Contrary to what many fancy programs would have you believe, weight loss really isn’t rocket science. And if that scale needle has crept up up up, barring a medical condition, you know how it got there: Too many burgers and fries and not enough burpees and flyes. Ready to turn it around? Here’s the no-nonsense skinny on getting that way.
It’s not enough to say, “I want to lose weight.” Not-so-newsflash: The majority of Americans (69%) are overweight and more than a third are obese—a lot of those folks no doubt profess a desire to drop a few, too. Need a nudge? “You can gain an inch of penis length for every 10 pounds you lose,” says Rovenia “Dr. Ro” Brock, Ph.D., MS, RD. OK, not really, but as the gut shrinks, the prominence of the member grows. Seriously, though: You need to find your own “come to Jesus” moment for weight-loss motivation, whether it’s some scary health test results, a frustration with huffing and puffing at the top of every flight of stairs, or a vanity-driven desire to get back to your college weight. Whatever it is, it needs to be for you.
In most cases, your primary goal will be related to the scale. But be realistic: Know that a one- to two-pound loss per week is what experts consider healthy and sustainable. “Be specific,” Brock says. “Not just, ‘I want to lose weight,’ or ‘I want to lose 30 pounds,’ but ‘I want to lose 30 pounds in the next six months.” Michael Pickert, MD, an internal medicine physician who himself dropped 120 pounds, suggests this calendar-based strategy: Select a date by which you would like to have a measurable loss. Count the number of weeks between then and now and multiply by 1.25 (a conservative per-week loss). Then do it again, until you’ve reached your final target.
That’s right—Banish that four-letter word from your weight-loss vocabulary. “Diets don’t work,” Pickert says. “They have an end.” Diets are also synonymous with deprivation, which generally isn’t sustainable. Cutting out foods or entire food groups that you love, and that you’ve loved your whole life, isn’t realistic for most people. Still, 80 percent of losing weight is controlling what you eat. So you’ll need to develop an “eating strategy” that can work for you for the long haul, says Pickert. Brock concurs: “If you want permanent weight-loss, you must make permanent lifestyle changes.”
One pound of fat equals 3,500 calories. So to lose one pound of fat per week, you need to cut 500 calories per day from what you eat. Take your current weight and multiply it by 11. That’s a rough estimate of the calories your body needs to maintain status quo. Your new aim: To subtract 500 calories from that number, by making eating and exercise changes.
No, this doesn’t necessarily mean overhauling your entire refrigerator overnight. And it doesn’t mean putting foods on the no-never list, either (remember: deprivation doesn’t work). It means figuring out what swaps and compromises you can make without feeling totally compromised. Then start small. For example, Pickert says, let’s say you have ice cream or chips every night. How about cutting that back to every other day? Or you have to have your french fries. Fine, but maybe sub them once per week with a baked potato.
One of the biggest issues is misinformation. Pickert uses olive oil as his example. Ask most people, “is it good for you?” They’ll say yes. But it has the exact same number of calories per tablespoon as any other type of pure fat (butter and lard included): 120. So by cutting down on ALL oil, you cut calories out. (Pickert is a big fan of measuring the oil you use, and blotting foods of excess oil before eating.) Brock recommends meeting with a nutritionist to learn more about developing healthier ways to modify your meals—even if you end up deviating from it some, you’ll be better off than going into it blindly.
Most people fail at weight loss because they don’t have a plan, says Brock. She recommends plotting out your menus for the week, and sticking to them as closely as you can. “When you plan your meals, you’re much more likely to shop for only those foods on the plan,” she says. “It not only saves calories, it saves money, too!” Another part of the plan is learning about portion size and how many calories are in what you’re eating. Logging your food in an app that does the calculating for you (such as MyFitnessPal) is the easiest way to gauge your intake—and keep yourself honest. Not sure what a portion size is? Measure it out until you can reliably eyeball it, Brock says.
You eat your food (especially snacks) right from the container? How about divvying out a portion into a bowl—and when it’s gone, there’s no going back for seconds. Another issue is eating too quickly. Pickert calls it the “batter up” mentality: putting a bite in your mouth, and shoveling the next bite in before you’ve swallowed the last one. His solution is to actually put the fork down and cross his arms until he’s swallowed. “You don’t need to chew every bite 30 times,” he says.
Yes, there is another way to control your calories: by moving more to burn them off and by building muscle, which boosts your metabolism overall. “Exercise will help you reach your goals quicker without starving yourself,” says Eric Emig, personal trainer and founder of Evolution Fitness in St. Louis. “You can burn several hundred calories, and eat a little more. Or, you can keep the calories the same and be 200 to 300 calories closer to your goal.” If you only make changes to what you eat, your body will lose both fat and muscle. Which is why strength training is also important to reduce muscle loss. “Every pound of muscle helps you burn an extra seven to 10 calories per day,” Emig says. “It doesn't sound like a lot until you gain or lose 20 pounds of muscle.”
If you haven’t been exercising, start small. Swimming, deep-water running, or water aerobics are the most joint-friendly for someone who is obese. Then, graduate to a walking program, slowly increasing the amount of time walked, without worrying about the distance, until you’re up to a half hour. Then, Emig says, resistance training can be added in 30 minutes sessions twice a week. “With resistance training, supersets of opposite muscle groups with short intense bursts of cardio are the best,” per Emig.
Pickert can’t emphasize enough how valuable “the role of the spouse” is in meeting goals. His wife still has responsibilities, such as making sure he eats slowly, even five years after his weight loss. It’s all about accountability, Emig says: “Sign an exercise contract in front of friends. Get an exercise partner who is more motivated than you, or already exercises. Sign up for exercise classes. Hire a trainer that you have to meet at least once a month to keep you on track.”
They happen. The body gets used to everything, so it will adapt to your new eating and moving routine. That means when you see things stalling, mix up your routine. That said, consistency is key, in terms of your commitment to the program. Pickert cautions against weighing yourself too often—the number on the scale doesn’t mean that things aren’t happening in your body. (He points out that when you start a calorie-deficit eating plan, your body can lose eight pounds in water weight, which means it has several weeks of actual fat loss at the one-to-two-pounds-per-week rate to catch up.) “But if you realize you’re not making it, circle a new date on the calendar and adjust your math,” Pickert says. “Don’t give up.”
How your clothing fits (or no longer fits) is an awesome indicator of progress, especially if you’ve added strength training into the mix—while you shouldn’t be gaining from muscle training (if you're overweight to begin with), you may not lose pounds as quickly as you lose inches. And then there are the unexpected physical benefits of a shrinking body size. “I vividly recall feeling that I had more of a spring in my step after losing just 20 pounds on my eventual 120-pound-trek,” Pickert says. “Later on, after 50 pounds, I noticed one night how much easier it was to roll over in bed; I didn't have to make a plan with a leg kick and a flip anymore!”