Eat less, exercise more—that’s all we need to do to lose weight, right? Actually, no. While a healthy eating style and fitness routine are indeed essential to shedding pounds and keeping them off, there’s a lot more you can do to get to where you want to be. Did you know that getting better sleep and managing your stress can also help you lose?
Here are eight strategies to help you achieve your healthy weight: Some you might already know but not know how to pull off, and some might not even be on your radar yet.
Eat Fewer Empty Calories
Researchers say we’re eating and drinking an extra 200 to 500 calories every day compared to what Americans consumed a few decades ago (more on this below). So it’s little wonder that we’re getting heavier. Starving yourself isn’t the answer, though; choosing your calories more wisely is.
One of the simplest ways to reduce your calorie intake to lose and maintain weight is to limit the number of “empty” calories you’re getting from trans fats and refined carbohydrates. Trans fats—often labeled partially hydrogenated vegetable oil—are solid fats produced by the addition of hydrogen into liquid oil. (They were once common in sweet snacks, fried foods and fast food, although the food and restaurant industry is using them less often now).
Refined carbs are anything with added sugar or white flour (think soda, desserts, pasta and candy). As often as you can, replace these two categories of food with nutrient-dense whole foods: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, lean meats and low-fat dairy. Eating this way not only provides the healthy carbs, protein, fat, vitamins and other nutrients your body needs to function and thrive, it also helps you feel satisfied longer, so you’re not craving something else 30 minutes later.
Watch Your Portions
Average portion sizes have increased dramatically over the past few decades, contributing to our collective weight gain. Here are some eye-opening examples of how portions—and the calories that come with them—have grown:
- Bagels have doubled in diameter and now pack 210 more calories than they once did.
- It’s hard to believe, but muffins were once 1.5 ounces and 210 calories; now they’re more like 4 ounces, with an extra 300 or so calories.
- A slice of cheesecake went from 3 ounces and 260 calories to 7 ounces and 640 calories. That’s a jump of 380 additional calories.
- An average order of French fries has tripled in size (from 2.4 ounces to 6.9 ounces), with an extra 400 calories.
- The average bowl of spaghetti with meatballs now includes two cups of pasta instead of one, with bigger meatballs to boot. That’s an extra 525 calories!
Given how easy it is to super-size so many foods and drinks, it’s also easy to lose sight of what’s a reasonable portion and what isn’t. Being aware of how much you’re putting on your plate is key to keeping off extra pounds (remember: It’s a lot easier to gain weight than it is to lose it).
Here’s what a single serving of some common foods looks like—and what you should be striving for:
- Meat or poultry = a deck of cards
- Fish = a checkbook
- Cooked rice or pasta; ice cream; snacks like chips or pretzels = a tennis ball
- Cheese = two dice
- Peanut butter = a ping-pong ball
Read our guide Stop Overeating at the Dinner Table for secrets to eating reasonable portions, like putting leftovers away before you start eating and never, ever chowing down straight out of a takeout container.
Make Time for More Exercise
To lose weight you need to use more calories than you take in, otherwise you’ll store those excess calories as fat. You might not know how much physical activity you need to drop pounds, though, and it could be more than you assume. Here’s what the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) advises:
- To prevent weight gain and lose a small amount of weight: 150 to 250 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.
- To lose a more significant amount of weight and prevent re-gaining weight: More than 250 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. (This is the amount the group recommends for people who are overweight and obese.)
Moderate-intensity exercise includes activities like brisk walking (3 to 4.5 mph), hiking, water aerobics, yoga, golfing, playing Frisbee and even coaching a sports game. You can shorten the amount of time you have to work out by doing more vigorous physical activity. Check out this complete list of moderate and vigorous activities from the ACSM and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If you’re carrying a lot of extra weight, the idea of doing more than 250 minutes of exercise a week to slim down may seem overwhelming; keep in mind that even losing small amounts of weight has health benefits, and that you can work up to the recommendations over time.
