Dieting sucks. There, we said it. That’s because so many of the slimdown principles you hear over and over are rooted in negativity and deprivation. (Reduce calories! Don’t eat after 6 p.m.! Make sandwiches with no bread!) Oh yeah, and diets don’t work: A growing body of research is revealing that traditional dieting is rarely effective in the long run and can even do harm, such as cause metabolic damage. The new perspective: It’s wiser to identify which food habits make your body (and mind) feel good. "Take the miserable dieting stuff off the table and set a completely new foundation that’s focused on positive intentions and mindfulness," says Katie Cavuto, RD, author of Whole Cooking and Nutrition. The healthy eating tactics you’ll discover here are your launchpad; put them to use starting today and you’ll shake off food guilt and enter the new year slimmer—and happier.
The famous ladies of Friends reportedly ate the same Cobb-style salad for lunch on set nearly every day for 10 years—and they may have been onto something. “You actually have more success keeping to a healthy routine through what I call delicious monotony,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, author of the new book The Superfood Swap. Science backs up the strategy: When researchers at the University of Buffalo asked a group of women to either eat the same dish for five consecutive days or have it only once a week for five weeks, the “eat and repeat" group consumed fewer calories overall than those who had more food options. Variety can complicate the decision-making process around meals, points out Blatner. “When you’re a creature of habit with food, it streamlines your diet and keeps you from making snap decisions about what you’re going to eat and whether it’s healthy,” she explains. “It makes grocery shopping faster and meal planning and prepping easier.” So if you’re on dinner number five of that farro energy bowl you’re currently obsessed with, bon appétit. Once you’re bored, adds Blatner, “start a new cycle with another healthy favorite of yours.”
The universally loved condiment is lighter than you might think. “It’s usually just tomato, onions, cilantro, and some lime juice,” says Ashvini Mashru, RD, owner of Wellness Nutrition Concepts in Malvern, Penn. “I use it to top grilled chicken to displace fattening marinades, and I put it in omelets and on turkey burgers to add flavor without cheese.” Toss together two 1-pint containers of cherry tomatoes (diced), half a small white onion (peeled and finely chopped), 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1⁄8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, a small chopped and seeded jalapeño pepper, 1⁄3 cup chopped fresh cilantro, and 1 teaspoon lime juice. Scoop it with veggies or a handful of whole-grain pita chips.
An anti-carb attitude is outdated, says Blatner. Research has shown that carbohydrates with resistant starch help curb hunger and promote satiety; it takes time and energy for resistant starch to break down in the body, so it causes less of an insulin spike than other types of carbs. “Clients come to me and say, ‘I’m not eating carbs, because I want to be serious about weight loss,’ and I’m like, ‘Carbs are essential for weight loss,’” says Blatner. “Regularly eating healthy carbs helps you crave less of the junky, processed kinds because you’re giving your body the energy source it needs, and you’re giving yourself the mental satisfaction.” Instead of a dinner of just fish and vegetables, add potato wedges. Or throw a scoop of rice or quinoa into a vegetable stir-fry.
You’re at home, famished, and tempted to grab a bag of the mini muffins you bought for the kids rather than open your fridge full of fruit. Before choosing a snack, pause for a moment of appreciation: Think about how hard someone worked to grow that produce, how much you love the natural juiciness of an orange, how walking to the farmers’ market allows you to get some fresh air. Can you say the same about packaged cookies?
"You’ll probably notice how much gratitude you can find for foods that nourish you, and how it’s harder to come up with meaningful moments of gratitude for the foods that don’t," notes Cavuto. "That’s often enough to help you make thoughtful choices." Even better? Do it daily; research suggests that people with a habit of giving thanks tend to eat healthier than those who don’t regularly express gratefulness.
Contrary to popular belief, these "forbidden foods" are fine for your waistline.
White potatoes. You may have been avoiding them due to their high carb content, but the problem with potatoes isn’t the carbs—it’s how many folks eat them, as chips and fries or stuffed with butter, say the RDs. Potatoes are full of vitamins and potassium and are low in calories (a medium potato has about 110). They’re also considered to be good carbs for dieters because they increase satiety.
Dried fruit. You may have heard that it's essentially gummy candy. But it's okay to snack on if you select a brand with no added sugars, and don’t overdo it; dried fruit is more calorie-dense than the raw stuff (picture a cup of grapes versus a cup of raisins). But the fiber and vitamins are still there.
Whole-milk Greek yogurt.The fat helps you stay satiated. Plus, research published last year in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that out of more than 18,000 women, those who ate the most high-fat dairy products lowered their risk of being overweight or obese by 8 percent across the course of the study.
Cereal and milk. Thought that all cereals are loaded with sugar and have no nutritional value? That's simply not true. “Choose a cereal that has more than 2 1/2 grams of fiber per serving and isn’t just a bowl of added sugar, and have it with 8 ounces of whole milk,” says Mashru. Aim for 10 grams of sugar or less per serving, she says, and add fruit if you want extra sweetness.
"I don’t prescribe portion sizes,” says Cavuto. Why? If you allot yourself a specific quantity of food, you end up noshing on autopilot without paying attention to your hunger, she explains: “When you tell someone, ‘You can have 3 ounces of chicken, this much of a whole grain,’ you’re giving them permission to check out and not eat mindfully.” (Plus, a recent analysis of several studies on the role of portion control in weight management, published in International Journal of Obesity, determined that urging people to simply “eat less” of everything probably isn’t the best way to help them reduce calorie intake.) To build a healthy meal, trust your gut, urges Cavuto. “We are smart, capable adults, and we understand what a balanced plate looks like,” she says. “It has a lot of vegetables, some good carbs, a reasonably sized piece of meat—don’t complicate it.”
Turn a home salad from sad to restaurant-level: Mix and match your base greens to create more flavor. (Star pairings: arugula and spinach, Boston Bibb and endive, curly kale and dinosaur kale.) Or combine grains and shredded zucchini for a texture-filled alternative to greens, says Alissa Rumsey, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Then add not-so-traditional veggies, such as snap peas and pickled beets. An ideal formula: 2 to 3 cups of your base, 1 to 1 1/2 cups of other veggies, 3 ounces of lean protein (chicken, edamame, grilled shrimp) and a thumb-size amount of fat (like avocado). Chop it all up to make each bite flavor-dense, then dress it the chef way, with olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, and fresh herbs.
Not hopping on the latest health-food bandwagon doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong track. "I’ve had clients call me and say, ‘I just have to tell you—and I’ve tried it a million different ways—I will never like quinoa,’” says Cavuto. (Hey, 27 percent of Americans said they’re “over” quinoa anyway, per Zagat’s 2016 National Dining Trends Survey.) You’re doing yourself a disservice by trying to force-eat a food or meal you don’t find delicious just because it’s trendy, she cautions: “It won’t leave you satisfied, and you’ll still eat the less nourishing thing you wanted in the first place.” Go against the grain (wink) and find ingredients you can truly get on board with. Superfood stand-ins Cavuto loves: millet in place of quinoa, wild blueberries over acai, and spinach instead of kale.
Three tricks the food pros use to ditch that annoying puffiness:
Have pineapple and ginger: Pineapple is high in the enzyme bromelain, which helps break down protein and ease digestion; ginger is an anti-inflammatory that can relax digestive tract muscles. Blend both into a breakfast smoothie.
Skip chewing gum: Many dieters take up this habit to keep from snacking, but it causes you to gulp in extra air, contributing to bloating.
Eat mini meals: Instead of having three large meals during the day, eat five or six smaller ones. This can prevent the stuffed feeling after downing a large meal, as well as the intestinal gas.