“Want to rid yourself of that layer of fat? It’s easy — stop eating garbage! Clean up your diet!”
Sure, that’s what the well-intentioned self-help fitness gurus will tell you. And they’re right, except for one thing … it isn’t all that easy to pivot away from dietary habits you’ve had for years.
Not to mention, there’s a reason we tend to like fatty, sugary foods. They’re good — addictingly so. No plain chicken breast with a side of broccoli will ever contend with a gooey cheese pizza and a side of hot wings on the flavor spectrum. No one in the history of mankind craved a bowl of plain oatmeal or a celery stick.
The truth is, dieting – in the traditional sense – is hard. And tempting foods will play tricks on your brain when you’re particularly calorie starved, making adherence all the much harder. While seeing the scale change and your muscles come into sharper relief is motivational, such goals can be further in the distance than we’d like. That donut, however, is just an arms-length away.
Tidying up your diet, then, might be more about moderate, sustainable actions than a comprehensive, all-at-once spring-cleaning. To help, here are five smaller steps you can implement, one by one, to make the transition a little more palatable.
1. Cut out sugars (and sugar substitutes)
You know that sugar can do terrible things to your diet and physique. So a solid first step toward your goals is to dump the sweet stuff, except perhaps for the occasional cheat meal, which is key for maintaining both sanity and progress. And, since you’ll be reading labels anyway, we suggest avoiding all sweeteners too. That includes artificial sweeteners, which a 2011 study published in The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) found to not satiate us like sugar does, leading us to consume more calories. Also watch for high fructose corn syrup, which a 2014 study out of the University of Southern California found actually makes us hungrier.
If you really have issues with sugar cravings, you may find it better to quit cold turkey than to treat yourself every once in a while. Why? Because the intermittent taste of sugar will keep it on your mind, while giving it up completely will allow you to retrain your taste buds to prefer other foods. Many dieters end up finding that they start craving vegetables, fruits and other clean options over time instead of sugary sweets, which begin to taste too sweet and even artificial.
2. Plan your plate, not your diet
An easy trick is to always start a meal by filling half your plate with fresh (or frozen) vegetables like broccoli, salad, zucchini or whatever favorites you prefer. Veggies are a low-caloric, low-glycemic, high-fiber way to get your carbs, all of which benefits your body inside and out. Plating your vegetables first will help you fill up, for one, while eating foods as close to their natural state as possible means you’re not consuming extra sugar, fat or salt that can wreak havoc on your physique or performance.
3. Stop using cheese as a condiment
We know — but it’s just so damn good! It’s a diet killer, too, unfortunately. Just a tiny one-ounce cube of cheese can clock in at more than 100 calories. Now imagine a day where you might have some cheese as a snack, a cheese slice on a sandwich or burger, and some cheese grated into a salad or burrito. If you ate only an ounce each time, that’s an extra 300 calories. But most people end up eating more than an ounce per sitting. Deleting cheese from the menu will trim a lot of excess calories in a fell swoop.
4. Ditch all your other drinks for water, black coffee or unsweetened tea
These drinks have no calories and no chemicals, which makes them a no-brainer when it comes to hydration. In the case of coffee and tea, they also help provide your body with antioxidants that can help your body recover from tough workouts. Seltzer water is okay too, and helpful if you’re trying to kick a soda habit.
5. Prep your food in advance
To stay on track with a diet, it helps to have good food at the ready to eat when you’re hungry. Helps not to have to cook or do a lot of preparation, too. Otherwise, you’ll be lured by what savvy food companies make all too easy — grabbing a prepackaged item that you can down instantly that is likely overloaded with calories, fat, sugar and preservatives. A great option used by fitness pros is to pick a day (like Sunday) to precook everything you can, from chicken breast to potatoes to rice, and then divide everything into various bags or bowls for the freezer. Just be sure to mark the prep dates on everything — hamburger and other ground meats, for instance, last one to two days in the fridge, and up to three to four months in the freezer, according to data at FoodSafety.gov.