An RD’s Advice on How to Start a Diet & What to Avoid
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Obesity and overweight continues to rise in the United States; in 2016, more than 42% of U. S. adults were obese, including 43% of adults aged 40–59 and 36% of adults aged 20–30, according to the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Health Statistics. A large part of managing and losing weight comes down to diet — what we eat and drink, and how much.
Whether you’re starting a diet for weight loss for the first or fiftieth time, it can be difficult to sift through all the different weight loss advice out there. Should you follow a high-protein, high-fat, or high-carb diet? Do you need to track your calories, macros, or meals? I’m a registered dietitian so I’ve heard all of these questions before. Keep reading to learn what I tell clients to do at the start of their weight loss journey — and what pitfalls to avoid.
The Start of the Diet Start
After you decide to go on a diet, first establish where you are right now. What are you actually eating and drinking? What changes do you need to make to reach your weight loss goal? Keep a food diary or journal of what you eat for a week or two. There are multiple apps to track your food and beverages or a simple spiral notebook will do.
Tracking your diet has been shown to make you more accountable for your actions. A randomized control trial found that using a commercial app (such as MyFitnessPal) can result in significant weight loss if goals are tailored to the individual. A six-month randomized trial in adults with overweight or obesity found that self-monitoring through a calorie tracking app resulted in more significant weight loss.
Do I Have to Track Calories to Lose Weight?
No, but serving sizes matter. Are you eating cereal from a small or large bowl? Tracking calories for weight loss is just one way to lose weight.
Rather than calorie counting, you can lose weight by reducing portion sizes. Use a website like the USDA’s MyPlate to give you an idea of how much you should eat from each food group.
A review of studies found that using portion control tools may improve awareness, food choice, and food intake. Smaller bowls, spoons, and other utensils may help with weight loss in overweight and obese individuals, but more studies are needed to confirm the use of smaller plates for weight loss.
Another small study on women with obesity also supports the use of portion control tools for weight reduction. Calibrated glasses, bowls, and serving spoons were considered easy to use and improved awareness of serving sizes.
Ways to Work with Set Point Theory
Have you heard that our bodies have an internal thermostat or “set point” of what our natural or comfortable weight should be? This area of research is known as energy homeostasis. Weight set point is a process to maintain weight by balancing calorie intake with calorie expense over time. Losing weight can be difficult because our bodies work to maintain our set weight.
Scientists believe this is the result of evolution — our ancestors “hung on” to fat stores for survival during times when food was scarce. But food is no longer scarce. It’s everywhere! We may gain weight over time through excessive calorie consumption, particularly from highly processed foods full of sugar and fat.
A study in flies discovered that our desire for certain foods may depend on what macronutrients we consumed first. When deficiencies of macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein) happen, animals experience a change in food preference and may crave more unhealthy foods like those high in sugar. Eating adequate protein in your meals may help combat sugar cravings.
The Perks of Protein
Too little protein in your diet could hinder your weight loss efforts. A recent Australian theory called the “Protein Leverage Hypothesis” studied how inadequate protein may impact the risk of obesity. In over 9,000 subjects, calorie consumption versus the time of intake was plotted.
Researchers found that individuals who ate lower amounts of protein in the morning ate more calories at subsequent meals while those who ate adequate protein ate less food throughout the day.
Subjects with a lower-than-recommended protein intake ate more energy-dense foods high in sugar, saturated fat, salt, or alcohol during the day and less of the recommended number of servings of grains, vegetables, legumes, fruit, dairy, and meats.
Most people need .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, but dieters may need more. One small study found that those trying to lose weight lost more when consuming 1.34 grams of protein per kilogram versus .8 grams per kilogram (the recommended daily amount).
Fiber and Fitness
Two other pieces of the weight loss puzzle are fiber and fitness. Fiber is the indigestible part of plants that aid in digestion but also helps you feel fuller. A small study examining the fiber and protein intake of obese subjects found that including up to 35 grams of dietary fiber and lean protein (.8 grams per kg) daily resulted in less hunger, better diet adherence, and more weight loss compared to lower-fiber diets.
If you’re trying to lose belly fat, fiber can be advantageous. A study in subjects with abdominal obesity showed that a high-quality, calorie-restricted diet containing more fiber and plant protein results in better weight loss than a lower-quality diet. It also improved blood cholesterol. Winning!
Moving your body can also help move the needle on the scale. A 24-week study in overweight women compared moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT) with high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and showed no difference in calories burned — but those in the HIIT group lost 3kg (6.6 lbs.) more than the MICT group.
