There’s been a lot of interest in identifying the best diet for reducing body fat. Everyone from scientists to celebrities eagerly advocates for their chosen diet.
What these arguments miss is that most diets work if you stick to them. Another way to say this is that successful fat loss is all about your habits.
Adopting worthwhile lifestyle habits takes will power out of the equation. This is critical because we know that will power has a shelf life. Not only do we run out of it over the course of the day, stress absolutely demolishes will power.
This article gathers the best and worst lifestyle habits for reducing body fat. Based on recent research and common sense, here are the nine best habits for increasing fat loss success.
#1: Combine nutrition & exercise.
Although exercise is not the magic bullet for fat loss that everyone thinks it is, it consistently leads to greater improvements in body composition when combined with better dietary habits.
For example, a 12-month study compared the effect of diet modification (regularly meeting with a nutritionist, food journals, portion control) alone or in conjunction with an exercise program. Results found that women in the diet-plus-exercise group lost more weight (11.6 percent of body weight) than those who just modified their diets (9.6 percent loss of body weight).
Exercise improves body composition outcomes by boosting mood, increasing insulin sensitivity, and building muscle mass. It can also reduce stress and improve sleep, both of which play a role in energy balance and the ability to lose body fat.
#2: Do a food journal.
A common mistake when trying to lose fat is to think you have a clear picture of what you’re eating. Humans are notorious for underestimating how many calories they are eating. This is easily one of the most common reasons people don’t lose fat even though they think they are doing everything right. After all, it’s impossible to solve a problem that you don’t know exists.
An honest food journal will give you raw data you need to overcome bad eating habits. For example, in the 12-month study mentioned in #1, women who consistently did food journals lost an average of 6 pounds more than those who didn’t.
Food journals work because they allow you to identify solutions to weak spots in your diet—for example, are you skipping meals? Or do your food choices deteriorate on stressful work days or when you eat out with friends?
#3: Be mindful of portions. Chewing helps.
Calories do matter. After all, in order to lose fat it’s necessary to take in fewer calories than you expend. Creating an energy deficit is the ONLY way to lose body fat.
Research shows that there are a number of different ways to make sure this happens:
* People on higher protein, lower carb diets tend to naturally eat fewer calories than they expend because the protein is very satiating and provides a metabolic advantage.
* Calorie counting can lead to greater fat loss, especially when combined with higher protein diets that contain a lot of plants.
* Chewing works—studies show people who chew their food more times have a greater increase in satiety hormones so that they eat fewer calories overall.
* Monitoring portions by weighing or measuring food leads to greater fat loss than eating as much as you want. In one study, simply “thinking about the amount of food put on the plate” led subjects to eat substantially fewer calories than if they weren’t mindful about portions.
#4: Don’t skip meals.
Skipping meals seems like it could help you lose fat because it would theoretically save you all the calories from the skipped meal, but studies shows that it generally backfires.
Random meal skipping has a detrimental effect on energy metabolism, and because hunger and stress hormones get out of balance, it stimulates food intake, leading to greater energy intake overall. For example, MRI brain scans show that when people skip meals they have greater activity in the reward pathway of the brain in response to pictures of high-calorie foods.
The one exception to this is a planned intermittent fasting in which people intentionally eat only one or two meals and thereby reduce calorie intake on “fasting” days. The difference is that both meal timing and calorie intake are consistent instead of the haphazard result of a desire to not eat.
#5: Substitute less energy dense foods for higher fat, high-calorie foods.
It’s no surprise that certain foods provide a metabolic advantage:
* Vegetables are filling due to their high fiber and nutrient content but very low in calories.
* Though higher in energy, fruit is also high in indigestible fiber and tends to be very satiating while being lower in calories than grains or processed carbs.
* Protein is very satiating and it costs the body more calories to digest than carbs or fat.
* Whole foods have a higher thermic effect—they cost the body more calories to digest just as protein does—than processed foods.
Studies show that substituting these big bang for your buck foods for higher fat, higher calorie foods can lead to significantly greater fat loss. For example, in one study, women who increased fruit and vegetable intake but reduced the proportion of calories from high-carb foods lost the most weight of all “dieting” options.
#6: Use the first bites rule.
The “first bites” rule says that whatever food you put in your mouth first is the food you’ll eat the most of. For example, when college students started their meal with a high-carb food (dinner rolls or French fries) they consumed nearly 50 percent more calories from that food. Meanwhile, students who started with vegetables ate more veggies overall, which translated into substantially fewer calories and a lower glycemic response.
Adopt the “first bites” rule as a habit and always start meals with vegetables, salad, or protein. Avoid processed and high-glycemic carbs, or at the very least, don’t take a bite of these foods until you’ve already eaten both veggies and protein.
#7: Eat protein at every meal.
Hands down one of the best habits you can adopt for better body composition is to eat protein at every meal. Besides reducing hunger and being calorically costly for the body to digest, protein sustains lean muscle mass so that you burn more calories daily.
Plus, planning meals around protein is a simple way of ”anchoring” meals around lower calorie foods. This approach worked well for young volunteers: Those who ate a serving of high-quality protein at ever meal had the least belly fat and were the leanest around the waist in one study.
A high-quality protein intake is defined as foods that contain a “threshold” amount of 10 grams of essential amino acids (EAAs). These tend to be animal proteins such as beef, fish poultry, dairy, or eggs.
#8: Cook at home.
Cooking at home lets you take control of an out-of-control situation. Not only do you avoid the obesogenic social factor that makes it “ok” to indulge, you have better control over portions, ingredients, and energy density.
It pays off for fat loss: In one year-long weight loss trial, women who ate out less often (less than once a week) lost an average of 5 pounds more than those who ate out at least once a week. Fast food eaters had the worst outcome.
#9: Own your choices. Get rid of guilt.
A 2012 study found that the three habits of doing food journals, not skipping meals, and not eating out were more effective for weight loss than the much more common strategies of meal skipping or reducing fat intake.
The three effective habits have one thing in common—they all require you to take responsibility for your food choices. Food journals allow you to face up to what you’re actually eating. A lot of people make excuses for their diets and don’t realize they have complete control over what they put in their mouths. Pre-planning what and when you eat allows you to own your choices.
A beautiful side effect of this is it eliminates guilty feelings about food. This is key because we know that guilty feelings are associated with a stress response, which is well known to stimulate intake of unhealthy foods.
When adopting new habits, start one at a time so that they have time to sink in and become automatic. The good news is that just one new healthy habit like cooking at home can kickstart other habits that make good nutrition effortless.