Contrary to what late-night infomercials and #sponsored Instagram pics would have you believe, there is no magic bullet for losing weight. Ask any health and fitness expert and they’ll tell you that losing weight requires watching what you eat.
But that doesn’t mean you need to log every bite you take and count every calorie. “Counting calories is more of a starting point for weight loss,” says functional medicine nutritionist Katie Morra, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. “Everyone should know about how many calories they need per day to maintain or to lose weight and what that looks like in terms of food. But counting calories is tiring and unrealistic for most people.” Not to mention, that sort of detailed tracking may lead to stress or even disordered eating.
Plus, if you’re just taking wild guesses about your portion sizes, chances are the calories you’re tracking aren’t even accurate anyway, says Alexia Lewis, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., C.H.C., of N.E.W Motivation Coaching.
So instead of painstakingly logging every handful of pretzels you grab when you walk through the kitchen, get started with these simple, no-math-involved ways to lose weight, straight from dietitians themselves.
1. Cut Out Processed Foods
Not all calories are created equal—especially if the calories you’re eating are pumped full of additives. Some of the chemicals added to foods are even referred to as “obesogens,” which have been shown to disrupt the metabolism and contribute to weight gain. (Research published in Nature has found that emulsifies, a super common food additive, can impact gut health and cause obesity in animals.)
But scary-sounding chemicals aside, if you eat a lot of packaged foods, you probably take in more sugar, sodium, and preservatives than you realize. “Processed foods are often empty calories, meaning they have a high calorie content but minimal nutrient benefit,” says Morra. Since these choices are often bereft of fiber and protein, which keep you full, you’re more likely to keep running back for more.
Plus, eating a lot of foods that are high in sugar or artificial sweeteners alters your brain chemistry and taste threshold for sweetness, making you crave even more sugar, she says. And that’s a recipe for weight gain.
Avoid processed foods like white pasta and bread, and added sugar, as much as possible. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar to nine teaspoons (about 37 grams) a day for men and six teaspoons (25 grams) a day for women. Even swapping store-bought granola for a homemade blend of plain Cheerios, sliced almonds, and unsweetened coconut can go a long way.
As you cut back on prepackaged foods, shift your focus to eating five to seven servings of non-starchy vegetables, along with healthy fats and proteins throughout the day, Morra says. (More on that next.)
2. Eat Your Veggies
So, why eat those five to seven servings of non-starchy veggies a day? Vegetables like broccoli, eggplant, and cauliflower are low in calories and packed with nutrients, so you can eat more without overloading on calories. When you make food choices that nourish your body, the pounds fall off much more easily, Morra says.
For example: A cup of cauliflower is just 20 calories, while a cup of while pasta is about 200 calories, and a cup of nuts is a whopping 800, says Lewis. So the more veggies in your diet, the more you can eat without racking up major calories.
That doesn’t mean you have to choke down Brussels sprouts if you hate them, though. Start by finding small ways to add more veggies to your day. One easy move: Instead of eating chips or bleached crackers as a snack, choose carrot chips, cucumber slices, green beans, or grape tomatoes with hummus, Lewis recommends.
3. Build Your Plate Properly
Just how many calories you need depends on your age, weight, activity level, and overall health—but your plate should still reflect that spread of veggies, healthy fats, and proteins, Morra says. Start by filling half your plate with at least two non-starchy vegetables, like leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, peppers, or mushrooms. Then add three ounces of a protein (about the size of your palm) like fish, turkey, chicken, lean ground beef, or two to three eggs. Then, one serving of a healthy fat (about a tablespoon) like olive oil, olives, avocado oil, coconut oil, or coconut. Finally, add a serving of whole-grain carbohydrates like cooked quinoa (half a cup) or brown rice (a third of a cup).
This balance of protein, fiber, and healthy fats will help keep you feeling satiated for longer—and keep overeating and random snacking at bay. Plus, eating this variety will also help you balance your blood sugar, which is associated with having a healthier body weight, says Morra.
4. Follow Hunger Cues
One of the biggest issues with calorie-counting: It shifts your focus away from the biological reasons you eat, says Lewis. If you’re just eating based on the numbers, you may fall pretty out of touch with how hungry or full you feel, which should determine when and how much you eat.
Set yourself up for mindful eating by rating your hunger on a scale of one to 10, with one being starving, five being neutral, and 10 being stuffed. If you are on the hungry side (four or less) eat. Just be careful to not overdo it, because you’ll likely want more than your body needs, Lewis says. So serve yourself half of what you’d want and check in with your hunger 15 minutes after eating. If you’re still hungry, go back for more.
Then, when you hit a comfortable level of fullness (seven or eight on the scale), stop eating—even if there’s still food on your plate. You shouldn’t feel overly full (nine or 10 on the scale) after your meals, Lewis adds. “It’s a difficult habit to build but it does help you learn to eat the right amount of food for your body,” she says.
5. Identify Food Sensitivities
Another major but unexpected way to jump-start weight loss is to identify and address any food sensitivities you may have, says Morra. Why? Eating foods our bodies are sensitive to can trigger a cascade of inflammation, and research has long linked inflammation with being overweight or obese. So if you have a food sensitivity (egg, gluten, dairy, soy, peanut, and corn sensitivities are common), but eat that food every day, you promote chronic inflammation and may have more trouble losing weight.
The best way to confirm if you have a food sensitivity: Meet with a dietitian who can put you on an elimination diet that cuts out possible offenders and reintroduces them after a month or so to gauge how your body reacts. Once any triggers are removed, many people start to lose weight more quickly, Morra says.
6. Get More Sleep
Can you sleep the pounds away? Well, it’s not quite that simple, but not getting enough sleep can have an intense impact on the scale. Lack of sleep (coupled with stress, which often crops up when we don’t sleep enough) can increase your levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), which is associated with higher levels of visceral fat—fat around the organs in your midsection. This can all be dangerous for your health, Morra says. In fact, research recently published in PLOS One linked visceral fat with cardiometabolic risk factors, like high blood pressure, triglycerides, and blood sugar.
Skimping on shut eye can also lead you to reach for less-than-healthy food choices during the day. When you’re overloading on caffeine, sugar, and calories to get through, you catapult yourself toward inflammation, sugar cravings, a crummy diet, and weight gain, says Morra. Research published in Sleep shows that lack of sleep alters the chemical signals that regulate our appetite and energy levels, driving us to reach for unhealthy foods and snack more.