Don’t call it diet. Take a few simple steps to eat healthier and lose weight

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  • If you want to lose weight and be healthier, going on a diet may not be the best strategy.
  • Making a few gradual changes to what you eat could lead to better results in the long run.
  • If you need structure to be successful, a dietitian or eating program might be beneficial to start with.

Whether you’ve made a New Year’s resolution or not, chances are you’ve thought about being healthier in 2023.

That probably means going on a diet, right? Not necessarily.

If you are looking for a temporary weight loss program, a diet could be the answer. But many experts instead suggest an attitude adjustment when it comes to eating, because that strategy is a move that can lead to a longer, healthier life.

By improving what you eat, you can lose weight and also avoid the yo-yo effect of weight loss and gain that can come with fad diets. An international study of 14 diets published in 2020 in the British medical journal BMJ found that dieters had lost weight after six months, but most had regained the weight after one year.

“Unfortunately, when people reach their goal and leave the program, most regain the weight they’ve lost and then some,” said Mimi Secor, a nurse practitioner who specializes in women’s health and author of “Healthy & Fit at Any Age”.

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I want to lose weight and eat healthier. What diet should I choose?

For starters, don’t think of it as a diet. “I coach my clients to replace the word ‘diet,’ which is often seen as a temporary fix, with the term ‘healthy eating plan,’ because it’s more sustainable,” said Elana Paddock, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas.

A current popular diet is intermittent fasting, which typically involves eating only for 6 to 8 hours of the day. But a recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found no link between meal timing and weight loss over a six-year period.

However, fewer and smaller meals were associated with weight loss.

“In addition, skipping meals could lead to more hunger and cravings later on, leading to overeating and making it more difficult to make healthier food choices,” Paddock said. “In general, restrictive types of dietary approaches can have similar negative consequences.”

When you look at US News and World Report’s Best Diets 2023, the top recommendations are “technically not diets in the way that we think of diets as restrictive,” Gretel Schueller, managing health editor at US News, told USA TODAY. “They are a lifestyle approach.”

What are some good diets to consider for better eating plans?

The Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes vegetables, fruit, lean poultry, seafood, whole grains, nuts and unsaturated fats from extra virgin olive oil, is “really more of a lifestyle of eating and really adaptable,” Schueller said.

“Diets that work well don’t restrict entire food groups or make you feel like you’re missing out. A better way to think of them is as an eating pattern,” Schueller said.

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Two other top recommended diets on the US News and World Report list are the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, limits foods high in saturated fat as well as sweetened beverages, and the Flexitarian diet, a semi-vegetarian diet that focuses on non-meat proteins such as beans, peas, or eggs, as well as fruits and vegetables, as a way to reduce meat consumption.

In addition to the sodium restrictions for the DASH diet, these are “not restrictive and really are about focusing on the things we know we should be eating: whole foods, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, etc., and limiting our sweets and processed foods”. Schueller said.

What are some important factors to consider when choosing a diet or eating plan?

If a diet or eating plan is too restrictive, you’re less likely to follow it. Other important questions to ask yourself before embarking on a new eating strategy include:

  • Are there favorite foods that are not allowed?
  • Are all the food groups included? What does our monetary budget allow?
  • What about other family members?

“If you’re cooking for the whole family, but one person is eating differently than everyone else at the table, that’s not very sustainable,” Schueller said. “The more complicated the diet becomes, the less likely you are to stick with it long term.”

The diets that are high on the US News and World Report list can serve as the foundation for a long-term healthy eating plan. Each suggests limiting unhealthy foods and emphasizes portion control.

“Whichever you choose, it has to consist of healthy foods and drinks, and allows for the occasional treat. That way you can stick with it,” Schueller said.

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I don’t want to go on a diet, but I do want to make some simple changes.

Start with small changes. Drink more water, ideally eight 8-ounce glasses a day, and start logging your food intake with an app like MyFitnessPal, Secor suggests.

“Or maybe start going to bed 15 minutes earlier or start walking around the block every day,” he said. “Don’t try to change everything at once. You’ll just get overwhelmed and are more likely to throw in the towel until next year.”

Pick one or two specific changes to focus on and go from there, Paddock said. Some suggestions:

  • Swap white bread or white rice for whole wheat bread or brown rice (these have more nutrients).
  • Choose light popcorn instead of French fries.
  • Buy individual servings of nuts or snacks instead of large containers, or fill small snack bags for portion control.
  • Have fruit on hand instead of always opting for sweet or salty snacks.
  • Use smaller plates and bowls for smaller portions.
  • Eat leaner protein, such as chicken or fish, or beans, when you could have eaten red meat.
  • After dinner, consider the kitchen closed until morning.

“You can consider a baby-step approach with healthier exchanges and build one success upon another, which not only leads to positive change, but is also motivating,” Paddock said.

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What if I need a stricter regimen?

  • Find a registered dietitian. These nutrition specialists “can be a valuable tool in designing a plan with you and exploring options that fit your needs and lifestyle,” Paddock said. You can find a nutrition expert on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website.
  • Try a program. If you’re not an experienced cook, perhaps try a program like Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, or Optavia, which has foods you can buy and guidelines to help with portions. “Some of these more structured commercial diets might work for (the person), even if it’s only for a limited time to encourage a healthy eating pattern,” Schueller said.
  • Get a physical trainer. Food is only one part of a healthy lifestyle; physical activity is another. But exercise is part of the “holistic approach … to the healthy lifestyle that you’re choosing,” Schueller said.

Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.

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