When it comes to losing weight, there’s a lot of conflicting, overwhelming information out there. But one expert says the best diets—as in, sustainable eating habits, not the conventional fad diets people often turn to for weight loss—have a few important things in common.
Christopher Gardner, Ph.D., a nutrition scientist and research professor of medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine, recently gave a talk on the best diets for weight loss at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions annual meeting. During his talk, per Yahoo, Gardner said doctors, scientists, and dietitians should focus on figuring out which diet is best for each person—not which one diet is the best for everyone.
It’s understandable that people would be paralyzed by choice when deciding how to eat to get healthy or lose weight. The American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, and The Obesity Society released an analysis in 2013 of 15 different diets than ran the gamut from vegetarian to high-protein eating plans.
But Gardner said that even with all the options out there, the best diets have a few factors in common: They encourage people to eat a lot of vegetables, avoid added sugars, and cut back on refined grains.
Beth Warren, R.D.N., founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Living a Real Life With Real Food, agrees, telling SELF that these three areas are “well-documented in their effect on one’s health.”
But Karen Ansel, R.D.N., author of Healthy in a Hurry: Simple, Wholesome Recipes for Every Meal of the Day, tells SELF that there’s one huge, necessary factor missing: Watching portion size. “Even the healthiest foods can pack on the pounds if you eat too many of them,” she says.
These elements are all useful for different reasons. When it comes to the vegetables, “A plant-based diet contributes a significant amount of fiber and helps balance calories,” Lisa Moskovitz, R.D., CEO of NY Nutrition Group, tells SELF.
To ramp up your vegetable intake, Warren says it’s a good idea to make veggies mandatory at your meals. That can mean adding spinach to your morning omelet, having a hearty salad at lunch, and eating a side of vegetables with protein at dinner. She also recommends incorporating vegetables into your snacks, like having celery and almond butter, or hummus and carrots. Moskovitz says it’s a good idea to turn your fridge into a mini-salad bar, with plenty of chopped fresh carrots, peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes that you can grab on the go or add to a recipe on the fly. “The easier and more accessible vegetables are in your life, the more likely you are to eat them,” she says.
Unlike vegetables, added sugars, meaning sugars that are added to foods during processing, are in the doghouse, and for good reason: Sugar can wreak havoc on your health. Added sugars can lurk in surprising places, which is why Jessica Cording, a New York-based R.D., tells SELF it’s a good idea to check labels to see if there is sugar or another sweetener added to condiments, pasta sauces, soups, and breads—common sources of sneaky sugar.
Another good way to lower your intake of added sugar is to focus on replacing high-sugar foods with healthier options, Moskovitz says. “Since most people who eat a lot of sugar in their diet tend to get it from snack foods and beverages, finding healthier alternatives is the best way to cut back,” she explains. For example, instead of drinking soda with your lunch, try having club soda sweetened with a lemon or other piece of fruit, and instead of snacking on chocolate in the afternoon, have a fresh piece of fruit with yogurt or some nuts.
Increasing the amount of lean protein and fiber in your diet can also naturally help reduce sugar cravings, Moskovitz says, because they level out your blood sugar. Ansel agrees. “When it comes to staying full, fiber is a double win,” she says. Fiber expands in your gut like a sponge, filling you up, she explains. Then, it slows down the release of sugar from starchy foods into your system, keeping blood sugar—and your appetite—on an even keel for hours.
Like added sugars, refined grains can trip up weight-loss efforts. White bread, pastas, and rice are big sources of refined grains, Warren says, but packaged goods such as crackers and cereal are also typically made from refined grains. “[Refined grains] are often full of empty calories that can increase appetite, leading to excess calorie intake and thus, weight gain,” Moskovitz says.
The easiest way to decrease the amount of refined grains you have is to choose minimally processed ones, such as whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, quinoa, and oatmeal in place of highly processed packaged foods, Ansel says. It’s also important to check labels and look for whole grains listed as one of the first few ingredients, Cording says.
And to round it all out, keeping tabs on your portion sizes ensures that you’re fueling your body properly without going overboard and accidentally taking in too many calories. Mindful eating is a great way to put this into practice—here are 12 mindful eating habits to get you started.
If you want to incorporate these tips but aren’t sure where to start, Warren recommends keeping a food log of everything you eat in a week and working from there. “Discover which types of foods and eating patterns you feel you need to keep and which less healthy ones you realize you can decrease,” she says. Then, you can introduce manageable mini-goals to change your eating habits for the better and potentially bring about weight loss. “Consistent small changes are very effective when it comes to weight loss,” Warren says. “You don’t need a major diet overhaul.”