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If you’ve ever tried to lose weight – and keep it off – you know how frustrating it can be. And then there are those people who seem to have a natural tendency to stay in a healthy zone. How do they do it? Well, there are some key recommendations.

Simply put, focus on health, not weight. Losing weight to improve your health, rather than your appearance, can make it easier to set reasonable and realistic goals. Check out these basic guidelines to see how you can make positive changes in your eating habits.

On paper, the secret to losing weight is simple math. One pound equals about 3,500 calories. If your goal is to lose one pound your body has to burn off 3,500 calories. If you cut back your caloric intake and/or increase exercise each day, you will create a daily deficit of 500 calories, and you will lose one pound every seven days.

In real life, however, it’s more complex. Studies show that losing weight and keeping it off requires that you permanently change the way you think about food and dieting and make lifestyle changes to improve your overall health. It may be easier to lose weight by cutting calories than by increasing exercise.

What works

Weight loss isn’t just going on a “diet,” and it isn’t about extremes. What really works is making healthy lifestyle changes. Your goal of losing weight shouldn’t be a temporary one—you want to get fit and healthy for life. To do that, you have to adopt a lifestyle that you will follow for a lifetime.

Adjust your daily diet so that it includes:

Plenty of fruits and vegetables
Whole grains instead of refined white flour
Lean proteins, including fish, beans, and skinless poultry
Fat-free and low-fat dairy
This type of diet is sometimes referred to as a Mediterranean diet.

Set some limits for better health without feeling deprived:

Have dessert in moderation.
Drink alcohol only in moderation.
Avoid too much of any kind of fat, but in particular the unhealthy saturated and trans fats.
Limit sugar.
Limit salt.

It’s also important to eat regularly throughout the day—no starvation and no skipping meals. You can divide your food intake into three meals and a couple snacks or eat as many as six small meals over the course of each day.
You also need regular exercise for maintaining your goal weight once you’ve achieved it. To lose weight, you’ll need to exercise at a moderate pace for about 60 to 90 minutes on almost every day of the week.

It’s important to monitor your weight. Get out your bathroom scale and weigh yourself on the same day and time each week. Track your weight and take action if your weight begins to creep up. Your plan does not have to be extreme. By simply cutting 100 calories a day and increasing your physical activity, you may be able to reverse weight gain.

How many calories do you need?

What doesn’t work

Popular diets that promise fast results might sound tempting, but they rarely live up to the hype. Even if you do lose some weight, it’s likely that you’ll gain that weight right back—and possibly even more, the minute you return to your previous eating habits. Dieting and severe calorie restrictions aren’t effective in the long term. The more you deprive yourself, the more likely you are to binge on desserts, potato chips, and other junk food.

Taking diet pills is also unlikely to work long-term. Again, even if you do lose some weight when you first start taking these medications, any pounds you lose are often regained. Also, diet pills may cause side effects. Taking diet pills is just another temporary solution to a weight problem and doesn’t encourage you to make healthy changes in your diet and lifestyle.

For long-lasting results, set realistic weight-loss goals. Aim to lose about one to two pounds per week for effective weight loss that lasts. Any more than that, and you’re at risk of losing water and healthy muscle rather than fat.

Now that you know the basics, learn more about which foods are best for your body and how to get some help with your plan to reach a healthy weight.

Choose Healthy Foods for a Healthy Weight

When it comes to giving your body the energy it needs to function properly, choose foods that give you the most nutrients per calorie. Here’s an example: Chocolate chip cookies are delicious, but they don’t contain many nutrients. A salad of greens, vegetables and a vinaigrette dressing, on the other hand, has about the same amount of calories as two cookies, but is packed with nutrients and fiber. You will feel full longer, and your body gets the nourishment it needs.

So what should you eat?

