How to Plan a Weight-loss Diet

plate of food wrapped in measuring tape
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For most people, it's hard to lose weight. Fad diets might offer a quick fix, but they're not usually the healthiest alternative.

Choosing a weight-loss plan is a bit like shopping for a pair of pants: The fit has to be comfortable, and the style has to mesh with your personality and lifestyle. Have you "tried on" any diet plans to see if they suit you?

If you can't find a weight-loss plan that fits you perfectly, you may do better with a custom fit. In fact, dieters who personalize their weight-loss programs are more likely to lose weight and keep it off. But you'll need to tailor more than just the diet itself. Dieters who develop their own social support systems, personal coping strategies, and physical activity plans are most likely to win at losing.

Put It In Writing

The first thing you need to do is raise your awareness of what you actually eat. The best way to do that is to log the foods you eat every day in a food journal. A food journal will dispel any illusions you may have about your eating habits, and it will make you more conscious of what you're eating when you're eating it. That consciousness may be enough to change some of your eating behaviors. You may be less likely to scarf down that doughnut on your way to work or snack while reading because you'll be recording those foods. Using a food journal is also a great way to monitor your portions and track your progress to see if you're moving toward your goals.

There's no question that emotions play a big role in when, where, and how much you eat. A food journal can also help you identify how emotions affect your eating habits, and that's the first step to taking control. Just write down how you're feeling when you eat and where you happen to be (in front of the television, standing at the kitchen counter) in the journal. And rate how hungry you are on a scale of one to five, with one being the least hungry. All these bits of information are part of your personal diet puzzle.

Buy a small notebook or a planner especially made for food journaling that you can carry with you at all times. Every time you eat something, record the following information in your journal:

  • Time
  • Food eaten and portion size (use the portion chart to estimate your portion size)
  • Hunger rating before eating
  • Your mood
  • Who you're eating with
  • Where you're eating
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You may also want to keep track of the calories you consume each time you eat. When you tally the number of calories at the end of each day, you'll know how close you've come to the goal you set for your daily calorie intake. After keeping your food journal for a week or so, take some time to examine your records. Look for patterns in your eating behaviors. Do you see any problem areas? Can you identify certain situations or emotions that caused you to overeat or to make poor choices? Are you getting enough servings from all the food groups? Use this information to do some problem solving. Keep up the food journal, and review it periodically to assess how you're doing and how you can fine-tune your diet.


This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.



Use these tactics to help fill up on less food. Don't feel bad that some of these tips involve "tricking" your stomach--the rest of your body will thank you!

  • Eat more slowly. It takes your stomach about 20 minutes to tell your brain that it's feeling full, so eating slower means you'll eat less by the time your brain announces you've had enough.

  • Take three bites less of everything. Leaving a few bites on your plate at each meal can spare you significant calories.

  • Choose foods with more fiber and water, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and soups. These help fill you up because they take up more space in your stomach. Avoid eating lots of dry, low-fiber foods, such as pretzels or crackers, that are easy to overeat and don't leave you feeling satisfied.

  • Go nutty. Even though nuts are a higher-fat food, they can help you eat fewer calories. The fat, fiber, and protein in nuts help to quell your appetite. When you eat a handful of nuts for a snack, you tend to feel satisfied longer.

  • Drink water or a low-calorie beverage, such as fat-free milk, with your meals to help fill up the space in your stomach.

  • Don't let tastes go to your waist. A bite here, a taste there, and you can easily run up 100 calories or more in just a few swallows. Fight the urge to finish off the last bit of juice in the carton, the last few crackers in the box, and the last bites of food on your child's plate.

  • If dessert is calling your name, have a small portion right after your meal. When you're already feeling full, you'll be less likely to overindulge. Just a few bites may be enough to satisfy your desire.

  • Keep your mouth busy. If you tend to nibble mindlessly, chew sugar-free gum to keep your mouth occupied. Or brush and floss your teeth right after eating. You may be tempted to put food in your clean mouth.
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    Think of your new eating plan as a long-term investment in your health -- one with a pretty good rate of return if you make strategic choices along the way. So, how do you put together carbohydrate, fat, and protein along with vitamins and minerals to create a strategic eating plan that will help you lose weight and that you can stick with over the long term? Here's some help in figuring it out.

    Nutrient Math

    You can calculate the approximate amounts of carbohydrate, protein, and fat you should be eating each day. The recommended amounts (called dietary reference intakes, or DRIs) of these three energy-producing nutrients are based on percentages of your total calories. These ranges are established by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine as the amounts of nutrients needed to meet daily nutritional needs while minimizing risk of disease.

