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We're with you: Dieting is no picnic. But here's a little secret -- it's not nearly as hard as most of us think. "A lot of women believe they need to change everything, but in reality small tweaks to your diet can make a huge difference," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. We've got 21 absolutely painless little fixes, culled from the latest research and the country's leading weight-loss experts, to make dropping those pounds as easy as 1, 2, 3, and beyond.
1. Say So Long to Soda
Every diet soft drink consumed each day could increase your risk of being overweight by 65 percent, according to a study presented at the American Dietetic Association. Other research suggests that artificial sweeteners may actually stimulate appetite, causing you to overeat. Instead, sip plain or sparkling water with lemon added for flavor.
2. Eat Like Clockwork
Women who eat erratically consume more calories and burn them less quickly than those who have six regular small meals each day, according to a British study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Don't go more than three or four hours without eating something.
3. Become a Tea-Totaler
Green tea not only has about half the caffeine of coffee but also contains catechins, which may boost your metabolism. A recent Japanese study found that people who drank a daily 11-ounce bottle of green tea lost 5.3 pounds after three months, while those who drank regular tea lost only 2.9 pounds. If you find green tea too bitter, consider one of the new green teas flavored with fruit essences. Most have no calories and just the right kiss of sweetness, says Blatner.
4. Dust Off the Grapefruit Diet
Eating three servings of grapefruit a day (either half of a whole one or a cup of juice) for 12 weeks could help you lose just over three pounds, according to a recent study. "It helped lower insulin levels, which can contribute to weight loss by reducing appetite and encouraging fat burning," explains study author Ken Fujioka, MD, director of nutrition and metabolic research at Scripps Clinic in Del Mar, California.
5. Pack in the Protein
A University of Washington study found that doubling up on protein could help you eat less without feeling hungry. "Protein may make your brain more sensitive to leptin, a hormone that helps you feel full," says study author Scott Weigle, MD, a professor of endocrinology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Make sure at least a third of each meal and snack is a source of lean protein.
6. Shop Around, Literally
The center aisles of your local supermarket are loaded with highly processed, sugary, and fatty foods. "The first couple of outer aisles is where you'll find all the fresh produce, dairy, and seafood," explains Oz Garcia, PhD, a nutritionist in New York City.
7. Buy To-Go Veggies
"Most of the vegetables in your fridge should be as easy to pop into your mouth as a potato chip, which means they should be precut and prewashed," says Bethany Thayer, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Same goes for fruit. "And keep them at eye level in your fridge, so they'll be staring you right in the face when you open the door."
8. Get Some Sleep
People who sleep seven to eight hours per night are leaner than those who get only five or six hours, according to research from Laval University in Quebec. "When you're sleep-deprived, your body produces more stress hormones, which may increase your appetite," explains Michael Breus, PhD, cofounder of Sound Sleep Solutions in Atlanta. Having trouble nodding off? Consider hitting the treadmill before, not after, work: One study done at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that women who exercised in the a.m. fell asleep faster at night than those who did a p.m. workout.
9. Shop from a List
"Never go to the grocery store without a master list, which provides insurance against impulse buys," suggests Donald Hensrud, MD, an obesity specialist at the Mayo Clinic. And never, ever shop when you're hungry.
10. Stock Up on Frozen Shrimp
"I always have a bag or two in my freezer," says Ellie Krieger, RD, a New York City nutritionist and author of Small Changes, Big Results (Clarkson Potter, 2005). "I add them to stir-fries and pasta or sometimes just serve them with cocktail sauce as a snack." Bonus: At 84 calories per three-ounce serving, shrimp has about a third the calories of chicken and about half that of sirloin. Food snobs, take note: Frozen shrimp is often fresher than "fresh" because it's frozen just after it's caught.
11. Count to 100
These days, everything from potato chips to yogurt to ice cream is being rolled out in 100-calorie snack sizes. "You may have to pay more than if you bought an economy size bag, but the smaller portions mean you'll end up eating less," says Barbara Rolls, PhD, a professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University.
12. Look What Brown Can Do for You
"Instead of refined and processed white foods, aim to have whole-grain starches such as brown rice, whole wheat pasta, whole wheat breads and bran cereals," says Blatner. For the most part, the browner the food, the higher the fiber, which spells w-e-i-g-h-t l-o-s-s. According to a 2005 research review, increasing consumption of dietary fiber is critical to losing weight, because it helps you feel fuller and decreases absorption of calories from other food sources. Some easy adds: Sprinkle two tablespoons of a high-fiber cereal such as Kellogg's All-Bran Bran Buds into your yogurt (5 grams); substitute whole-grain bread for white in your turkey sandwich (2 grams), and throw a half cup of white beans on top of your salad (6 grams).
