When people want to lose weight, the first thing they think to do is eat less. After all, we’ve long been told that shedding pounds is a simple equation of taking in fewer calories than we use. The only problem is that cutting too many calories can completely backfire on our fat loss efforts.
“Everyone wants to lose weight quickly, and many people make the mistake of being too restrictive,” explains Torey Armul, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
True fat loss generally occurs at a rate of between 0.5 and two pounds per week. Any weight lost faster than that is either coming from water weight or muscle mass—especially if you’re seriously cutting calories. “The body finds fuel where it can,” explains Armul. “When there aren’t enough calories coming in, the body can actually break down muscle tissue for energy.”
When this happens, your metabolism takes a hit, explains Lisa R. Young, Ph.D., R.D., adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University and author of The Portion Teller Plan. Muscle helps you burn more calories at rest, so when you lose that lean tissue, your weight loss can screech to a halt.
Not to mention, when you drastically cut calories, you’re more likely to feel deprived and end up overeating when you do treat yourself—which can lead to weight gain if it becomes a pattern.
Sound familiar? If so, eating more—more of the right foods, that is—may be exactly what you need to finally start seeing the results you crave and drop fat for good.
“You shouldn’t be hungry when you’re trying to lose weight, and if you are, you’re not going to sustain it,” says Young. If you feel hungry throughout the day, you’re either not eating enough of the right foods, or enough calories overall.
“You need a certain amount of calories every day just to live, breathe, move, and support every cell and function in your body,” says Armul. Eating enough of the right foods helps you work better, sleep more soundly, crush stress, and burn more calories when you work out—all good things for your waistline.
Now, there’s no way around the fact that you still need to be in a caloric deficit to shed pounds—but if you load up on foods that are high in filling nutrients but low in calories, you can achieve that calorie deficit and reach your goals without stress or calorie-counting.
Of course, certain foods will have to go. Sugary breakfast cereals, frozen pizzas, chips, and fried foods, which are high in calories but provide little nutritional value and don’t fill you up, are off the menu. Think of it this way: You want as many forkfuls (or volume) as possible for as few calories as possible—and you can’t do that eating Hot Pockets.
Now, the fun part: Fruits and vegetables, which contain lots of water and fiber (fiber is super-filling and keeps you satisfied between meals), provide tons of nutrition for very few calories—so you can load up on things like veggie-based soups, leafy greens, watermelon, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and more without the possibility of going overboard on calories.
While one cup of your average white spaghetti costs you more than 350 calories and 70 grams of carbs (and provides less than four grams of fiber), three cups of zucchini noodles contains just 54 calories and 11 grams of carbs (and provides the same amount of fiber as the wheat noodles). The more you swap refined, processed foods for produce, the more you can eat to satisfaction while keeping your calories in check. And with all of the healthy food creations out there these days (hello, cauliflower gnocchi), it’s easier than ever to do so.
“Fats are digested slowly, so they can keep you feeling full longer than carbohydrates—and slowly-digested nutrients and fullness are key factors in losing weight,” she says. (Not to mention, dietary omega-3s also ward off inflammation and support heart and brain health.) And probiotics? In addition to fighting inflammation and supporting regularity, some research shows the probiotics in your gut may also play a role in weight control (though more research needs to be done to fully understand the link).
Here’s how to make it happen: Start every meal with plenty of vegetables, and then incorporate healthy fats and lean proteins to fill you up and keep you feeling satisfied longer, Armul says. And whether it’s through a morning bowl of yogurt, a grilled salmon steak for dinner, or a daily supplement, get those probiotics and omega-3s in, too!