So far in this crash-course, we’ve identified your target numbers and then provided essential facts regarding nutrition in the previous chapter.
Now, it’s time to put all of that to work! Let’s dig in to your personalized diet plan.
Low-Hanging Fruit: Cutting Empty Calories
The first place to start with your diet is cutting the calories that you won’t even notice are missing. These are the infamous “empty calories” that pack on fat without doing anything to help you feel full. They also don’t provide significant nutrients, so replacing them with “healthier” foods is a great chance to improve your overall health and minimize the risk of malnutrition.
These foods are easy to replace with lower-calorie alternatives, and provide the best results since you’ll barely even notice they’re gone.
Empty calorie sources include:
- Fruit Drinks / Juice
- Refined carbohydrates
- Fried Food
- Dressings or Dips
Take a look at what you eat / drink on a daily basis, and try to brainstorm some ways to cut empty calories. The effects of doing so can be profound.
Let’s look at an example of what would happen if you made the following changes:
- Replace 1 TBSP of sugar in your morning coffee with a sweetener like stevia or Splenda
- Replace 1 daily soda / juice / sweetened drink with a diet alternative (or water)
- Replace 1 TBSP mayonnaise with mustard or ketchup
- Replace 1 TBSP of butter on your dinner vegetables with a splash of broth for flavor
Sounds easy enough, right?
Those changes add up to roughly 375 calories, and are such subtle adjustments that they won’t be very noticeable to most people. However, just that empty calorie reduction alone can result in a 3.25 pound body weight difference over the course of a month.
Start your diet with the simple changes like this – the ones you’ll barely notice. It’s a much easier approach than eating less of your real food, and creates a diet that you’ll be much more likely to stick with.
Structured Diets vs. Flexible Diets
When planning your diet, it’s absolutely vital that you strictly define your plan ahead of time. Loosely defined diets make it too easy to bend the rules and end in failure.
Your plan can start with one of two structures: A structured diet, or a flexible style diet.
Structured diets are the most carefully designed. These are actual meal plans that define exactly what you’re allowed to have for each meal and for snacks in-between. They often provide multiple options for each meal, allowing some variation to keep your diet from getting boring.
For example, your structured breakfast options might allow you to choose from two scrambled eggs with fresh fruit, or a bowl of oatmeal with a tablespoon of berries. All of your options will be defined with specific measurements to ensure portion control.
You have less room to worry about slipping with a structured diet, and you can ensure you’re still eating healthy foods by carefully planning meals ahead of time. They also make grocery shopping easier, and allow you to easily cook and store several day’s worth of food ahead of time.
Structured diets are best suited for people who don’t want to think about their diet too much, or who need a rigid structure in order to maintain self-control. They just want to choose a food from their daily meal list, eat it, and be done.
Flexible diets instead focus on logging every bite of food eaten, and simply making sure that whatever you eat does not exceed your daily calorie limit, and also meets your minimum requirements of a few nutrients (ie, protein).
This flexibility is great for people who don’t enjoy eating the same foods often, or who still want to enjoy (a limited portion of) their favorite foods when the craving strikes. It even allows the flexibility to eat at restaurants or get-togethers, provided you plan out what you’ll eat ahead of time.
Here’s how it works: Take note of your daily calorie goal – the last chapter showed you how to calculate this figure. Then, you need to journal every bite of food you eat and its caloric content.
Don’t try to track this in your head – you need to actually record what you eat. There are a few decent options for logging your meals:
- An app on your phone. This works great, since your phone is usually with you. Search your app store for several free options (MyFitnessPal works great).
- A website diet journal. Fitday.com is worth trying. This is a suitable digital alternative for those without a smart phone, but isn’t very portable, making it difficult to enter your details on the go.
- The old fashioned way – a notepad and ink pen. For best results, get a notepad small enough to put in your pocket or purse.
No skimping! For this to work, you have to log every single bite you eat. No guessing, either. You need to measure everything and compare it to the Nutrition Facts label on your food packaging. Is the serving size on that bag of chips for exactly 18 chips? Then you need to count out 18 chips from the bag before you start snacking. If you’re eating out, or are consuming something (like produce) that doesn’t have a nutrition label, you’ll need to search online to find these nutrition details.
