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Try these strategies from top diet docs to help budge the scale.

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If you’ve ever followed a friend’s “no-fail” diet exactly, only to find that you didn’t share her weight-loss success, don’t give up. You may not be doing anything wrong. It could be that those strategies just aren't a good match for you. Achieving your goals is all about finding the specific lifestyle fixes that work for you—not for your neighbor. If your diet is stalled, try these smart strategies to kick-start your motivation and weight loss.

1. Start with sneakers. You probably already know that it takes a combination of diet and exercise to lose body fat, but researchers now believe that it’s best to tackle exercise first. “Once you invest time in a daily workout, you’ll be motivated to make the more difficult dietary changes,” says John Foreyt, Ph.D., director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

2. Make ambitious exercise goals. Instead of saying “I will exercise three days a week,” plan to exercise every day, even if you know you won’t make it. Most of us accomplish only 60 percent of our weekly fitness goals, according to research from the College of Public Health and Health Professions at the University of Florida in Gainesville. So if you plan to work out for an hour every day, you’ll probably make it to three or four workouts a week.

3. Find a groove. Make a mix of tunes that motivate you. A study from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey found that women who listened to music while walking lost twice as much weight as those who didn't. The music-listeners walked more often each week and adhered to the full program, which also included weekly dieting and group meetings, says the study’s lead researcher, Christopher A. Capuano, Ph.D.

4. Keep your diet simple. Most successful losers are unadventurous when it comes to eating. “Too much variety actually stimulates your appetite,” explains Hollie A. Raynor, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown Medical School in Providence. “If you're faced with a ton of options, you’ll likely eat more just out of curiosity.” (Or perhaps because the various choices are right there, tempting you.) Prepare dinners at home instead of eating out. Stick to cooking a few tried-and-true recipes with a wide range of nutrients, and rotate them often. As an added bonus, you’ll only have to figure out the calorie content in your favorite meals once, provided you stick to the same serving size.

5. Overestimate your calories. Most dieters under-report the calories they consume by a third and over-report the amount of exercise they do by half, says Foreyt. Keeping an accurate journal allows you to objectively analyze what you’re eating and why. “But even more than that, keeping a record helps you to stay committed to your goal,” says Daniel S. Kirschenbaum, Ph,D., director of the Center for Behavioral Medicine & Sport Psychology in Chicago and author of The Healthy Obsession Program. When you do guesstimate, round up by a few hundred calories.

6. Target weekend calories. One study found that on the weekends, Americans tend to eat about 82 calories more per day than on the weekdays, most of them from fat and alcohol. That doesn’t sound like much, but after a year it adds up to more than two pounds. Try some simple swaps, like having a light beer or vodka soda instead of that frozen margarita, or reaching for the veggie platter instead of the chips and dip.

7. Order first. When you’re dining out, be the first to place your order. ‘You can be influenced by other people’s food decisions,” says Gerard J. Musante, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and founder of Structure House, a residential weight-loss center in Durham, North Carolina. If everyone is ordering the burger and fries, for example, you’ll be more likely to order it too. Set a healthier tone by ordering a salad and the grilled fish before you can be swayed by others’ orders.

8. Troubleshoot. When you overindulge (it happens!), don’t beat yourself up, but do concentrate on getting right back on track. Instead, “consider what led you to overeat, and think of ways to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” says Kirschenbaum. Taking a problem-solving approach reinforces your sense of accountability, a key factor in losing weight. For example, if you scarfed down a tray of appetizers at the office party, was it because you skipped lunch? Were you nervous about an upcoming meeting? Once you think you’ve nailed the cause, make a plan for what you’ll do differently the next time you’re in the same situation.

9. Weigh in daily. Stepping on the scale each day is a winning weight-loss strategy, according to research from the National Weight Control Registry, which tracks more than 4,000 people who have lost 30 pounds and kept them off for at least one year. “It’s essential to know where you are and where you’re going, up or down, pound-wise,” says Raynor. Minor weight gain (up to five pounds) is acceptable if you’re trying to maintain, because it could be traced to monthly water retention. “If you're actively trying to lose weight, gaining more than that over a week is a red flag that your calorie intake or exercise plan needs some tweaking,” says Raynor.

10. Outwit your appetite. Eating six small meals a day to help control your appetite doesn’t work for everybody. “Eating that often increases your exposure to food and ups the chances that you’ll be tempted to overeat,” says Musante. Instead, try planning out your meals the day before, and if you find yourself getting too hungry between meals, factor in a small snack, like a piece of fruit or a small handful of nuts. And if you add a snack, make sure you account for those calories by eating less at another meal.

11. Make a connection. A good support system may help you make better diet and exercise decisions by boosting accountability, says Raynor. A recent study found that people who got support through face-to-face meetings with a counselor or through an Internet-based program were more successful in long-term weight loss than participants who didn’t use either.

12. Sleep eight hours. Shortchanging yourself on sleep lowers the level of the hormone leptin, which can increase your desire to eat and decrease your ability to burn calories. To lose or maintain weight, there’s an ideal sleep zone of about eight hours a night, say researchers. According to the National Sleep Foundation, an estimated 71 percent of Americans get less than that on weeknights. If you have trouble getting to sleep, develop a ritual that helps you relax.

13. Limit your exposure to tempting foods. Many successful dieters still eat small amounts of their favorite treats while on a diet, because avoidance sometimes leads to cravings and results in bingeing. The key here is portion control, so if you know you have trouble eating just one chocolate square or ½ cup of ice cream, you may prefer to keep those foods out of the house completely. Musante notes that the sight of food can stimulate your appetite. “You should even wrap leftovers in aluminum foil, not plastic, so you won’t be tempted when you open the fridge,” he says. Or try lighter versions of your favorites, like chocolate sorbet instead of full-fat chocolate ice cream.


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