The best food plan includes the foods you like to eat and that give your body plenty of healthy calories to fuel your activities. Check out these basic guidelines from the National Weight Control Registry:

Grains: Aim for around 6 to 8 ounces, each day. Half of your grains should be whole grains. Any of these is a typical serving size:

1 slice of bread
1/2 medium bagel
1 medium muffin (homemade size)
1 ounce dry cereal, or 1/2 cup cooked cereal, pasta, or rice

Fruits: You need approximately 1.5 to 2 cups per day. Any of these is a typical serving size:
1 medium piece of fruit (apple, banana, or orange)
1/2 cup chopped fruit
1 cup (unsweetened) juice

Vegetables: You need approximately 2.5 to 3 cups per day. Any of these is a typical serving size:
1 cup raw leafy vegetables
1/2 cup other vegetables, cooked or chopped raw

Dairy: You need 3 cups of milk or other dairy products every day. Any of these is a typical serving size:
1 cup milk or yogurt
1-1/2 ounces natural cheese
2 ounces processed cheese

Meat: You need approximately 5 to 6 ounces of meat per day. Any of these is a typical serving size:
2 to 3 ounces cooked, lean meat, poultry, or fish
1 cup cooked or canned beans
1 egg or 2 tablespoons peanut butter equal 1 ounce of lean meat

Choose the Right Portion

Most people in America are serving-size challenged, thanks to today’s large portions. Mega-muffins, heaping plates of pasta, monster burgers, and extra-large bagels may seem like a great value up front. But in reality, they will cost you tens of thousands in medical bills over the long run. So if you want to eat better, then you need to eat smarter, too.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) describes a “portion” as the amount of a specific food you choose to eat. Portions can be bigger or smaller than the recommended food servings. A “serving” is a unit of measure used to describe the amount of food recommended from each food group. For example, a recommended serving of whole grains would be one slice of bread or a half-cup of rice or pasta. Current recommendations are for 6 to 11 servings of whole grains a day.

It is not only the types of foods that are important, but also the size of the portions you eat.
Figuring out serving sizes doesn’t require complex weights and measures. Use these everyday examples to help you gauge what’s on your plate.

1/2 cup cooked rice is the size of a single scoop of ice cream
1 cup dry cereal is the size of a large handful
1 medium-sized piece of fruit is the size of a baseball
1 cup vegetables is the size of your fist
1-1/2 ounces cheese is the size of a pair of dominoes or dice
3 ounces meat or fish is the size of a deck of cards or your palm
1 teaspoon butter or margarine is the size of the tip of your thumb

Counting liquid calories

When counting calories, don’t forget the ones you drink. For many people, these so-called liquid calories can make or break an effort to lose pounds.

Beverages with high-fructose corn syrup can be a major contributor to weight gain and obesity. These include sodas and sports and energy drinks.

Americans drink about 1-1/2 cans of soda per person per day, according to the USDA. For regular soda drinkers, that adds up to 240 empty calories per day, or 25 extra pounds per year! (Calories in soda and alcoholic drinks are called empty because they have no nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals.)

These tips from the CDC can help you cut your liquid calories:

Calculate the calories in the beverages you drink by multiplying the calories per serving on labels by the number of servings you drink. If a canned or bottled drink has 150 calories per serving and contains two servings, you have consumed 300 calories.

Choose diet, low-calorie, or no-calorie beverages, such as tap or bottled water, and tea.

Keep your coffee simple. Black coffee is low in calories, but whole milk, flavored syrups, and whipped cream aren’t. A 16-ounce cup of black coffee has 15 calories, but the calorie count jumps to 100 for cappuccino made with skim milk. A 16-ounce café latte with skim milk is 160 calories. A latte flavored with syrup and made with whole milk is 320 calories.

Remember that calories in alcoholic drinks can add up fast. Alcohol has 7 calories per gram, just short of the 9 calories in a gram of fat. Add soda or sugary mixers, and the calories can exceed 300 per drink.

Remember that even one positive change a day can help you move toward a healthy weight and a healthier life.

The Best and Worst Diets

Every year, U.S. News and World Report ranks the best and worst diets. http://health.usnews.com/best-diet Their experts ranked leading diet plans (Weight Watchers, The DASH Diet, Biggest Loser, etc.) according to how well they work for rapid weight loss, short term weight loss, diabetes, heart disease, and a number of other factors. One of their favorites, and ours, is the DASH diet.

http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/hbp/dash/new_dash.pdf

Read the report http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/dash/ and find one you think you can follow. Then talk to your health care provider about your plan and get started!