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If you want to lose five actual pounds by next weekend, listen up: Losing weight fast is almost always unhealthy. That's because it can set you up for binge-eating and fluctuations that interfere with long-lasting results, which basically defeats the whole point, right?
It’s also effing hard! "For most people, it’s very, very difficult to lose more than one to two pounds of body fat in a week," says Philadelphia-based weight-loss physician Charlie Seltzer, MD. And even if you lose some water weight in the process, the change is temporary. "It’s fat loss that changes [your body's] shape," he says.
Even if you do meet your goal, it's nearly impossible to keep off the weight over the long term: "The amount of restriction required [to maintain that number] will make you so hungry that you’ll eat everything in sight—it’s survival instinct," Dr. Seltzer says. And since calorie restriction gradually slows your metabolism, your body will be less prepared to burn the foods you binge on, he adds. That could mean gaining more pounds than you lost in the first place.
Still, there are effective and healthy ways to kick off your weight loss—and, yes, it will take time!—all without starving yourself, wasting money on sketchy supplements, or punishing your body with exercise.
Instead, try a few of these safe, proven tips. And remember: You’ll get the best, longest-lasting results from changes that don’t leave you exhausted and dreaming of pizza.
1. Track your diet.
"Eating fewer calories than you burn will help you lose weight—it’s that simple," Dr. Seltzer says. "But you need to know your patterns before you can make a plan."
To assess how much you’re actually eating to maintain your current weight, Dr. Seltzer recommends using MyFitnessPal. Just input whatever you eat, and be honest. The app will calculate your daily calorie intake without judgement (or any math on your end). "No food is inherently good or bad," Dr. Seltzer says.
2. Focus on plants.
In a small-ish study of more than 1,000 people, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers found those following vegetarian and vegan diets, rich in whole grains, fruits, produce, nuts, and legumes, lost more weight than dieters on other plans—even the low-carb Atkins diet—over the same time span.
The researchers hypothesize that participants who abstained from animal products dropped significantly more pounds since plant-based foods include loads of filling fiber and slow-to-digest complex carbs. Though more research is needed to confirm these results, the study authors write, "Vegetarian diets appeared to have significant benefits on weight reduction compared to non-vegetarian diets."
3. Cut back on soda.
When you drink liquid carbs, like the sugar in soda, your body doesn't register them the same way as, say, a piece of bread, according to a review of studies published in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care. That means, even though you're taking in calories, your fullness cues aren't likely to signal that you're satisfied once you finish off a can. And that can lead to consuming more overall.
Even calorie-free diet soda might keep you from reaching your goals. Though the reason for increased risk for obesity isn't clear, recent research suggests that artificially sweetened soda could stimulate hunger hormones, leading people to consume more calories than they need.
4. Make super small food swaps.
If you’ve been eating fast food for years, get real about your approach: You’re probably not going to stick to an organic, gluten-free, paleo overhaul for very long. "You want to change as little as possible to create calorie deficit," says Dr. Seltzer, who insists the best way to support sustainable weight loss is to incorporate small changes into existing habits. So instead of giving up your daily BLT bagels in favor of an egg-white wrap, try ordering your sandwich on a lighter English muffin. Or say you eat a snack bar every afternoon: Swap your 300-calorie bar for a 150-calorie alternative. "Your brain will feel the same way about it, so you won’t feel deprived," he says.
5. Go ahead: eat your largest meal at night.
Also some research shows that the human body is primed to consume most of its calories during daylight hours. But the lifestyle is problematic for many: Because family meals and dinners with friends often are scheduled for after sunset, "people who try to stop eating after 7pm can’t do it every day for the rest of their lives," says Dr. Seltzer, who supports an alternative strategy: Eating a hearty meal at your regular dinnertime.
After all, when you run out of calories too early to go out to dinner with friends or satisfy a bedtime craving, you’re more likely to fall victim to what Dr. Seltzer calls the "f*ck it" effect—when you break one "rule" and give up for the rest of the night.