You’ve probably heard that weight loss is 80 percent diet and 20 percent exercise. And while there isn’t any hard-and-fast science to back up this theory, there’s no denying that diet plays the biggest role in weight loss. After all, losing weight is about burning more calories than you take in, and if you eat in a healthy calorie deficit, you will lose weight.
We asked registered dietitians, fitness trainers, and doctors to weigh in on the best healthy eating tips to help you lose body fat. While exercising will help you burn calories and strength training will help you build lean muscle to burn more calories at rest (not to mention the cardiovascular and emotional health benefits), you can make the most progress by focusing on your diet. Just follow these expert-approved tips.
Skip the Takeout and Whip Out the Cookbooks
When you grab lunch at a cafe or pick up takeout on the way home from work, these meals tend to have more calories, fat, sugar, and sodium compared to home-cooked meals. Aside from being more expensive, eating out once a day can cost you several pounds gained each year.
You can trim 134 calories from each meal if you make it at home instead of eating out, explained dietitian Julie Upton, MS, RD, of Appetite For Health. Save money and eat healthier by cooking at home so you can control the ingredients in your meals and how much you eat. Not sure where to start? Try one of these 75 healthy recipes.
Keep Track of Your Daily Calories and Stay Accountable
Caloric needs are based on a number of factors, but Stephanie Ferrari, a registered dietitian with Fresh Communications, said, “The most important ones for a healthy individual include gender, age, weight, height, and activity level.” It’s best to meet with a registered dietitian to help determine how many calories you need each day in order to lose weight; they can assess your lifestyle, goals, and health history (but this formula will give you an idea).
After you have that calorie goal set, for absolute accuracy, weigh and measure your food and track your calories in an app such as MyFitnessPal to help you stay within your range. Take photos of everything you eat if you don’t have time to track throughout the day. Or, if you tend to go over your calorie amount, try tracking the night before so your meals and snacks are already planned out.
Registered dietitian Leslie Langevin, MS, CD, of Whole Health Nutrition said to opt for meal repetition since “it helps with food tracking to make it faster.” Langevin recommends having a handful of go-to healthy meals that you can rotate between throughout the week to prevent boredom and help you get a variety of nutrients.
Have a Sunday Date With Yourself and Your Kitchen
Having a plan and being prepared with healthy food options are essential to staying on track, Upton said. It may take a few hours on Sunday to write out your meal plan and to meal prep, but it’ll save time during the week and alleviate the decisions about what to eat.
Here are some ideas:
Prep DIY freezer smoothie packs.
Make a week of overnight oats.
Divvy up containers of nuts for snacks.
Assemble high-protein mason jar salads.
Prep protein balls for quick snacks like these coconut-covered chocolate almond protein balls.
Cook a big batch of whole grains and freeze portions for dinner.
Freeze a bag of soup ingredients.
Make a treat for dessert cravings, like these no-bake vegan brownies.
Cut Down on the Sugar and Refined Carbs (Sorry, Doughnuts!)
Eating high-sugar foods and refined carbs like candy and bagels won’t help you lose weight, but it’s not only because those foods tend to be high in calories — it also has to do with insulin. Jason Fung, MD, a nephrologist (kidney specialist), explained that processed carbs and sugary foods such as ice cream, cookies, crackers, and regular pasta spike your insulin levels, which causes weight gain. Keeping your insulin levels low will help you reduce your overall body fat percentage.
Aside from being high in carbs and calories, many of these foods aren’t nutrient-dense, which means they won’t leave you feeling satisfied and you’ll want to eat more. Eating sugary foods also increases your cravings for them, which is another contributor to overeating.
It’s OK to enjoy sugary treats and processed carbs every once in a while — indulging a little can actually help you stay on track and prevent binging later. But if you cut down on these types of food, you’ll definitely notice a difference in how you feel and your weight-loss progress.
Eat Enough Food
Don’t eat one small container of yogurt and call it lunch! Make sure you eat enough to keep your body and brain functioning properly, ACSM-certified personal trainer and registered dietitian Jim White, owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios, explained in a previous interview. Severely restricting calories can actually slow down your metabolism.
