About 45 million Americans go on a diet each year — and yet obesity rates continue to rise. Whether you want to drop five or 50 pounds, choose a weight loss diet that is sustainable in the long term and fits your lifestyle. Commit to it for at least one month or more to get lasting results.
Why Fad Diets Don't Work
You've probably heard of the cabbage soup diet, the baby food diet, the lemon detox diet and other fad diets. If they worked, however, obesity wouldn't be a global problem. As the American Academy of Family Physicians notes, fad diets are unhealthy and fail to provide lasting results. Generally, these slimming plans:
- Guarantee quick weight loss without exercise
- Restrict entire food groups, such as fruits, meat or dairy
- Promote food combinations that are not nutritionally sound
- Require the use of special foods, supplements or ready-made meals
- Lack scientific evidence
There are no shortcuts to weight loss. It took you months or years to put on weight, so don't expect it to go away within a week or two. Any diet that guarantees fast results or sounds too good to be true should raise a red flag.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other organizations recommend losing no more than 1 or 2 pounds per week. Gradual weight loss is more likely to last and help you build healthy eating habits. A balanced 1,200-calorie diet will be easier to sustain in the long run than an 800-calorie diet that limits your food choices, leaving you feeling hungry and deprived.
The Mayo Clinic Diet, for example, is designed to change your approach to nutrition and help you make smarter food choices. It provides 1,200 calories per day and consists of three daily meals and one snack. Dieters may lose 6 to 10 pounds during the first two weeks and then 1 to 2 pounds per week until they reach the desired weight. No foods are off-limits as long as you enjoy them in moderation.
This weight loss plan is nutritionally balanced and sustainable in the long-term. Fad diets, on the other hand, are restrictive and may deprive your body of essential nutrients. Over time, they may lead to muscle loss, gallstones and weight gain.
The Dangers of Crash Dieting
A balanced diet should provide 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day for women and 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day for men, according to the USDA 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. The more active you are, the higher your energy requirements.
While it's true that you must take in fewer calories than you burn to lose weight, you shouldn't go below 1,200 calories a day (unless your doctor tells you to do so). Eating too few calories may lead to nutrient deficiencies.
A January 2019 review featured in Medical Clinics of North America points out that diets resulting in rapid weight loss are usually followed by plateaus and weight gain. As you get leaner, your metabolism slows. Each kilogram of lost weight decreases daily energy expenditure by 20 to 30 calories while increasing appetite.
As the researchers point out, long-term benefits require lasting behavioral changes. If you starve yourself for a week or so, you'll probably lose weight, but the results won't last. Prolonged calorie restriction may negatively affect your metabolism and hormone levels, making it difficult to lose weight and keep it off.
Furthermore, prolonged or extreme dieting may increase appetite and food intake, reduce testosterone levels and affect your ability to preserve lean mass, according to a February 2014 review published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. These changes may persist long after you stop dieting.
Considering these facts, it makes sense to lose weight gradually and change your eating habits in the long term. Commit yourself to a 30-day health challenge to clean up your diet and shed those pesky pounds. One month is long enough to create new habits and get results without losing your motivation.
Create Your Weight Loss Diet
First things first: estimate your current energy intake and then try to figure out how many calories you should cut to achieve the desired weight. Record what you eat each day for one week. Use the USDA's database to determine your daily calorie intake and then cut 300 to 500 calories a day to create an energy deficit.
Generally, losing 1 pound of fat requires an energy deficit of 3,500 calories. This calculation isn't entirely accurate, but you may use it as a starting point. If you cut 500 calories a day, you can expect to lose about 1 pound per week. Hit the gym every other day or so to burn more calories and get faster results.
Read more: How to Meal Prep for Weight Loss Like a Pro
Plan your meals and snacks based on your daily calorie goals. Don't obsess over calories, though. Focus on food quality and composition instead.
According to the Medical Clinics of North America review, your macronutrient ratio matters most. To put it simply, you need to strike the right balance of protein, carbs and fats in your diet.
