If you’re looking for easy ways to lose weight now, and want a list of healthy foods to eat that help burn fat naturally, there are tricks to losing weight without dieting, but they may not be what you think. What does not work, science tells us, is extreme dieting and calorie restriction. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the secret to losing weight and keeping it off can be found in the produce aisle, not in extreme dieting. Counting calories is the opposite of what you need to do for lasting success. The key to losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight your whole life is fairly simple, and it involves prioritizing foods that are whole and plant-based, not processed or full of animal fat.
In a follow-up study that looked at 14 contestants from The Biggest Loser six years later after being on the show, all of them had gained back weight, even after successfully shedding enormous amounts of fat on a quick-fix program, driven largely by extreme calorie restriction, exercise, and the motivation of being seen in spandex on national TV. The ratings were high, but the weight loss success was fleeting. That’s because of what experts call “metabolic adaptation,” where the body learns to slow down its metabolism in response to being starved. Long after the fad diet is over, the body still burns up to 500 fewer calories a day, which is significant, the study found.
According to an Australian study into why extreme diets don’t work, people who try extreme calorie-restricting diets end up gaining more weight than those who don’t, since by virtually starving yourself, your body gets confused and believes that you’re not kidding around; to survive, your brain tells the body to put itself into power-saving mode. When, after the extreme diet is done and you go back to eating normally, your body continues to store the calories as fat, to insulate you against starvation. The result is that just by eating the same amount of calories as you did before, you gain weight. The researchers’ conclusion: “Dieting to lose weight can contribute to the risk of future obesity and weight gain.” Ouch.
So what does work for losing weight, when all is said and done? There are five basic rules that people who have lost weight and kept it off follow. These are not diets, nor do they require counting calories. They do require that you toss the junk food, the processed carbs, and the added sugar, oil, fat, and essentially anything that comes in a bag (chips) or a box (cookies) or lasts longer on a shelf than it logically should (pop-tarts). French fries are out (added oil, sorry), but a baked potato makes the cut (because it’s a whole food).
Here are five easy rules to lose weight without dieting or counting calories– and if you think these are “unsexy” and too much like your mom’s best advice, that’s because they work.
5 Rules to Lose Weight Without Dieting or Counting Calories
1. Add fiber to every meal
Eat a whole food plant-based diet. Carbs are not all created equal. What you get nutritionally from a blueberry is not the same as a blue M&M. Essentially, the trick to losing weight is to keep blood sugar steady, and not allow it to spike, by eating a bagel or donut or pastry for example – these foods are full of empty calories and added sugar that rushes through the digestive system, get absorbed in minutes, and create a surge in glucose, then insulin, then fat. Add fiber to neutralize this. How does fiber magically prevent this, and boost weight loss?
Fiber acts as a miracle ingredient in the body, to slow down the absorption of your food, keeping the calorie flow to your bloodstream and cells down to a manageable trickle, and never flooding the body with more sugar than it needs at any given moment. (Essentially unless you are running a marathon and need a gu or gel to get to your muscles as quickly as possible, you don’t need all that sugar all at once.)
Fast fact: Your bloodstream can only contain one teaspoon of sugar at a time. The bloodstream only holds four grams of glucose at a time, equal to just under a teaspoon full. After that, it forces sugar to go into storage, in the muscles, the liver, or cells that need energy because they are being used. If you have too much sugar and the cells are topped off, and your liver’s glycogen storage is full, the excess gets stored as fat. Eat a donut and that sugar spikes, and in order to not have more than you can burn off right away, your insulin hormone goes into action and “sells” the calories to the cells. If your muscles and organs aren’t buying the extra gets carted off to storage. That’s fat.
In a recent study, adding a salad to a meal can keep blood sugar low or steady, even if the rest of the meal was high in carbs and fat. The idea then is to add high-fiber foods whenever possible. If you must have a slice of pizza, load it up with peppers, spinach, mushrooms, and onions, to add fiber so that your body slows down the absorption of calories from the dough. Rather than beat yourself up for eating extra calories add fiber to every meal to burn fat faster.
How do you get fiber? It’s not in animal products like meat or dairy, but it is in things that grow in the ground, meaning all plant foods, since plants need fiber to reach for the sky. Eat anything you can or could grow: Vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains that are as unprocessed as possible. The idea that carbs exist in starchy vegetables has been misconstrued by the low-carb dieting world. When you eat a carrot the carbs come with nutrients and vitamins, essential to your metabolism and healthy body functions. You also get plenty of fiber (so long as you don’t cook it to mush).
