By Natasha Persaud

By making a few key changes in your eating and exercising habits, you can achieve significant weight loss. Here, weight loss experts Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise, and Lona Sandon, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, show you how.

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A Healthy Weight Loss Goal

Okay, so here's the truth: Shedding about two pounds a week is a realistic and healthy goal. While that amount may seem like small potatoes, the great news is that amount of weight loss is very achievable; people who drop pounds any faster are probably losing water or muscle mass—not fat—neither of which you want to do, says Comana.

To achieve your goal, aim to cut about 500 calories a day from your diet and to burn an additional 500 calories through physical activity (for a total of 1,000 calories a day). It's easier than you might think.

Start Small, Finish Big with Weight Loss

During the first few weeks, ease yourself into healthy lifestyle changes. “It’s a process I call ‘onboarding,’” says Comana, and it involves taking small steps toward your goal of cutting calories from your diet and burning calories through physical activity.

With onboarding, you don’t push yourself too hard or too fast. The aim is to build self-confidence so you believe you can do what it takes to lose weight. “Making small changes in the beginning will help you to change your eating and exercise behaviors for big results in the end,” agrees Sandon.

During the onboarding stage, don’t be concerned about the number you see on the scale. In fact, don’t expect to see any weight changes. The goal is to get comfortable with making changes and to start to enjoy taking healthy steps.

Step One: Reduce your food portions.

Start eating from small plates, bowls and cups instead of large 8- and 9-inch dinner plates, and don’t go back for seconds. Assuming you would be eating the same meal, that will instantly cut your calorie intake, says Sandon. Not only will you eat less, but you'll automatically adjust your food portions so they are closer to the recommended serving sizes. A serving of fruit juice is about a half-cup, which is closer to a 4-ounce juice glass than a tall tumbler. Another tip: Use plain white or cream dishes instead of colored and decorated dishware, since research shows that bright colors spur you to eat more.

Also, keep a food diary for three days, complete with what you ate and the amount. For example, if you had a chicken sandwich for lunch, write breaded chicken fillet (4 ounces), one Kaiser roll, tartar sauce (3 tablespoons), mayonnaise (2 tablespoons), lettuce and tomato slices. You'll use this diary again for step three.

Step Two: Do activities you enjoy.

Do you like to dance? Sign up for a salsa class. Enjoy a good game of golf or tennis? Leave behind the caddy and golf cart and hoof it. Love tennis? Play singles tennis instead of doubles to get more of a workout. These activities will strengthen your muscles and kick-start calorie burning.

Many people enjoy walking—and it's a great form of exercise, particularly if done regularly. If you're a walker, challenge yourself to increase the intensity and duration of your walks. Aim for 20 minutes instead of your usual 15. Or, pick up the pace using the talk test: Talk continuously for 30 seconds as you walk, so that you’re breathing more heavily, but not gasping for air. "When it’s a challenge—you’re taking a breath every eight words or so—then you’ve increased your intensity,” explains Comana. "You should be able to talk, but not sing." Start out slowly and gradually work up to 45 to 60 minutes every day.

Other tips to help you enjoy exercising:

  • Invite your partner, a friend or a neighbor to join you. Having company is fun and motivates you to keep going. In fact, research shows that having a support system improves commitment and increases your chances of weight loss success.
  • At the end of each week, reward yourself for your accomplishments: Get a manicure and pedicure, treat yourself to a movie, get a massage or do something else you find enjoyable.

Now you’re ready to ramp up to a calorie-cutting program to lose one to two pounds a week. It's time to nix excess calories from your diet and turbo-charge your workout:

Step Three: Cut calories, but keep the nutrients.

To reach a 500-calorie deficit you need a day, cut extras from your diet and make smart food substitutions. Look for hidden sources of calories from your food diary. You’ll be surprised by where you can cut: For your chicken sandwich, for example, have grilled chicken instead of a breaded fillet, skip the mayonnaise, use mustard instead of tartar sauce, and choose one slice of whole wheat bread (for an open-faced sandwich) instead of a roll. These simple changes can save you 500 calories in just one meal.

Below are some more suggestions of how to eliminate calories. Pick and choose from the list to find the 500 calories you need to eliminate each day, and add your own ideas.

To save at least 50 calories:

Breakfast

  • Eat a piece of fruit with breakfast instead of drinking fruit juice: A whole orange contains about 60 calories, while one cup of orange juice contains as many as 120 calories.
  • Use skim milk in your coffee or tea instead of cream, half-and-half or full-fat milk, and skip the sugar, honey and syrups.
  • Drink skim milk instead of whole, 2 percent or 1 percent milk. If you like soy milk, drink the plain or light variety instead of chocolate.

Lunch

  • Use 3 turkey slices on your sandwich instead of 6; it's closer to one meat serving. Drink water or diet soda instead of regular soda.
  • Skip the chips and cookies and have a green salad with light nonfat dressing (such as a vinaigrette) or a light soup.
  • Use whole wheat bread or wrap on your sandwich instead of buns. You can also make an open-faced sandwich, using one slice of bread instead of two.

