What to eat to lose weight

Many people attempt to lose weight by following a diet that cuts out certain foods. Years ago, low fat diets were king, followed by the current trend of low carb diets like Keto. Other diets might limit their followers to only eating a small collection of foods. So what is the right answer? Why do each of these diets work for some people and not for others?

The somewhat counterintuitive reality is that you can lose weight while eating virtually anything, as demonstrated by this Kansas State nutrition professor. As long as the calories you consume are less than your TDEE, you will lose weight. It does not matter where the calories come from when it comes to weight loss. Some people find at least temporary success with the types of diets mentioned above because they have a reason to think about their eating habits for once. The result is often an overall reduction in their caloric intake as they consciously avoid certain foods.

Is that it? Just eat whatever you want and count calories? Leaving it at that would be like teaching you to sculpt by telling you to chip away rock until you have an amazing statue. While technically true, it leaves out a lot of detail that you will need to be successful.

When it comes to staying consistent with a calorie deficit, your favorite foods will be those that keep you feeling full for relatively few calories. Foods that are high in protein like meat or that have low caloric density like vegetables are ideal. Foods that are high in fiber also tend to offer a lasting feeling of satiation for relatively few calories. Everyone is slightly different when it comes to their food preferences, so you will need to do some experimenting to find what is right for you.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are foods that contain massive amounts of calories that will not only fail to satiate you, but can also make you feel even hungrier! Virtually all high sugar foods fall into this category along with other categories of junk food. The worst offender of all is soda, and its other sugary drink cousins. These foods are engineered by their companies to be as addicting and cheap to produce as possible and loading them with sugar is a sure fire way to accomplish both. 

Consistently eating junk foods also has a severe impact on your perception of taste. It is similar to listening to music at a deafening volume. You will lose your ability to hear different tones and melodies, leaving you with only volume to go by. Similarly, a diet filled with junk will leave you with a very dull sense of taste, and your food preferences become guided only by the amount of sugar and fat they contain. Fortunately, unlike damaged hearing, a damaged sense of taste can be repaired with time.

The most important key to changing your eating habits is to make small incremental changes over time. Trying to change all of your eating habits at once will often result in failure. For example, if you drink soda regularly, try replacing it with water that you flavor and sweeten yourself with one of many available products like Mio. Then, reduce the amount of flavor / sweetener over time until you don't need it at all. You can do the same thing with foods like salads. Start with as much dressing as needed to make it palatable, then scale it back over time as you gradually begin to appreciate the taste of the actual greens and other ingredients. 

Many people make this mistake of thinking that healthy foods will forever be a hardship that must be endured. It sounds borderline insane to them to say that they will eventually love and crave healthy foods. This type of thinking is what leads to people going "on a diet" until their willpower runs out and they come off the diet and right back to square one. To be successful you need to abandon the diet mentality all together and instead commit to small, incremental changes to your eating habits that will stay with you for life.

Your end goal is to focus your eating habits on whole foods that offer the greatest bang for your buck in terms of nutrition per calorie. These are often "one ingredient" foods, meaning they have nothing added to them. Below are some broad categories to focus on.

  • Poultry, fish, eggs, red meat (excluding fried)
  • Vegetables (fresh or frozen for convenience)
  • Fruit (excluding juices and processed snacks)
  • Complex carbs (quinoa, couscous, lentils, oats)
  • Legumes & nuts (peanuts, almonds, walnuts)

The internet is a never-ending source of healthy recipes and ideas, and you should take full advantage of it. Look up a few new recipes each week before grocery shopping and try them until you build a sizeable list of go-tos. Meal prepping several days' worth of healthy meals at once is a great way to save time and stay on track.

Try to avoid eating out as much as possible, most restaurant meals have extraordinary amounts of calories compared to what you can prepare at home. Even seemingly healthy foods are often cooked or served with excessive amounts of oil, cheese, and bread. Preparing your own meals will also help your bank account and can even save time over going out if you cook large batches.

Finally, beware of pseudo health foods when doing your shopping. Many popular "healthy" foods are just junk in disguise, like sugary granola, yogurt, and fruit juices. Many frozen meal options also fall into this category. The truth can always be found on the nutrition label, look for sugar or high fructose corn syrup as an ingredient, high calories per serving, or misleading serving sizes. After a bit of practice paying attention to labels, spotting junk will become second nature.

You now know the science behind weight loss, how to put it into practice by incrementally changing your eating habits, and what foods to focus on. The only remaining piece of the puzzle is a set of additional practices that I've developed over time to help set you up for success.

Prepare for success