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The Healthiest Way to Lose Weight

You know that surge of energy that comes with spring -- that feeling of lightness and optimism fueled by longer, brighter days? What if, this spring, you could not only feel lighter but be lighter -- several pounds lighter? What if this April brought not only longer days but also a chance at a longer life?

These questions needn't be hypothetical. By transforming your eating habits with our plan, you can experience the vitality of spring not just for this season but for all seasons. The plan is simple: You'll transition from eating the typical American meat-heavy, sugar-laden, low-fiber fare to consuming a nutrient-rich, naturally delicious, plant-based diet. (See related feature, "What You Need to Eat Every Day for Our Plan to Work.") You'll lose fat and keep it off, while reducing your risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, cancer and heart disease. Plus, on this eating plan, you just feel better. "When people switch to a plant-based diet, they report having more energy," says Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D., author of The Origin Diet (Henry Holt & Co., 2001). "They talk about how they never realized how sluggish they felt before. They feel so healthy."

Of course, overhauling your eating habits requires a bit more effort than, say, moving your clock forward an hour. But with the enticing meals here -- they include salmon salads, black bean chili and tangy gazpacho soup with crabmeat -- even die-hard carnivores can do it. Don't worry: You won't feel hungry. Fruits, veggies and whole grains -- the mainstays of your diet -- are low in calories but high in volume. "You can eat so much more food this way," Somer says.

The Secrets to Success: Small Goals and a Food Log

The secret to success with this plan is to make changes gradually. "You'll only stick with dietary changes you can tolerate," Somer says. "If you think whole-wheat pasta tastes like cardboard, that change won't work." So start with the substitutions you'll barely notice, like switching from white bread to whole wheat or from chili con carne to vegetarian chili. Soon, the artery-clogging, nutritionally empty foods you used to eat will have lost their allure.

(One other caveat: To minimize intestinal gas, be sure to increase your fiber intake gradually. The Shape Your Best Life plan calls for 35 grams of fiber daily, more than twice the amount consumed by the typical American woman. "You need to give your GI [gastrointestinal] tract time to increase its supply of enzymes that break down fiber," Somer explains.)

As you transform your eating habits, we recommend tracking your progress with a food log, such as the one found below (or on shape.com -- click on ShapeLink). "It'll help you figure out what good habits you have already so you can build upon them," says Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., R.D., author of Power Eating & Fitness Log (1999). Your log might just spur you to squeeze in those extra fruit servings. "When it's 8 p.m. and you see that you're short one or two fruits, you might get yourself to eat that peach or banana you otherwise wouldn't have," Kleiner says.

A food log helps you focus on small, concrete, realistic goals -- such as "eat seven fruits every day this week" or "consume one daily serving of soy" -- rather than less action-oriented, long-term goals such as "lose 10 pounds." "If you achieve the smaller daily goals, the weight loss will follow," Kleiner says. In addition to recording the foods you eat, use your log to monitor how you're feeling on your journey to better eating habits. "You might write, ' Wow, it's 8 p.m. and I'm a lot more alert than usual!' " Kleiner says. "Or, note that you didn't wake up during the night feeling hungry. If you don't write these things down, you won't see the trends."

Ultimately, Kleiner says, your log can help change your relationship with food. "Instead of focusing on what you can't eat, you'll do a 180-degree shift toward the positive, emphasizing the foods that nourish and fuel your body." So hey, spring forward!

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