It gets easier after several days. Once you start repeating the same food entries, you can just look at your previous entries to see how many calories it contains.
There are some disadvantages to the flexible diet:
- Until you get used to it, you might find it too easy to use up your entire calorie allowance too early in the day.
- Measuring and tracking every bite you eat can be a bit of a hassle (Yes, every time you pour a bowl of cereal, you’ll need to use a measuring cup for both the cereal and the milk!)
- Tracking what you eat can also take a bit of time, and requires frequent logging entries.
- The flexibility makes it a bit too easy to eat unhealthy. Remember, just because it’s low calorie doesn’t necessarily mean it’s nutritious.
- It won’t work if you abuse it. If you know you’re the type that risks going out to eat, ordering a bunch of food, and just saying “Oh, I’ll just log this and make up for it later”… Then forget about it and stick with a fixed meal plan.
Only you will be able to determine if a structured or flexible diet is your best option. Put a lot of thought into this decision before you begin, but don’t worry about it too much – if one isn’t working, you can always give the other one a try. What’s most important is that you take the first step. Pick an option, make a plan, and commit to stick with it.
Ideal Meal & Snack Ideas
With your target caloric goal in mind, and your diet plan selected, it’s time to discuss what you should eat.
Sure, you could just jump in and eat whatever you want as long as it meets your calorie requirements – but if you make poor food choices, you could make this much harder on yourself. Eating the wrong foods can not only harm your health through poor nutrition, it can also fail to adequately satisfy your appetite.
Failing to feel satisfied and energetic is the hallmark of poor food choices, and can cause you to give up on your diet faster than anything else. If you focus on eating right, the benefits can be tremendous.
- Egg-White Omelet: Did you know almost all of an egg’s calories is in the yolk, and the protein is in the white? A single egg white has only 17 calories – meaning this filling omelet can come in at under 100 total calories.To make it: Separate three egg whites and pour into a warm, non-stick pan. Add one slice of Velveeta (40 calorie) cheese and (optional) some low-calorie veggies like tomatoes or broccoli. Cook to perfection, fold, and serve.
- Greek Yogurt: Higher in protein than regular yogurt, this quick & low calorie food can keep you full longer. Besides breakfast, it also makes a great lunch or mid-day snack option.
- Oatmeal: Warm, filling, nutritious, and easy – it doesn’t get much better than oatmeal.
- Cereal with Skim Milk: This is another easy idea, but make sure to carefully check nutrition labels before buying a cereal. Your current favorite is likely loaded with calories, but several brands have great low-calorie options.A few notes: You have to measure every time you pour a bowl. You’d be surprised how many “servings” you normally eat! Also, milk fat packs on tons of hidden calories. If you can’t tolerate skim milk, opt for 1% at the most.
- Granola / Protein Bars: No time to eat at home? Don’t hit the drive-thru! Keep some granola or protein bars on hand for a quick breakfast on the go. Just check the label before you buy, because some of these are just mislabeled candy bars.
- Soup: Need a fast, cheap, and easy option? Soup to the rescue! Compare plenty of labels at the store, because some of these have more calories than you might think.
- Protein Salad: Salads can be surprisingly filling when paired with a protein source. Mix your favorite lettuce with plenty of veggies (to help fill you up), and top with a protein like grilled chicken or boiled egg. Mix in a measured amount of a low-calorie dressing.
- Wraps: If the protein salad is a bit too boring, follow the same concept but stuffed in a multigrain wrap.
- Chicken Panini: If you look hard enough, you can find low-calorie bread that comes in at 100 calories for two slices. Lightly coat each side with margarine (measure it & account for those calories!), add grilled chicken and a slice of cheese, and lightly grill on each side.
- Corn Tortilla Quesadilla: Corn tortillas have surprisingly fewer calories than their flour alternatives (and not just because they’re smaller). These make great quesadillas for lunch, and you can optionally add a protein source (black beans or chicken) to make it more satisfying.
Dinner is the biggest meal of most people’s day, and represents a great chance to cut some calories. You can go any number of directions with this, but most prefer to stick with tradition: A protein, a vegetable, and a complex carb.