    • Carbohydrate: 45 to 65 percent of your total calories

    • Fat: 20 to 35 percent of your total calories

    • Protein: 10 to 35 percent of your total calories
    Here's how you can figure the recommended ranges for each nutrient:


    Your calorie total X 0.45 = calories from carbohydrates
    Your calorie total X 0.65 = calories from carbohydrates

    Next, divide your calories from carbohydrate by 4 calories/gram to figure a range of carbohydrate you should have each day:

    _ to _ grams of carbohydrates


    Your calorie total X 0.20 = calories from fat
    Your calorie total X 0.35 = calories from fat

    Next, divide your calories from fat by 9 calories/gram to figure a range of fat grams you should have each day:

    _ to _ grams of fat


    Your calorie total X 0.10 = calories from protein
    Your calorie total X 0.35 = calories from protein

    Next, divide your calories from protein by 4 calories/gram to figure a range of protein you should have each day:

    _ to _ grams of protein

    Learn more about alcoholic and dietary guidelines on the next pages.



    Guidelines recommend a maximum intake of 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men (see "Alcoholic Beverage Guidelines" below). One serving is equivalent to:

    • 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits

    • 5 fluid ounces of wine

    • 12 fluid ounces of beer

    Alcohol contains no nutrients, so it is not listed in the food pattern guide. What alcohol does have, however, is calories -- lots of them. Each gram of alcohol provides 7 calories, just 2 less than fat. Alcoholic beverages, then, should be counted as part of your discretionary calorie allowance.

    As you can see from the chart below, which shows the typical amount of calories in various alcoholic beverages, one or two drinks can blow your discretionary calorie allowance. Cocktails or mixed drinks contain other high-calorie ingredients, such as tonic water, fruit juice, cream, and sweetened soft drinks, that up the calorie count and can send you way over your discretionary calorie budget. Alcohol is well-known for decreasing one's resistance to food, so chances are good that while you're drinking, you're also eating, and drink accompaniments are more likely to be high fat than high fiber.

    However, since studies show that moderate alcohol consumption may help reduce heart attacks and strokes, the Dietary Guidelines do address it. The Guidelines define moderation as 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. This is not intended to be an average over several days but rather the amount consumed on any single day. Excessive intake of alcoholic beverages is dangerous, carries with it many health risks, and will sabotage your weight-loss plan -- so stick to moderation if you decide to drink at all -- and never drink during pregnancy or while operating motorized machinery.

    This table is a guide to estimate the caloric intake from various alcoholic beverages. An example serving volume and the calories in that drink are shown for beer, wine, and distilled spirits. Higher alcohol content (higher percent alcohol or higher proof) and mixing alcohol with other beverages, such as calorically sweetened soft drinks, tonic water, fruit juice, or cream, increases the amount of calories in the beverage. Alcoholic beverages supply calories but provide few essential nutrients.

    Beverage Approx. Calories/ Fluid Oz.
    Example Volume
    Approx. Calories*
    Beer (regular)
    12 oz.
    Beer (light)
    12 oz.
    White wine
    5 oz.
    Red wine
    5 oz.
    Sweet wine
    3 oz.
    80 proof distilled spirits (gin, rum, vodka, whiskey)
    64 1.5 oz.

    Source: Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Nutrient Database for Standard Reference (SR), Release 17. Calories are calculated to the nearest whole number per 1 fluid oz.

    *The total calories and alcohol content vary depending on the brand. Moreover, adding mixers to an alcoholic beverage can contribute calories in addition to the calories from the alcohol itself.



    Serving Size Guide
    If you're away from home and can't measure your food, these will help you estimate portion size.
    • 1 cup is about the size of a baseball or tennis ball

    • 1/2 cup is about the size of 1/2 of a baseball or tennis ball

    • 2 tablespoons is about the size of a ping-pong ball

    • 1 teaspoon is about the size of one die

    • 1-1/2 ounces of cheese is about the size of 6 stacked dice

    • 3 ounces of meat, fish, or poultry is about the size and thickness of a deck of cards

    • 1 medium potato or other fruit or vegetable is about the size of a medium adult fist

    A healthy eating plan that will help you lose weight is one that includes a wide variety of foods from all the major food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and meat and beans). Eating a variety of foods will help prevent diet boredom, and it will ensure that you cover all your nutritional bases. The federal government encourages this approach to diet and to weight loss through the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

    The Guidelines, revised in 2005, are the basis for the government's food and nutrition programs and policies and are reflected in the Nutrition Facts panel on food products. The Guidelines recommend that your diet emphasize fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Foods from these three groups, along with fat-free or low-fat milk products, should form the foundation of your daily diet. Protein-rich foods, such as lean meat, poultry, fish, and beans, are also essential. However, the typical American diet includes more than adequate amounts of protein.

    By describing servings in familiar household measurements such as cups and ounces, the Dietary Guidelines have resolved a major source of consumer confusion. The previous guidelines talked about numbers of servings, but it wasn't clear what constituted a serving. Now the Guidelines say to eat two cups of fruit. No more guessing about how much makes a serving and how many servings you should eat.

