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Eat less fat. No, wait: Eat more fat, just the healthy kind. Eat only when you're hungry. Actually, eat every three hours. Enough already! There are so many rules to follow when you're trying to stick to a healthy diet, and some of them are downright contradictory. To find out what really works, we rounded up the best weight-loss advice from nutritionists, psychologists, trainers, and other health gurus and then asked five women to abide by the strategies for six weeks. Read on to discover how to lose the weight for good and feel better than ever.Give Up the Booze
"Alcohol is a double whammy," says Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, a FITNESS advisory board member and the author of The Real You Diet. "Because liquid calories don't make you feel full, they add up fast. Plus, alcohol lessens your willpower to resist unhealthy food."
Our tester: Rebecca Rodriguez, 39, Brooklyn
"I'm a publicist and blogger in the music industry. I'm out drinking four nights a week, networking at happy hours, and covering nightlife."
"I did it, minus one blip at my birthday brunch when I treated myself to a mimosa. Instead of my usual glass or two of beer or wine at events, I sipped seltzer. I hoped being sober would keep me from eating fattening snacks, but that didn't always happen. One time I attacked a tray of cookies; another, I ordered a cheeseburger. Turns out, my willpower isn't great whether I'm sober or not.
"There were plenty of perks though. I made business connections, and my blog posts were full of details I never would have noticed if I had been drinking. I also saved so much money that I bought a bike and started taking a.m. rides. It was a great way to begin the day -- I woke up so refreshed without booze.
"The added exercise and fewer liquid calories paid off: I lost three pounds, and my stomach was noticeably flatter. I'm not going to quit drinking altogether, but I will keep sipping seltzer at work events."
"Replace two cardio workouts a week with high-intensity interval training to improve aerobic fitness and torch more calories," says Jessica Matthews, an exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. "After a five-minute warm-up, do one minute of sprinting followed by three minutes of active recovery. Continue for 20 minutes before cooling down. As you get better at it, experiment with longer sprints, shorter recoveries, or a longer workout."
Our tester: Ava Somogyi, 42, Glen Ridge, New Jersey
"In the past few years I've completed several half-marathons, one full marathon, and a bunch of smaller races. But recently I've hit a fitness plateau; I barely break a sweat during leisurely runs."
"Every time I've followed a marathon training plan, I've conveniently ignored the part about speed training. It's hard! On my first interval run, I wanted to see how long I could sprint. I didn't clear one minute before I was gasping for air and had to walk.
"I learned that to be able to finish a whole workout, I had to slow down my recovery pace to handle the speed bursts. Each time I finished, I was exhausted, breathless, and dripping -- a far cry from my usual no-sweat jogs. But as tough as it was, it was also fun. Instead of dreading a hill, I challenged myself to pick up the pace on the incline. Or I sprinted the last few blocks home, laughing at how ridiculous I must look running through my neighborhood as if someone were chasing me.
"When the six weeks were nearly up, I ran a 5K. There were thousands of runners, so I had to maneuver to get around the pack, constantly speeding up and slowing down. I had enough energy to sprint the last leg, and I shaved 39 seconds off of my fastest mile.
"I lost five pounds, and I feel more toned. Not too shabby, considering that I also went to a lot of barbecues and steak house dinners for work. Marathon training starts next month; this time, I won't skip the speed sessions."Beat Stress Like a Guy
"Women tend to eat their feelings, while men take stress out physically," says psychologist Susan Albers, the author of But I Deserve This Chocolate! "Whenever you get stressed, do something active for five to 10 minutes. Exercise boosts dopamine, a chemical that promotes self-esteem, which takes you away from the kitchen."
Our tester: Samantha Schmidt, 22, Cincinnati
"Stress makes me reach for food to feel better. But that backfires and causes me to feel bad about myself."
"This assignment couldn't have come at a better time: I was moving to start a job in a new city (can you say stress?) and was shocked by how often I reached for food when I was bored, tense, or watching TV. But I would put down the snack and run around the block or do five minutes of push-ups, sit-ups, and squats. It wasn't always feasible; one weekend I had friends visiting -- they would have thought I was nuts if I had just started lunging.