Never dip below 1,200 calories, especially if you’re also working out. For reference, the USDA dietary guidelines recommend adult women consume 1,600 to 2,400 calories a day, but that number will vary based on your age, height, weight, and activity level. To find your calorie target for weight loss, meet with a registered dietitian or use this formula.
Really, It’s OK to Skip Breakfast
The age-old myth that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” needs to take a hike. Not eating breakfast can actually help you lose weight if you are strategic about it. It’s one form of intermittent fasting (IF), which involves fasting for part of each day or a few times a week (water, black coffee, and unsweetened tea are allowed during your fasting window). One common example of this is known as 16:8, where you eat during an eight-hour window and fast for the other 16. A popular eating window is from noon to 8 p.m., meaning you skip breakfast altogether and have your last meal before 8 p.m.
Ferrari and Luiza Petre, MD, a weight-loss specialist and board-certified cardiologist, told POPSUGAR that intermittent fasting raises growth hormone levels and lowers insulin levels, both of which help burn more fat. “Insulin decreases when you fast, and lower levels of insulin results in burning more fat,” Ferrari added, especially belly fat.
Eating in a shortened window not only reduces hunger (it’s true!), but since you’re not eating for long periods of time, there are also fewer opportunities to consume calories, which is why IF helps people eat fewer calories each day. If 16:8 doesn’t work with your schedule, experiment with other forms of IF, including 14:10 (where you eat during a 10-hour window and fast for the other 14), 5:2 (where you eat 500 calories a day two days a week), or Eat Stop Eat (where you fast for 24 hours once or twice a week).
More Veggies Please
We asked four registered dietitians for the easiest way to start losing weight, and all four agreed: eat more veggies! Ilana Muhlstein, MS, RDN, cocreator of Beachbody’s 2B Mindset nutrition program, told POPSUGAR that vegetables are the food group you want to be filling up on the most. “They are high in volume and weight and fill up our stomachs, which helps us register the feeling of fullness,” Ilana said.
Registered dietitians Stephanie Clarke, RD, and Willow Jarosh, RD, of C&J Nutrition agreed and said that veggies are also high in fiber, so they’ll satiate your hunger longer, helping you consume fewer daily calories.
Langevin added that dinner isn’t the only time to get your veggies in. She said to include veggies in every single meal and snack. Add zucchini to oatmeal, snack on these banana spinach smoothie muffins, or bring along these adorable mason jars of hummus and veggies.
Fuel Yourself With Protein
In order to build muscle and satiate hunger, it’s important to get enough lean protein at every single meal. It may even rev up your metabolism, according to registered dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, MS, RD.
What’s your daily protein goal? Aim for 0.8 to 1.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, depending on how active you are. A good rule of thumb is to get 20 to 30 grams of lean protein per meal from sources that are low in saturated fats and processed carbohydrates. “This doesn’t necessarily mean eat more meat,” Vermont-based registered dietitian nutritionist Maddie Kinzly, MS, LD, explained. Choose plant-based protein sources such as whole grains, lentils, tofu, soy milk, nuts, seeds, and veggies.
Fill Up on Fiber
Are you getting enough fiber? The American Heart Association recommends adults get 25 grams of fiber per day for a 2,000-calorie diet. Fiber is important for weight loss because it fills you up so you feel satisfied longer and won’t be tempted to snack in between meals. It also helps keep things regular.
The type of fiber you eat matters, too, especially if you want to lose belly fat. Tracy recommends people eat more soluble fiber to burn more belly fat. “This gel that forms slows digestion in the body, which keeps you feeling full for longer,” she said in a previous interview. “Research supports that soluble fiber leads to a decrease in the amount of fat in the abdominal region.”
Focus on eating foods like lentils and other legumes, barley, and some fruits and veggies such as cauliflower, apples, and citrus fruits.