Aim to get at least 21 to 25 grams of fiber daily (for a woman) and 30 to 38 grams a day (for a man), according to the Mayo Clinic. Don’t count calories – but do add up your fiber. Remember that fiber is not just for old folks or to go to the bathroom regularly. It keeps blood sugar steady and normal, which means that your body, when it needs to burn calories because you’re moving and active, will dip into storage for fuel, and burn fat as needed.
2. Cut portions in half
Here’s a crazy thought: Your grandmother was smaller than you were at the same age. That’s a guess – but look back at her wedding photos, or any old photos for that matter. Chances are the people all look more slender than our contemporary Americans do today. The obesity epidemic only took flight in the 1980s when foods became packed with added sugar and drinks were sticky with high fructose corn syrup.
Back in the sixties and seventies, portions were smaller (by nearly half) and so were we. As Americans, we move less, eat more, and are subsequently larger than our ancestors. More than 40 percent of Americans are obese. Because of this, half of all Americans have heart disease (or 48 percent) who know it. Doctors believe many more have heart disease who don’t know it yet.
Meanwhile, more than 1 in 3 adults – or 88 million people – have pre-diabetes and millions more have full-blown type 2 diabetes, which is a disease when the pancreas is unable to make insulin, so we need to replace it. But it didn’t start out that way (unless you have type 1 diabetes which is considered genetic). The type that more Americans have is like an over-use injury. First, the insulin system gets put into overdrive – when too many calories come in that can’t get used up by normal cell function or muscle activity – then it gets stuck in the “on” position, which is what happens during insulin resistance when your cells stop listening to the signal to use up the glucose in your bloodstream, or all these extra calories must get stored as fat, and the system wears out.
Simply put, we’re eating too much. The average person eats about 3,600 calories a day. We only need, on average 2,000. For some people, even that’s too much. If you’re active or a large male you may need more. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN calculates how much energy a person needs to cover their basic metabolism and their daily activity levels, and simply put, we are eating more than our fair share. We don’t need almost double the number of calories in a day than we can burn. Nor does it do us any good.
Protein is good up to a point, and then after that, it’s just extra calories. Eating more of anything, whether it’s carbs or vegetable oil (which has seen the steepest rise of all calorie intake since 1961) or protein is just too much. Americans are obsessed with getting more protein, but once you eat more than you need, it just gets converted into sugar and stored as fat.
To compute how much protein you need, multiply your weight in kilograms by .8 grams. If you work out a lot or are older you may need more, so you can multiply your weight in kilograms by 1.4 grams. But beyond that, if you eat more, it just leads to gaining weight, which is why the obesity trend has risen up in the past few decades, along with our obsession with protein. We are just eating too much food, protein included, by a ratio of nearly 2 to 1.
Eating too much not only leads to weight gain and diabetes but cancer too. In his excellent book on the growth of cancer over the past few decades, Dr. Jason Fung connects the dots between the surge in calories to the body’s insulin hormone, which signals the cells to “grow” and the growth in obesity-related cancers. The Cancer Code makes a clear case for cutting our portions and eating less of everything. So rather than count calories, simply tell yourself to only eat half of what you would consider a normal potion.
3. Avoid added sugar and extra oil
The kind of sugar in fruit and the kind of oil in olives or avocados are fine. The problems come from added sugar, or extra oil, which are found in processed foods like crackers, chips, and cookies. Even tomato sauce bought at the store has added sugar. If you want to lose weight, make your own meals, cook your own (mostly) plant-based food, and don’t buy store-bought anything, especially foods that are processed.
Animal products like meat and dairy, such as eggs and cheese, are high in omega-6 fatty acids that lead to inflammation, insulin insensitivity, and obesity, as well as mood disorders. The more packaged foods and animal products you eat, the higher your chance of having too many omega-6 fatty acids, and of gaining weight.
As our intake of omega-6s has gone up, our intake of omega-3s has not, contributing to the prevalence of obesity. “An increase in the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio increases the risk for obesity,” researchers have found. To get more omega-3 in your diet eat chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, edamame, kidney beans, and other plant-based foods that are great sources of omega-3 healthy fats.