"By the time I began my new job at a cereal company (yikes, food everywhere!) three weeks into the experiment, it was easier to recognize true hunger as opposed to cravings caused by stress or boredom. When a craving hit, I'd walk the stairs for five minutes. It felt great to channel anxiety into something positive. At the end of six weeks, I had lost nine pounds and gained tons of self-esteem. There's a pride in making healthier choices, and that comes across in the way I present myself now."
"Obsessing over a diet can make you less likely to stick with it. Instead of focusing on restrictions, do one thing every day that makes you feel good about your body, like a hike or a yoga class," says Alice Domar, PhD, the executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health. "Learning to love your body makes you want to put good things in it."
Our tester: Zlata Gladunov, 31, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
"I've been on so many diets -- Weight Watchers, Medifast, raw foods, you name it. But as soon as I relax my restrictions, I regain the weight."
"At first, the assignment didn't click. It was hard to find feel-good things to do that didn't cost a lot of money. The first week, I took a yoga class and got a manicure, a pedicure, and a massage -- I was broke! And I didn't leave the massage thinking 'I should skip dessert tonight.'
"Two weeks in, a lightbulb went off. I went to dinner with my husband and decided to put on heels instead of flip-flops. I looked hot! Normally I would have ordered something fattening, but I didn't want to ruin how good I felt. The satisfaction from ordering a healthy dish boosted my confidence and my resolve to eat right. Instead of spending the night obsessing over calories, I focused on conversation.
"After that I started cooking more (something that always makes me feel good) and eating out less. It's satisfying to sit down to a wholesome meal I made. It worked: I lost four and a half pounds. I'll continue to put better things in my body and relish my experiences, not just the food that comes with them."Focus on the Fiber
"Fiber helps you feel full; it takes up room in the stomach and moves slowly through the GI tract," says Samantha Heller, RD, the author of Get Smart. "Plus, getting at least 25 grams a day means you fill up on produce, whole grains, and beans."
Our tester: Marylee Carroll, 34, Chatham, New Jersey
"I'm always on the go with my toddler, so I mainly eat processed and packaged foods and takeout. I rarely have a vegetable."
"Once I figured out how to hit 25 grams of fiber a day, I stuck with those foods. Breakfast was eggs and fruit. I replaced my whatever's-on-hand lunch with a salad with mushrooms, carrots, tomatoes, and beans. Instead of snacking on pretzels, I had an apple with peanut butter. Dinner always included a side of broccoli or corn. I easily reached and occasionally surpassed 25 grams a day. Although I had to grocery shop more than usual, the extra work was worth it.
"In the past I sometimes had to stop myself from overdoing it on ice cream or french fries. Not anymore. Because the fiber filled me up, I never caved and ate junk. I was happier, more energetic, and less stressed -- proof that putting good things in your body makes you feel good. Plus, I lost seven pounds! I'll keep it up, but I'll experiment with recipes and ingredients."BONUS TIP!
Put Down the Fork Between Bites
"Studies show that people subconsciously mirror each other's eating habits," says Irene Rubaum-Keller, a licensed psychotherapist and the author of Foodaholic. "Because most of us tend to shovel in food, we end up eating as fast and as much as the other person without even realizing it. To become more relaxed and conscious -- and to prevent yourself from overeating -- put down your fork between every bite."
Our tester: Diana Trinks, 34, Manhattan Beach, California
"I work in sales, so I'm constantly taking clients out to eat. Some days I have lunch and dinner at a restaurant."
"I've always had an eat-and-run mentality, so this was a challenge. I don't think I ever put down my fork during a meal, and the first time felt unnatural. I didn't know whether to place my hand on the table or on my lap. I often ended up reaching for my water glass, so at least I stayed hydrated. After a few bites, I would get distracted and fall back into old habits. It was especially hard when I was really hungry -- I had to resist the urge to inhale my food.
"But once I got the hang of it, this experiment allowed me to taste food instead of just shovel it in. For one meal, I ordered a sushi roll I had eaten a million times. But this time I savored it, noticing the textures and the contrast of the soy sauce, fish, and rice. Delicious!
"I didn't lose any weight, but I noticed another benefit: Not being uncomfortably stuffed after meals. I often stopped eating with food still on my plate rather than realizing I was full after I had licked it clean. This is something I'm going to keep up."
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, October 2013.