While excess body fat can increase your risk of some chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, changing your diet to achieve even a small weight loss can seriously benefit your health. Dieting for fat loss doesn't mean you're stuck eating bland "diet" foods like plain celery all day, either; you can lose weight eating vibrant, flavorful foods that contain ingredients you love. Exactly how much you'll eat to lose fat depends on your specific calorie needs -- there's no one-size-fits-all answer -- so consult a registered dietitian for personalized recommendations if you're having trouble losing fat on your diet.
Reduce Calories for Steady Weight Loss
No matter what you weigh, or how much fat you have to lose, you'll need to create a calorie deficit to shed pounds. Eating fewer calories than your body needs for energy forces your body to fill the deficit by burning fat tissue.
How many calories you need -- and how many you should eat to lose weight -- depends on a few factors, including your activity and starting weight. Enter your information into an online energy-needs calculator; then subtract 250 to 1,000 calories to get a daily calorie target that will allow you to lose 1/2 to 2 pounds weekly.
Choose a deficit that allows you to eat at least 1,200 calories daily, though, or you risk slowing down your metabolism. If you're older, live a less active lifestyle or don't have a lot of weight to lose, a 1,000-calorie deficit might be too aggressive and take you under the 1,200-calorie minimum. In that case, you should aim for slower weight loss with a more manageable 250- or 500-calorie deficit.
Start With a Healthy Breakfast
You've likely heard the old saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It's true, and eating a generous breakfast might help you with weight loss, according to a study published in Obesity in 2013. The researchers sorted overweight and obese women into two groups; one group ate a large breakfast, smaller lunch and even smaller dinner; one ate a small breakfast, larger lunch and even larger dinner. The large-breakfast group lost more body weight and more inches off their waists than the large-dinner group over the 12-week study period, highlighting the importance of breakfast in a fat-loss diet.
Choose filling-but-slimming breakfasts, like scrambled eggs mixed with spinach, mushrooms, green peppers and low-fat feta cheese, or an egg, fried in a small amount of olive oil and served with spinach on a whole-grain English muffin. If you'd prefer to eat more carbs in the morning, try oatmeal or brown rice cereal topped with chopped fruit and a few almonds or walnut halves, with a glass of low-fat milk to drink.
Choose Lean & Green Lunches and Dinners
Lunches and dinners on a fat-loss diet should combine lean protein with vegetables and healthful whole grains. Fiber -- the specialized carbohydrate found in plant foods like whole grains, produce, lentils and beans -- promotes weight loss because it helps slow your food's passage through the digestive tract, keeping you full longer. A 2013 study published in Obesity reported that eating smaller, high-protein meals throughout the day helps boost fat loss. Get carbs, lean protein and veggies from a healthful black bean and quinoa chili -- with added carrots, celery, broccoli and onions for more vegetables -- or from roasted chicken breast served on a bed of steamed spinach with lentil and rice pilaf on the side.
Make sure to incorporate fish into your meal plan to support fat loss. Fish supplies omega-3 fatty acids, a family of fats you can't produce on your own, which you need to obtain from your diet. People with healthy omega-3 fatty acid levels tend to carry less harmful belly fat, reports a literature review paper published in Nutrients in 2010. Try adding grilled salmon to a whole-wheat wrap, along with baby kale, sliced tomatoes and mashed avocado for extra flavor. Or eat a tuna salad sandwich for lunch, using cottage cheese instead of mayo in the tuna salad, for a bit more protein and less fat.
Snacks for Fat Loss
Don't be afraid to snack between meals; as long as you count your calories, snacks won't make you gain weight. In fact, according to the 2013 study in Obesity, eating 6 meals a day, as part of a high-protein diet, helps support weight loss.
Snack on a piece of fruit, a cup or two of raw veggies served with a tablespoon of hummus, or a few low-sodium deli turkey breast slices. And consider snacking on an ounce of nuts. In addition to providing fiber and unsaturated fat, nuts might help you lose weight. Diets that allow nuts tend to be more successful for weight loss than those that ban them, reports a literature review published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010.
Pair Your Diet With Exercise
Weight loss isn't just about your diet; you'll need an exercise program to help accelerate your fat loss, as well as help you keep off the weight. Cardiovascular exercise gets your heart pumping and boosts your overall calorie burn, so you can up your activity level to create a larger calorie deficit and lose more fat. Strength training builds calorie-torching muscle, which helps keep your metabolism high to help prevent fat regain. It also tones you up, so you'll look fitter once you reach your goal weight. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio daily -- brisk walking, for example -- and two or three strength-training sessions each week.