There's the age-old route to dropping pounds: Exercise a lot more and eat a lot less. But recent research has pummeled that formula and found all-new (and easier!) ways to live slim.
The approach to dieting is changing radically, and considering that it makes dropping pounds much more manageable and long-lasting than previous sweat-and-starve methods, that's exciting news. "The way we've been told to lose weight has set us up for failure," says David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Harvard and the author of Always Hungry? "If it hasn't worked for you, know that you're not the only one struggling." In fact, the more researchers learn about weight loss, the more they realize that certain supposed truths don't always hold up in real life. (Like these Harmful Diet Lies You Probably Believe.)
So what does deliver? You'll be happy to hear that easy habit changes are the ones that have profound, long-term effects. These are the smart, new strategies that actually pay off.
Delete the calorie-counting apps
Your body reacts to calories differently depending on the foods they're from. So instead of obsessively calculating and cutting calories, focus on eating the right foods, Dr. Ludwig says. Consuming processed carbs makes your insulin level spike, which causes your fat cells to store excess calories. Protein, on the other hand, triggers a hormone that pulls calories out of storage," he says. Even worse, carb heavy diets slow your metabolism. When Dr. Ludwig looked at the number of calories that people burned at rest on various diets, he found that those who cut carbs burned 325 additional calories a day compared with those who cut fat—without additional exercise. Get plenty of protein and swap processed carbs for foods high in healthy fat and for natural carbs like fruits, veggies, and beans and the pounds will drop off easily, no fancy math required.
Scale back your HIIT workouts
If you're sprinting, Spinning, and going to HIIT classes like crazy but still not losing weight, you could be overdoing it. "Overtraining leads to an overproduction of cortisol, the stress hormone that makes you crave sugar and store fat," says Stephanie Middleberg, R.D.N., the founder of Middleberg Nutrition in New York City. Never quit the gym; just limit your high-intensity sessions to three days a week max (plenty to get all the health benefits) and work out moderately (lift weights, jog, take a yoga class) two days a week, she advises.
Have a.m. sex on the weekends
High levels of oxytocin (the "love hormone" that's released when you're intimate with another person) might help you eat less, according to research published in the journal Obesity. Since we consume up to 400 calories more on Saturdays and Sundays than on weekdays, getting busy between the sheets can help offset the diet damage. "Plus, sex can make you feel good about your body, which helps you make better food and exercise choices," says Haylie Pomroy, the author of Fast Metabolism Food Rx. (Morning sex might even help you relieve stress.)
Turn the music down when you eat
People ate more pretzels when they were listening to sounds that drowned out the crunch noise of the snack, research conducted at Brigham Young University and Colorado State University found. Chalk it up to mindfulness: When you're more aware of what you're eating (such as when you hear yourself chewing), you're more likely to stop eating sooner, says study author Ryan Elder, Ph.D. If you're not eating crunchy foods, or you would rather chat with your dining companions than listen to every bite, take note of other details about your meal, suggests Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N., a Shape advisory board member and the author of The Flexitarian Diet. "Look at the food on your fork before putting it in your mouth, appreciate how it smells, and savor the flavors," she says.
Listen to comedy during your commute
The hours you spend schlepping to and from work are often the most stressful parts of your day, which isn't great for your waistline. "Stress prompts your adrenal glands to release cortisol, which may make you crave sugar and could lead to weight gain," says Amy Gorin, R.D.N., the owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in Jersey City, New Jersey. In fact, research has linked longer commutes with higher BMIs. You may not be able to score a new job closer to home, but you can lighten your stress level with humor. "Even anticipating laughter has been shown to lower cortisol," Gorin says. And if you're less stressed when you get to work, it'll be easier to say no office doughnuts.
Check your medicine cabinet
"Ten percent of obesity is caused by medication," says Louis J. Aronne, M.D., the author of The Change Your Biology Diet and the director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Center at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. But the culprits are not always the more obvious ones, such as birth control and antidepressants. In fact, antihistamines are a common problem, Dr.Aronne says. "People take these drugs to reduce allergies and sleep better, but we find that they can increase appetite and cause weight gain," he says. That's because histamines, which your cells release in response to allergens, are neurotransmitters that help regulate pathways in your brain that relate to appetite and metabolism; popping antihistamines cancels this effect. See an allergist if you're taking these drugs regularly, Dr. Aronne suggests. And if you use antihistamines to help you fall asleep at night, ask your doctor about natural sleep solutions like melatonin.
Reset your appetite clock
Making sure to start your day with breakfast is smart for a few reasons. A healthy morning meal helps set the tone for positive dietary choices throughout the day, and research shows that breakfast eaters tend to move more and eat less. Plus, you have the most willpower in the morning, so you're more likely to choose healthy foods then, making it a smart time to consume more of your daily calories (unlike when you come home from work starving and stressed), Blatner says. But she finds that her clients often skip breakfast, claiming they just aren't hungry in the morning. The thing is, you should wake up with the desire to eat. "If you feel full when you first get up, it means you either ate too much at dinner the night before or you ate too close to bedtime," Blatner explains. The solution: Skip dinner for just one night or eat earlier in the evening, and the next morning you won't be able to resist a healthy breakfast. This will reset your appetite clock, which will make all your meals healthier.