Consider using MyPlate Calorie Counter to track your daily calories, macronutrient and micronutrients. This way, you'll find it easier to meet your nutritional needs and stick to your calorie budget. Fill your fridge with whole and minimally processed foods, ditch the junk and cut out sugar. Check out the following recommendations to create a balanced 30-day meal plan for weight loss.
Healthy Breakfast Ideas
What you eat in the morning sets the tone for the rest of your day. Contrary to what you may have heard, breakfast isn't really the most important meal. However, it may keep you full longer and provide you with the energy needed for a challenging workout.
According to a January 2019 meta-analysis published in the BMJ, breakfast has a negligible effect on body weight. After comparing several studies, researchers concluded that skipping this meal doesn't lead to weight gain as once was thought, nor does it necessarily contribute to weight loss.
Other studies indicate that starting the day with a healthy meal may lower the risk of weight gain, reduce the urge to snack and make it easier to meet your nutritional needs, points out Rush University Medical Center. As the Mayo Clinic notes, eating breakfast may help keep your blood sugar levels stable and improve your work performance.
All in all, the research is conflicting. However, the effects of breakfast on body weight depend largely on what you eat. A meal consisting of fried eggs and sausages will affect your health differently than one based on fresh fruits, whole grains or lean protein.
Ideally, opt for a combination of high-protein and fiber-rich foods. Protein keeps your metabolism up and promotes satiety while maintaining lean mass. Over time, it may help prevent weight gain, according to a review featured in the August 2012 issue of the British Journal of Nutrition. Dietary fiber, on the other hand, may delay gastric emptying and keep you full longer, contributing to weight loss.
So what should you eat for breakfast as part of your 30-day health challenge? Use the following breakfast ideas for inspiration:
- High-protein pancakes or waffles made with whole-grain flour
- Frittatas or omelets
- Greek yogurt with berries or other fresh fruits
- Oatmeal with fruits, nuts, seeds and protein powder
- Cottage cheese and vegetables or whole-grain bread
- Whole grains with almond or coconut milk and chia seeds
If you're not feeling hungry in the morning, consider drinking a protein shake. Add a tablespoon of wheat or oat bran to boost your fiber intake and keep your digestive system running smoothly.
Get Creative With Your Lunch
Prepare your lunch at home rather than eating out. This way, you'll know exactly what goes onto your plate and find it easier to track your calorie intake. Lunch is the perfect time to get your daily dose of vegetables and fill up on protein.
Harvard Health Publishing recommends filling half your plate with fruits or vegetables. Split the other half in two and fill it with lean protein, such as poultry, fish, beans or cottage cheese, and whole grains like brown or wild rice, quinoa or whole-grain pasta. Add a small amount of extra virgin olive oil, flaxseed oil or other healthy fats to the mix.
Salads are a great choice for your weight loss diet — just make sure you skip the extras, especially when eating out. Sauces, dressings and croutons can turn the healthiest salad into a calorie bomb.
Ideally, prepare or order a salad consisting of leafy green vegetables, lean meat or fish, eggs, low-fat cheese and heart-healthy fats, such as nuts, seeds or olive oil. Use fresh lemon juice, Greek yogurt or balsamic vinegar for extra flavor.
Read more: 12 Easy On-the-Go Lunch Ideas
The University of Washington suggests including foods from at least three food groups in your lunch recipes. For example, you can mix poultry or fish, vegetables and low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese for a low-calorie meal. If you're planning to work out before eating lunch, fill up on protein and complex carbs like whole grains, legumes or brown rice.
Make a Diet-Friendly Dinner
Dinner doesn't have to be bland or restrictive when you're on a diet. It all depends on how many calories you have left for the day. Generally, protein and healthy fats are your best bet.
A June 2017 review published in the Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle recommends the consumption of 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal during the three main courses. As discussed earlier, this nutrient suppresses appetite and helps preserve lean mass while on a diet. Additionally, it requires more energy to digest than carbohydrates and fats, increasing your energy expenditure.
Carbohydrates are the body's primary source of fuel. However, unless you're planning to hit the gym in the evening, you can cut carbs at dinnertime. Some studies even suggest that skipping dinner might be a good strategy for preventing weight gain.