13. Revisit Your Skillet
Successful dieters eat out fewer than two and a half meals per week on average, according to the National Weight Control Registry. If you're strapped for time, simply nuke a frozen dinner. A recent University of Illinois study found that dieters who followed a meal program that included two frozen entrees a day lost more weight than those who followed the USDA Food Guide pyramid. "Frozen dinners serve as a form of portion control, so you don't overeat," explains Dr. Hensrud. Look for entrees with fewer than 400 calories each: Lean Cuisine, Weight Watchers, and Uncle Ben's Rice Bowls are all good choices.
14. Have a V8 While You Cook
"I've had clients come in complaining that they can't lose weight, but then I find out that they're taking in hundreds of calories while preparing dinner," says Blatner. "Every little 'taste' counts!" Her tip? Sip a Low Sodium V8 juice. "It's only 50 calories per serving, but it will keep you feeling satisfied and stave off hunger pains so you're less inclined to snack," she explains. (The new Calcium Enriched V8 makes it easier to protect your bones, but that's another story!) Hate V8? Chew gum to keep your mouth occupied.
15. Switch to Salsa
"I have clients spoon it on everything -- baked potatoes, veggies, even chicken or salmon," says Thayer. "It's a serving of veggies that gives otherwise bland diet staples a little flavor and zest." The calorie savings are worth it: Two tablespoons of salsa instead of sour cream on a baked potato, for example, saves 42 calories and five fat grams.
16. Feel the Heat
"When food is warm, its molecules move around faster, which means it will have a stronger smell," explains Alan Hirsch, MD, director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. The result: The aroma affects the satiety center in your brain, leading you to think that you've eaten more than you have, so you feel full faster. In addition, if your food is hot, you'll be forced to eat it more slowly, which will give your stomach time to signal to your brain that it's full.
17. Brush It Off
Brush your teeth or rinse your mouth right after you have a meal or a snack to quell the urge to keep nibbling. "It's both a physical and a psychological signal to your body that you're done eating," says Blatner.
18. Name That Craving
"One reason women overeat is that they don't hit their food craving right on the head -- they keep bingeing until they're finally satisfied," explains Blatner. Ask yourself what you really want: Salty? Sweet? Smooth? Crunchy? "Food cravings can be broken down into four categories," says Blatner. "If you are craving sweet and crunchy, try a mini bag of popcorn mixed with a little bit of artificial sweetener or even sugar. If you want sweet and creamy, opt for a light vanilla yogurt. If you're thinking about something salty and smooth, try a couple of pieces of low-fat string cheese; if you really want salty and crunchy, try a handful of dry-roasted nuts or soy nuts."
19. Fill Your Glass
Optimists are more likely to eat fiber-rich foods such as fresh veggies, salad, and fruit, and less likely to be overweight, according to a Finnish study published in the journal Appetite. "Eating right and exercising seems to be second nature for them," explains Bruce Rabin, MD, PhD, medical director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Healthy Lifestyle Program. Happily, it is possible to shake away your pessimism. "The next time a negative thought pops into your head, force yourself to come up with something positive to replace it," says Dr. Rabin. If you practice this often enough, it will eventually become an automatic response.
20. K.I.S.S. (Keep it Simple, Sweetie!)
People who eat a variety of foods, even low-fat ones, are more likely to have trouble keeping weight off than those who rely on a few diet staples, according to a National Weight Control Registry study published last May. "When people have a wide range of foods in front of them, they generally eat more," explains study author Holly Raynor, PhD, RD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown Medical School/the Miriam Hospital. The study showed that the most successful weight losers consistently consume just three to five staples from each food group, switching them around occasionally to prevent boredom.
21. Distract Your Taste Buds
Visions of Godiva flooding your head? Before you rush out to buy a box, try deflecting your attention. New research from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, has found that the more vivid your mental image of a particular food, the more likely you are to crave it. But there's plenty you can do to tone down those visual cues. Researchers found that randomly flicking through images on a computer screen or, to a lesser extent, listening to a speech in a foreign language, was enough to distract students from their food cravings. Anything that engages both your eyes and your mind -- like playing Sudoku -- should help, say researchers.
Originally published in Fitness magazine, May 2006.