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This blog is purely informational and not meant to take the place of individual medical nutrition therapy (MNT). For serious medical conditions, ask your doctor for a referral to a dietitian. 

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Q: I don't want to diet. How can I lose weight?

Sparkling water with fruit slice

A: Small changes can lead to big results. Here are 3 common culprits worth cutting back to get you started on your weight loss journey.

#1: Swap the soda.

My apologies--while a small change, I realize quitting the fizzy pop is certainly no easy change. It's hard to replace that sweet, bubbly sensation. And there's little denying that the sugar triggers the pleasure centers of the brain. Some may even be hooked on the caffeinated drinks, making it an even harder habit to break.

However, sugar-sweetened beverages like pop, juice, energy drinks, and sweetened coffees are more than just empty calories. The havoc they wreak on metabolism paves the way for a fast track to weight gain.

A 12-ounce can of regular soda contains 39g of pure sugar. That's nearly 10 teaspoons of sugar. A 20-ounce bottle? That's over 16 teaspoons. Fruit juices of the same portions contain the same amounts of sugar.

In the liquid form, sugar is absorbed rapidly into the body. Unlike high fiber carbs like whole fruit and whole grains, the body does not need to break down pop. The sugar is already in its simplest form, so it moves quickly from our digestive tract to our bloodstream, causing a spike in blood sugar. As I described in a previous post about metabolism, spikes in blood sugar cause spikes in insulin. Insulin is a growth hormone that tells your body to start making fat. So not only does pop provide extra calories with no nutritious value, it revs up your body's fat production. Thus, not only will you gain weight from the calories, you will gain fat faster.

If you are yelling back that there is no way you'll drink diet soda, you'll get no argument here. Diet soda is not linked to weight loss either.

The Soda Fix Most people need to drink more water anyway, so this would be a healthy swap worth making. Staying hydrated keeps our body functioning its best, from our digestive system to our immune system to our cardiovascular system, and everything in between. Many also find that drinking more water helps curb cravings and hunger as well.

If it's the fizz that you love, try sparkling water infused with fruit flavors. A squeeze of lemon adds a nice touch to bubbly water.

Addicted to the caffeine? To be honest, iced tea sweetened with 1 teaspoon of sugar or honey is going to be a better choice than a can of pop, with some antioxidant benefits too. Over time, keep working on reducing the sugar until you get used to the flavor of unsweetened drinks.

#2: Eat out less.

I get it. Work is stressful. The kids' activities take time. At the end of the day, it's a lot easier to grab a pizza or some subs rather than start chopping vegetables.

However, if you find yourself frequently stepping out for lunch, driving thru, or picking up, you may be exceeding your calorie needs more often than not.

Even seemingly healthy choices can derail weight loss. Turn that 6-inch tuna sub into a meal and you're looking at 880 calories.

A typical platter of chicken tenders and fries is around 1000 calories.

Add a soda to that and you're getting another 200 calories.

Even that burger on a lettuce "bun" can still be 500 calories.

While a night out is a great way to unwind with friends or family at the end of the week, eating out several times a week can make it harder to see changes on the scale.

The Fast Food Fix

If you are eating out frequently because you don't pack a lunch for work, or you are running around to your kids' activities, or you just find it too difficult to cook at the end of a long day, you might want to consider strategies for making meal prep easier.

  • Often, the burden of shopping is the first barrier to cooking. Many grocery stores now offer online ordering, grocery delivery, or curbside pick up. The small fee likely will be offset by the money you'll save by not eating out.

  • Meal kits contain all the ingredients you need, pre-measured, to throw together a quick meal in under 30 minutes. Some online companies mail the kits to your house for a subscription service. But if you are hesitant to commit to a subscription, meal kits are now available at grocery stores like this one I found at Kroger.

  • Pull out your crock pot and slow cook while you're at work, or use a pressure cooker like an Instapot to cut cooking time at the end of the day. Take time on the weekends to pre-chop veggies so they are ready to throw in the pot during the week.

  • Take advantage of convenience foods like salad kits, microwaveable frozen vegetables, or quick-cook grains like Minute Brown Rice.

  • Sometimes, all it takes are some new ideas and quick and easy recipes.

#3: Cut snacks after dinner.

One of the biggest sources of extra calories is the after-dinner snack. Many of us find ourselves unwinding at the end of the day with chips, ice cream, or some other indulgence while we are watching TV. This habit poses two problems:

1. We are likely consuming extra calories we don't need.

2. Our metabolism slows at the end of the day, increasing the likelihood that those extra calories will be stored as fat.

This common habit is difficult to kick because there may be a multitude of factors that drive us to food at night:

  • Sweets and snacks are more than just tasty to the tongue. For many of us, they provide an escape from the responsibilities of the day, a moment to ourselves of pure indulgence, stress relief. We no longer have to answer to our bosses or our customers. Our kids are safe in their rooms, fed and ready for bed. The chores are done for the day. At night, we can finally pamper ourselves, and eating sweet or savory snacks can feel like a reward. Or the pleasure of eating can momentarily dampen the feelings of stress or anxiety lingering from the day.

  • If we are watching TV, restaurant commercials bombard us with images of tantalizing foods that can trigger appetite.

  • In some cases, skipping meals during the day or over-restricting the calories in our meals can lead us to hunger and cravings at the end of the day.

The Bedtime Snack Fix

First, identify why you are snacking before bed.

  • If you are truly hungry and there is a grumble in your stomach, examine your meals throughout the day. Try not to skip meals, and make sure each meal is well balanced. If you are fueling properly throughout the day, your body is less likely to send you hunger signals at night.

  • If you are not hungry, then what are you feeling? Are you seeking escape from stress, anxiety, or some other emotion? If you find that you are a frequent stress eater, then consider other strategies for stress management. Some people find escape in reading, listening to music, meditation, or physical activity. What options other than eating might help you?

  • Are the food commercials working their magic on you? You might consider unwinding away from the TV at night, or choose low-calorie snacks like fruit or vegetables to satisfy your need to munch. An apple can give you a satisfyingly sweet crunch for only 65-calories, a lower calorie alternative to a 200 calorie serving of chips or cookies.

Overall, calorie reduction is critical for weight loss, whether it's from snacks, drinks, or portions. If following a structured diet plan feels daunting at this time, then start with identifying some extra calories that you can learn to live without.

When you are ready to dig a little deeper into your weight loss journey, start by finding out how many calories you need for weight loss. Or if your next step is increasing your physical activity, here are 5 ways to stay motivated to exercise.

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