You can be satisfied and lose weight at the same time. Just three small changes are all you need. In a Baylor College of Medicine study, one group of adults took on three simultaneous health goals while a second group attempted one goal at a time. Eighteen months later, those who'd embraced multiple healthy changes were 25 percent more likely to have stuck with them.
The reason may be that three changes are mutually reinforcing. Start by adopting any three strategies from the following list. Base your choices not on what you're willing to give up but on what you love to eat. Modify your menu as I propose, and you'll be on your way to a lean belly.
1. "I love cheese and yogurt!"
Who doesn't? More and more evidence suggests that consuming at least three servings a day of calcium-rich dairy can help strip away fat. Researchers at the University of Tennessee found that people who did just that, taking in 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day, were 60 percent less likely to be overweight than people who consumed less calcium. And a study in Molecular Systems Biology suggests that yogurt-based bacteria may also reduce the amount of fat absorbed during digestion. If you love cheese and yogurt, eat at least three servings a day. Or stick with just yogurt: Another University of Tennessee study found that people who cut 500 calories a day and added three daily servings of yogurt lost 81 percent more belly fat over 12 weeks than those who didn't eat the yogurt. (Just beware of the brands with excess added sugar.)
My prescription: Have 1 cup of milk with breakfast, 1 ½ ounces of cheese at lunchtime, and 1 cup of Greek yogurt for an afternoon snack, every day.
Then go for it. Just learn to love the whole-grain versions. The reward: In a Penn State study, people who cut 500 calories a day and ate whole grains lost twice as much belly fat as the 500-calorie cutters who ate refined carbs. If you crave carbs, try switching your refined carbs—white bread, white rice, regular pasta, and refined-flour products such as cookies and crackers—to whole-grain versions. The study authors credit the extra fiber in whole grains with helping to reduce calorie intake, control blood sugar, and keep insulin (the hormone that tells your body to store belly fat) in check.
My prescription: Replace your refined carbs with whole-wheat and whole-grain varieties, and combine them with a balance of lean meats, vegetables, and healthy fats.
Consuming liquids is an important way to fill your belly, but it's important to pay attention to what you're guzzling. A study in the journal Obesity reveals that Americans consume about 200 calories a day from sweetened beverages, four times as much as they were consuming four decades ago. Beverages now account for 21 percent of the calories we take in every day, nearly double the amount from 40 years ago. So if you're looking to reduce your calorie intake painlessly, focus on drinks. In fact, a study by Johns Hopkins researchers found that cutting sugary liquid calories had a greater impact on weight loss than cutting food calories. Replace sweetened drinks with more-wholesome ones to help get the soda monkey off your back.
My prescription: If you need more flavor and fizz than plain water offers, try flavored seltzer, or make your own low-calorie soda: one part juice, two parts seltzer.
If all-day chewing is a habit, change what you're chewing to fruits and vegetables. A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that dieters who ate the most folate—found in leafy greens like spinach and romaine—were 8½times more likely to lose at least 10 percent of their starting weight after a year than those who ate the least. Another study found that an average person of normal weight consumes almost two servings of fruit a day, while an average overweight person consumes less than one. If you love to graze on a variety of foods, eat at least two pieces of fruit and at least three servings of vegetables (focusing on those leafy greens) each day. While you're at it, add a cup of beans to your regimen: A study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that bean eaters have smaller waists and lower blood pressure than those who don't eat them.
My prescription: Have a piece of fruit with breakfast, a salad with lunch, and a serving of beans with dinner, and eat a serving of berries for dessert or a snack. (Focus on spinach, broccoli, and brussels sprouts, and sample the entire fruit smorgasbord—berries, apples, citrus, tropicals. No, supersweet fruit juices don't count.)
You could lose: 6 pounds in 4 weeks
5. "I love breakfast!"
Then eat it every single day. A Purdue University study showed that eating more protein for breakfast can help you feel fuller, so it may help you avoid overeating for the rest of the day. Another study in the International Journal of Obesity showed that dieters who cut out 1,000 calories a day and ate two eggs and toast every morning for 8 weeks lost 65 percent more weight than those calorie cutters who ate a bagel with cream cheese. And never skip breakfast; eating it regularly cuts your risk of obesity by 78 percent. Always include protein (milk, eggs, yogurt, quinoa), whole grains (cereal, steel-cut oats, whole-wheat toast, quinoa again), and whole fruit.
My prescription: Eat two eggs, whole-wheat toast, two slices of bacon, a cup of low-fat Greek yogurt, and an orange within an hour of waking up.
You could lose: 4 pounds in 4 weeks
6. "I love to snack!"
There's no need to rid yourself of the habit. If you snack strategically, you'll build more healthy foods into your diet, keep your belly full, and avoid the binge eating that leads to huge calorie payloads. For a smart snack, combine foods from three food groups, and make sure at least one of them is a protein. Eating a three-part snack like this about 2 hours before mealtime will dramatically decrease the amount you eat later on, undercutting your appetite and keeping you from dietary indiscretions at the vending machine or at dinner.
My prescription: Enjoy two daily 200-calorie snacks—one midmorning, the other midafternoon. Combine protein (nuts, yogurt, cheese) with whole grains (crackers, black-bean chips, pita) and produce (fruit, celery, carrots), and the wait for the next meal becomes bearable.
You could lose: 7 pounds in 4 weeks
7. "I love milkshakes!"
Then make shakes a cornerstone of your diet, but with a few healthy, delicious modifications: It's time to bring on the smoothies. In a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who drank a protein-rich smoothie for breakfast consumed the fewest calories at lunchtime, compared with those who drank a carb- or fat-laden one. And since I've already noted that adding three servings of yogurt to your daily diet can help you lose 81 percent more belly fat over 12 weeks, make yogurt the main ingredient in your smoothie.
My prescription: Drink two smoothies a day—one as a meal replacement and the other as a snack: Blend 1½ cups fruit or berries with 1 cup yogurt or milk and 1 tablespoon each of peanut butter and protein powder (add half a cup of water if it's too thick for your liking).
You could lose: 4 pounds in 4 weeks
8. "I love fatty foods!"
Then use them as allies in the fight against belly fat. When researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston put 101 overweight people on either a low-fat or a moderate-fat diet for 18 months, both groups had lost weight after a year. However, the moderate-fat eaters lost an average of 10 ½pounds—60 percent more than the low-fat group—and kept those pounds off for 18 months. Healthy fats (the kind in olive oil, nuts, fatty fish, and avocados) can help you drop pounds because they keep your belly fuller longer. Don't skip animal fats like butter, cheese, or beef, either—just limit portions, since these foods are dense in calories. Wean yourself off fried foods and fatty processed foods—they're a heart-health risk factor.
My prescription: Have eggs at breakfast, a handful of nuts at 10 a.m., a salad with avocado at lunch, cheese rolled up in a slice of ham for a snack, and a reasonably sized steak (7 ounces or less) or salmon fillet at dinner.