With warmer weather just around the corner, it may seem like the world is abuzz with weight loss tips and fitness strategies. And while there are few things as lovely as a balmy day on the beach, bikini season often prompts a fair amount of dread. In other words, the season, for many, is synonymous with dieting.
But the deprivation diet plans of our mothers’ pasts are, thank goodness, no longer in vogue. Thank modern research for the end of the ultra-restricted, boiled-cabbage-and-celery-stick fast. From leading nutritionists to health-minded millennials, many of us now know that dieting—in the old-fashioned sense—can cause more harm than good.
Why? Depriving yourself of essential nutrients to reach an arbitrary number—either on the scale or in a size—comes at a mighty high price. Whether it’s a crash diet, an ill-planned cleanse or a rigorous eating regimen that bans entire food groups, weight loss and nutrient restriction can have serious consequences.
Chief among them? Radically cutting your calories (and curbing your intake of the nutrients that come with them) makes you more vulnerable to binge-eating. Chronically prohibiting yourself from certain foods—whether that’s a carb or a piece of chocolate—can make these forbidden foods seem all the more enticing. This is compounded by the fact that deprivation diets can leave a person weakened—and less able to tap into their willpower.
This is because skipping meals—or eating low-cal foods that are short on nourishment (such as pretzels, sugar-free candy and low-fat cookies)—can induce low blood sugar. With this arrives a slew of uncomfortable symptoms, including light-headedness, weakness, anxiety and irritability—all of which can potentially render you powerless in the face of an ice cream sundae.
Furthermore, deprivation diets do a number on your metabolism. Starving yourself dramatically alters the way your body interprets calories. Consistently robbed of the nutrients it needs to function, your body begins to cling to the calories you do give it. In learning to do with less, your metabolism resets and decelerates, saving calories instead of burning them. Meaning, when you do start eating normally again, your weight loss efforts will backfire—and you may gain even more weight than before you started.
Moderation, regular exercise, hydration, lean proteins and a plant-based diet are the keys to overall health and lasting weight loss, thereby requiring a recalibration of not just your diet but also your mindset. That said, there are a variety of ways to initiate a healthier, cleaner approach to eating—none of which require a food scale or Goliathan self-discipline. Here are five savvy ways to slim down without feeling like you’re on a diet:
1. Eat eggs
Protein should be a cornerstone of any weight loss (or, really, any eating) strategy. Your body needs protein to regulate thousands of processes that keep you healthy, from helping you maintain your body’s water balance to bolstering your immune system. And contrary to what you may have heard, eggs are a nearly perfect source of protein. They contain all of the fundamental amino acids you need, which are the building blocks of protein. In addition, eggs are rich in selenium, iron, phosphorous, vitamin A and choline—a macronutrient that organically supports energy levels, liver function, muscle movement and a healthy metabolism.
2. Avoid eating anything out of a package for a minimum of three days
From granola bars to potato chips, we live in a country ruled by packaged food. And while packaged goods offer an element of convenience these foods tend to be high in sodium and additives and low on nutritional value. (Pre-sliced apples, for example, are often treated with additives to delay the signs of aging and contain fewer nutrients.)
To reacquaint your taste buds with the delights of real, fresh food, dodge packaged eats for a minimum of three days. Tend to reach for a breakfast bar in your morning rush? Go for a banana instead. Is your afternoon snack usually a stack of crackers and a can of diet soda? Swap it for avocado cubes topped with sea salt and a glass of mineral water. Is “no-dessert allowed” the epitome of deprivation for you? Replace your usual packaged cookies with a bowl of beautifully sliced fruit.
The more you embrace fresh food, the more you’ll find yourself craving real, nutrient-rich eats. Take it from Women’s Health: “Frequent consumption of sugary, fatty, or salty foods both hooks and dulls your taste buds; eventually, you’ll need to shovel in more to score the same level of satisfaction. Luckily, the opposite is also true: The less of a food you eat, the less of it you need to score a rush, says David Katz, M.D., a nutrition expert at the Yale School of Medicine and author of Disease Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well.” (Plus, just think what you’ll be doing for the environment!)
3. Recharge your carbs
Carbohydrates have been vilified for years, but carbs are central to holistic eating—they’re power sources for energy production in your cells. They fuel your brain and muscles, and, when digested slowly, they equip you with enduring vitality.
Not all carbs are the same, however, and this is where criticism of carbs becomes valid. White bread, cakes, cookies, table sugar and many other products may be one of the biggest obstacles to a healthy diet. Because they are usually low in fiber, you digest them quickly, which causes a rapid increase in your blood sugar level that can lead to sugar cravings and then weight gain. (They’re also unhealthy for you because they’re almost always short on vitamins and minerals.)
The solution is to go for the right carbs—and eat them smartly. Choose Raisin Bran over a slice of white bread, for example, or dig into a bowl of lentil soup instead of a dish of fettucine. Other top options? Brown rice, chickpeas, kidney beans, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, and pure oats.
4. Rest well
Skimp on sleep and you’ll be more than bleary-eyed and irritable. Research demonstrates that getting less than seven hours of sleep per night puts you at risk of gaining weight. This is due to the hormonal disruptions that occur when you skip out on shut-eye. Cortisol levels rise, which can hinder your body’s ability to break down fat and increase the breakdown of muscle. Furthermore, studies published in the Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism show that sleeping fewer than six hours decreases leptin and stimulates ghrelin—two primary hormones when it comes to hunger. (In short, leptin, which is produced in your fat cells, is in charge of how satiated you feel after a meal; ghrelin, meanwhile, rouses hunger, heightens fat storage, and reduces metabolic rate.) To put it plainly, make sleep a priority and your waist line will thank you in spades.
5. Fuel up on fats
Fat has gotten a bad rap nearly forty years ago, when everyone from government officials to family physicians began insisting that a low-fat diet was tantamount to weight loss and longevity. But a brief glance at the numbers shows that this profound cultural approach to eating engendered a larger problem: an across-the-board reliance on carbohydrates and low or no-fat foods that were high in sugar. Meanwhile, obesity and type-2 diabetes rates skyrocketed. Today, more and more research is pouring in to display that it isn’t fat itself that leads to weight gain and illnesses, but the type of fats we consume.
Fats, after all, can have a major impact on your health, as they play an imperative role in the function of every cell in your body. Balance, though, is key. The typical American diet contains a surplus of omega-6 fats—at a level ten to twenty times higher than it should be—and a deficiency of omega-3s. To strike and sustain an ideal balance, make a few small but substantial tweaks to the fats you eat. For example, reduce your intake of soy, safflower and sunflower oil—which are often hidden in processed foods—and increase your consumption of walnuts, chestnuts and flax oil.
Avoid foods that are high in trans-fat (like donuts and frozen pizza) and choose low-mercury but high-omega-3 fish such as salmon, herring and freshwater trout. Other excellent choices? Dark chocolate (70% cacao or more), chia seeds, coconut oil, Greek yogurt and almonds. These delicious foods will leave you satisfied, making you less susceptible to filling up on junk—and more powered up to go on that revitalizing run.