Whether you made a New Year's resolution or not, you've likely thought about being healthier in 2023.
That probably means going on a diet, right? Not necessarily.
If you are looking for a temporary program to lose weight, a diet might be the answer. But many experts instead suggest an attitude adjustment when it comes to eating – because that strategy is a move that can lead to a longer healthier life.
By improving what you eat, you can lose weight and also avoid the yo-yo effect of weight loss and gain that can come with fad diets. An international study of 14 diets published in 2020 in the British medical journal BMJ found dieters had lost weight after six months, but most had regained the weight after a year.
"Unfortunately, when people reach their goal and stop the program, most regain the weight they’ve lost and then some," said Mimi Secor, a nurse practitioner who specializes in women's health and author of "Healthy & Fit at Any Age."
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I want to lose weight and eat healthier. What diet should I choose?
For starters, don't think about it as a diet. "I coach my clients to replace the word 'diet,' which is often viewed as a temporary solution, with the term 'healthy eating plan' because it is more sustainable," said Elana Paddock, a registered dietitian nutritionist at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas.
A current popular diet is intermittent fasting, which most commonly involves eating only during 6-8 hours of the day. But a recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found no link between the timing of meals and weight loss over a six-year period.
However, fewer and smaller meals were associated with weight loss.
"In addition, skipping meals could lead to more hunger and cravings later, driving overeating and making it harder to make healthier food choices," Paddock said. "In general, restrictive types of dietary approaches can lead to similar negative consequences."
When you look at U.S. News and World Report's 2023 Best Diets, the top recommendations are "technically not diets the way we think of diets as something restrictive," Gretel Schueller, managing editor of health at U.S. News, told USA TODAY. "They're a lifestyle approach."
What are some good diets to consider as better eating plans?
The Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes vegetables, fruits, lean poultry, seafood, whole grains, nuts and unsaturated fat from extra-virgin olive oil, is "really more of an eating style and it's really adaptable," Schueller said.
"The diets that do well don't restrict entire food groups or make you feel like you're missing something. A better way to think of them is as an eating pattern," Schueller said.
Two other top diets recommended in U.S. News and World Report's list are the DASH diet – it stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension – limits foods high in saturated fat, as well as sweetened beverages, and the Flexitarian diet, a semi-vegetarian diet focusing on non-meat proteins such as beans, peas or eggs – plus fruits and vegetables – as a way to reduce meat intake.
Other than sodium restrictions for the DASH diet, these are "not restrictive and are really about focusing on the things we know we should eat: whole foods, vegetables, fruit, whole grains and so on, and limiting our candy and processed foods," Schueller said.
What are some important factors to consider in choosing a diet or eating plan?
If a diet or eating plan is too restrictive, you are less likely to stick with it. Other important questions to ask before embarking on a new eating strategy include:
Are any favorite foods not allowed?
Are all food groups included? What does our monetary budget allow?
What about other family members?
"If you're cooking for a whole family, but one person is eating different than the rest of everyone at the table, that's not very sustainable," Schueller said. "The more complicated the diet becomes, the less likely it is you're going to stick to it long term."
Those diets ranking high on U.S. News and World Report's list can serve as the basis for a long-term healthy eating plan. Each suggests the limiting of unhealthy foods and stresses portion control.
"Whatever you choose, it has got to consist of healthy foods and drinks – and allows you the occasional treat. That way you can stick to it," Schueller said.
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I don't want to go on a diet, but I want to make some simple changes.
Start with small changes. Drink more water – ideally eight 8-ounce glasses daily –and start recording your food intake with an app such as MyFitnessPal, Secor suggests.
"Or maybe start going to bed 15 minutes earlier or start walking around the block every day," she said. "Don’t try to change everything at once. You will just get overwhelmed and are more likely to throw in the towel until next year."
Pick one or two specific changes to focus on and go from there, Paddock said. Some suggestions:
Swap out white bread or white rice with whole wheat bread or brown rice (these have more nutrients).
Choose light popcorn instead of potato chips.
Buy individual portions of nuts or snacks instead of large containers – or fill small snack bags for portion control.
Have fruit handy instead of always opting for sweets or salty snacks.
Use smaller plates and bowls so portions are smaller.
Eat leaner protein such as chicken or fish – or beans – when you might have had red meat.
After dinner, consider the kitchen closed until morning.
"You can consider a small steps approach with healthier swaps and build one success on another which not only leads to positive changes, but is also motivating," Paddock said.
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What if I need a more stringent regimen?
Seek out a registered dietician. These nutrition specialists "can be a valuable tool to tailor a plan with you and navigate the choices that fit your needs and lifestyle," Paddock said. You can find a nutrition expert on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website.
Try a program. If you aren't an experienced cook, perhaps try a program such as Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem or Optavia, which has foods you can purchase and guidelines to help with portions. "Some of these more structured commercial diets might work for (the person), even if it is just for a limited time to sort of jumpstart a healthy eating pattern," Schueller said.
Get a physical trainer. Food is only part of a healthy lifestyle; physical activity is another. But exercise is part of the "holistic approach ... of the healthy lifestyle that you're picking," Schueller said.
Dig deeper: More news about diets
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Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Diets for weight loss: Smart eating is a better recipe for your health