If you’re hoping to lose weight, there are so many ways to go about it: Cutting carbs, weighing what you eat, keeping a food journal, intermittent fasting, hiring a personal trainer and countless other ideas registered dietitians, health coaches and well-meaning friends might suggest.
When losing weight, experts agree there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy. From the Mediterranean diet to DASH, there are many different eating plans to help you achieve your goals in a way that fits your lifestyle. However, there are some commonalities that can set you up for success. Here, eight criteria the best weight-loss diets share:
THEY PRESERVE ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFESTYLE
If you try to overhaul your diet all at once, it’s more likely to backfire, says Dr. Shauna Collins, author of “No More Dieting!” Instead, start by highlighting the foods you love and look for the healthiest version, suggests Collins. For example, “if you love sandwiches, try removing one slice of bread and eating it open-faced.” Making small changes is sustainable, and you’ll be more likely to lose weight and keep it off.
THEY INCORPORATE FLEXIBILITY
Plans with choices are ideal: They’re more likely to suit your lifestyle, which encourages you to continue. “A diet that is too Spartan only broadens our existing polarized views about food as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ which often leads to an inadvertent off-the-wagon episode,” says Rebecca Newman, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in Philadelphia. “A good plan prioritizes making nutritious choices overall, without the use of language that forbids certain foods.”
THEY ENCOURAGE PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
Weight loss isn’t solely about eating. The best plans highlight the importance of physical activity and recommend you get moving for roughly 150 minutes each week. “The combination of the two is where the magic happens,” says medical exercise specialist Chris Gagliardi, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. “We know physical activity can increase your metabolism and help you burn more calories. Start slow and work your way up — you’re looking for the lifestyle change, not the quick fix.”
THEY HIGHLIGHT HABITS THAT YIELD A LIFESTYLE CHANGE
Some plans require you to temporarily follow extreme habits that lead to short-term weight loss, but when you resume your old habits, the weight comes back. The best weight-loss plans encourage you to adopt new healthy habits for life. “Before committing to a certain diet, ask yourself, ‘Could I follow this plan for the rest of my life?” suggests David Ezell, a licensed psychotherapist and certified diet and fitness coach based in New York City. If the answer is no, you probably shouldn’t try it for the short-term.
Real, significant lifestyle change means committing to replacing one way of life with another. “You are undoing a series of bad choices with sustainable, healthy ones. This creates real results and lasting change,” Ezell says.
THEY ENCOURAGE WHOLE FOODS
Instead of limiting or eliminating certain macronutrients from your diet, choose a plan that allows you to eat a mix of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. “Lean proteins can include chicken, fish, eggs, beans and tofu,” says Jana Wolff, RD, director of nutrition for Greater Baltimore Medical Center’s Comprehensive Obesity Management Program. Healthy fats include nuts or nut butters, avocado, olive oil and seeds. Nutritious carbs include high-fiber starches like sweet potatoes, brown rice, oats and whole-grain pastas or breads. Allowing for a variety of healthy foods in your diet helps you feel full and satisfied, which in turn minimizes cravings and overeating.
THEY EMPHASIZE PORTION CONTROL
Knowing how large or small a serving size you should be eating can help you to achieve your weight-loss goals, says Nancy Lee Stamback, RD. This is especially true in the beginning, to get a good visual sense of what that serving should look like on a plate or in a bowl, says Stamback. Ultimately, you shouldn’t have to measure every single ingredient in every meal to stay on track, but rather have a general understanding of portion sizes, says Stamback. That way if you’re out at a restaurant or friend’s house, you don’t have to worry about measuring every little thing, which will be more sustainable in the long-term.
THEY ALLOW FOR MISTAKES
Since nobody’s perfect, a good weight-loss plan should be easy to resume even when you’ve taken some missteps. “I always say, ‘Slip, don’t slide,’ which resonates with my clients, since one slip can often turn into a free-for-all,” says Wolff. Instead of beating yourself up about getting off track, “just come back to your balanced meals at the next meal or snack.” Feeling comfortable with your plan should help you return to it, instead of giving up. “Remember that progress and consistency is always more effective than perfection.”
THEY ACKNOWLEDGE THE JOURNEY
Weight loss isn’t always linear and if you hit a plateau, your plan shouldn’t make you feel like you’ve failed. Over-emphasis on the finish line can be discouraging. “Plans that focus too much on a numeric result may under-value the work you’ve put in to making changes in your life,” Newman says. “A good plan will encourage you to view the process as a journey, which involves trying a new recipe at home, noticing changes in your energy level, appreciating how your clothes fit differently and, finally, seeing a reduction in weight.”