What are the best foods to eat for weight loss? Is there a specific type of diet you should be following to get the best results? If you are feeling confused about what type of meal plan is right for you, you are not alone.
There seem to be an endless amount of diets to choose from these days, with each of them promising the superior results. The reality is that there is no one size fits all approach to healthy eating. We are all different when it comes to what works well for our own unique bodies and individual needs. What worked for your friend, family member, or co-worker may not work for you. And that doesn't mean you are doing it wrong. Our individual needs can differ based on weight, age, level of fitness, allergies, genetic make-up, etc. There is even research suggesting the bacteria in our gut, shaped by where we are from, what we've eaten and where we’ve been throughout our lives, may also influence our nutrition needs (1).
Popular diets are popular because they work, even if only for a short time. And they work because they follow the number one rule to weight loss - they restrict calories in some way. That’s right, every single diet on the market uses some form of calorie control, typically by cutting out food groups or certain items that add empty calories to the diet - like decreasing portion sizes or cutting out sugar, refined grains, and processed foods, helping you to naturally eat less calories overall. The best diets focus on quality as well, emphasizing more whole foods and good nutrition.
No matter what, weight loss ultimately comes down to calories in vs. calories out. And learning how many calories need to eat to lose weight is the right place to start. But, even though how much you are eating is the number one determining factor for weight loss, what you are eating can still affect how successful you are in the long run. If you are eating a poor diet, you may find yourself losing less body fat, feeling hungry, tired and irritable, and struggling with workouts.
To set yourself up for diet victory, regardless of the type of diet you are on, there are a few guiding principles you will want to follow when it comes to food choices. These work well on just about any meal plan and can help you learn how to continue to master healthy eating for years to come.
Eat Real Food
One of the top things that you can do for your health, is to eat real food. This is the stuff we have been eating for hundreds of years and are biologically designed to consume. Real food is any natural, whole food with ingredients you recognize. If your Great Great Grandparents were here today, would they be able to readily identify the food you are eating? Can you picture these ingredients in your head and visualize you making it at home? Did it grow like that? How much processing and manipulation took place to get the food to where it is now?
Real foods provide real nutrition that keep our bodies running like a well oiled machine. Whereas highly processed foods, high in sugar, sodium and trans fats, might play a role in increased inflammation and counteract weight loss efforts (2). One study showed your body may even burn twice as many calories digesting less processed foods. And growing research continues to suggest that eating a diet consisting of mostly whole foods is associated with more weight loss (3,4,5). Look for options with ingredients you can pronounce and recognize, or choose more fresh options that don’t even need an ingredients label. The best real food options include whole foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins.
Learn to Love Vegetables
Vegetables are the gold standard of healthy food choices when it comes to dieting because they are the most nutrient dense food group on the planet. Choosing more nutrient dense foods can help you get more quality nutrition into your diet for less calories. And vegetables give you the most bang per bite, which can make cutting calories a breeze and your overall diet more beneficial. Research suggests that eating more veggies can help control appetite, improve mood, and even give you a natural sexy glow (6,7)!
Aim to stack half of your plate or meals with non-starchy veggies - everything except peas, corn and potatoes - to maximize your nutrition intake and give your diet a healthy boost.
Balance Your Macros
Getting the right balance of macros - carbohydrates, protein and fat - is crucial for maintaining lean muscle, burning fat and staying healthy. Similar to calorie needs, the amount of each macro you need depends on your age, weight, muscle mass and activity level. You can quickly estimate your macro needs using an online calculator or macro-friendly app like Trifecta.
Cut Out Sugar
Sugar can wreak havoc on any healthy eating plan. It is a quick source of calories and energy but provides very little nutrition and health benefits. A diet high in sugar has been linked to weight gain, diabetes and many other chronic diseases. And some research backs up the theory that sugar is addictive, making cravings for high calorie sweets difficult to control (8,9).
It is important to note that added sugar and naturally occurring sugars, like fructose in fruit and lactose in milk, are not the same thing. Naturally occurring sugars tend to be packed in whole foods, providing other beneficial nutrients. Whereas added sugar only provides calories from sugar and contributes to negative health effects.
