The 10 Critical Rules of Any Successful Diet

Tips on how to diet
Oren Aks/Shutterstock
Oren Aks/Shutterstock

Dieting is the worst. And not just because it turns you into a hangry social outcast, but because it could actually contribute to weight gain. I'm guessing that isn't your ultimate goal.

The thing about food is that it's important. Vital, even, for your continued existence on this planet. And since not eating really isn't an option, you need to come up with ways to enjoy food while developing a personal eating plan that helps you meet your weight-loss or fitness goals.

Instead of high-tailing it to the Kindle bookstore to download the latest restrictive diet plan that gives you a bizarre eating regimen of nothing but black beans and olives, I turned to Rebecca Bass, RD, LD, CNSC (all those letters basically mean she's a registered dietitian to the third power), to find out what she teaches her clients about developing diets they can follow for a lifetime. Here are her dos and don'ts:

Don't skip meals or cut food groups

Believe it or not, restriction isn't the answer. At least, not as most diets would have you believe. Bass explains, "You're probably going to lose weight if you go gluten-free. Not because of the elimination of gluten, per se, but because you just eliminated probably 50% to 60% of your typical 'go-to' foods, and/or all the junk and calorically dense foods that make up a big chunk of your diet."

Sure, this type of restriction works for a while, but "most people bounce back to their original weight or higher when they add these foods back in without guidance," says Bass. If you're viewing your diet plan as a temporary fix to help you reach your "goal weight," rather than a way of life that helps you feel energized and healthy, you will end up adding these foods back in.  This sets you up for the continuous weight yo-yoing that screws with your metabolism.

Do stick to real food

This means avoiding foods that come in packages, the oatmeal cream pies and the double-stuffed pizza-flavored pretzels, or whatever they advertise during Saturday morning cartoons. When you start to avoid the packages and pre-made items, you'll naturally begin to eat more vegetables, fruits, and meals you prepared yourself. Even when you're on the run, sticking to this rule can help you make better decisions; do you want that candy bar, or would a bag of nuts be better?

Salmon, lean protein
Flickr/Ján Sokoly

Do add lean protein

According to Bass, high-quality sources of protein, such as chicken, eggs, fish, and lean cuts of beef, do more than just help you build muscle: they help you stay full. This is incredibly important when you're making changes to your daily food consumption because no one likes feeling hungry all the time. Incorporating a source of lean protein -- and many sources of plant-based protein are also available -- into every meal and snack will help keep your hunger pangs at bay.

Don't inhale your food

We live in a society where grabbing a hot dog from a vendor and eating on the run is considered a normal affair. It's not normal, though. Or good, especially if you're prone to overeating. Bass explains, "It takes 15 minutes or so for your brain to catch up and say 'I'm full.'" If you order a burger, fries, and apple pie for lunch (you know, probably a day's worth of calories and fat), and you finish them in 10 minutes before running to your next appointment, you haven't even given your body the chance to yell, "Whoa buddy, you're giving me too much!"

Basically, you're screwing yourself. Slow down and enjoy your meal. Maybe even stop after eating half of it and wait a few minutes so your stomach and brain can have a chat to decide if you should keep eating. It's not about restriction, it's about learning how much you really need.

Glass of water
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Do drink the good stuff

And when I say "good stuff," I mean water. You should be drinking plenty of water.

It's not that water actually fills you up, but it may help keep you from drinking sugar-sweetened beverages (like soda), while also preventing your body from sending false hunger pangs -- when you're dehydrated, you could find yourself craving salty foods. Chips, dip, and everything in between. Then you end up eating, when what you really needed was just a tall glass of water. Boom -- extra, unnecessary calories.

Don't eat in front of the TV

Or any other screen, for that matter. Bass points out that this type of behavior is exactly when overeating takes place, because you're not paying attention to how many chips you're pulling from the bag or whether you feel sufficiently full; no, you're paying attention to which character might die on this week's episode of Game of Thrones.

This is because, in spite of what you may claim, no one's really good at multitasking. It's not that you can't do both, it's just that you can't do them both well. Focus on eating, then focus on Game of Thrones.

Do learn proper portion sizes

While it's important not to become obsessive about measuring and weighing your food (remember that whole restriction thing?), it's equally important to learn proper portion sizes, especially since our society is pretty convinced that bigger is always better.

As a simple guideline, Bass says every plate should be half filled with a lean protein, with the remaining half consisting of two-thirds non-starchy veggie (like broccoli or a spinach salad) and one-third complex carb (like long-grain rice, beans, or potatoes).

Don't look for "easy buttons"

Put simply by Bass, "Easy buttons don't exist." There is no quick fix, no miracle diet or drug. Your body has taken years to develop a comfortable "set point" for your weight, and it wants to stay there. It's grown accustomed to your nutritional habits. Logically you know that change is hard, but it's hard physiologically, too. Your body doesn't like change, and it will fight against it.

This doesn't mean change is impossible, but it's not going to be quick or easy. Resign yourself to that fact, and decide to develop the mental fortitude necessary to make a forever change.

Reading a label

Don't trust food marketing

Food advertisements have one primary goal: to sell food. They’re not remotely concerned about your expanding waistline.

One ploy marketers use is to try to give you warm fuzzies about the food they're selling. They do this by using big letters on boxes that tout, "All Natural!" and "Organic!" (Doesn't that make you feel good?)

Bass says, "'Natural' doesn't mean 'better' or ‘void of the bad stuff.’" She gives sugar as a prime example, "Agave, honey, raw sugar, and so forth... sugar is sugar is sugar in terms of calories and carbs."

Instead of focusing on marketing buzzwords, turn that package around before you buy it and actually read the label. Or better yet, focus on foods that don't come with labels. You know, stuff like fresh fruits and veggies.

Do learn to trust your body's signals

This is tough because you've spent a lifetime squashing your body's natural hunger and fullness cues, but Bass insists they're still there. Mindfulness while eating -- preparing your own food, slowing down, chewing consciously, and really enjoying the experience without external distractions from your phone or TV -- can help you learn to listen to your body.

Barring that, for the love of God, don't screw up your children's natural hunger and fullness cues. Bass says, "Stop ever telling a child they have to clean their plate. It's the worst thing we've ever done to ourselves." Kids learn very early how to self-regulate food consumption, but when adults insist they eat more than they're actually hungry for, this self-regulation is disrupted, and it's very hard to relearn.

When you're looking for just one tip

If 10 rules are just too much to handle, Bass sums it all up with a single word: moderation. "Everyone is sick of registered dietitians saying it, but focus on moderation. Look for diets that teach portion control, a balanced plate, the elimination or reduction of processed foods -- specifically cookies, crackers, chips, refined breads, and so forth; a reduction -- but not an elimination -- of carbohydrates and something backed by a registered dietitian." She also clarifies that not all processed foods are off limits -- you should just avoid the ones that lack nutrient density. For instance, "Greek yogurt and cottage cheese are both technically processed, but they both provide a good source of protein and are good for you."

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Laura Williams is a fitness writer and exercise physiologist whose least-favorite dieting phrase is "Guaranteed to help you lose 10lbs, no exercise required." Share yours on Twitter: @girlsgonesporty.