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1. Ban the word "diet" from your vocabulary.
"Diets are temporary," says Lona Sandon, RD, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The word implies you'll go off it at some point rather than developing healthy habits you can maintain throughout your life. Plus "diet" is such a motivation-killer thanks to its many negative connotations (hunger and deprivation, to name just two). "Focus on the positive aspects of eating healthfully, such as feeling more energetic," recommends Sandon.
2. Don't make it all about dress size.
Yes, wanting to fit into your skinny jeans can inspire you to slim down, but you're more likely to succeed if you think beyond the superficial, says Ruth Frechman, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Meaningful goals like setting a good example for your kids or avoiding a health problem that runs in your family are more motivating and will make it easier for you to resist temptation," she says. Write your goals down and refer to the list often to reinforce your determination.
3. Be realistic.
Forget everything the weight-loss infomercials tell you: Dropping a dress size in a matter of days is pure fantasy. "Trying to lose too much too quickly will frustrate you, and you'll be more likely to give up on your weight-loss plan when it doesn't happen," says Frechman. Aiming to shed a pound a week is more realistic. Better yet, don't just focus on the scale. Create easily attainable mini-goals like using skim milk in your coffee instead of half-and-half. Meeting them will help you feel successful and excited to make more healthy changes.
4. Think twice before you drink.
It's easy to convince yourself that liquid calories don't count, partly because you consume them so quickly, says Brian Wansink, PhD, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. "When it takes little to no effort to swallow something, people will almost always say it has fewer calories than it does," he explains. Another reason that beverages don't seem filling? Gulping down a drink doesn't provide the same satisfying sensory experience that chewing food does. Don't be fooled -- give soda, sugary coffee concoctions, and other high-calorie drinks the same "occasional treat" status you assign to foods like cake and brownies.
5. Don't swear off your favorite foods.
Making treats totally off-limits could sabotage your weight-loss goals, research from the University of Toronto suggests. Dieting women who were deprived of chocolate for a week had more intense cravings than those without any food restrictions, and they consumed twice as much chocolate as they usually did when they were finally permitted to eat it. The smarter strategy is to allow yourself a small portion of the treats you love, says Sandon. "That way, you won't feel deprived or obsess about what you can't have."
6. Expect imperfection.
Okay, so maybe one of those small indulgences turned into a big splurge. Instead of feeling guilty -- which may prompt you to eat even more -- let it go and tell yourself you'll make better choices at your next meal. Ironically, expecting the occasional setback could strengthen your powers of resistance. A study published in Psychological Science found that people who are the most confident in their self-control may be more likely to give in to temptation.
7. Visualize your success.
Picture your slimmer self walking on a beach in your bathing suit, playing with your kids without getting out of breath, and wowing friends and family with your new shape. "Images like these provide the enthusiasm you need to keep eating well and exercising," says Katherine Tallmadge, RD, author of Diet Simple: 192 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations.
8. Mind your table manners.
Do you find yourself racing through meals even when you're not short on time? Wolfing down your food isn't just rude -- it could prevent you from reaching your weight-loss goals. That's because eating too quickly may interfere with the release of gut hormones that help you feel full, which could lead to overeating, according to research published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. Train yourself to eat more slowly by putting down your utensils between each bite. "You shouldn't be loading up your fork if you haven't even finished chewing the previous bite," says Frechman. Taking the time to savor the taste, texture, and aroma of your meal may help you feel satisfied with less food.
9. Be a picky eater.
Don't waste precious calories on foods you don't really love. Before you raid your coworker's candy drawer, for example, stop and ask yourself: Is this a special must-have indulgence or could I eat it any time? Would I rather spend my calories on something else? You may realize that the candy isn't a must-have after all.
10. Don't indulge a craving the minute it strikes.
It will probably go away in 15 to 20 minutes (we're serious!). Distract yourself while you wait out a yearning for cookies by drinking a glass of water, playing a game on the computer, or taking a walk. Or simply picture anything other than cookies. In a recent study conducted at Flinders University, in Australia, volunteers who had been experiencing food cravings reported that those cravings eased after they were asked to think about nonfood images and aromas.
11. Avoid peer pressure.
You've probably heard that women are more likely to overindulge when they eat with other women. To avoid social dining sabotage on girls' night out, check the restaurant's menu on its Web site (or look it up on menupages.com) and make a healthy meal choice ahead of time. "Picture yourself saying your order and asking the waiter for water with lemon instead of soda," says Sandon. Placing your order first helps, too -- once you've asked for the grilled chicken salad with dressing on the side, you won't be as easily swayed by a pal who orders mac and cheese.
12. Ditch the put-downs.
Negative beliefs like "I have no willpower" or "I'll always be this heavy" can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies. (Needless to say, they won't do much for you in the motivation department, either.) The good news is that positive self-labels can also influence reality. People who describe themselves as being healthy eaters report consuming more fruits and vegetables and fewer unhealthy foods, according to a study conducted at the University of Ottawa. Think it, be it -- there's no easier weight-loss strategy than that!
1. Bathroom scale
"If the number on the scale isn't going down, it's telling you to eat less or be more active," says Frechman. Weigh yourself no more than twice a week at the same time of day. If you don't have a scale or you'd rather not use one, break out the tape measure and track the size of your chest, waist, hips, and thighs instead.
2. Measuring cups and a food scale
Weighing and measuring what you eat -- at least at the beginning of your weight-loss plan -- will help you learn how to eyeball proper portion sizes. "If you find you've been overeating, scale back your servings gradually to give yourself time to adjust," says Bethany Thayer, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
3. Food diary
A study from Kaiser Permanente's Center for Health Research found that people who jotted down what they ate every day lost twice as much weight as those who didn't keep records. Note when you eat as well -- it can help you pinpoint unhealthy eating patterns. (You may discover that you've been indulging that 3 p.m. sugar craving more often than you realized.)
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2010.