Whenever I help someone with weight loss, he or she will inevitably ask me, “So what should I eat?”
I always tell them I have no idea what they like so how can I tell them what to eat? If this statement makes no sense to you, then you have probably fallen victim to this dieting obstacle before - picking diet food you hate. I understand the logic of falling into this trap. “If great tasting food I enjoy made me fat, I guess the only way to get thin is through horrible tasting, joyless meals.” While I’ll admit healthy food won’t taste as good as ice cream or cake, food is a joy, and denying yourself this joy with healthy foods you happen to hate will simply bring a quick end to your new diet plans.
Replace some things, not everything
Don’t throw out everything you like and replace it with entire meals that punish you. You may be able to stick with this for a day or two, but eventually your willpower will break and you will catch up on all those unhealthy foods you denied yourself. Willpower has it’s limits, and the more you make your diet a punishment, the more pressure you will pile onto your psyche to just throw in the towel and gorge. I don’t eat perfectly but the majority of my meals are healthy and I only pick foods I enjoy. If you want to succeed, you need to do this long term, so start picking foods you like now.
Healthy (and still tasty) substitutions:
1. Diet soda (for a little while): Ditching liquid calories is one of the easiest ways to remove calories from your daily totals and make a big impact on your waistline. The longterm goal should be to switch off the sugary beverages for water, but studies have shown that switching to diet sodas can help with weight loss. As I mentioned before, sugary drinks spike your insulin which not only makes you store fat and not release stored body fat for hours afterwards, but it also causes your appetite to soar. The artificial sweeteners in diet soda don’t affect your insulin so you won’t be turned into a ravenous, fat storing machine. However, non-caloric artificial sweeteners should not be your longterm solution. There are some thoughts that artificial sweeteners confuse your body signals by providing sweet taste without supplying energy (calories). In time, the fear is that your body will stop sending the proper signals for satisfaction after eating sweets which will lead to weight gain. Even worse, a recent study discovered that consuming these sweeteners can alter the composition of beneficial microbes in your digestive system which will make you glucose intolerant. Like insulin intolerance, your body then becomes less efficient at clearing sugar from your blood stream. Your blood sugar levels will rise higher when you do consume sugar and then take longer to fall. These are the same metabolic issues that lead to weight gain and diabetes, so once again I highly recommend moving away from sodas and other sweet beverages entirely. The diet versions can serve as a helpful first step to break your sugar addiction, but in the long run, these sweeteners may actually be just as harmful.
2. Switch to whole grains: If you like pasta, bread, and rice, you don’t need to live without them, just switch to the whole grain versions. Fiber slows the process of digestion which controls the release of sugar into your system. The more slowly the sugar is released into your blood stream, the lower your insulin response. Less insulin means less storage and it won’t spike your appetite and cause you to eat more. Don’t just trust the food companies though when it says whole grain, check the label to make sure there is at least 1 gram of fiber for ever 6 grams of carbohydrates.
3. Reduce carbs you like instead of eliminating them: Even with those whole grain alternatives you enjoy, you should probably reduce your portion size a little. The federal dietary guidelines recommend the majority of our daily intake should come from grains, but these standards have also led to record obesity levels. You don’t need to move to a no carb diet to see results. A recent study showing the benefits of a low carb diet had the participants cut their daily carbs from 240 grams to about 127 grams (which is still quite a bit). Make your carbs a smaller part of your meal and you can still enjoy them just fine. Don’t deprive yourself, enjoy them in reasonable amounts.
4. Go crazy with fruits and vegetables: If you’re looking for an easy way to fill the hole on your plate left by those carbs you had to cut, look to fruits and vegetables to fill you up without piling on the calories. The fiber in fruits and vegetables slows digestion even more than what’s found in whole grain foods, and even though fruit tastes sweet, it contains tiny amounts of fructose, a sugar that doesn’t cause much of an insulin reaction at all. While it’s technically possible to eat too much fruit, I tell people to eat as much as they want. Don’t bother counting calories or carbs from fruit because most people will become satisfied long before they overdo it. Our bodies have evolved to handle fruit and the feedback mechanisms for hunger and satisfaction work pretty well. It’s our manmade creations that throw off our feedback systems and cause us to overeat. Accurate calorie counting is harder than most people think, and I find this is an easy way for people to make big changes to their diets without suffering. Don’t cut out everything and starve. Load up on tons of fruits and vegetables to help you adjust to the reduced calories of a diet.
5. Go buy some spices: I’m not saying load everything up with hot spices (although capsaicin does give you a little metabolism boost), but no one said healthy food needs to be bland and boring. One of the nice things about cooking your own healthy meals is that you get a chance to really customize the flavors to your preferences. Load up on the garlic, basil, cayenne pepper, or whatever you like to really improve the experience. As long as you’re not adding actual sugar, none of these flavorings are going to add any calories. If you minimize the grains in your meal, feel free to add oil or even butter to improve the flavor. Don’t let years of being told dietary fat is bad scare you away. As long as you avoid trans fats (typically anything that says partially hydrogenated), you can add fat back into the menu without negatively impacting your health.
6. Unsaturated fat still helps: While studies have found that saturated fat does not contribute to obesity or cardiovascular risk, unsaturated fats do offer some additional benefits. Multiple studies have found that unsaturated fat is broken down faster in the body, and one study found that norepinephrine-stimulated lipolysis (exercise induced release of fat from fat cells) was 50% lower with a diet rich in saturated fat verses unsaturated fat. I agree with recent findings that saturated fat has been unfairly demonized as the cause of obesity and heart disease, but replacing saturated fat for unsaturated fat will make it easier to lose body weight due to exercise. You don’t need to replace saturated fats entirely. Just make an effort to trim visible fat from any meat you consume and cook with vegetable oils preferentially to butter.