Why not just count calories?

A worldwide survey found that each year, around 40% of people try to lose weight and 23% try to maintain it. While there's often little agreement about the best methods to reach these goals, research shows that some weight-loss recommendations really do work.

If you want to lose weight, you may have been told to count calories. This has been common advice for over a century. This method works for some people — but others can't stick with it. Sometimes, people lose weight at first but then regain it easily.

Experts now say that two people can eat the same number of calories but process them differently. Calorie burn depends on:

  • The kind of food you eat
  • Your metabolism
  • How the organisms in your gut break down your food

If counting calories doesn't always work, what are some weight loss tips that do?

Eat healthy foods

Two recent studies followed people who lost weight by focusing on eating healthy foods instead of counting calories. They avoided foods made with white flour and sugar and instead ate foods like:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables — mostly the non-starchy ones
  • Whole grains
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Fermented foods — like yogurt

Avoiding highly processed food may be key to effective weight loss

In another study, researchers gave two groups foods that were equal in calories. One group ate whole foods, and the other ate processed food. The participants were allowed to eat as much as they wanted. After 2 weeks, the groups switched places. In both cases, the group eating the processed food consumed more calories and gained weight.

Be skeptical of foods labeled as "light" or "low-calorie." Eating foods that are marketed as diet foods may actually hurt your weight loss goals. This could be because they are usually highly processed. Also, you might eat more of them because you think they’re healthy.

Choose a diet that fits you

The best-known diets differ in their mixture of macronutrients — including carbohydrates, protein, and fat. A low-fat diet might work for you, and a low-carb diet could be best for your friend.

Several studies have shown that almost any diet can result in weight loss for some people, but no diet works for everyone.

It's important to choose a diet with foods you like so that you can more easily stick to it. If you dislike vegetables, a vegan diet may not work for you. If you enjoy savory but healthy foods, a Mediterranean diet could be perfect for you. 

Try out a large variety of healthy dishes outside of your usual comfort zone, and you'll have a better chance of settling on the right diet.

Monitor your weight

Several studies have reported that those who weigh themselves often are more likely to lose weight and keep it off. Some weigh daily, others just once a week. Monitoring your weight can help you stay motivated and maintain reasonable expectations throughout your weight loss journey. 

Exercise every day

If you want to lose weight, you've probably been told to exercise. It's true that those who lose weight and keep it off often have a daily exercise program.

Many do planned workouts of over 30 minutes a day. Others fit exercise into their daily routines. Those who lift weights seem to be particularly successful. 

Exercise alone may not be an effective weight loss strategy, though. When diet isn't part of the picture, you might have to exercise over 1 hour a day to lose weight, and exercise can often increase your appetite. Still, when treated as part of a complete weight loss program, exercise contributes to overall health and well-being.

Develop a lifestyle plan, not a weight loss plan

Begin your weight-loss journey by finding your "why." This should be something deeper than improving your looks.

Consider how weighing less will impact your health, your family life, and your self-confidence. Remind yourself of these reasons when your motivation lags.

Identify the things that can stand in the way of your new lifestyle. Figure out how to deal with them. Try to break the habit of sitting in front of the TV or computer. Instead, go for a walk or play with your dog instead.

Focus on the positive

Remember that healthy habits take up to 3 months to take hold. Don't allow yourself to feel sad, guilty, or defeated if you have a small lapse. Be your own cheerleader. Recognize and applaud every positive step.

If you have friends or family members who bring you down, create new social ties. Look for friends with similar goals. Your gym or an exercise class is a good place to find them. 

You can also find support online or join an in-person support group. Be careful about social media. It can be a positive or negative force.


How to Lose Weight Without Dieting: 24 Fast Facts See Slideshow

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Medically Reviewed on 9/27/2021

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American Journal of Preventive Medicine: "Successful Weight Loss Among Obese U.S. Adults."

Harvard Health Publishing: "Stop counting calories," "Ten Behaviors for Healthy Weight Loss."

Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health: "The Best Diet: Quality Counts."

Indiana University Health: "So You Want to Lose Weight in 2021? A 7-Step Guide to Losing Weight Without 'Dieting.'"

International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity: "Dietary and physical activity behaviors among adults successful at weight loss maintenance."

Obesity Reviews: "Prevalence of personal weight control attempts in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis."

Tufts Nutrition: "Is Calorie Counting Dead?"