Great news! You can ditch your diet for good and still hit your happy weight. Science has finally proven what you've probably suspected for years — that following a restrictive food plan can make you more likely to overeat. Researchers at the University of Toronto tempted a group of women who were cutting their calorie intake with a plate of cookies and then put the same treats in front of women who weren't trying to lose. Not only did the dieters dig in, but they ate 66 percent more goodies than their non-dieting peers. “Women end up feeling so deprived on weight loss plans that they break down and binge,” says Tracy Tylka, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University at Marion. We at Self have a better way to slim down: nine simple lifestyle switches that will help you shrink your waist effortlessly!
Eat more good stuff
Instead of obsessing about tasty bites you want to banish, focus on healthy foods you can feast on. Women who do so tend to lose more weight than those who ruminate on restricting calories. Fill up with fiber-rich fruit, vegetables and whole grains. “High-fiber foods expand in your stomach, so you're less likely to overeat,” says Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Weight Management Center. Fiber also inhibits your body's absorption of fat, says Dave Grotto, R.D., author of “101 Foods That Could Save Your Life” (Bantam Books). There are easy ways to sneak in more fiber: Stir 1 tablespoon of flaxseed into oatmeal, add 1/2 cup of beans to a green salad or snack on small portions of dried fruit and nuts.
Go to the dogs
Volunteering at the pound could help you lose pounds. People who signed up to walk shelter dogs for an hour a week lost about a pound in four weeks, early research from the University of Missouri at Columbia showed. That's 12 pounds a year you could shed without skipping a single dessert! In fact, other research by study author Rebecca Johnson, Ph.D., revealed that people who walked a dog (either their own or a loaner hound) 20 minutes a day for five days a week lost on average 14 pounds after a year. Best of all, dog walking turns out to be an easy commitment to keep. “We had a 72 percent adherence rate, which is unheard of in most exercise programs,” Johnson says. “Some volunteers enjoyed it so much, they stayed longer to walk more animals.” Find a shelter near you at PetFinder.com.
Sleep it off
Getting enough shut-eye can keep your body from storing fat, scientists at Laval University in Quebec note. Night owls who log fewer than six hours of sleep are 35 percent more likely to gain weight — on average, 11 pounds over six years — than those who get seven to eight. “Sleep deprivation increases cravings for sweets and starches,” says James Gangwisch, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. “It also causes your body to produce more of the stress hormone cortisol, which is linked to belly fat.” To snag more sack time, set a radio alarm to sound 30 minutes before you want to go to bed, suggests Michael Breus, Ph.D., author of “Beauty Sleep.” When it goes off, head to your room and relax with stretches or light reading (avoid anything agitating, such as the news). After a half hour, it's time to dream of a slimmer you.
Spice things up
Cooking your meals with garlic and pepper could help curb overeating, according to research presented at The Endocrine Society's annual meeting in San Francisco. Overweight people who sprinkled their food with zero-calorie spices lost an average of 30 pounds in six months, compared with two pounds in a control group. “The flavors made people focus on the sensory characteristics of the food — its smell and taste,” explains study author Alan Hirsch, M.D., founder of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. “The foods were more enjoyable, so people felt fuller faster and didn't eat as much.” Sniffing the dishes was key, Dr. Hirsch says, because 90 percent of what you taste is determined by what you smell. The spices used in the study tasted like cheddar, onion, ranch dressing, taco sauce and Parmesan, but many no-and low-calorie seasonings in your kitchen, such as garlic and horseradish, will work as well, he says. To maximize the slimming impact of these ingredients, spend a moment enjoying the aroma of your food before every bite.
Give yourself props
You raked leaves all afternoon? Pat yourself on the back. It might sound hokey, but simply applauding your everyday calorie-burning activities can help you shed pounds. Researchers at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told half a group of female hotel housekeepers that their job provided enough exercise to improve their health and left the other half in the dark. A month later, those in the know had lost an average of two pounds, lowered their body fat percentage and blood pressure and improved their waist-to-hip ratio, compared with those who were clueless about their calorie burn. What's more surprising? “The women did not make healthier choices because of the information — there was no change to their eating or working habits,” study author Ellen Langer, Ph.D., says. “The only difference was the women's mind-set.” Previous research suggests that having a positive attitude may help reduce overall stress levels — which can make eating healthy easier. So tell yourself that you're burning calories all day when you deliver a message in person, scrub the tub or walk from store to store in search of beautiful new boots.
Eat when you're hungry
Think suffering with a growling tummy is the way to drop pounds? Wrong! Women who eat when hungry and stop when satisfied have a lower average body-mass index than those who eat for other reasons, a study by Tylka finds. Try to tune in to your body's signals. “If your hunger comes on suddenly, then it's probably being triggered by an emotion or event,” Tylka says. Instead of raiding the fridge, ask yourself what you're truly feeling. If you're stressed, call a friend or hit the gym for a fun class. Bored? Start a Sudoku puzzle or plan your next vacation. And give yourself a little love. Other research by Tylka concludes that women who are satisfied with their body are more likely to eat when they're hungry, and vice versa. Each morning when you look in the mirror, praise (out loud) one thing you like about your body, instead of focusing on flaws.
Breathe away weight
Inhale, exhale and then step on the scale. Women who took a weekly meditation class shed about a pound a week, say scientists from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. “People often eat when they're stressed and sleepwalk through an entire meal,” study author Brian Shelley, M.D., explains. Meditating before and during meals helped the dieters eat less and enjoy their dishes more. A one-minute trick: Before you dig in, sit and take a few deep breaths. Notice the food and think of it as nourishment, not as calories. Take a bite and focus on the food's taste and texture. After you swallow, take a deep breath. There's no need to consume all your meals this meticulously, but starting off with a few mindful bites could help curb overeating.
Surrender the salt shaker
Salt may be calorie-free, but it can still contribute to body fat — and not only because it piggybacks on greasy snacks such as fries and chips. A review in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases reports that as salt intake increased by more than 50 percent in the United States since 1985, so did consumption of sweet beverages such as soda and juice. Salt leads to thirst, which Americans tend to quench with big sugary drinks. Seek out packaged products labeled low-salt or low-sodium, which means they have less than 140 milligrams per serving. (Your daily limit is 2,300mg.) And if you indulge in something salty, wash it down with sparkling water or unsweetened iced tea instead of sweet sips.
Savor a good laugh
Consider this license to be a couch potato: Cracking up at Kenneth on “30 Rock” can help you trim down. Watching a funny show caused adults to experience a 20 percent jump in heart rate and resting metabolism in a study at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “Laughing uses up a lot of energy because it engages a variety of muscle groups, including your abs,” study author Mac Buchowski, Ph.D., says. The metabolic boost that comes from chuckling for 15 minutes a day could add up to 14,600 more calories burned per year. Watch funny movies and sitcoms, read irreverent blogs and chitchat with pals and coworkers to fit in your 15 minutes and laugh off the pounds for good.
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