some dark chocolate with nut butter and call it a day.
9. Opt for higher-fiber carbs.
Like protein, fiber slows the rate at which your body plows through carb calories so you feel full for longer and maintain steadier blood sugar levels, one reason why research consistently links fiber intake to weight loss. That means fibrous whole grain bread tends to be a better choice than white bread and also explains why fruits, which contain fiber and valuable vitamins in addition to sugar, beat straight-up candy every time.
10. Drink more water.
Skimp on fluids, and your body will release an antidiuretic hormone that leads to water retention that could affect the scale, Dr. Setlzer says. While this sneaky effect is one reason why the scale is a poor measure of body mass loss, you can outsmart it by drinking more—particularly if you fill your glass with water or non-calorie alternatives like unsweetened coffee and tea.
11. Imbibe just a little bit less.
Booze delivers seven calories per gram—more than carbs and protein (four calories per gram)—without filling you up or delivering essential nutrients. And because it chips away at your inhibitions, it makes those French fries at the bar look way better, and that late-night pizza stop a go.
In other words? “Drinking makes you more likely to eat sh*t,” Dr. Seltzer says, referring to drunk foods. At the same time, he stops short of asking patients to quit alcohol cold-turkey to lose weight. Plus, research suggests you don’t have to, as long as your intake is moderate—i.e., less than about a drink a day. “If you drink a glass of wine every night and notice you eat more afterward, eat less early to account for this,” he says. “Or, if you’re drinking four glasses of wine a week, drink three instead so you’ll won’t feel such a big difference.”
12. Make a real effort to manage stress.
“Anytime you’re stressed, you probably go for food,” Dr. Seltzer says. (Have we met?!) That’s because cortisol, the stress hormone, stokes your appetite for sugary, fatty foods. No wonder it’s associated with higher body weight, according to a 2007 Obesity study that quantified chronic stress exposure by looking at cortisol concentrations in more than 2,000 adults’ hair.
It’s why no weight-loss journey is complete without a stress-management tactic: Maybe it’s meditation, calling your mom after work, or chilling out with music. Just make sure it’s hunger, not stress, that leads you to the kitchen.
13. Sleep an extra 30 minutes a night.
“Por sleep is associated with slower metabolism, and the more you’re awake the more hours you have to eat,” Dr. Seltzer says. What’s more, the sleep deprivation activates the same brain receptors responsible for the marijuana munchies, according to a 2016 SLEEP study.
14. Exercise—but not excessively.
Although it’s way more fun to take up a tolerable activity (i.e., watching Netflix on the elliptical) than it is to drop tasty foods from your diet, “exercise won’t help you lose weight in one week,” Dr. Seltzer says.
After all, “resistance training might initially contribute a pound or two due to the body’s inflammatory response, and people who do low-intensity exercise might burn calories, but they often end up eating more or subconsciously moving less throughout the day to conserve energy,” he says—and research supports the theory.
Real talk: It could take weeks or months to see the metabolic effects of exercise on the scale, and even then, building muscle, which is denser than body fat, could lead to weight gain. “Do what you like because it’s good for you,” Dr. Seltzer says, noting the way exercise is awesome for your heart, mental health, and more—and that not all measure of progress can be seen on the scale.
15. Have all the sex.
In what is perhaps the biggest buzzkill of all time, sex doesn’t quite count as cardio or burn a significant amount of calories: Women burn about 3.6 per minute. “It’s still a good idea,” Dr. Seltzer says, citing the activity’s other benefits, like increasing the output of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which naturally reduce food cravings.