There’s no one-size-fits all approach to eating better. As a nutritionist, some clients I meet with are ready and willing to dive head first into a complete dietary overhaul, and, most important, can actually stick with it.
Others— especially those who, in the past, have tried to make too many changes too fast that ultimately fizzled out— find it easier to transition slowly into eating differently. Folks in this group will often ask, “Okay, if I can only focus on one thing what should it be?” My response varies based on their goals, but if you want to lose weight, here’s my list of five simple diet tweaks that can ultimately make a huge difference. The strategy: Start with just one change, and when it feels like part of your usual eating routine, add another. Once that change feels like second nature, add another, and so on. It may take a little longer to see big results, but for many, a stepladder approach to transforming your eating means making changes that really stick down the road.
Eat more fiber
A recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) study found that people who were simply asked to eat more fiber (30 grams a day from food, not supplements) lost almost as much weight as those asked to follow a more comprehensive eating plan with over a dozen different directives. There was also, unsurprisingly, a lower drop-out rate in the fiber-eating group. Plus, researchers found that by focusing on fiber alone, the participants naturally ate fewer fatty and sugary foods, because those were “crowded out” by fiber-rich choices. To try doing this yourself, up your intake of fresh veggies and fruit, especially those with edible stalks, skins, membranes and seeds (e.g. broccoli, artichokes, raspberries, apples, and oranges); snack on nuts and seeds; switch from refined grains (like white rice) to whole grains (brown or wild), and make pulses— that is, peas, lentils, and beans— menu staples by adding them to salads or serving them a side dish to an omelet, in a soup, or as a bed for grilled fish.
Nix diet drinks and artificial sweeteners
Many clients I work with are amazed at how their appetites change once they’ve stopped consuming artificial sweeteners. I’ve heard things like “My constant cravings for sweets are gone” and “I always felt hungry, even an hour after eating, but now I know what actual hunger feels like.” Effects like these are backed by recent animal research. For example, a Yale study found that when hungry mice were given a choice between artificial and real sugar, they tended to choose the real thing, even if the artificial sweetener was much sweeter. The scientists’ conclusion: The brains of mice— and possibly humans— can’t be tricked with the fake stuff, and relying on artificial sweetener may actually up cravings for sweets overall. Artificial sweeteners have also been shown to disrupt gut bacteria in ways that may up the risk of obesity. Can’t seem to kick your soda habit? Try doctoring water up by adding in lemon or lime, sprigs of fresh mint, fresh grated ginger, or a bit of mashed fruit.
Swap some of your starches for non-starchy veggies
I recently talked to a client who eats at Chipotle often. While his choice of a tortilla-free burrito bowl was a good one, he was still consuming too many carbs to get the scale moving downward. Switching to a salad with greens as the base and asking for smaller scoops of brown rice and black beans on top left him just as full and satisfied, but with half the carbs. You can make the same kind of tweak at home. Rather than a cup of cooked whole-grain penne, cut back to a half-cup, and add a quarter-cup each of fresh spinach, chopped tomato, sliced mushrooms, and minced onion. This switch will save you about 15 grams of carbohydrate and increase the volume of your meal so you actually feel fuller after eating it. Other ways to cut back on carbs without cutting them out completely include ordering a chopped salad with a small scoop of quinoa or chickpeas in it, rather than a wrap, and using lettuce in place of a bun for your burger paired with a small side of starch, like baked sweet potato “fries.”
Make dark chocolate your dessert
This one change has helped many of my clients shave hundreds of surplus calories from their diets each week, and start to slim down as a result. Half of a three-ounce bar of one of my favorite brands of dark chocolate contains just 200 calories and 21 grams of carbs. Compare that to a chocolate-chip cookie from Panera bread (440 calories, 58 grams of carbs) or chocolate croissant from Starbucks (370 calories, 46 grams of carbs). Bonus: Research has shown that making dark chocolate a daily treat can help curb cravings for both sweet and salty foods.
Cut back on booze
In addition to the calories they add to your diet— way more than you probably think— alcoholic beverages tend to be major diet derailers. I’ve had countless clients tell me that after a drink or two, they suddenly adopt an “Oh, screw it” attitude about eating, and wind up not only nibbling on foods within arm’s reach (chips and salsa, or bread and butter at a restaurant, pretzels at the bar), but also eating foods they wouldn’t reach for sober, and downing much larger portions to boot. You don’t have to become a teetotaler to shed pounds, but consciously cutting back to, say, one night per week, setting a max of two drinks, and downing a tall glass of water with every cocktail can help you shed serious pounds.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian and Health’s contributing nutrition editor. She privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance, and is the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the New York Yankees MLB team.