Lifestyle Intervention Beats Dieting for Weight Loss

By Lisa Young, PhD, RD

As a nutritionist, for years I’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth as to which “diet” works best for weight loss: Low-carb, high-carb, low-fat, the fill-in-the-blank diet, you name it. Unfortunately, the diet rage of the day just leaves overweight individuals confused as to the best way to lose weight and keep unwanted pounds off. It turns out that we may just be better off forgetting the word “diet” altogether, according to an editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Significant Changes You Can Make Today

Two researchers, Sherry Pagoto of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and Bradley Appelhans of the Rush University Medical Center, call for an end to the diet wars because they are all equally as good, or bad, in helping lose weight. In their report, “A Call for an End to the Diet Debates,” they make the case that lifestyle changes trump diet in fighting the battle of the bulge.

As a nutritionist recommending lifestyle changes over diet, I couldn’t be happier with this report. I’ve seen clients try different diets over an over again, just to fall off the wagon, get discouraged, and then try a different diet. Which is why I am more concerned helping clients stick with a plan they can follow while incorporating lifestyle changes they can stick with.

One of the major problems with diets is adherence, which is so hard for so many overweight people struggling to shed unwanted pounds. Indeed, as the authors write in their report:

“The only consistent finding among the trials is that adherence – the degree to which participants continued in the program or met program goals for diet and physical activity – was most strongly associated with weight loss and improvement in disease-related outcomes.”

As reported by Fox News: “In the end, patients only get confused thinking that one diet is superior to another, when in fact changes in lifestyle, not diet types, are the true ways to prevent weight gain and the associated ills of diabetes and circulatory disease.”

Lifestyle interventions involve a three-pronged approach: Making dietary changes, exercising more, and incorporating behavior modification techniques.

Here are six simple lifestyle changes you can make that get you on the road to lasting weight loss. I have used these techniques, along with others, with much success in my private practice helping clients lose weight and keep it off.

1. Practice portion control
Watching how much you eat is one of the most important ways to lose weight. I have been counseling clients for years, and I have seen that when clients watch the sizes of their portions, they can shave hundreds of calories daily and lose weight more effortlessly. While it may seem obvious that larger portions have more calories than smaller portions, most people don’t recognize just how many more calories larger portions contain.

Another advantage to practicing portion control is that you do not have to cut out entire food groups to lose weight, and you even get to indulge in your favorite treats every now and then. No dieting and no deprivation.

(For tips on portion control, read my blog post: “Rightsize Your Waist and Your Plate.”)

2. Think positive
Instead of dwelling on the foods you cannot eat, try instead to focus on what you can have. I tell my clients that there is no restaurant that is completely off limits. You can always find something reasonably healthy. For example, when going to an Italian restaurant, instead of dwelling on the thought that you shouldn’t eat fettuccine alfredo (a “heart attack on a plate,” according to the Center of Science for the Public Interest), find something lighter, like whole-wheat pasta with veggies and fresh tomato sauce, or fresh grilled fish with sautéed spinach.

3. Keep food records
There is no better way to get a handle on what and how much you eat than keeping food records. And, for the good news, you do not have to keep records forever. People who record their food intake are generally more aware of the mistakes they make and are then able to make corrections. Food records help you see your eating patterns, both positive and negative ones. For example, are you nibbling in front of the TV without realizing it? Or are you famished when you get home from work, so you eat whatever is on the counter? By identifying your habits, you can more easily start new and improved ones.

4. Eat structured meals and snacks
Speaking of nibbling and mindless munching: One advantage of eating structured meals and snacks is that you tend to get famished less often. When you are famished, you tend to just grab whatever food is in sight. And, you also often end up grabbing junk food. Planning in advance is important. Keep healthy foods at arms length, and bring along some fruit or yogurt if you know that it will be hard to find something healthy later on.

5. Move more
All exercise helps. The key is to do what you enjoy and follow a program you can stick with. You do not have to spend thousands of dollars on a fancy gym. Lifestyle activities also add up. For example, take the stairs and walk around the block at lunchtime. I also advise taking advantage of different exercises you enjoy during the different seasons: Swimming outdoors in the summer, taking walks in the park or on the beach, and skiing in the winter. The key is to follow an exercise program that you adhere to for the long haul.

6. Cut yourself some slack
I am a big advocate of focusing on progress, not perfection. It is important to take stock of the changes you’ve made over time and look at the big picture. For example, if you need to lose 50 pounds and already lost 10 pounds, recognize your progress instead of complaining that you have 40 more pounds to lose. One way to recognize your progress is to try on some old clothes. Seeing that they are too loose can help you actually see your accomplishment.

Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, CDN is a nationally recognized nutritionist in New York City and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University (NYU). She is the author of “The Portion Teller Plan” (Broadway, a Division of Random House, Inc.).

Widely considered an expert on portion sizes, Dr. Young is regularly featured in national publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Newsweek, Self, Fitness, Redbook and Glamour. She has been featured on national television, including ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, TODAY and CNN, and was featured in the film “Super Size Me.” For more information, please visit

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

Connect with us on FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestLinked InYouTubeRSS

Print this page

One thought on “Lifestyle Intervention Beats Dieting for Weight Loss

  1. Nice post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed!

    Very helpful information specially the last part 🙂 I
    care for such information a lot. I was seeking this particular information
    for a long time. Thank you and best of luck.

Leave a Comment