It was mid-2016,  I had had enough. I was finishing out a very stressful emergency response and had just completed my Ph.D. I was also overweight. 

I exercised every day but wasn’t making any headway on losing the nearly 40 pounds of weight that I wanted to lose. My blood pressure was starting to creep up and I was determined to not follow in the footsteps of my dad on this one. He learned about heart disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol later in life. The research and life-extending medications were new for him. I had no excuse.

I was ready for a change. I knew that I did not want to do some fad diet. I wanted to lose the extra weight and have it stick.

I first tried an eating regimen that I got from a bodybuilder friend. She used it to cut down for shows. I tried it for two weeks… and hated it. The food was awful and it was boring.

I knew from my own work in public health that lifestyle changes were the best way to go for lasting weight loss. So that’s exactly what I did next – I started to build a healthier diet into my everyday routine. It was easier than I expected. A lot of people may be afraid to do this, but it is easier than you think. You already have all of the answers you need.

Shot of a young woman using a laptop and having a salad while working from home.
Tune into your own eating and exercise habits to make lifestyle changes that will set you up for a healthier life.

A little background…

Have you ever had a person you know lose weight on a diet only to gain it all back, and then some? They probably followed a diet, which is temporary, and then went back to their old habits after they lost all of the weight. Fad diets are well known not to work (Obert, Pearlman, Obert & Chapin, 2017). Anything labeled as a diet has about the same rate of failure (Fung et al., 2015; Obert, Pearlman, Obert & Chapin, 2017). Losing weight sustainably is all about changing the habits that got someone overweight in the first place. Following a diet, no matter how well developed, is still temporary. A lifestyle change works over a long period of time, because healthy habits are worked into everyday sustainable life (Fung et al., 2015).

But how can you create a lifestyle change plan to lose weight? First, you must know yourself.

Step 1: Use what you already know about yourself

Take a look at your life and how you eat. You already know what you like and dislike. You already know how much time you have to cook. If you are busy during the week but have time on the weekends to prep meals, do that. If you hate the taste of broccoli, there are plenty of other great vegetables to try and use. I can’t stand rutabaga. I will never eat it in any meals that I make. I also can’t live without a little chocolate. I keep small wrapped chocolates in my kitchen that I eat a set amount of each day. 

Eating healthily should fit around your lifestyle and you shouldn’t suffer while making changes. Think you can’t do this? Here’s an example of how you already may be doing an assessment of your diet. Say you want to eat lunch out on a work day. When choosing a restaurant, what do you think of? Probably what you like and dislike and how much time you have. These are the same things you would be doing when creating your eating plan. But you’ll be considering things like the quality of your food and how hungry you really are.

You should make lifestyle changes slowly, especially if you need to make a lot of them (Rothman et al., 2015). If you are a junk food junkie who eats fast food every day, don’t try to become a raw vegan overnight. Try cooking at home a few days per week at first.

Some people can cut calories all at once, while others cannot. I had to bring down my calories slowly because of a medication I was on called Remeron. It works great for its intended purpose, but has one nasty side effect – hunger. That side effect works so well that the medication is frequently used to induce hunger in sick patients (Howard, Hossaini, Tolar & Gaviola, 2019). That’s how I became overweight, because I needed to eat a lot of food to not constantly feel hungry. Every time I tried to drop my calories all at once, I was in tears by the end of the day. My husband, on the other hand, was a professional boxer in the 1980s. He was used to making weight before a fight – he dropped calories like it was no big deal.

Everyone is different. Do what works for you, whatever that may be.

Step 2: Look at your physical activity level

Physical activity plays a huge part in how we eat. If you have a desk job and minimal physical activity, you need fewer calories than a marathon runner. You don’t need to do complex calculations, either. Just use an online calorie calculator like this one from Calculator.net or this one from the Mayo Clinic. Others may give you a more granular look at physical activity.

If you are not physically active, consider adding in a little. I take a walk every day at lunch while at work. It gives me 2,500 steps and makes the afternoon much better. Walking can provide a healthy boost to your body (Foster et al., 2018).

Consider also getting an activity tracker. While the science says that activity trackers are only a good thing if you use them, getting an idea of how many calories you are burning in a day through activity can help you find out what level of food input you need in a day (Finkelstein et al., 2016).

Create your own healthy eating guidelines and goals, according to what works for you.
Create your own healthy eating guidelines and goals, according to what works for you.

