It should be simple math, right? If calories eaten are less than calories burned, the pounds fall off. But that's not what the latest research seems to say. "We always like to think we're in charge of the decisions we make about food and exercise, but the truth is we're always influenced by outside factors, often in ways we don't even realize," says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life. But don't lose hope: You can finally say goodbye to that extra tummy padding if you jump in with a game plan that fights back against the most common fat loss foes—it's all about being prepared. Here's what you need to know before you even step on a scale, or pick up a dumbbell.
1. It's only about willpower at the beginning of your day.The "I think I can" mentality is a great start—and it'll definitely kick your day off on the right foot—but more often than not, it won't hold up as the hours tick by. "Willpower really only works for about 5 percent of the population," says Wansink. He explains that "decision fatigue" sets in for the rest of us, and more often than not it's just easier to make the less-healthy decision. Which makes sense, if you think about it: When you're starving and the only thing available is a vending machine snack, it takes superhero powers—and we're no Clark Kent—not to press B6 for the Snickers bar. So instead of making willpower the end-all, be-all of reaching your weight loss goals, change up your surroundings so you're not being set up to fail. Speaking of…
2. Your environment can make a major difference.If you set your space up for success, you won't have to give your willpower a workout as often. These tricks from Wansink make weight loss feel easier because temptation won't be around Every. Single. Corner.
Downsize your dinner plate. You'll serve yourself 22 percent less food, research shows.
Keep seconds on the stove. Rather than right in front of you on the dinner table. This will instantly help you eat 20 percent fewer calories, since you'll have to take time to get up and dish out more, inherently making you think through that decision more.
Have fruit within reach. Literally. Store a bowl of apples, bananas and pears within 24 inches of a path you walk frequently so it's natural to nosh on that instead of another candy bar.
Place all not-so-healthy snacks in one cupboard. Out of sight, out of mind, as mom always said. If those bad boys aren't staring you down all the live-long day (or night), you're less likely to crave them.
3. It's also about that attitude.The bad (or should we say sad) news: "Even just being slightly unhappy might lead you to eat 9 percent more and reach for less nutritious foods," Wansink has found. The upside: "It takes almost nothing to turn this around. Just say or think of one thing that you're thankful for today" and you're likely to eat more vegetables and less starch. We'll go first: We're grateful for our Thursday night relaxation ritual, courtesy of Shondaland (that's Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder, of course). Your turn!
4. Plan ahead or plan to fail.Before you start to shed, write a list of the pros and cons of making healthier choices. "What are you willing to take a pass on? What will this help you achieve?" Julie Merrell, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic asks her clients these important questions to help them notice that the hard work is worth it. Writing it down may just help you realize that if the daily roll you have with dinner is what's keeping you from rocking a sexy swimsuit this summer, you're totally cool with giving it up a few days a week. Making the decision yourself—rather than someone forcing it on you—will make it feel less like a sacrifice, and more like a lifestyle change to get everything you want (so yes, you really can still have those carbs). Next, note exactly how you'll start working toward your goal, and get ready to put it into action. "This could be going to the gym three days a week after work, preparing five days of nutritious lunches on Sunday, or joining a weight-loss challenge to keep you accountable," says Merrell.
5. You can do too much too soon."If you think of weight loss as all or nothing, it's way too easy to fall off the wagon for good when you make one slip up," says Merrell. When one scoop of ice cream turns into one pint, "forgive yourself and don't view it as catastrophic. Remind yourself that you plan to make healthier choices for your whole life, and in the grand scheme of things, your one 'mistake' isn't going to be make or break." On the flip side, if you notice that you frequently turn to food in times of stress or boredom, check in with a psychologist or dietitian to formulate a plan of attack that'll help keep things in perspective.
6. A food diary is a must.We're not saying you have to count every single calorie that goes into your mouth. But simply writing down what you eat, when you eat helps bring you more awareness. And science backs it up: Folks who write before they bite lose twice as much as those who don't, according to a recent study. Test drive one of these top options for your next meal or snack.
7. You might get run-gry."People often overcompensate at the dinner table or snack time when they start a new exercise regimen. If we do something that makes us feel put out, we naturally try to think of ways to reward ourselves—often this comes in the form of dessert," says Wansink. Instead, try to "reframe exercise as a break; the 30 minutes you don't need to answer emails or take care of the kids. Then it will start to seem like a treat rather than a chore," he says. But if you still find yourself craving a big batch of froyo like it's nobody's business, try reaching for a similar substitute (like the 90-calorie-per-serving sorbet over the 150-calorie yogurt). "Slashing even just a small amount of calories here and there can lead to a lot of weight loss over time," Merrell says.
8. You'll probably need another layer, fewer Post-Its, and one less cocktail.If you lose just 10 percent of your body weight—say, 18 pounds if you're starting at 180—you'll start to experience a major change in your internal health (better blood pressure, lower cholesterol, etc.). These might not be immediately noticeable on the outside, but the shivers will. "You'll probably begin to feel cold more often, or you might experience discomfort after sitting on a hard surface," says Merrell. Keep a trendy trench or blazer handy to slip on or stick under your seat. And while we're talking unexpected effects, here's one big benefit you can count on: Your brain becomes more active as you do, so you may notice that it's easier to recall random facts. And one last thing: Your wine tolerance won't be quite as high, so try not to keep up with Olivia Pope's consumption levels.
9. You'll want to channel your inner Anastasia Steele.Watch out Christian Grey. Exercise can increase your libido quicker than almost anything else, according to recent research. And the extra action between the sheets has some awesome side effects: you'll burn about 3 calories per minute while hooking up. Date night, anyone?
10. Prepare for all sorts of feedback.Love it or hate it, others are going to notice your shifting shape. "Women are often surprised by reactions and the increased attention after losing a few pounds," Merrell says. It's not all about the weight, though. "People can often sense your inner confidence coming out," she adds. So next time someone says, "Oh my God, you look so great! Have you lost weight?" don't take it as a sign that they judged you before. It simply means you're looking happier, healthier, and way more badass than ever before.