The number of obese Americans has doubled in the past 30 years. Want to know one big reason why? The average American consumes more than 3,800 calories a day. What’s wrong with that? It’s roughly twice as much as we need!

Is dieting the solution? Lots of people apparently think so. Approximately 45 million Americans try diets every year to lose weight. But the true “diets” — the kind that ask you to cut out major food groups, dramatically reduce your calorie count or eat only specific foods — just don’t work. Such drastic shifts in eating are not sustainable or healthy over the long term.

In fact, these types of diets often lead to weight gain. Researchers at UCLA found that while people typically lose 5 to 10 percent of their body weight in the first six months of dieting, after several years, one-third to two-thirds of dieters regain what they lost — and then put on even more pounds.

QUIZ: What’s Your Eating Style?

Try This

Keep a food diary. Tracking what you eat in a journal can double your weight loss, according to a Kaiser Permanente study. The simple act of writing down what you eat can make you more aware of and accountable for how much you eat. Download our free food diary.

“We tell people, please don’t diet,” says Michael McKee, PhD, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who works with obese patients. “We want you to eat differently and exercise.”

What does it mean to eat differently? And does it really lead to long-term weight loss and better health? Quite simply: Yes.

Words to Weigh By
The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) tracks more than 5,000 people who have lost significant amounts of weight (an average of 66 pounds) and kept it off for a long time (an average of 5.5 years). Researchers studying the NWCR have gleaned the following secrets to weight-loss success.

  • Eat a healthy breakfast. Seventy-eight percent of NWCR participants eat breakfast every day. Skipping breakfast does not save calories. Quite the opposite: Eating a healthy breakfast stops you from overloading on calories later in the day. People who skip breakfast report having less energy, so they’re less likely to burn calories through exercise or other physical activity. Start your day with a bowl of oatmeal topped with fresh fruit — this high-fiber breakfast will keep you well nourished and satisfied until lunch.
  • An apple a day…is just the beginning. “Add at least one serving of fruit to your breakfast and lunch, and one serving of vegetables to your lunch and dinner,” suggests Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, a registered dietitian and the director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic. The extra fiber will help you feel full longer so you’re less likely to go for seconds or snack later. Ninety-eight percent of NWCR participants report that they modified their food intake in some way. 
  • Do it daily. NWCR participants who stuck with their food plan seven days a week were one and a half times more likely to maintain their weight loss the following year than those who took weekends off.
  • Be the boss of your plate. “Take an active role in how your food is prepared,” says Elizabeth Ricanati, MD, medical director for the Cleveland Clinic’s Lifestyle 180 program. “Look at the menu online before you go to a restaurant so you can plan what you’ll eat and how to adjust it so it’s healthier.” For example, you can halve the calories of your burger plate by asking the waiter to leave off the bun and swap the fries for a side salad.
  • Weigh in weekly. This way you can make adjustments if the scale starts to creep back up. Seventy-five percent of NWCR participants weigh themselves at least once a week. But don’t step on the scale too often. Your weight can fluctuate day to day, depending on how much water you drink and other factors, and you don’t want those upticks to discourage you.
  • Make more meals. Meals prepared outside the home have more calories than home-cooked food does — and we’re eating them more than ever before. What’s worse, the high-dose combination of sugar, salt and fat in many prepared foods creates a chemical addiction that drives us to eat more of the stuff, even when we’re not hungry, argues David Kessler, MD, the former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and author of “The End of Overeating.” Cooking at home is the only way to control the ingredients in your meals.
  • Banish temptation. When faced with a favorite food, even the most resolute person can cave. “If cookies are your trigger food, don’t keep them in the house,” says Melissa Ohlson, MS, RD, the nutrition projects coordinator for preventive cardiology and rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic Heart & Vascular Institute. “You’ll save money and you won’t be faced with that temptation on a daily basis.”
  • Turn off the tube. When we eat while watching TV, we chow down more and enjoy it less. That’s because we’re too distracted to taste the food or even know how much we’ve gobbled. A University of Buffalo study showed that children who ate in front of the television consumed 500 more calories and ate 21 minutes longer than kids who didn’t eat with the TV on. A British study showed that eating to the drone of the tube led to more snacking a few hours later.
  • Set a realistic goal. Losing one pound a week sounds doable, doesn’t it? And that adds up to 52 pounds over a year. Losing weight slowly through behavior changes means you’re more likely to keep it off. Keep in mind that the extra pounds didn’t all come on in one month — they’re not going to come off that quickly, either. “It’s like the tortoise and hare,” says Dr. Ricanati. “Remember who won.”


by Katherine E. Solem