A meta-analysis study in pre- and post-menopausal women also found HIIT to be an effective way to lose weight as well as belly fat. HIIT was more effective in pre-menopausal women and most effective in those with excess obesity. Cycling HIIT was more effective than running in postmenopausal women.
What Should You Avoid When Trying to Lose Weight?
Every year, fad diets and “thinfluencers” pop up to shame you into thinking you’ll get quick results. Lose 30 pounds in 30 days! How is that even possible? Don’t fall for quick fixes, magical potions, or scientifically unsupported supplements that promise drastic results. Here are a few of the worst.
Raw Food Diet. This diet includes only foods that haven’t been cooked. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are certainly healthy, but this diet is overly restrictive and could result in nutrient deficiencies, including protein. It’s also not safe to consume raw fish or unprocessed dairy products.
Ketogenic Diet. AKA a “keto” diet, this meal plan is high in fat and very low in carbohydrates. The diet may result in quick weight loss, but experts fear nutrient deficiencies, increased risk for cancer and heart disease, as well as weight regain. Gretel Schueller, managing health editor at U.S. News, notes that these diets tend to backfire, as they’re not sustainable.
Plans with processed food or supplements. Optivia, Slimfast, and Nutrisystem are commercial weight-loss products with various shakes, bars, and portioned meals. While they may provide initial weight loss, the foods used tend to be high in sodium and preservatives, and can become expensive over time.
Colonbroom. This TikTok fad claims it’s a safe, effective way to relieve constipation, lose weight, and decrease bloating. It also promises to “detox” your gut of accumulated toxins. Ironically, one of the most common complaints from customers is bloating. The product contains psyllium husks, the same ingredient in Metamucil. The cost of one bottle of Colonbroom is $69.
Diet pills, teas, or tinctures. Weight loss teas often contain high doses of caffeine, which could be dangerous to some individuals. They may also contain diuretics (AKA “water pills”) or laxatives that can lead to dehydration, diarrhea, and electrolyte abnormalities. Hormones such as HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) used as injections, drops, or pills have been touted for weight loss but are accompanied by an extremely low-calorie diet. None of these remedies have been deemed effective or safe.
What Should You Eat to Lose Weight?
While one weight loss diet does not fit all, the easiest diet to follow is one that includes all food groups, is affordable, accessible, and respects your culture and food preferences. Weight Watchers, the DASH diet, and the Mayo Clinic Diet are the top 3 choices for 2023 in the weight loss category. Each includes nutritious whole foods, variety, balance, and flexibility.
According to the National Weight Control Registry, starting with breakfast is important for weight loss. Seventy eight percent of successful losers eat breakfast.
Breakfast should include high-protein and high-fiber foods. Both promote satiety and may prevent cravings between meals. A recent study indicates that eating more calories earlier in the day may reduce hunger at subsequent meals and aid in weight loss.
Here are some meal ideas:
Whole grain toast with eggs and avocado
Rolled oats with chopped nuts and a scoop of protein powder
Greek yogurt with frozen berries and sunflower seeds
Cottage cheese and fruit with whole grain crackers
Veggie omelet with rye toast and fruit
Lunch provides energy for the afternoon and prevents excess snacking. Be sure to include protein and produce; good options include:
Large spinach salad topped with grilled chicken or fish, side of fruit
Lentil soup, a side salad and fruit
Turkey wrap with lettuce and tomatoes, and fresh fruit
Tossed salad with kidney or garbanzo beans, whole grain crackers, and fruit
Leftover chicken and brown rice with a side of broccoli
Dinner should be balanced and ideally not eaten too late (by 6:00 and not past 10 pm). A small study showed that late dinners led to poor nocturnal glucose tolerance, decreased fatty acid oxidation, and mobilization of fat stores.
Make half of your plate vegetables, a quarter of it a nutritious grain or starch, and a quarter of the plate a lean protein or plant-based protein. Organize your plate with options such as:
Turkey chili, cornbread muffin, and tossed salad
Grilled fish, a sweet potato, and green beans
Chicken Caesar salad with ½ cup quinoa and fruit
A large green salad and two slices of thin-crust veggie pizza
Black beans and brown rice with a side of California blend veggies
For more information on safe ways to lose weight, reach out to a registered dietitian, or check out the Kickoff app’s nutrition features and learn how you can work with a certified expert to help you lose weight.