Get Your Sleep to Reduce Cravings
While it may not seem like sleep is related to eating, sleep does affect what and how much you eat. Not getting enough sleep will increase cortisol, the stress hormone, which increases cravings and hunger. This often means eating more refined carbs and other high-calorie comfort foods.
If you’re trying to lose weight, aim for at least seven hours every night. Help promote sleep by turning off all electronics at least 30 minutes before bed. According to Sujay Kansagra, MD, Mattress Firm sleep health consultant and author of My Child Won’t Sleep, “When engaging with content on social media, the brain releases chemicals such as norepinephrine and dopamine. This makes it harder on your body to fall asleep because these chemicals stimulate the ‘wake centers’ of your brain.”
You can also take a hot shower, sip on warm herbal tea, do some yoga, make sure your bed is cozy, or read in bed to get you into snooze zone. Or have sex! Having an orgasm will help you fall asleep faster because it produces oxytocin (the cuddle or love hormone), Robert Glatter, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwell Health Department of Emergency Medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, said, which inhibits cortisol.
Find Ways to Destress Every Day
When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol, the stress hormone. It’s actually an appetite stimulant, Charlie Seltzer, MD, a physician board-certified in obesity medicine, told POPSUGAR in a previous interview. This explains why when you’re stressed, you just want to eat and you can have a harder time saying no to carb-heavy, fatty junk foods.
“Gaining weight due to stress is very common, and there are actually physiological reasons we tend to eat more and crave more unhealthy foods when we are stressed,” Amanda Barnes, MS, RDN, owner of Amanda Barnes Fitness, said. When you eat these kinds of foods, your brain releases dopamine, which activates the reward and pleasure centers in our brains. “This is a continuous loop, leading to increased appetite and cravings, which in turn can lead to weight gain,” she explained.
Find healthy ways to relax each day and fuel your happiness. Take 10 minutes alone to write in your journal, listen to music, walk in nature, cuddle with your kids or a pet, or do this tension-melting yoga sequence.
If You Think You’re Hungry, You Might Just Be Thirsty
What’s one of the best weight-loss tips in the world? Drinking water, said fitness guru Bob Harper, who said he drinks at least a gallon of water a day. There’s no need to drink that much! Maya Feller, MS, RD, of Maya Feller Nutrition, told POPSUGAR we should aim for 91 ounces a day.
Drinking water throughout the day will fill your belly and satiate your thirst, which is often mistaken for hunger. Staying hydrated will also help you consume fewer daily calories and keep you alert so you’re less likely to need sugar or a specialty Starbucks drink to pep you up.
“Rather than food right away, I recommend that each meal start with drinking water first,” Muhlstein said. Aim to drink 16 ounces of water before reaching for your first bite of food. To help you remember, when you sit down to eat, make sure you have a big water bottle or two eight-ounce glasses. She said you may find yourself feeling fuller and slimmer in just a few days.
Pass on the Cocktails
“With 80 to 150 calories per drink, these can add up quickly,” Kinzly said. Talk about empty calories! Some alcoholic beverages are also high in sugar and refined carbs, which keeps insulin levels high. Dr. Fung said this can actually prevent your body from using fat stores as energy.
Drinking alcohol can also lower your inhibitions, which might propel you to make unhealthy food choices. It also makes it harder for you to listen to your body’s “I’m full” signals. So if you want to lose body fat, limiting the wine, beer, and cocktails can make a huge difference.
Show Yourself Patience and Kindness
While eating healthy is important for fat loss, the most important thing is to be patient on your journey. Staying consistent with your plan in reaching your goals will work, sports dietitian Leanne Ward said, but it won’t happen overnight. Enjoy the journey; celebrate every pound lost and every nonscale victory, like moving up to a higher dumbbell weight or feeling more energetic to play with your kids.
Speak kindly to yourself — be your own best cheerleader. This also means doing what makes you happy (like baking) and giving your body what you know it needs (like cake!). Don’t beat yourself up for having a slip-up; just move on. Believe you can do this, be proud of how far you’ve come, and love yourself for making the choice to take care of you. You can do this!