If you haven't quite started on that New Year's resolution to take off the pounds, you've got plenty of company. After all, who can decide from among the hundreds of diets on the market?
Low-fat, high-protein, minimeals — what and how much to eat depends on your body's needs, your lifestyle, your preferences. Any calorie reduction will probably make you lose weight in the short term — the issue is whether the program is sustainable for you.
So it pays to think long and hard about the plan you choose. Consider what has worked (or not) in the past, and consult your doctor or a weight-loss specialist for more guidance.
Whatever you choose, there are practices and tips that can help make any food plan more successful. Here are some of the most tried-and-true, scientifically proven pillars on which any weight-loss (and more important, weight-maintenance) program should stand.
Dear Diary . . .
Yes, we know, you don't want to write down everything you eat.
So how about a compromise: Just do it sometimes.
"If they write a food journal three days a month, most people will lower their caloric intake by 10 percent," says Dr. Steven Masley, president of Masley Optimal Health Center in St. Petersburg and author of Ten Years Younger.
He recommends picking three typical days — not when you're on your best "diet'' behavior — and make them two weekdays and one weekend day.
"It's usually painful to write down everything you eat," he said, "but if you're honest, it's an effective weight-loss strategy."
Which may inspire you to add on a few more days to the diary.
According to a large study published in 2008 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records.
If you don't want to use paper and pen, websites and smart phone apps make the task easier.
Plus, the obligation to log in could motivate you to eat less, says Sarah Krieger, a registered dietitian at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "If you anticipate eating 10 cookies, you might eat a few less, simply because you know you'll have to write it down."
Someone to lean on
Study after study has shown that people who try to lose weight alone are not as successful as those who have support. Formal groups such as Weight Watchers, casual gym buddies, an online discussion forum — all can work as long as there is someone to encourage you and, more importantly, hold you accountable.
If you are not much of a talker, Krieger suggests getting your support in a competitive format. Pair up with a friend or a gym acquaintance to see who will log the most miles, or have the most consecutive workout days.
Limit liquid calories
Unless it's milk, a protein shake or a meal-replacement smoothie, you should avoid liquid calories if you're serious about losing weight. Sodas, juices, coffee drinks and alcohol provide no satiety and only pad your waistline.
"If you add one can of soda each day, without changing anything else, you will consume 51,100 calories in a year, for a weight gain of 14 pounds," Masley says. Add up your other drinks — a glass of wine with dinner, a morning latte, an evening beer — and the numbers are astounding.
Love diet sodas? Think about backing off. Evidence suggests that artificially sweetened beverages may cause your brain to crave real sugar.
But chug that water
Drinking more water might be the most effortless step you can take toward weight loss.
A recent study showed that people on a low-calorie diet for 12 weeks who drank 16 ounces of water before each meal lost almost 5 more pounds than dieters who didn't drink the extra water.
If that water is chilled, the benefit could be even greater. A German study found that drinking 16 ounces of cold water increased metabolism by 24 percent for the following 90 minutes.
And how's this for performance enhancement: Scientists at the University of Connecticut found that men who drank water before working out could complete 17 percent more reps per set during a lower-body workout than poorly hydrated men.
Plus, thirst can be confused for hunger, Krieger says, because dehydration makes you feel tired and can send you in search of a snack when what you need is water.
You've got to move
"If they only diet and don't exercise, 82 percent of people gain back the weight plus 5 additional pounds," Masley says. "This is why there's so much frustration with diets. The best way to maintain your calorie-burning capacity when you diet is to be active."
Yet most people treat exercise as optional.
"It has to be a part of your day," Masley says. "And, statistically, for many, if you don't go first thing in the morning, it won't happen."
People who have been sedentary need to proceed with caution. But as you lose weight and get more fit, one hour a day, five to six days a week is the recommended amount to lose weight and keep it off.
Remember: Exercise alone won't help you lose weight if you aren't rigorous about your diet.
Skip the dashboard dining
Make it a rule to serve food in the kitchen and eat it at the dinner table using a real plate. Numerous studies have found that eating from a plate, rather than from the container, helps people eat less. And eating anywhere other than the table — in front of the TV or in the car — leads to overeating.
And skip "family style'' dining. Researchers at Cornell University found that when people served themselves from the stove or the kitchen counter, they ate up to 35 percent less than when the serving dish was left on the table.
Hit the scale
Waiting to see physical changes, such as clothes fitting differently, could take longer than you would like, so celebrate the small changes on a scale.
"There is benefit to weighing yourself at least two to three times per week. Just know that your weight can fluctuate daily," Masley cautions. "It varies around 2 to 3 pounds for men, and 3 to 5 pounds for women," he says. So if you know you've been following your plan but you get bad news on the scale, be patient, and consider whether you're eating too much sodium, which causes fluid retention.
But if you're a person who gets obsessive over the bathroom scale, rely on weigh-ins at your gym or weight-loss group.
Emin Hadziosmanovic is a Tampa Bay area freelance writer who specializes in health topics.