    The following are equivalents to the quantities recommended in the Guidelines:

    Vegetables and fruits

    One-half cup of fruit or vegetables is equivalent to:

    • 1/2 cup cut-up raw or cooked fruit or vegetable

    • 1/2 cup fruit or vegetable juice

    • 1 cup leafy salad greens

    One ounce-equivalent is the same as:
    • 1/2 cup cooked rice or pasta or cooked cereal

    • 1 cup cereal flakes

    • 1 slice bread

    • 1 very small muffin (1 ounce)

    • 1 ounce dry pasta or rice

    One cup milk is equivalent to:
    • 1 cup milk, yogurt, or fortified soy milk

    • 1-1/2 ounces natural cheese such as Cheddar

    • 2 ounces processed cheese
    Meat and Beans

    One ounce-equivalent is the same as:
    • 1 ounce lean meat, poultry, or fish

    • 1 egg

    • 1/4 cup cooked dry beans or tofu (count as a protein or vegetable, not both)

    • 1 tablespoon peanut butter

    • 1/2 ounce nuts or seeds

    One teaspoon equivalent is:
    • 1 teaspoon soft margarine

    • 1 tablespoon low-fat mayonnaise

    • 2 tablespoons light salad dressing

    • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil

    All cooking oils plus soft margarines that do not contain any trans fats are included in this category. Because these oils contain vitamin E and essential fatty acids, they are not part of the discretionary calorie allowance below.

    Discretionary calories

    The allowance for discretionary calories will depend on the specific calorie-level eating plan you are following. Check the label for the number of grams of sugar listed. The same goes for fat; check the labels of food products for the number of grams of fat.

    If you have more questions about the daily guidelines, check out our article on how to plan a diet based on the USDA weight-loss guidelines. Now let's consider an important facet of dieting: how to shop for food. It's in the next section.



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    Include a variety of fruits and vegetables on your shopping list.

    Food shopping can be dangerous when you're trying to lose weight. It is easy to buy impulsively. Arm yourself with these top ten survival skills.

    1. Plan ahead. Prepare a weekly menu, including regular meals and snacks to minimize impulse buying.

    2. Make a list before you go shopping, and stick to it. Let your list be a compass that guides you on a safe course through the supermarket. And be sure to make up the list at home -- after you've eaten!

    3. Choose a nutrition-friendly grocery store. Look for a store with shelf-labeling, nutrition booklets, recipe cards, and a variety of healthy foods at reasonable prices.

    4. Keep your shopping trips to a minimum -- once a week, if possible. This saves time and limits temptation.

    5. Get into the label-reading habit. Check the serving size, calories, and fat per serving so you know what you're getting.

    6. Bypass the danger zones: aisles filled with your "problem" foods and tasting islands with free food samples.

    7. Shop when you're well-rested and well-fed. You're more likely to purchase high-calorie junk food when you're hungry.

    8. Do not overbuy or become coupon driven. Avoid the economy size of "problem" foods. If you have trouble controlling your portions, buy single-serve containers.

    9. Take your groceries home unopened. Don't nibble on food in the store or on the way home.

    10. Ask your local grocery-store manager to stock any items that you can't find. The wider variety of lower-calorie foods on your supermarket shelves is largely due to customer requests.



    Food labels give you the information you need to decide how a particular product fits into your calorie budget and your diet plan. Follow these five steps to scrutinize a food label. They will become second nature in no time.

    1. Size up the serving. The nutrient information on food labels is for the serving size listed, so be sure to compare the serving size to how much YOU actually eat. (For instance, a can of soup that you consider one lunchtime serving may actually contain two servings if you consult the label.) If you eat more or less than the serving listed, you'll need to adjust the nutritient information up or down.

    2. Look over the Daily Values. Daily Value information at the very bottom of the label is a handy reminder of the suggested daily amounts of key nutrients for two different calorie levels: 2,000 and 2,500 calories. Some Daily Values identify the maximum daily amounts, such as for fat, cholesterol, and sodium, while others -- carbohydrate and fiber -- are target amounts. Remember, if your calorie needs are less than 2,000 calories, these maximum daily amounts will be lower.

    3. Rate your choices with the % Daily Values. The % Daily Values make it easy to judge the nutritional quality of a food. As a quick guide, 5% Daily Value or less is considered low, and 20% Daily Value or more is high. For nutrients you need to limit, such as fat and sodium, choose plenty of foods with 5% Daily Value or less. For nutrients you need more of, such as calcium and iron, look for foods with 10% to 20% Daily Value or more.

    4. Rely on the adjectives. Descriptors on food labels, such as "low," "high," and "free," have legal definitions. This means that a food product must contain a defined amount of the specific nutrient before the label can boast about the food's nutritional merits. For example, a low-fat food can have no more than three grams of fat in the serving size noted on the label.

    5. Browse the ingredient list. It displays the food's ingredients in order by weight and is useful for finding out the main ingredients.
    We've given you a lot of proven strategies for maintaining the diet you've chosen for yourself. Feel free to review these often -- everyone needs a little reminding. Good luck!

    ©Publications International, Ltd.

    This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.



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