Many people heading into the New Year are going to make an attempt to alter their nutrition, whether for weight loss or better health, or both. There’s no single magic bullet to making lasting changes in an area as deeply rooted in our behavior as eating. But, in my practice I have helped over 2,000 people to lose weight and take control of their nutrition. I’ve even written a book about it. And in my experience, there are a few simple diet tricks that really do work. So, here are my top five tips for successful dieting. I hope they are as helpful to you in the new year as they’ve been for my clients.
Outsmart Your Hunger Hormone
Most people launch into dieting by trying to starve themselves, and in particular by avoiding carbohydrates. We tend to think that we’ll just manage the resulting hunger. But the particular kinds of deprivation involved in this form of dieting will make it virtually impossible to succeed.
To manage your hunger, you’re going to need to outsmart it. This is because hunger is largely driven by a hormone called ghrelin, which is released by our stomach when it is empty for several hours. Ghrelin is one of our bodily survival tactics—a hormone secreted in the stomach to ensure that we eat. And once ghrelin is released, we are powerless to avoid eating. All of your best intentions are not going to be able to stand up to the urgent, biological hunger created by the spiking of this hormone. So the trick is to stop it from spiking in the first place.
Ghrelin will spike after about 3 to 4 hours of fasting, so science tells us that the best way to control it is to eat small, balanced meals about every 3 hours or so. Ghrelin will also spike if you’re deprived of carbs. While many diets warn against the dangers of carbs, you should understand that trying to avoid them completely is likely to put you in a position where you overeat them out of a bodily desperation that you cannot control. Skipping meals or avoiding carbs is an invitation to ghrelin to spike. This will make you both physically and emotionally hungry, craving sugar and willingly throwing your plans and good intentions right out the window.
Go Ahead, Eat After 7 PM
Good news for busy folks—it is a total myth that you will gain weight as a direct result of eating after 7 PM. I know what you’ve heard, but it just isn’t true. For years I have been telling my clients to go ahead and eat in the evening, and I have seen this advice pay off. And with a private practice in San Francisco, I see many busy professionals who often get home around 7 PM.
Not only should they not skip dinner, I tell them that there is absolutely no downside to eating later—as long as it is part of a planned eating cycle. People who stop eating by 5 PM are actually likely to overeat the following day as they wake up after 12 to 15 hours of starvation. Instead of the hour on the clock, you should think of the distribution of calories throughout the day. Plan to eat 70% of your calories before dinnertime and 30% at dinner, whenever that may be. Just give yourself at least 90 minutes to digest before bed so you can sleep comfortably.
Set a Date with Your Supermarket and Kitchen
New Year’s resolutions often involve a determination to hit the gym at all costs. Ok. But what about making time for a trip to the grocery store, or for some time in the kitchen? If you spend all your free time at the gym, and thus end up eating take-out or fast food because you had no time to shop and cook, have you really done yourself any favors?
Based on what I have seen in my practice I recommend that clients devote 80% of their efforts to nutrition and 20% to exercise. “The only solution is to start cooking!” says registered dietitian Janet Helm, author of The Food Lover’s Healthy Habits Cookbook, which outlines a plan for adopting 12 healthy habits – including cooking at least three more meals a week.
Plan a day to shop. If need be, take one of your planned gym days and dedicate that time to shopping and cooking instead. The calories you save by not eating out will more than make up for the missed workout. Before you go to the store, make a shopping list, and don’t deviate from it! What’s on the list? A whole chicken for roasting. A selection of vegetables (peppers, eggplant, sweet potatoes). Healthy carbohydrates (brown rice).
Plan a time to cook—perhaps Sunday afternoon. Roast the chicken. Cut up the vegetables, toss them with olive oil, and roast them in the same oven as the chicken. Cook the rice. Now you have everything you need for burritos, for pasta sauce, for salads, for a stew, for all your meals for the week. Assemble each evening for a healthy meal after work—or the gym.
Don’t Lose Sleep Over It
Impulse control is a key factor in weight management, and a lack of sleep, which makes people easily irritated and impulsive, is a real hindrance in that department. But a lack of sleep also contributes to the production of your old friend ghrelin, the hormone that creates the sensation of hunger. So if you don’t get at least six hours of sleep a night, you will find that not only are you hungrier the next day, but you are in a particularly poor position to resist that hunger spike, since your stress management resources are also diminished.
And what is the quickest way to create a sense of satiation as well as emotional reward? Sugar. Obviously, that is not part of your new year’s diet plan. Better to get some sleep, and avoid this precarious situation.
Breathe Deeply, and Often
Of course, you have no real choice but to breathe. But the fact is that few of us breathe as deeply, consciously, or regularly as we should. Thought experiment: when was the last time you focused for a few moments on drawing a deep, long, slow, breath, and letting it out in the same manner? Try it now. Doesn’t it feel incredible?
Deep breathing, when you give yourself the time and space to do it properly, can reduce stress and stress hormones, oxygenate your brain and tissues, and help you to focus on yourself and your goals. Take breathing breaks throughout the day. Plan them for particular, regular times (noon and 3PM, perhaps), put them on your calendar, or set an alarm.
Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice, MV Nutrition, award winning nutrition and weight loss center in San Francisco. He is the founder and creator of Eating Free, an international weight management and wellness program and author of Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Embrace Your Hunger, and Keep Weight Off for Good and his new book Peruvian Power Foods: 18 Superfoods, 101 Recipes, and Anti-Aging Secrets from the Amazon to the Andes (HCI, October 2013)