Starting a Successful Diet

  1. Cut 200 calories at a time.
  2. Add good food to your plate.
  3. Keep a daily food journal.
  4. Build muscle to burn calories.
  5. Consult a professional.
  6. Eat 6 times a day.
  7. Limit portion sizes.

By John Casey
WebMD Features

Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson, MD

Starting a successful diet is like starting a marathon. If you haven't put in a good deal of planning and preparation before you set out, you probably won't cross the finish line.

So, how do you plan and prepare? You use simple strategies that, in fact, are the same techniques you might use if you were training for a race. You focus on the long-term goal you've set for yourself. You take simple, daily steps over a long period of time. Much of your preparation has more to do with attitude than food.

Here are seven tips to put you on the right track. And for a regular dose of motivation once you begin your diet, click here to sign up for the Weight Management newsletter.

Cut 200 calories at a time

Track your normal diet for a few days, then cut out just 200 calories a day. Don't worry about what kinds of calories you're cutting, whether fat or carbohydrate or protein.

"Behaviors and lifestyle can be extremely difficult things to change, especially as we age," says David Schteingart, MD, a professor of endocrinology and director of the obesity rehabilitation program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "But simple steps maintained over time are what works."

Cutting a small number of calories from your daily total is much more effective than crash dieting, says Schteingart.

Add good food to your plate

Add food if you're on a diet? Yes indeed, says Catherine Fitzgerald, RD, director of health promotion at the University of Michigan Health System. "It's always better to go with what we can do, rather than what we can't do," she says. So, rather than cutting out entire food groups, add something good to your diet, something you enjoy eating. "Set reachable goals, like eating an extra serving of fruits or vegetables," she says. You can also make healthier choices when you eat out. Even fast-food restaurants include healthier items on their menus these days.

"A healthy choice is just as easy to make today as an unhealthy one," she says.

Keep a daily food journal

"Most folks will keep honest in a food log, and it hurts to write words like 'brownie' or 'cheesecake,'" says Kiku Trentlyon, a sports trainer for the New York Sports Club in Manhattan.

A journal can help you see trends in your eating behavior. Most people have some dietary tic that they need to control in order to drop weight. For some, it's snacking in the late afternoon. For others, it's raiding the refrigerator at night. In the journal, you can see your weak times in the day and work with them. Instead of a candy bar at 3 in the afternoon, substitute a piece of fresh fruit. Keep baby carrots in the refrigerator so you have something to eat at night besides ice cream.

Build muscle to burn calories

Sure, regular aerobic exercise such as walking, running, or swimming is an important part of any weight-loss plan, but weight lifting or other resistance training also helps because it builds muscle mass. Muscle burns more calories than fat!

You don't have to buy any heavy equipment. You can purchase freehand weights for about $10 each. Or learn to lift your own body weight doing pushups and lunges on your living room rug.

Heavier, challenging weights develop muscle better than small weights, notes Trentlyon. Try doing between 8 and 15 repetitions, three times during a workout. "The last few reps of each set should be very challenging without compromising your form," she says.

"Women should not be afraid to lift weights," Trentlyon says. Women don't have enough testosterone to develop the bulging muscles you see on men. Instead, "women's muscles become stronger and more toned."

Consult a professional

Most fitness and weight-management experts recommend you see your doctor before starting any diet or exercise program. But other people can help, as well.

Personal trainers get people comfortable with gym equipment and help you design an exercise plan that fits with your weight loss goals. Registered dietitians and nutritionists are other people to consider. They are trained in designing food plans and can tailor a diet to your particular needs.

"If you can, hiring a professional isn't a bad idea," says Trentlyon, herself a personal trainer. They can function as your 'weight baby-sitter.' Whether you go with a personal trainer, a dietitian, or a nutritionist, they can help you set realistic weight and exercise goals."

Eat 6 times a day

By eating small meals every 2 or 3 hours, your metabolism is constantly stimulated.

"It'll take a week or so to really get used to eating like this, but it's well worth it," says Trentlyon. "Even if you just take your 3 meals a day and split those in half, there are your 6 meals. Protein bars and shakes are also helpful."

Limit portion sizes

Consider food your fuel, not your recreation. Food gives you the energy you need to enjoy the other activities of life. You don't need to weigh yourself down, just like you don't need to carry a 50-gallon gas tank on your car. So, eat the amount you need to eat for energy.

As a general rule, one serving of anything is the size of your palm. The portion may appear small, but that is because we live in an excessive society. A meal should ideally consist of one serving of lean protein and one serving of complex carbohydrates, says Trentlyon. "Vegetables are great if they are steamed plain or raw, and fruit is essential."

Originally published December 2002. Medically updated June 2004.

Sources: David Schteingart, MD, professor of endocrinology; director of the obesity rehabilitation program, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor * Catherine Fitzgerald, RD, director of health promotion, University of Michigan Health System * Kiku Trentlyon, sports trainer, New York Sports Club, Manhattan.

© 2002 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.


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