Naturally occurring sugar in starchy vegetables and fruits are fine
There are diets that restrict bananas and grapes, and any other high glycemic index foods that turn starchy vegetables like potatoes into sugar quickly but if you tried, you could not gain a lot of weight on whole foods, since they contain fiber. The kind of fructose in a half cup of berries is also packed with fiber, nutrients, vitamins and natural compounds that actually boost your metabolism and strengthen your immunity, so avoiding fruit is a terrible idea right now.
What isn’t? Avoid processed food that masquerades as healthy when it is, in fact, junk. Get rid of cereals (unless it’s oatmeal) and crackers, bread, pasta, and rice unless they have fiber content that is 3 to 4 grams per serving. Read every label and look for a carb to fiber ratio that is 5-to-1, meaning for 5 grams of carbs you need 1 gram of fiber. The more fiber the better. Multigrain Cheerios have a ratio of 7-to-1 so even if a boxed food sounds healthy, check it!
As for which whole plant-based foods are the best bargain, in terms of carbs to fiber, you can look at the net carbs of a food. No need to go crazy worrying about the carbs in whole foods, however since they are full of vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals, and immune-boosting antioxidants, but if your goal is to keep an eye on total carbs, just subtracts fiber from total carbs to calculate net carbs. Here is a quick glance at some of the best bargains in the produce aisle.
4. Stop eating after an early supper
You don’t need to intermittent fast in order to lose weight, but studies have shown that eating at the same time every day will help keep your blood sugar normal (not spiking) and that your body does best when you stick to eating within a window of 10 to 12 hours or even fewer and allows it to take care of “other business” in the remaining hours.
So if you slightly delay eating in the morning to start at 10 am or 11 am and then eat a healthy whole foods diet throughout the day (skipping the processed food) and end at 7 pm. with an early supper, then tell yourself “kitchen is closed.” It can help to take a shower, brush your teeth and settle in with a cup of herbal tea and a good book to wind down. If you want to watch TV, then disassociate screens with snacking. Tell yourself you can enjoy your Hulu habit or Netflix shows with mindlessly munching. One visual treat does not need to be accompanied by another type of sweet treat.
By quitting eating early you give your body time to do the important cleanup work it needs to do, in terms of immune system function and “search and destroy” missions that will let it find and sweep out any broken bits of viruses or invaders that are hoping to avert detection.
Called “autophagy,” this clean-up work requires the body to not need to do the work of metabolizing the food and accompanying toxins that we eat. Studies show that intermittent fasting, or any kind of long stretch between eating (even if it’s just 12 to 14 hours), can help the immune system fight off infection. So to lose weight and stay healthy, leave space and time between eating.
5. Move – A lot – and strength train
You know that exercise burns calories, and the longer you stay on your feet and in motion, the better for fat-burning purposes. Your body has a ready supply of energy packed into the muscles in the form of glycogen stored in your liver and this is your “first” energy system, but once it gets depleted after about 45 minutes of steady jogging, biking, or swimming, or other steady exertion, your body switches over to burning fat in the mix. But that’s quite a long time to ask a body to keep going, without actually seeing dramatic results other than slowly burning off the weight. If you work out for 45 minutes as a 150 person you can burn about 400 to 600 calories. But you can eat the same calories you burned, pretty easily, in about 10 minutes.
Build a better engine, don’t just burn off the gas. Strength training helps you build more muscle fiber, which burns more calories at rest – so just sitting there in your chair reading this, you’ll burn more calories if you have more muscle tone than fat.
Because you lose muscle tone every decade after 30, strength train three times a week to keep your body healthy and toned and to burn more energy even at rest. Then add in HIIT or high-intensity interval training to your weekly schedule, and the three types of working out taken together: Cardio, Strength, and HIIT will ensure that you turn yourself into a calorie-burning machine. That’s how you lose weight without dieting, and you can even enjoy more extra treats when you’re working out on a daily basis.
Bottom Line: To lose weight without dieting eat more fiber and cut portions in half
The key to lasting weight loss is not calorie restriction, but focusing on eating a plant-based diet of whole foods that are high in fiber to slow down absorption and allow blood sugar to remain steady, and not spike. The other aspect is that since 1961 our calorie intake has soared, so to fight obesity and maintain a healthy weight, we should cut down on our portion sizes and eat about half of what we have gotten used to eating and stay away from junk food.
For more great nutrition, weight loss and healthy eating content check out The Beet’s story on Everything You Need to Know About Weight Loss on a Plant-Based Diet.