Here’s some ideas for each:
- Protein: Grilled or baked chicken, salmon, a small pork-chop serving, or a black bean dish will get the job done. Remember to carefully measure your portions, and don’t forget to take into account any fat / oil used in the cooking process.
- Vegetable: This can be about any type of veggie, as long as you steamed it and try not to add butter or oil. If you’re too used to the added flavor of butter to eat these plain, try using a splash of broth instead. It adds flavor and a negligible amount of calories.
- Complex Carb: Brown rice, wild rice, or quinoa are all great options. Try to avoid simple carbs, like white rice, which digest faster and mess with your blood glucose levels.
- Baby Carrots with Greek Yogurt Dip: These veggies are great to snack on, and a tablespoon or so of Greek yogurt makes a suitable alternative for fattening drips. For added flavor, lightly salt the carrots.
- Boiled Egg: You can cook these ahead of time, and store them in the refrigerator, submerged in water, in a plastic container.
- Crackers & Peanut Butter: Peanut butter is a healthy fat, but don’t get carried away, or the calories will add up fast. As a low-cal snack, measure a tablespoon of peanut butter with 5 club crackers.
- Fruit: Snacking on some fruit can help satisfy your sweet tooth and provide added nutrition to your diet. Just don’t forget to keep track of calories – just because it’s produce doesn’t mean it’s good for your diet.
Drinks are possibly the biggest source of empty calories in the modern diet. Absolutely ditch regular sodas, sweetened teas, sugar in coffee, fruit juices, and avoid regular alcohol consumption. Instead, try these drinks:
- Diet Soda: It’s best to avoid soda altogether, but if you find that too difficult, switch to diet soda. Don’t buy into the hype: Diet soda is far better for weight loss than regular soda.
- Unsweet Tea: Refreshing, cold, caffeinated, and flavorful – what’s not to love? Add a calorie-free sweetener if you must.
- Lemon Water: Drinking water is boring, but a slice of lemon squeezed in can make it a tad more bearable.
- Sparkling / Seltzer Water: Carbonated water not only tickles your taste buds, it also expands in your stomach, helping you to feel full and reduce your appetite.
Dining out should ideally be avoided as much as possible, but on some occasions it’s practically unavoidable.
Restaurant food just isn’t designed to be diet-friendly. Foods are cooked in excessive amounts of fat to give them more flavor, serving sizes are out of control, and it’s very tempting to overeat when everyone around you is pigging out.
If you’re planning on dining out, look up the establishment’s website first for menu and nutrition details. You can avoid making a poor decision on-the-spot by planning your meal ahead of time, and compare it to your calorie allotment (your remaining calories on a flexible diet plan, or the equivalent calories of the same meal on a structured diet plan). Don’t forget to account for hidden calories in things like dips, dressings, and sauces.
Typical entrees can be an excessive portion of food for someone on a diet. While planning your order, compare the entree calories to those of the appetizers – sometimes that can make a wiser option. You can also consider just ordering a few sides, rather than a full meal.
If in doubt, aim to eat half of your meal and take the other half home in a to-go container.
Cheat meals are a compromise. On one hand, they add calories that can slow your progress – but, if an occasional cheat meal is what it takes to retain your sanity and stick to your diet, then the net benefit makes them entirely worthwhile.
If you decide to incorporate cheat meals into your diet plan, make sure they are regular and scheduled. Allowing for impromptu cheating is a great way for your diet to fail miserably. A weekly routine (say, every Friday night) seems to work well for most people.
Just keep in mind that the term is cheat meal, not cheat day, or cheat evening. Recognize when the meal is over, and acknowledge that you’re now back on your diet. Most important, if you do decide to have cheat meals, don’t feel guilty over it. The point is to reward yourself and enjoy the meal, not to feel like you’re doing something wrong!
If you stick with your diet, you’ll notice these cheat meals causing less harm over time. As you eat less on a daily basis, your stomach capacity will actually shrink, and you’ll find yourself unable to stuff down nearly as much food in one meal. That’s one of the main reasons that scheduled cheating can be beneficial in the long run.
The Problem With Alcohol
Weight loss and alcohol get along worse than cats and dogs – they are enemies to the extreme.