Move More All Day Long
Exercise is critically important for weight loss and maintenance, but being more physically active isn’t all about going for a run or hitting the gym. Adopting a less sedentary lifestyle—simply moving more in other ways throughout your day—can also help you manage your size. When researchers looked at a group of people living relatively sedentary lifestyles, those who were obese stood up and moved around 2.5 hours less per day than leaner people. Experts call standing, moving from place-to-place (like walking back and forth between your kitchen and home office) and any other physical activity that isn’t intentional exercise “NEAT,” an acronym for “non-exercise activity thermogenesis.”
They say that if we did more of it we’d be much healthier—and slimmer—overall. How can you live a NEAT-er lifestyle? Remind yourself to get up from your desk for at least a few minutes every hour (set an alarm so you don’t need to remember), walk or bike more places instead of driving and think of chores as a way to be more active instead of as, well, chores. You can learn more about NEAT in our article 8 Ways to Move More.
Get the Sleep You Need
Being tired influences your weight more than you may think. Most of us need seven to nine hours of sleep, and getting less can impact your waistline. A large study of nurses found that those who got five or fewer hours of sleep were 15 percent more likely to be obese than those who got seven or more hours. There are several ways that a lack of sleep affects weight.
If you’ve ever downed a pint of ice cream after work because you were too tired to cook, you know how poor sleep makes it harder to make healthy decisions about food. It also makes you less sensitive to the hormone insulin, which affects how your body stores fat. And it interferes with hormones that tell your brain when you’re hungry or full, making you more likely to overeat.
Being tired is, of course, a big reason why many of us don’t get the exercise we need to drop pounds and keep them off. Experts even cite the extra hours we’re awake as a culprit, since the less time we’re asleep the more time we have to take in calories. So how can you get better rest? Keep in mind that both quantity and quality of sleep matter. It’s important to identify and eliminate distractions that affect your sleep and make a plan for a better night’s rest—one that makes time for winding down before bed, for example.
Work On Your Stress Levels
Feeling pressured and anxious are other factors we might not recognize as foiling our efforts to lose and keep off weight. Stress increases comfort eating, our desire to consume foods that make us feel better emotionally. Unfortunately, most of us don’t reach for a fresh salad and a nice piece of salmon when we’re frazzled; refined carbs, saturated fats and salty and sweet snacks are more typical go-tos for people under pressure.
Stress also triggers the release of cortisol in the body, which leads to higher insulin levels and, in turn, weight gain (especially dangerous belly fat). What’s worse, the combination of cortisol and high-fat, high-sugar foods appears to interfere with leptin, one of the hormones that helps regulate your appetite. And, as you well know, anxiety and stress can keep you from getting the restorative sleep you need to maintain a healthy weight. One way to manage stress at mealtimes is to eat more mindfully (more on that below).
Eat More Mindfully
What if you took a whole new approach to how you consume food, one that’s more “mindful” and less rushed and distracted? The idea is to slow down and pay attention to what you’re eating and drinking and to your hunger cues. Nutritionists believe that being more aware of what you’re serving and consuming can help you be more moderate (Maybe I should put just a handful of these chips in a bowl rather than eating them straight out of the bag) and help you notice and enjoy the pleasures of healthy eating (These strawberries are so sweet!) so you’ll do it more often.
And if you’re actually paying attention to your meal—instead of checking your phone between bites, for example—you’ll be more likely to recognize when you’re getting full. Our fast-paced lives make it hard to bring our full awareness to our meals, but here’s an easy adjustment you can make to hit pause and focus on the food in front of you: Take a few long, deep breaths when you sit down to your meal and then give thanks (either silently or aloud) for the bounty.
Find a Weight-Loss Partner
Studies show that we lose weight more successfully when we have social support. A friend, coworker or loved one who shares your goal of reaching a healthy weight can make you feel more accountable, help to motivate you and be there with a “Congrats!” and a high-five as you hit your milestones. A weight-loss buddy can also offer practical help when you need it (a ride to the gym, for instance).
And let’s not forget that having someone who wants to Zumba next to you, or explore healthy food carts at lunchtime, can make losing weight something you never thought possible: a little more fun.
Check out our article 5 Reasons to Find a Weight-Loss Partner for practical tips on how to make the buddy system work for you as you continue on your weight-loss journey.
More: How to Spot a Fad Diet