When you’re trying to lose weight, it’s easy to get caught up in the specifics: exactly which foods you should eat, precisie meal timing, and whether white rice is better than brown. The thing is, it’s usually the fundamentals that make the biggest difference in weight loss, experts say.
One way to think about it is to imagine your time as a jar. If you have rocks, pebbles and sand, and you want to fill up the jar as quickly as possible, you’re going to use the rocks, right? Those are the key habits that are going to make the biggest difference in getting you toward your goals. “Many people tend to focus on the minutiae of weight loss and latch onto intensive and restrictive diets as a means for quick weight loss,” explains Claudia Hleap, a registered dietitian. “The problem with taking the ‘sand’ and ‘pebbles’ approach is that spending time and energy focusing on all these various restrictions is not often sustainable.”
Many people find that by focusing on the “big rocks,” they get better long-term results, and their efforts feel more doable over time. That’s why we asked nutrition pros what the big rocks of weight loss are in their experience with the thousands of people they’ve worked with. Here’s what they said.
STAY ACTIVE — IN ANY WAY
“People get so caught up in how they should be working out and for how long, and this often gets in the way of the workout itself,” Hleap says. “What and how much exercise you do completely depends on what your goal is, but if it’s for a healthy lifestyle for weight loss, then just getting in the routine of moving daily is a great place to start.” That might mean walking, running or starting a strength-training program. But to start, the specifics aren’t super important, according to Hleap. Once exercise is part of your routine, you can always make your workout more challenging or specific, but don’t let finding the perfect workout program be a barrier to getting moving.
GET YOUR FRUIT AND VEGGIES EVERY DAY
There’s lots of talk about superfoods and which fruits and vegetables are best, but simply ensuring you get some produce at every meal can be a game-changer. “Weight loss requires eating fewer calories, but people still want to see a full plate and feel a full stomach,” explains Keith-Thomas Ayoob, a registered dietitian and associate clinical professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “Eating more vegetables and including some fruit will keep you feeling a little more full without feeling deprived. Oh, and keep this habit forever. These foods have dynamite health benefits.”
MANAGE SLEEP AND STRESS
Most people underestimate how important managing stress and getting enough sleep are for weight loss, says Kayla Girgen, a registered dietitian and founder of Nutrition Untapped. “When you’re chronically stressed — whether it be from not getting adequate sleep or physical or mental stress — cortisol, our stress hormone, is elevated. This has a cascade effect on other hormones related to weight loss,” Girgen notes. It can also promote chronic inflammation, which negatively impacts many tissues and body systems making weight loss a challenge.
“One of the keys to a successful weight loss is being a mindful eater,” says Sue Xiao Yu, a registered dietitian and clinical nutritionist at HSS. A lot of the time, we’re preoccupied when we eat and hardly pay attention, which can easily lead to overeating and not feeling satisfied after meals. “Being mindful is having an awareness of what you’re eating and how much you’re eating, giving you the feeling of being in the moment,” Yu explains. “When you’re aware of what you’re eating, you’re more likely to use moderation and restraint.”
GET ENOUGH PROTEIN
“Instead of focusing on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, focus on including foods that make you feel satisfied and full,” Hleap suggests. One of those foods is protein, which Hleap recommends eating with all meals and snacks. “It’s much easier to regulate your appetite and portion sizes when you’re consuming more filling foods.”
REDUCE PROCESSED FOODS AND ADDED SUGAR
Another change that can make a major impact is reducing added sugar and processed foods in your diet. That doesn’t mean you have to eliminate them completely, but reducing them may help you focus on foods that are more filling and satisfying, thus boosting your weight loss. “Added sugars usually increase the caloric content of foods,” explains Paula Rubello, a registered dietitian. Though Rubello isn’t a fan of judging foods on calories alone, she says calories from added sugars provide little to no nutrients. “Plus, added sugars don’t impact hunger levels. Therefore, even after eating a piece of candy, you may find yourself hungry and dissatisfied.”
KNOW YOUR PURPOSE
“One of the biggest reasons people give up on dieting is because they’re doing it for short-term instant gratification,” says Erin Kenney, a registered dietitian, and CEO of Nutrition Rewired. “If we can shift that mindset away from just the physical and into other motivators such as mental health or longevity, it can be easier to celebrate the small wins along the way without getting too caught up with a number on the scale.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
When it comes to weight loss, it’s the big stuff that matters most, like getting in daily movement, eating enough protein, and knowing why you want to lose weight in the first place. Nutrition pros agree: Don’t sweat the small stuff.
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