Alcohol alters hormone levels in your body, signaling it to store fat. More importantly, alcohol is a gigantic source of calories! Four 12 oz beers can have more than 600 calories, and cocktails can have even more than that.
It’s the alcohol itself that’s the caloric problem, not the carbs in beer or the mixers in cocktails – so you can’t get around this, even by sticking to liquor or wine.
The flat-out truth is that the more often you drink, the less weight you’ll lose. If you must indulge, try to limit both the amount of alcohol you drink and the frequency at which you drink. Ideally, you would try to drink not more often than every-other week.
Binge drinking is more of a problem than smaller amounts, so if you must have alcohol, try to just have a drink or two with your cheat meals. On the bright side, if you’re used to drinking more often, you’ll find your tolerance quickly diminishes. Before long, you might discover that one or two drinks is all you need to get a little “happy”!
The Tupperware System
When you start your diet, you may experience some frustration with the amount of at-home cooking you need to do. Sure, you can eat plenty of foods that don’t require cooking, but at least some of your meals are going to require use of the stove or oven.
You can make things much easier on yourself by using the “Tupperware System”. Simply purchase a large pack of plastic containers (the Ziplock or Gladware container packs are quite inexpensive), and plan out your meals for the next several days. Then, all at once, you can fill those containers with each individual meal.
To make things super easy, label each meal by the day you’ll eat it, and store in the refrigerator. This makes it super easy to stick with your diet, since your meals are all ready-to-go ahead of time. It’s also a great way to prepare your lunches if you’re trying to brown-bag it at work. Just grab the container and go!
Keep Healthy Snacks in the Car
This tip is incredibly useful, and very underutilized. If you’re unexpectedly out later than you planned, get held up at work, or end up with impromptu plans, you can easily find yourself hungry with nothing healthy to eat. It can be way too tempting to just grab some fast food and be done with it.
To solve this problem, keep a few bottles of water and some healthy snacks in your car. Individual bags of nuts, trail mix, or protein bars are a few options that will satisfy cravings and can be stored in your car for long periods of time.
Simple preparation like this can make a big difference in keeping your diet on track.
The nutrients your body needs, including vitamins, minerals, essential fats, and antioxidants all come from the food you eat. This works on a per-calorie basis: If you eat half the amount of the same foods, you’ll be getting half the nutrients.
In the short term, this probably won’t amount to much – but when you’re on a prolonged diet, you don’t want to take any chances. Ideally, your diet plan will be healthy enough to cover all your nutritional bases, but this is sometimes easier said than done.
To help avoid potential health problems, I always recommend that dieters take both a multivitamin and an essential fatty acid supplement (fish oil, or flax oil for vegetarians) on a daily basis. Take these with a meal to enhance absorption.
Log it ALL!
I won’t go into detail too much since I already covered calorie logging in-depth in the “flexible diet” section above, but this is important enough to stress one last time. For your diet to work, you have to account for every single bite of food you eat.
This is a big commitment, and it means you can’t afford to take even a moment off from this dedication. Someone gives you a bite of ice cream? Record it. Hungry for a snack, and grab “just a handful” of something? Log it – even if it’s only 10 calories.
Keeping yourself accountable all of the time is the only way to ensure you stay on track. People who don’t bother account for “tiny amounts of food” that they eat “only now and then” are usually the ones who complain about a lack of results weeks down the road.
Products to Simplify Your Plan
This guide gives you everything you need to make your own diet plan and get started. With that said, it can often be a headache to plan all of your meals and cook each of them yourself (even if you do it ahead of time).
For this reason, I was excited to try out a full-service diet delivery program, and settled on BistroMD – which was voted best tasting diet program.
It’s pretty cool – they have 150+ entrees prepared by their chefs that are packed up and sent to your door. It’s a day-by-day structure, and it’s all diet-friendly food. They provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as snacks. All you do is grab the meal from that day’s food items, and quickly prepare it according to the package directions.
Their food is surprisingly great, and tastes very fresh. I can definitely say it’s way easier than making everything yourself, and the cost is about the same as what most people already spend on food.
If you try it out, you can use the code “StartNow” for free shipping (normally costs $24.95) to get started. You can check it out on their site: BistroMD
Let’s move on to the next section, which focuses on how to stay on track: Willpower & Motivation