Weight loss usually requires more than willpower. That’s because adjusting what you eat and how much you exercise are big lifestyle changes.
Your diet and physical activity levels are the result of habits built up over your lifetime. To change them, you’ll need a strategy.
“Improving your health can feel like a monumental task, but be confident,” says Nathan Parker, Ph.D., an instructor of Behavioral Science. “There are a lot of evidence-based, incremental strategies to help you make progress.”
We asked our experts to give us their best tips to help you eat better and exercise more. Use this list to help you find a strategy that will work for you – and remember, you’ll need to change both your diet and exercise habits to lose weight and reduce your risk for diseases like cancer.
1. Fill up on fiber
When you eat, choose foods that will make you feel satisfied for longer. This will help you avoid snacking, which adds extra calories to your day. Vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, as well as fruits like apples, bananas and strawberries, are all high fiber foods.
“As part of a healthy diet, high-fiber foods may help reduce your overall calorie intake and help you maintain a healthy weight,” says Erma Levy, a research dietitian. “Ideally, you want fiber to come from whole food sources, not supplements or juices.”
Drinking water before, during and after meals will help you feel full and prevent overeating. Pause between bites to help you eat slowly. This will give your body and mind time to notice that you are satisfied.
2. Log what you eat, and set diet goals
Logging what you eat will give you an idea of where your calories are coming from. You can use this information to set goals for yourself.
For example, if you notice that you eat a cookie with coffee every day at 3 p.m., you can set a goal to grab some nuts or a piece of fruit instead. Or you may notice that when you order takeout, you always get that extra side of ranch dressing. Make your next goal either to try a healthier vinegar-based dressing or cut your portions in half.
3. Plan meals in advance
Make cooking easy by planning your meals. Research shows that if you cook at home, you will likely improve your diet.
After you brainstorm healthy meals, make your shopping list and stick to it. When it’s time to decide what to eat, you’ll have all the ingredients on hand.
4. Use healthy cooking techniques
Some ways to cook are healthier than others. For example, if you bake chicken instead of frying it, you will reduce calories and remove harmful inflammatory compounds caused by high temperature cooking.
“There are a lot of tricks for making the food you cook healthier,” says Margaret Raber, Dr.P.H., who specializes in public health with the MD Anderson Cancer Prevention Research Training Program. “You don’t have to do them all every time you cook, but it’s a realistic approach to get you closer to a healthier diet.”
5. Set SMART goals for diet and exercise
Vague goals like “eat healthy” or “exercise more” are unlikely to work because they don’t specify how you will achieve your goal.
So, focus on creating SMART goals, which are more detailed and give you a framework for change. SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.
A SMART goal for exercise could be: Beginning Monday, I will walk for 15 minutes after lunch every weekday.
A SMART goal for eating could be: Each time I go grocery shopping, I will plan five healthy dinners and create a list to of ingredients.
“Having a SMART goal allows you to define what you want to do and how you will measure your progress,” says Andrea Murray, a health education specialist in MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center.
6. Schedule and track your exercise
Look at your week and make a realistic decision about when you will exercise and for how long.
Scheduling is a very powerful tool for building new habits. You will get used to the time you exercise, and your body will learn to expect it.
Sleep is key to a healthy lifestyle. Studies show that if you don’t get enough sleep, it can disrupt your hormones and damage your body’s ability to process sugar.
It also can affect your metabolism. This is how quickly your body processes food.
“Both a lack of sleep and obesity are big problems for people today,” says Carol Harrison, senior exercise physiologist. “One may affect the other.”
9. Weight-loss surgery may be an option
Bariatric surgery may be an option for some who suffer from obesity. There are different kinds of procedures, but they all involve making surgical changes to your digestive system to reduce calorie intake or absorption.
Recent studies suggest that bariatric surgery also may reduce your risk for some cancers, like pancreatic cancer, but this should not be the focus of your decision.
There are benefits to weight loss surgery. “A reduction in pancreatic cancer risk may possibly be a side benefit, but cancer prevention is not the primary purpose of bariatric surgery,” says pancreatic cancer surgeon Matthew Katz, M.D. “The operation may be a consideration for people who have struggled with weight loss and have complications like Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders.”
Choose the right approach for you
Take time to consider which healthy living strategy might work for you. Then give it a go. If it doesn’t work, try a different one.
“Focus on making changes that can stick, and you’ll be on your way to achieving your health goals,” says Parker.