Dinner

  • When cooking, measure out one to two tablespoons of oil instead of just pouring into the pot or pan. Trim visible fat from meat; remove the skin from poultry; and don’t batter your poultry or fish.
  • Instead of frying your foods, try steaming, broiling and baking.

Dessert

  • Have sugar-free gelatin, or a pudding cup made with skim milk, instead of cake or cookies.

To save 100 or more calories:

Breakfast

  • Have 3 egg whites with one yolk instead of two whole eggs.
  • Have one slice of low-fat cheese on your toast instead of full-fat cheese, and skip the butter.

Lunch

  • Use tuna canned in water, instead of oil (the smallest size can). Replace the mayonnaise, tartar sauce, sour cream, ranch dressing or guacamole in sandwiches with mustard or salsa.

Dinner

  • Cut back on rice and pasta. Have one cup of cooked pasta or rice (with no dinner rolls), and add more vegetables to your dish.
  • At restaurants, order an appetizer (nonfried) instead of a full entrée; also, skip extras like grated cheese and rolls with butter.

Snacks/Beverages

  • Skip the peanuts and opt for popcorn with a dash of salt (no butter) or spices, or a dollop of salsa.
  • Drink light beer instead of wine.

3 Healthy Ways to Reduce Calories

  1. Stock your kitchen with good-for-you foods to keep your body healthy and you satisfied as you cut calories, says Sandon. Buy fruits and vegetables, legumes, fish, poultry and lean meats (round or loin cuts).
  2. Eat a bit of protein with every meal to keep hunger at bay and to help preserve muscle as you’re cutting calories, says Sandon. Aim to have three ounces of protein with each meal. Three ounces of protein translates into any of the following:
    • 1 1/2 ounces of nuts
    • 3⁄4 cup of cooked dry beans
    • a portion of meat or poultry the size of a deck of playing cards
    • a portion of fish about the size of a checkbook.
  3. Don’t starve yourself: Men may not be satisfied eating fewer than 1,500 calories a day, and women fewer than 1,200 calories.

Quick Tip: You won’t lose more weight if you skip meals. Instead, your body will suppress your metabolic rate to preserve energy, and you’ll keep the weight.

Step Four: Go for the Burn

To burn fat and lose weight, increase your resting metabolic rate, which is the number of calories your body uses to maintain vital functions, says Comana. Your resting metabolic rate accounts for 60 to 75 percent of the calories you burn.

To increase your resting metabolic rate, increase your muscle mass. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, meaning it burns more calories at rest. Every pound of muscle burns 5 to 7 calories a day at rest; a pound of fat, by contrast, burns only about 2 to 3 calories a day at rest. Gain 2 to 4 pounds of muscle mass and you'll increase your metabolic rate by 3 to 7 percent. For every pound of muscle you gain, you can burn an extra 30 to 50 calories a day. And, Sandon adds, “Building muscle mass after the weight loss phase is over is critical for keeping weight from coming back.”

Strength-training exercises help you build muscle. For overall health, however, engage in a mixture of strength-training, aerobic, flexibility and balancing exercises.

More Exercise Tips

Start slowly and work your way up to 45 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every day, which can burn about 400 calories. You can combine it all in one long workout, or do shorter bouts of exercises.

For example, go for a brisk half-hour walk at lunch, then do 30 minutes of strength-training exercise later on at the gym. For the extra 100 calories, move more during the day: Walk to a coworker’s desk for a face-to-face conversation instead of picking up the phone; take the stairs instead of the elevator, even if it’s just a couple of floors; carry a basket as you shop instead of pushing a cart. All of those little activities add up to more calories burned.

Looking for more exercise ideas? Visit the American Council on Exercise’s video library for dozens of exercises you can do at home.

If you tend to slack off with eating and exercise routines on the weekends, aim to move more: Play with your kids, work in your garden, ride your bike, dance, go for a jog or hike, join a team or league, etc.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers a handy calorie-burning chart of moderate and vigorous activities for an adult who weighs 154 pounds. Doing a half-hour of yard work burns 165 calories; a half-hour of biking, 295.

Start with moderate-level activities, and work your way up to vigorous activities, since they’re more strenuous.

Keep Going!

If you stay consistent with your new eating habits and workouts, you’ll achieve about an 8-pound weight loss at the end of the month. Even if you end up losing a little less, be proud of your accomplishments. Keep it up if you need to shed more pounds. Eating nutritiously and getting regular exercise have terrific benefits for your health beyond mere weight loss, so make those habits a permanent part of your life. The key is getting on the right track to a healthier you—and that’s something to celebrate!

“The lifestyle changes you’ll make can help keep you healthy for a lifetime,” says Comana.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 01 Nov 2008

Last Modified: 19 Mar 2015