Step 3: Track, track, and oh yes, track

Tracking your food is really important to changing your lifestyle to achieve weight loss (Turner‐McGrievy et al., 2017). This is not only important for calories, but also nutrients. You need to make sure that you are getting enough food and the right kinds of food to meet your nutritional needs, even as you are losing weight.

For example, it is critical that you get enough vitamins while trying to lose weight, to stay healthy and energized. It’s better to get your vitamins from your food than in supplements. Because supplements are not regulated like drugs, it is easy to overdose on a particular vitamin when taking them. Food, on the other hand, does not carry the same risk. The nutrients you absorb from food are also better for you.

You can use a cell phone app or even a spreadsheet to track your food. I use MyFitnessPal to track my food intake and calories because it’s easy and I can build recipes. You can also use the LifeOmic LIFE Extend phone app to track your fruit and vegetable intake (important for getting enough of particular vitamins and dietary fiber that can help with your hunger levels) and wellness overall. However you track, make sure you do it.

One caveat to tracking calories: If tracking initially makes you nervous, don’t start until you make some changes. I didn’t track my food for the first two months of my lifestyle change. I already knew that I was eating too much, and knowing exactly how much was depressing. I made many slow changes until I felt comfortable with tracking my calories and nutrients. My calories were in a much more reasonable range by then.

Measure your food too, if you can, at least at first. You may be surprised at how much you are eating. Many people underestimate their calorie intake (Salley, Hoover, Wilson & Muth, 2016). Prevent this by using measuring spoons, cups and a good food or kitchen scale. For example, I started using measured glasses to track my alcohol consumption. Weighing ingredients is even better than using a spoon or cup to measure them. It’s more accurate. Knowing exactly how much you are eating will give you an exact amount for a calorie count. That way if you have to estimate, you know how big a serving is. 

Pro-tip: Try to tune in to any points during the day when you may be “mindlessly” eating. Do you grab snacks or candy from the break room at work, even when you aren’t really hungry?

If you want a more in-depth look at insulin resistance and some more tips on creating a diet plan based on five pillars of health (exercise, nutrition, sleep, fasting and stress reduction), check out Stop Counting Calories. A New Model of Obesity and How to Lose Weight.  If you find that you want to try intermittent fasting as you settle in to your healthy lifestyle, download the LIFE Fasting app or tracking your fasting in the LIFE Extend app.

The beauty of your diet plan is that you can update it anytime you want.  You are in control. If something doesn’t work today, make the change and see how it works. I recommend that you don’t compare what you do to what works for someone else. They have different needs than you do. Focus on your own needs and your lifestyle. Changing your eating habits for good will allow you to stick to something that will make you healthier in the long run. Changing your diet does not have to mean suffering. Taking changes at your own pace ensures that you are ready for them. You may not lose weight in a short time like many fad diets promise, but the weight you do lose will last a lifetime.

References:

  • Finkelstein, et al. (2016). Effectiveness of activity trackers with and without incentives to increase physical activity (Trippa): A randomised controlled trial. The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, 4(12), 983–995. 
  • Foster et al. (2018). What works to promote walking at the population level? A systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 52(12), 807–812. 
  • Fung et al. (2015). Long-term change in diet quality is associated with body weight change in men and women. The Journal of Nutrition, 145(8), 1850–1856.
  • Howard et al. (2019). Efficacy and safety of appetite-stimulating medications in the inpatient setting. Annals of Pharmacotherapy, 53(3), 261–267.
  • Obert, J., Pearlman, M., Obert, L., & Chapin, S. (2017). Popular weight loss strategies: A review of four weight loss techniques. Current Gastroenterology Reports, 19(12), 61.
  • Publishing, H. H. (n.d.). Should you get your nutrients from food or from supplements? Retrieved August 15, 2019, from Harvard Health website: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/should-you-get-your-nutrients-from-food-or-from-supplements
  • Rothman et al (2015). Hale and hearty policies: How psychological science can create and maintain healthy habits. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(6), 701–705.
  • Salley et al. (2016). Comparison between human and bite-based methods of estimating caloric intake. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(10), 1568–1577.
  • Turner‐McGrievy et al. (2017). The dietary intervention to enhance tracking with mobile devices (Diet mobile) study: A 6-month randomized weight loss trial. Obesity, 25(8), 1336–1342.