05/12/2010 10:26 am ET Updated 4 days ago

Quit Fad Diets: The Real Basics of Weight Loss

There are few things in life more daunting and complicated than wading through the 10s of thousands of diet and weight loss programs on the market to try to choose one that meets your needs. The advice is contradictory, difficult and potentially dangerous. To add insult to injury, new evidence indicates that diets don't work and may, in fact, contribute to weight gain. If you're just starting out, circumvent the whole fad diet culture and make small changes based on the advice of respected experts. Even then, the lifestyle changes you make must fit with your lifestyle. Your own body is the best guide to creating a successful program.

Don't Diet
Even the federal government knows that diets don't work. In fact, in an article entitled "Medicare's Search for Effective Obesity Treatments: Diets Are Not the Answer," published by the American Psychological Association in 2007, the federal government acknowledges that as many as two-thirds of all dieters gain more weight in the long run than they lose. Why don't diets work? They're temporary, they're restrictive and they aren't a part of larger changes to your whole lifestyle. Rather than diet, focus on making small, gradual changes to your everyday routines, like increasing fruits, vegetables and whole grains and decreasing processed foods, fast foods and saturated fats.

Go Straight to the Source
Eat primarily nutrient-rich foods. Changing the way you eat can change your waistline and your overall health with minimal effort on your part. The trick is to not rule over your kitchen with an iron fist. Eat a diet that consists mostly of plant-based foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Supplement those foods with lean meats, low-fat or fat-free dairy and healthy fats. Make these foods your basic arsenal of nutrition. This is the way of eating recommended by the American Heart Association, The American Cancer Society and most other impartial, research-based health organizations. Processed foods and fast foods are typically poor in nutrients, high in sodium and loaded with saturated fat, so reduce the amount of those in your diet. Note that foods like nuts and seeds are high in healthy fats, but also higher in calories, and some people who eat these foods abundantly experience weight gain.

Allow for Indulgences
When you establish a foundation of eating nutrient-dense foods on a regular basis, you have no reason to feel guilty about occasional indulgences. This feeling of guilt, deprivation and overindulgence is part of why diets don't work. If most food you're eating is healthful, that bowl of ice cream won't make an impact on your overall health and your weight loss efforts. Avoiding restrictions helps reduce food cravings, according to Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, registered dietitians and authors of Intuitive Eating, a book that aims to get people off the diet cycle. The authors note that when you can eat anything in moderation, your strong desire to eat unhealthy foods eases because you know you can have them any time.

Move It to Lose It
The American heart Association recommends getting 30 minutes of physical activity as many as five days per week. Exercise helps you burn calories, but it also increases your body's ability to burn calories more effectively. Find activities you like doing, like taking long walks with your dogs, dancing in your living room, playing basketball with your kids or doing exercise DVDs in your den. The more you enjoy performing an activity, the more likely you are to do it.

Consider Calories
Many people who eat nutritionally dense foods and get regular exercise don't need to track calories, but if you find you're not losing weight, you may need to consider how many calories you're taking in versus how many you're burning. Track your calories for one week without changing your food habits to get an idea of your average calorie consumption. Calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR), the number of calories your body needs daily to perform its basic functions, and adjust your calories to make sure you're eating just slightly above your BMR. Eating fewer calories than your BMR can slow your metabolism and lead to weight gain rather than loss. Play with decreasing and increasing the calories you eat and the calories you burn through exercise until you find a system that works for you.

Learn more about Diet & Nutrition at LIVESTRONG.COM and track your food and fitness on MyPlate.

As Co-Founder of The Daily Plate on LIVESTRONG.COM, Joe Perez has made it his mission to empower people to eat smarter and to lead healthier lifestyles. "Curious Joe" works with editors, experts and contributors to feature health, fitness and diet articles and tools that empower its community.

Quit Fad Diets. Courtesy of LIVESTRONG.COM