Earlier today, I visited the Today Show for a "take back your diet" segment. The overall message was simple: Rather than a crazy fad diet that's likely to fizzle out in a few weeks, get results with simple but effective strategies you can really stick with. Here are the seven tips I shared with Ann Curry, some compiled from my recent posts, and all including more info I didn't have time to share on air:
Step 1: Eat a High-Protein Breakfast
Each day, eat breakfast within an hour of waking up and eat again every three to five hours. Starting your day with a healthy meal will maximize your metabolism, regulate your blood sugar and insulin levels, and level out your appetite. Skipping breakfast or eating too little forces your body to switch into conservation mode and burn fewer calories, which means you're more likely to hang onto body fat. Just be sure to include protein. A recent study published in the journal Obesity found that a higher protein breakfast led to reductions in hunger and less eating later in the day. Include something with at least 10 grams of protein, such as an organic version of nonfat organic Greek yogurt (6 ounces provides 15 grams), soy nuts (one-fourth of a cup contains 14 grams), an egg and two egg whites (12 grams), or even an ounce of organic jerky (12-16 grams). For the best balance, pair your protein option with in-season fruit, a serving of whole grains, some healthy fat and natural seasonings, such as:
- Yogurt mixed with sliced pineapple, toasted oats, sliced almonds and ginger
- Soy nuts, a mini banana, whole-grain crackers spread with nut butter dusted with cinnamon
- Eggs seasoned with fresh or dried herbs paired with fresh grapes, and a slice of 100 percent whole-grain toast spread with ripe avocado
- Jerky with an orange, and half of a whole grain English muffin spread with pesto
Step 2: Drink More H2O
This tip has been around for years but it's tried and true. Water does support optimal metabolism and some research shows it may naturally curb your appetite, but it can also help you feel better fast. Drinking more water flushes out excess sodium to help you quickly de-bloat, and it gets things moving in your digestive system to relieve constipation. Aim for two to two and a half liters a day (about eight to 10 cups). And if you ditch your daily soda at the same time you'll benefit even more. The average American drinks 19 ounces (1.5 cans) of sugary soda per day. That's nearly 550 cans a year. With about 12 teaspoons of sugar per can, that's the amount in 28 two-pound boxed of refined sugar.
Step 3: Cut Back, But Don't Cut Out Carbs
Your body is like an engine that's always turned on, so it needs a steady supply of fuel. Nixing carbs completely (your body's preferred fuel source) can force your body to burn the protein in your meal for energy, which means it's not available to support and maintain your calorie-burning muscle. You don't want to lose that benefit of protein, so instead of cutting it out, just cut back and pump up your intake of veggies. According to the latest government data, we're eating more now than we did 30 years ago, especially women, who consume 22 percent more, mostly from refined carbohydrates. At the same time, roughly 75 percent of Americans fall short of the recommended three daily vegetable servings. If you normally sit down to a cup and a half of cooked pasta at dinner, cut back to a half cup (preferably 100 percent whole grain) and add in one cup of spaghetti squash. You'll save almost 45 grams of carbs (the amount in three slices of bread), and you'll still get a big, filling meal and increase your intake of fiber, vitamins and antioxidants.
Step 4: Eat More Garlic
We've known for some time that garlic can boost immunity and reduce blood pressure, but a new Korean study shows it may hold some promise for weight control as well. Researchers fed mice a fattening diet for eight week to plump them up, then served mice the same diet supplemented with garlic for another seven weeks. The addition of garlic reduced the mice's body weights and fat stores and lessoned the effects of the unhealthy diet on the animals' blood and liver values. If you want to try something new and don't want the garlic breath, look for black garlic. It's made from whole garlic that's been aged for at least a month under high heat, which gives it a darker color and sweeter taste. Black garlic has been shown to pack twice as many antioxidants as raw; it's soft so you can easily spread it or fold it into recipes; lastly, it won't give you stinky breath. I love to slather it onto whole-grain crackers as a snack along with lemony hummus or whisk it into a homemade vinaigrette dressing, which can also double as a simple stir-fry sauce using:
2 Tbsp vinegar (balsamic or brown rice)
1 Tbsp 100 percent fresh citrus (such as orange, tangerine or blood orange)
1/2 - 1 tsp fresh grated ginger
1/2 tsp dried or 1 tsp fresh Italian herbs (for salad dressing) or a dash of cracked black pepper (for stir frying)
1 clove black garlic
Whisk together vinegar, citrus juice, ginger and garlic. Add seasoning of your choice and drizzle over salad dressing or use to saute.
Step 5: Veganize Some of Your Meals
Studies have found an increase in calorie burning after vegan meals, which may be one reason why an Oxford University study of nearly 38,000 adults found that meat-eaters had the highest BMIs for their ages and vegans the lowest, with vegetarians and semi-vegetarians in between. You don't have to become vegan, just replace animal-based proteins for plant-based proteins at least five times a week. You don't even need to use fake meats—just trade meat, poultry or seafood with beans or lentils; swap eggs for tofu; and trade butter and creamy sauces for rich plant-based foods like coconut oil, tahini, pesto, olive tapenade, and avocado. For example:
- Make a taco salad with mixed greens tossed with pico de gallo topped with roasted corn, black beans and fresh guacamole
- Instead of scrambling eggs, use crumbled extra firm organic tofu
- Replace ranch dressing with tahini sauce to serve with fresh veggies
- Rather than cheese and crackers, serve crackers with olive tapenade and pestos made without cheese
- Instead of spreading bread or toast with butter, use ripe avocado
Step 6: Create Color Contrasts
As I wrote about in a recent post, a new study conducted by Cornell University researchers found that a greater contrast between the color of your food and the color of your plate naturally leads to eating less. In the study, diners served themselves from a pasta buffet with either tomato or Alfredo sauce. They were randomly given red or white plates, so some ate red sauce on a red plate, while others ate red sauce on a white plate, white sauce on a red plate, and white sauce on a white plate. The "red-red" and "white-white" eaters served themselves 22 percent more than those with the opposite pairings. While it's not clear why the color disparity made such a big difference, it could be another strategy to put to the test, especially as you begin the new year.
Step 7: Take a Daily Chocolate Break
Research shows that eating a small amount of dark chocolate every day helps curb cravings for both sweet and salty foods, so if you build a little into each day you'll be less likely to get derailed by chips, cookies or other goodies. And a recent study also found that chocolate's antioxidants may help block the breakdown of fat and carbohydrate, which means less gets absorbed from your digestive tract into your bloodstream, and therefore is less likely to get socked away in your fat cells. Dark chocolate also helps lower "bad" LDL cholesterol and up your "good" HDL and eating it produces the same euphoric feeling we experience when we're in love. Stick with no more than 1 ounce a day of 70 percent cocoa or darker.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.