The devil is in the details -- and nowhere is this cliché truer than with weight loss programs. It's the small decisions that add up to change, and that's a good thing, says Dr. William Dietz, with the CDC: "If you can count it, you can change it."
The 10 countable steps that follow will add up to victory over unwanted pounds. But don't try them all at once. "It's like renovating a house; most people do better taking one room at a time," says John Jakicic, director of the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh. "Start with the easiest tactic. Once you master it, move on."
1. Weigh yourself once a day
Why it works: Weekly weigh-ins are a staple of many popular weight loss programs, but some studies show that daily weighing can be key to lasting weight loss. When researchers at the University of Minnesota monitored the scale habits of 1,800 dieting adults, they found that those who stepped on every day lost an average of 12 pounds over two years (weekly scale watchers lost only six) and were less likely to regain lost weight. The reason: "The more often you monitor your results, the quicker you can catch the behavioral slip that causes weight gain," says Jakicic.
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Add it in: Step on the scale first thing every morning, when you weigh the least. Expect small day-to-day fluctuations because of bloating or dehydration, but if your weight creeps up by 2 percent (that's just three pounds if you weigh 150), it's time to pass up dessert.
2. Limit TV to two hours a day
Why it works: TV junkies miss out on calorie-burning activities like backyard tag with the kids; instead, they become sitting ducks for junk-food ads. One study found that adults who watch more than two hours of TV per day take in 7 percent more calories and consume more sugary snacks than those who watch less than an hour a day.
Add it in: Wean yourself off the tube by introducing other activities into your life. Eliminate the temptation to watch between-show filler by recording your must-see programs so you can fast-forward through the ads. Or subscribe to a mail-order DVD service like Netflix, and make a movie the only thing you watch all day.
3. Call a friend 3 times a week
Why it works: "Long-term weight loss requires support," says Marion Franz, a nutrition consultant in Minneapolis. Her study review found that people who met regularly with a dietitian or attended reinforcement meetings were more likely to maintain their losses than those who didn't.
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Add it in: Announce your weight loss intentions so friends can support you, says Franz.
4. Eat 4 grams of fiber at every meal
Why it works: A high-fiber diet can lower your caloric intake without making you feel deprived. In a Tufts University study, women who ate 13 g of fiber or less per day were five times as likely to be overweight as those who ate more fiber. Experts see a number of mechanisms through which fiber promotes weight loss: It may slow down eating because it requires more chewing, speed the passage of food through the digestive tract, and boost satiety hormones.
Add it in: To get 25 gof fiber a day, make sure you eat six meals or snacks, each of which contains about 4 g of fiber. For to-go snacks, buy fruit; it's handier than vegetables, so it's an easy way to up your fiber intake. One large apple has just as much fiber (5 g) as a cup of raw broccoli.
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5. Take 5,000 more steps a day
Why it works: A typical person takes about 5,000 steps per day between going to work, running errands, and doing chores around the house. Doubling that number can have significant health benefits: higher "good" HDL cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, improved glucose control, and yes, a lower number on the scale. Walking more steps per day also leads to a lower percentage of body fat and slimmer waists and hips, reports a University of Tennessee study of 80 women. An earlier University of South Carolina study of 109 people showed that those who took fewer than 5,000 steps per day were, on average, heavier than people who took more than 9,000.
Add it in: Wear a pedometer to make sure you log your 5,000 extra steps, or aim for about 50 minutes of extra walking (2 1/2 miles) per day. In the Tennessee study, "Some of the women walked with friends; others increased their steps by taking the stairs and parking farther away," says lead researcher Dixie Thompson.
6. Track food and exercise 6 days a week
Why it works: "Monitoring your eating and exercise every day will let you know if you're reaching the 500-calorie daily deficit you need to lose about a pound a week," says Robert Carels, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University. His study of 40 obese adults found that those who recorded their food and exercise over six months lost more than 20 pounds. That was nearly twice the amount shed by less consistent note takers.
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Add it in: Record food calories by using a pedometer to estimate the calories you burn as a part of your weight loss programs. Although you should try to keep a daily log, it's realistic to give yourself a break one day a week and allow time off for holidays and houseguests. "Then get back on track," says Carels.
7. Sleep 7 hours a night
Why it works: A University of Chicago study found that people deprived of Zzzs had lower levels of the hormones that control appetite. "The research suggested that short sleep durations could be a risk factor for obesity," says James Gangwisch, an epidemiologist from Columbia University Medical Center. Sure enough, his follow-up study of 9,588 Americans found that women who slept four hours or less per night were 234 percent more likely to be obese.
Add it in: The key number for most people is seven hours or more a night, says Gangwisch, so set an early bedtime and stick to it.
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8. Drink 8 glasses of water a day
Why it works: Water is not just a thirst quencher -- it may speed the body's metabolism. Researchers in Germany found that drinking two 8-ounce glasses of cold water increased their subjects' metabolic rate by 30 percent, and the effect persisted for 90 minutes. One-third of the boost came from the body's efforts to warm the water, but the rest was due to the work the body did to absorb it. "When drinking water, no calories are ingested but calories are used, unlike when drinking sodas, where additional calories are ingested and possibly stored," explains the lead researcher, Dr. Michael Boschmann, of University Medicine Berlin.
Add it in: Increasing water consumption to eight glasses per day may help you lose about eight pounds in a year, says Boschmann, so try drinking a glass before meals and snacks and before consuming sweetened drinks or juices.
9. Stick to an 8-hour workday
Why it works: A University of Helsinki study of 7,000 adults found that those who'd packed on pounds in the previous year were more likely to have logged overtime hours. Lack of time for diet and exercise is most likely the cause, but it's also possible that work stress has a direct effect on weight gain through changes in hormones like cortisol.
Add it in: Set firm limits on your workday so that when you're done, you still have the oomph to take a bike ride and cook a healthy dinner. To help you stay productive enough to finish on time, set an hourly alarm; when it goes off, deal with your most pressing duties.
10. Trim 10 points off your glycemic index
Why it works: Foods high on the glycemic index -- including sugars and refined carbohydrates -- cause blood sugar to spike. "The body uses insulin to bring down blood sugar," says Dr. Yunsheng Ma, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The body stores the excess sugar as fat. But that leaves blood sugar levels low, so we feel hungry again and eat more -- an unhealthy cycle. Ma studied the eating patterns of 572 people and found that those who ate foods high on the glycemic index weighed significantly more than those who did not. "There's about a 10-pound body weight decrease for every 10-point drop in the glycemic index of all the food a person eats each day," he says.
Add it in: Read labels to avoid added sugars, or better yet, eat fresh produce. Healthy swaps include a baked sweet potato (48 on the glycemic index) instead of a russet potato (94); grapes (49) instead of dates (103); pasta (45) instead of pizza (60); and Nutella (30) instead of jelly beans (80). And skip the liquid glucose known as juice.