Despite the glut of modern-day innovations to aid weight loss, from “toning” sandals to iPhone apps, it still boils down to calories in versus calories out, or burned. But studies show dramatic calorie restriction isn’t realistic for achieving and sustaining a healthy weight. Instead, make small, doable choices that favor good nutrition over empty calories. “If you cut just 100 calories a day with some smart food swaps, you could trim off 10 pounds in a year—and improve the nutritional quality of your diet,” says Lisa R. Young, RD, PhD, author of The Portion Teller Plan (Crown Archetype, 2005). Try these simple tricks.
Old habit: Eating cereal for breakfast
New trick: Add a hard-boiled egg
People who ate eggs for breakfast took in about 400 fewer calories over a 24-hour period than did those who consumed a carbohydrate-rich breakfast with the same number of calories, in a 2010 University of Connecticut study. The carb eaters also had much higher blood levels of ghrelin, a hunger-stimulating hormone. Nutritionally, eggs offer vitamins A, B12, and D; selenium; and lutein, an antioxidant thought to protect eye health. Other good proteins to add, says Young: yogurt, nut butters, and smoked salmon. And remember, when choosing cereals, aim for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.
Old habit: Slathering mayonnaise on sandwiches
New trick: Switch to whole-grain mustard
A tablespoon of most light or regular mayo brands contains 50–100 calories, respectively; the same amount of mustard has about 10. Bonus: Mustard seeds are a good source of antioxidant selenium, which may safeguard against skin cancer.
Old habit: Marinating meats in oil-based sauces
New trick: Try spice rubs Calorie-free spice and herb rubs pump up meats’ flavor and cut out about 100 oily marinade calories. “Turmeric, cayenne, and oregano all pack a serious antioxidant wallop,” says Young. And capsaicin, a phytochemical in chili powder and cayenne, can reduce hunger and calorie intake at a meal, studies suggest. Alter traditional marinade recipes to include less oil and more low-calorie vinegar, citrus, and other fruit juices, which may also reduce char-based carcinogens in well-done grilled meats.
Old habit: Baking muffins with butter or oil
New trick: Use mostly fruit or vegetable purées instead
If your recipe calls for 1 cup butter, you’re adding more than 1,600 calories and lots of saturated fat. Try swapping naturally rich, sweet purées (applesauce, pumpkin, banana, or sweet potato) for half or two-thirds of the total called-for fats and sweeteners. “Not only does this reduce baked-goods’ calorie density but you get an extra dose of antioxidants and filling fiber,” says Barbara Rolls, PhD, nutrition professor at Penn State University and author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan (HarperCollins, 2007). Plus, you’ll end up eating more nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables.
Old habit: Using sour cream for dips, baked potatoes, and enchiladas
New trick: Substitute reduced-fat Greek yogurt
Plain, reduced-fat Greek yogurt is just as rich and velvety as full-fat sour cream, but has a third fewer calories and eight times less saturated fat. “You also get twice as much protein to help reduce hunger and plenty of gut-friendly bacteria that may improve digestion and immunity,” says Young. Greek yogurt can also stand in for mayonnaise in tuna, egg, and potato salads.
Old habit: Drinking sugary sodas, sports drinks, and iced teas
New trick: Quench your thirst with coconut water
Empty calories from sweetened beverages has been linked to obesity, high blood pressure, pancreatic cancer, and diabetes. On the other hand, tangy coconut water has 80 fewer calories—and almost a third less sugar—per serving than soda. Plus, electrolytes in coconut water speed hydration after a workout (earning it the name “nature’s sports drink”) and potassium helps lower blood pressure.
Old habit: Diving right into your main meal
New trick: Start with a fresh-fruit appetizer (or salad)
People who ate an apple 15 minutes before a test meal took in 187 fewer calories during the meal than those who didn’t snack beforehand, in a Penn State study. An average apple contains 65 calories, so the net savings was 122 calories. Low-calorie salads have the same effect. “Fibrous appetizers require lots of chewing, and seeing more total food before you tricks you into thinking you’ve eaten more calories,” says Rolls.
Old habit: Serving yourself 2 cups of pasta
New trick: Mix 1 cup pasta with 1 cup broccoli
You’ll shave off 190 calories, get more anticancer antioxidants, and be just as satisfied, because the food volume remains the same, says Rolls. Adding soups, vegetables, and fruits to meals reduces overall energy density (number of calories per gram of food), lowers calorie consumption, and promotes weight loss, she says. Also try this: When making burgers and meat loaf, swap half the beef with meaty, low-calorie minced mushrooms.
Old habit: Drinking “original” soy milk
New trick: Switch to unsweetened soy milk
Most versions of dairy alternatives such as hemp and soy include added sweeteners. With unsweetened, you’ll save at least 20 calories per cup but get the same beneficial protein. Done once daily, this could help you shave off 2 pounds a year.
Old habit: Spreading jam or jelly on toast
New trick: Try apple butter
Made with just apples and cinnamon, each tablespoon of apple butter contains about half the calories of sweetened jams and jellies. Another bonus: By swapping, you’ll take in fewer processed sugars, which might be tied to weight gain, and up your intake of cinnamon, which helps balance blood sugar. Try apple butter on pancakes and waffles in lieu of syrups.
Old habit: Making mashed potatoes the old-fashioned way
New trick: Sneak in mashed cauliflower
Per cup, you’ll save 106 calories. You’ll also reap four times more vitamin C, which may help reduce risk for type 2 diabetes, research shows. Instead of relying on butter for flavor, stir in some plain low-fat Greek yogurt with chopped roasted garlic or fresh herbs and orange zest.
Old habit: Ordering a rib-eye steak
New trick: Ask for salmon or rainbow trout
A 6-ounce serving of salmon undercuts the same portion of rib eye by 114 calories. Moreover, in a Spanish study, calorie-restricted dieters who ate a dinner rich in omega-3 fatty acids (such as those found in fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and trout) were less hungry two hours later than dieters who ate the same number of calories, but without the omega-3s. Researchers believe omega-3s may increase satiety hormones, encouraging lower calorie intake overall.
Do low-fat foods help you lose weight?
When watching calories, “low-fat” and “fat-free” products seem like a no-brainer, right? Paradoxically, rising sales of these products have paralleled ballooning overweight statistics in the United States. When eating low-fat foods, people tend to eat more, researchers say. For instance, study subjects ate 28 percent more “low-fat” chocolate candies than “regular” candies in one recent study. “Reduced-fat labels can cause people to underestimate calories, increase serving size, and temper feelings of guilt after polishing off a box of reduced-fat cookies,” says Brain Wansink, PhD, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and author of Mindless Eating (Bantam, 2006). And here’s the real rub: Low-fat items shave, on average, only 11 percent of calories from traditional versions because sugar often is added to replace fat. Most people are better off choosing regular products and eating smaller amounts, Wansink says.
How many calories do you need to burn?
To estimate the number of calories that would keep you at your current weight, go to nutritiondata.com/tools/calories-burned. From your maintenance calorie number, start by trimming 10 to 15 percent of those calories, or no more than 500 calories total. This is conservative compared to many diet programs, but it’s a realistic number that most people can tolerate.
Slow down! Healthy women who scarfed down a meal took in 66 extra calories—and felt less full—than when they lingered three times as long over the same meal, in a University of Rhode Island study. Taking smaller bites, chewing thoroughly, putting down utensils between bites, and making meals a social affair can all help slow your tempo.