The Healthy Diet Plan Nutritionists Use to Lose Weight
Who better to ask for a healthy diet plan than a dietitian? Here's what the nutrition pros recommend—and do themselves.
Look at the big picture
As a practicing registered dietitian, I recommend my clients take a step back before they make dinner and look at their pattern for the day. Did you have a healthy, lighter breakfast and lunch? Then reward yourself with a small “treat” at dinner. Aim for around 150 calories, whether it’s a glass of wine, a bit of ice cream, or a couple of squares of dark chocolate.
On the other hand, if you went out for brunch and ate more than you planned (darn mimosas!), have a lighter dinner. By not depriving yourself but also being realistic about how you’re doing, you can lose weight and keep it off. I call it the 80/20 rule: Eat as healthy as you can 80 percent of the time and enjoy less healthy options 20 percent of the time. Just make sure you avoid these daily food mistakes even healthy people make.
Think of each meal and snack as a fresh start
So what if you ate a little bit more than you planned and you’re feeling disappointed in yourself? It happens. Dust yourself off and get right back on track. Don’t fall into the trap of telling yourself the whole day is “ruined,” so you might as well overeat. Think of each time you eat as a fresh chance to make a better choice. You’ll end up eating less and eating healthier overall, which means you’ll be more successful in achieving your weight loss goals.
Choose high-water foods
“At every meal, load up your plate with foods that contain a high water content and you’ll end up eating fewer calories overall,” advises registered dietitian Cheryl Mussatto. “Think fruits and veggies—zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, or berries as examples. Other water-rich foods include soups and salads. ‘Watery’ foods will fill you up without filling you out, plus you benefit from their rich source of antioxidants and phytonutrients. The feeling of satiety these foods create will stick with you for a longer time, preventing feelings of hunger between meals.” And don’t forget to actually drink enough water. (Here are 9 things that happen to your body when you actually get eight glasses a day.)
Eat a protein-packed breakfast
“Make sure to consume adequate protein at breakfast (at least 20 grams) to keep you satisfied all morning, control cravings, support muscle mass and metabolism, and decrease snacking later,” recommends registered dietitian nutritionist Lauren Harris-Pincus.
Registered dietitian Kacie Barnes advises: “Start the day with protein as part of your breakfast. Eggs or Greek yogurt are great options. When you jump-start the day with a protein-packed meal, you’re more likely to stay on track for your other meals.”
Avoid liquid calories
“Get zero calories from beverages,” advises registered dietitian nutritionist Wendy Wesley. “Cut juice, sports drinks, sweet tea, soda, and lemonade from your diet, and that includes Starbucks sweet coffees. Also, drink alcohol in strict moderation.”
Registered dietitian Katie Morford says that “for the most part, I drink tea, sparkling water, and tap water with lemon or cucumber slices.” Whatever you do, don’t turn to diet soda—here’s how it could ruin your metabolism.
Portion out healthy snacks
“One thing that works for me is to portion out healthy snacks ahead of time,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Stephanie Wagner. “I suggest buying big bags of nuts, grapes, baby carrots, etc., and then portioning them out into snack containers using measuring cups. This makes it easier to choose a healthy snack and a healthy portion size when we are busy.”
Try mindful eating
“I’m a huge advocate for mindful eating,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Mary Purdy. “Taking the time to sit, enjoy, and savor one’s meal allows you to tap into whether you are full or still hungry. This can help intuitively guide one’s portion sizes, and also may allow the eating experience to be pleasurable and not racked with shame, as it can often be. When we listen to the innate signals that our bodies give us, counting calories may not be as pertinent and weight loss can occur naturally without a lot of calculations that may leave a person feeling confused and frustrated.”
Registered dietitian Noemy Jorge has these rules for her mindful eating approach:
- Prioritize eating mostly high-quality foods.
- Eat until you’re satisfied, not full.
- Drink water above all else.
- Know and appreciate where your food comes from, who made it, and the effort it took to buy, prepare, and grow it.
Measure your portions at first
“One thing that works for my clients is getting out their measuring cups and spoons to show themselves how much the glasses, mugs, bowls, plates, and other items they regularly eat and drink from actually hold,” explains registered dietitian Jessica Cording. “Educating themselves and training their brain to recognize what a portion size looks like in everyday life helps them avoid having to measure things out every time.”