Eating more whole, real foods is one way to cut down on added sugar. One study suggests that more than half of the average U.S. diet consists of ultra-processed foods, and that these foods account for over 90% of added sugar intake (10). You can avoid processed foods all together, or learn to check the ingredients labels. But beware, there are over 50 different names for sugar added to food!
Fill Up on Fiber
Research points to eating more fiber to help shed pounds (11). Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is not absorbed and used for energy, so eating more high fiber foods can actually help decrease your total carb count. Your inability to absorb most sources of fiber is also why it is so beneficial for keeping your digestive system on track - more fiber tends to keep things moving along. Fiber also helps draw water into your gut which can help you feel fuller longer and promote better blood sugar control.
The top sources of fiber in the diet are plant based foods, like fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains. To keep your appetite in check and gut going strong, you should be eating at least 30g of fiber a day from food.
Eat More Protein
Protein is a key nutrient for weight management because it is important for building and maintaining lean muscle. Lean muscle is where carbs are stored, so the more muscle you have, the more carbs you can consume. And lean muscle is more metabolic than fat, meaning it can help you burn more calories overall.
Choose simple proteins from lean meats and poultry or wild caught fish and seafood. For vegetarians and vegans, many dairy or plant-based options can provide adequate protein for weight loss.
Trim the Added Fat
Fat does not need to be avoided for weight loss. In fact, fat can help fill you up, make your food taste better and may promote better blood sugar control, providing lasting energy. But because fat provides more calories per gram than any other nutrient - 10g of fat provides 90 calories, compared to 10g of protein or carbs that only provides 40 calories- it can add a significant amount of calories to your diet if not accounted for. Most fats consumed are found in toppings and added ingredients like cooking oils, butter, dressings and spreads. You can also find fat in whole food options like meat, nuts and avocados - but these sources contain other beneficial nutrients besides fat and tend to be easier to manage portions.
Include some fat in your diet to get the nutritional benefits, but be mindful of how much fat you are adding to your meals. If cooking or dressing your own meals, keep oil and butter portions to 1 Tbsp or less per person, and don’t overdo it on high fat toppings and ingredients like cream, cheese, nuts, nut butters and seeds. If eating out, opt for grilled, baked or steamed options over fried, breaded, and heavy sauces.
Don’t Drink Your Calories
Calories also count when you drink them! Take a look at your fluid intake and make sure you are accounting for any additional calories your adding to your day. Many beverages can be high in added sugar and low in nutrition, which adds empty calories and could throw off your macros balance. In addition, liquid calories tend to not activate your fullness cues the same way solid food does, and you may still feel hungry afterwards (12).
Alcohol provides a significant source of calories. It is almost as calorically dense as fat, providing seven calories per gram. Alcohol can also affect your blood sugar control and how you metabolize your macros. When you drink heavily, you prioritize metabolizing the alcohol toxins in the drink over anything else you’ve consumed, which could cause you to store more body fat (13). Decrease your alcohol intake or opt for low calorie cocktails in moderation.
Keep it simple and give yourself time to be successful. Results don't happen overnight. And, anything worth doing is always a little difficult at first - but I promise you, it will get so much easier if you can learn to stick to your diet. Try to master these simple principles, or pick one or two to start. Track your intake, find where you need the most work, and tackle that first. Don't feel like you need to overhaul your entire diet and fitness routine all at once. Cutting your calories too low and going on a crash diet can often do more harm than good. It is often small changes that can create the biggest impact over time. Smaller changes are also easier to master and build upon, giving you all the feel good vibes of success throughout your journey, and ultimately, results that will stick.
If you’re looking for a quick and easy solution to real food, that is delicious and will keep your diet on track, check out our Trifecta meal plans.
Davis SC, Dosunmu-Ogunbi ABO, Dosunmu-Ogunbi SO, Barrow SD, Robertson BK (2016) Understanding the Nutritional Needs of the Gut Microbiota. J Hum Nutr Food Sci 4(1): 1079.
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