For example, a cohort study featured in the Journal of Nutrition in September 2017 found that eating the largest meal in the morning and a healthy lunch about five or six hours later followed by an overnight fast may significantly decrease body weight. Subjects who consumed a hearty lunch experienced a greater reduction in body mass index (BMI) than those eating their largest meal at dinner. Furthermore, those who ate three meals a day reported an increase in BMI.
The body mass index relies solely on height and weight and doesn't take muscle and fat mass into consideration, leading to inaccurate estimates. Therefore, it is a poor indicator of body fat and overall health, points out a review published in Nutrition Today in May 2015. Most studies that rely on BMI, including the one listed above, may not be entirely accurate.
At the end of the day, there is nothing wrong with eating dinner as long as it fits into your calorie budget. Prepare a healthy meal consisting of lean protein, leafy green vegetables and healthy fats. Tuna salad, grilled salmon with asparagus or baked chicken breast with steamed veggies and olive oil are all good choices. If you're dining out, eat lighter meals during the day.
Be Smart About Snacking
Contrary to popular belief, snacking isn't bad for your waistline. It all comes down to what you eat. The average adult consumes about 350 calories per day from sugary snacks and 225 calories a day from salty snacks, reports a July 2014 review published in the journal Patient Education and Counseling. As you would expect, these eating habits may contribute to weight gain.
However, there are plenty of delicious, healthy snacks that can fill you up and add nutrition to your diet. Harvard Health Publishing, for example, recommends snacking on unsalted nuts and seeds, whole-grain crackers, celery sticks or low-fat cheese. Additionally, many breakfast foods, such as homemade trail mixes and whole-grain toast with peanut butter, can be repurposed as snacks.
Since you're on a weight loss diet, reach for low-calorie, high-protein snacks. High-fiber foods, such as chia seed pudding, increase satiety and keep you regular. Low-fat Greek yogurt, cottage cheese and small amounts of walnuts, almonds or pistachios are a great choice, too. If you're craving potato chips, opt for baked kale chips instead.
- Boston Medical Center: "Weight Management"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Nutrition for Weight Loss: What You Need to Know About Fad Diets"
- CDC: "What Is Healthy Weight Loss?"
- Mayo Clinic: "The Mayo Clinic Diet: A Weight-Loss Program for Life"
- Obesity Action Coalition: "Health Risks of Crash Dieting Many People Don’t Consider"
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: "2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines"
- Harvard Medical School: "Calorie Counting Made Easy"
- Medical Clinics of North America: "Maintenance of Lost Weight and Long-Term Management of Obesity"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Metabolic Adaptation to Weight Loss: Implications for the Athlete"
- USDA: "Food Data Central"
- Mayo Clinic: "Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics"
- Nature: "Why Is the 3500 Kcal per Pound Weight Loss Rule Wrong?"
- BMJ: "Effect of Breakfast on Weight and Energy Intake: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomised Controlled Trials"
- Rush University Medical Center: "The Science Behind Breakfast"
- Mayo Clinic: "Healthy Breakfast: Quick, Flexible Options"
- British Journal of Nutrition: "Dietary Protein – Its Role in Satiety, Energetics, Weight Loss and Health"
- Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism: "The Role of Fiber in Energy Balance"
- Harvard Medical School: "Let's Do Lunch — the Healthy Way"
- University of Washington: "What Does a Healthy Lunch Look Like?"
- Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle: "Dietary Protein Content for an Optimal Diet: A Clinical View"
- BMC Nutrition & Metabolism: "A High-Protein Diet for Reducing Body Fat: Mechanisms and Possible Caveats"
- Journal of Nutrition: "Meal Frequency and Timing Are Associated with Changes in Body Mass Index in Adventist Health Study 2"
- Nutrition Today: "Body Mass Index"
- Patient Education and Counseling: "Weight Loss Strategies: Association With Consumption of Sugary Beverages, Snacks and Values About Food Purchases"
- Harvard Medical School: "7 Ways to Snack Smarter"