Before you launch into a quick-fix diet to make up for all the eating sins you committed over the holidays, hold on a minute. There is a better (and tastier) way to lose weight. How does this sound: an easy-to-follow four-week program that includes delicious, filling food all month long with no crash at the beginning -- or at the end?

Most experts agree that the safest and most lasting weight loss is 1½-2 pounds per week. "Slow weight loss doesn't mean no weight loss," says Sue Cummings, M.S., R.D., clinical program coordinator at Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center in Boston. That's why this plan focuses on a gradual downshift in calories (over the first three weeks) until you hit weight-loss mode (which will happen for most women in the fourth week of our diet plan). At the same time, you'll gradually build up a series of healthy habits that will serve you well while you're losing weight and beyond. By the end of Week 4 you'll have all the tools you'll need to reach your weight-loss goals.

So if you're ready to get started -- and you're prepared to give crash diets the boot -- read on for the simple strategies that will get you on the road to lasting weight loss now.

WEEK 1: Reality Check

This week take stock of where you are -- and where you want to be.

Recognize that the past is past. You've made a decision to take better care of yourself. Now stop beating yourself up. "Let bygones be bygones," advises Anthony Fabricatore, Ph.D., instructor of psychology with the University of Pennsylvania Health System Weight and Eating Disorders Program in Philadelphia. Instead, notice what you did right during the holidays, he says: "It could be something as liberal as having had [only] two pieces of pie when you would normally have had three."

Keep track of how many calories you eat on a normal (nonholiday) day.This week, don't diet. Just eat the way you did before the holidays rolled around. Your task, starting this week: Write everything down. Food diaries "give you the biggest bang for the buck. You learn a lot about your eating habits," Fabricatore says. Count calories as you go by using The Complete Book of Food Counts (Dell Publishing, 2003), or visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Nutrient Database online at At the end of seven days, divide your total week's calories by seven to get a daily average. You'll continue tracking calories throughout the plan.

Figure your daily calorie intake goal for weight loss.

Restock your kitchen. Clear your cupboards and refrigerator of any seasonal treats, leftovers or other high-calorie foods lying in wait to sabotage your weight-loss efforts. This kitchen cleaning will make room for a shopping trip featuring healthful foods that satisfy and fill you up. On your shopping list put fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, fish and chicken (plan ahead, too, by freezing some now for hectic days to come), and don't forget the lowfat dairy (milk, yogurt and cheese). To satisfy your used-to-variety holiday palate, branch out from your usual shopping list and buy a fruit and vegetable you haven't tried before. Or select a new type of grain; one bite of tasty quinoa and you won't miss the buttery mashed potatoes you've been cozying up to since November.

Measure up. You can't get a true calorie count if you don't know how much mayo is on that sandwich. Use measuring cups, spoons and a kitchen scale to find out how much you're really eating. You need to "educate your eye," says Judith S. Stern, Sc.D., R.D., vice president and co-founder of the American Obesity Association in Washington, D.C. After two weeks, test yourself by guessing the portion size before you put something on the scale or in a measuring cup.

WEEK 2: progress begins

This week you'll start to cut calories -- but not flavor or satisfaction -- while introducing three simple new habits.

Make your first reduction in daily calories, by one-third of the difference between what you were eating during Week 1 and your calorie intake goal for weight loss (Week 4).

Put breakfast to work for you. The morning meal jump-starts your metabolism for the day: Research shows that people who eat breakfast burn 200-300 calories more per day, says Marilyn Majchrzak, M.S., R.D., corporate food development manager for the Canyon Ranch Health Resorts. One energizing morning option that features a combination of protein, carbs and fat: 1 tablespoon of peanut butter on two slices of whole-grain bread, an orange and coffee with lowfat milk.

Distract yourself when cravings strike. Do evenings bring dreams of Chunky Monkey? To combat the urge, "I would change my behavior [at] night," advises Cathy Nonas, R.D., author of Outwit Your Weight (Rodale, 2002). "This is a habit. It's not a chemical addiction. Brush your teeth. Go to bed early. Put on a face pack. Exercise."

Slow down. "A lot of people who are overweight tend to be fast eaters," Fabricatore says. Take at least 20 minutes to eat each meal. Your brain needs time to get the message that you've fed your body. Slow your meals down and you'll find you don't need as much food to feel satisfied.

WEEK 3: staying the course

Do another calorie cut this week, while paying attention to what keeps you motivated and energized.

Reduce your calorie intake again, by another third of the difference between what you were eating during Week 1 and your calorie intake goal for Week 4.

Cut yourself some slack. "It's not what you do in a day, it's what you do in a week, in a month [that counts]," says Sue Cummings. "Our bodies [balance] energy over time." So if you eat too much at one meal, write that in your food diary, forget about it and get back on track with the next meal.

Beat boredom by adding at least one new food each week.It's easy to fall into a rut when you're counting calories. Strive to keep adding new, flavorful foods -- maybe soy "burgers" as a different protein source, or an exotic rice like basmati or jasmine, both varieties smelling as delicious as they taste.

WEEK 4 & beyond: going for the goal

You should feel healthy and strong -- now you're ready to set out toward reaching your goal weight.

Reduce your daily calories by one-third for the last time. You now should be at the daily calorie intake you targeted in Week 1. Repeat Week 4 until you get to your goal weight.

Treat yourself to a just reward. You've worked very hard to develop new habits and downshift your over-the-top holiday eating. A new pair of athletic shoes, a pedometer or a personal training session or two will go a long way to keeping you motivated.

Experiment with adding herbs and spices.Canyon Ranch includes herbs and spices on its own food pyramid because they provide so much flavor to lower-fat meals. Some even offer health benefits: Ginger, which perks up stir-fries, aids in digestion, and turmeric, used in curries, may help fight infection.

Take charge at restaurants Appetizers are much closer to the amount of food any of us should eat at a restaurant meal, Majchrzak says. Order soup and one appetizer for dinner, or try Fabricatore's tip: Decide on something healthful before you even look at the menu. "Then, on the menu, find the thing that's closest to what's in your head," he says. Don't be afraid to place a special order -- most restaurants will be happy to serve you what you want.