Keep quick, healthy foods on hand
“When I’m hungry, I’ll eat anything that’s not nailed down,” says registered dietitian Elizabeth Ward. To avoid trouble, she says, “I keep the house stocked with nutritious foods to make quick meals and snacks. When I have nutritious foods, such as eggs, milk, canned or pouched tuna or salmon, canned beans, fruits and vegetables, nuts, peanut butter, and whole grain bread on hand, I won’t order takeout or go out to eat, which is much higher in calories, fat, and sodium. I also take food with me when I’m out of the house so that I will always have healthier choices available.”
Don’t eat diet foods
“I weigh 20 pounds less than I did in college,” reveals registered dietitian nutritionist Michelle Dudash. “One of the things I changed was I don’t consume ‘diet foods.’ No highly manipulated, processed foods that are made to be ‘low-fat’ or ‘no added sugar.’ I don’t eat around cravings, rather I satisfy them, so I end up having fewer calories and I’m more satisfied in the long run.” (Need help? Look out for these 11 ways you’re reading food labels all wrong.)
Add protein to every meal and snack
“I plan for protein at each meal and snack throughout the day,” says registered dietitian Michelle Loy. “High-quality sources of protein, like eggs, nuts, legumes, fish, or chicken, offer staying power to keep me satisfied far longer between meals and snacks. These whole-food sources also offer other health-promoting nutrients that nourish my body and tame cravings. For a performance edge, I often like to pair the protein with a high-quality source of carbohydrate for a helpful dose of energy. For snacks, this might include vegetables with string cheese, Greek yogurt with berries, or apples with nuts.”
Have one small “treat” every day
“I plan for and eat one small treat food every day—usually a couple of pieces of dark chocolate or several chocolate-covered almonds, but every now and then, I’ll eat a baked good,” reveals registered dietitian nutritionist Jill Weisenberger. “This way it’s easier for me to pass by the cookies in the office kitchen, select a piece of fruit for a snack instead of the nearby chips, and simply say no to mediocre junk foods. I always know that I can have my chocolate later, so I never feel deprived. And I really do mean every single day.”
Set clear goals and track them
“Think about why you want to lose weight,” advises registered dietitian nutritionist Annie Kay. “Setting intentions—getting clear on the why behind the desire—can help you stay motivated through the ups and downs of changing your health behaviors.”
“Print out a monthly calendar and write one goal to focus on at the top,” recommends registered dietitian nutritionist Jessica Ivey. “For each day that you meet that goal, put a star or smiley face sticker on that day. It may seem really juvenile, but you would be surprised how motivating seeing those stars lined up across a whole week can be!”
Focus on health
“I focus my clients’ attention on obtaining health rather than changing a number on the scale,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Zach Cordell. “If the number changes that’s fine, but it’s not the main focus. The focus is on establishing healthy, sustainable behaviors that work. Along with that, I teach the hunger satiety scale to help individuals determine if they are really hungry or just eating because the food is there.”
“As a non-diet dietitian, I encourage my clients not to focus on the scale,” explains registered dietitian Rachael Hartley, “which doesn’t tell us much about health. Instead, focus on nurturing habits that promote physical and mental health, like finding a way of moving your body that’s actually enjoyable, or sharing tasty home-cooked meals with people you love.”
“I suggest people actually obsess less about food and trust their bodies more with eating from hunger and fullness to actually maintain weight without being on the diet/watching/counting roller-coaster,” says registered dietitian Tracy Brown.
Be active every day
“Even if I don’t have a formal workout planned, I make sure I do something active each day, like take my dog for an extra long walk, or do push-ups and squats during breaks throughout the day,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Sarah Pflugradt. “There is always time to fit in a little extra. It works, because any physical activity is going to burn calories.”
Next up, check out the 18 secrets of women who exercise every day.
- Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD
- Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN
- Kacie Barnes, MCN, RD
- Wendy Wesley, RDN
- Katie Morford, MS, RD
- Stephanie Wagner, RDN, LDN
- Mary Purdy, MS, RDN
- Noemy Jorge MS, RD
- Jessica Cording, MS, RD
- Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD
- Michelle Dudash, RDN
- Michelle Loy, MPH, MS, RD
- Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN
- Annie Kay, MS RDN
- Jessica Ivey, RDN, LDN
- Zach Cordell, RDN
- Rachael Hartley, RD, LD
- Tracy Brown, RD
- Sarah Pflugradt, MS, RDN