If weight loss is a goal for you, then you probably already know—whether or not you want to admit it—that there’s no quick fix when it comes to making it happen and making it last. Maybe you’ve even learned that lesson the hard way. (Maybe more than once.) So ditch the fad diets and take a look at the big picture. It’s important to remember that losing weight isn’t about starving yourself, and that drastic measures can put a dangerous strain on your body.

The real key to finding and maintaining a healthy weight is finding and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Here’s some healthy-living wisdom to help guide you on your way.

Focus on food first.

Your first thought might be that you have to hit the gym to lose weight, but it’s not enough to work out hard if you’re not eating well. Research has found that exercise alone isn’t as effective for weight loss as dietary changes. When you put them together you’ve got a recipe for long-term success.

Eat quality calories, not empty ones.

Sugar is a drug. But you can kick the habit. Go on a sweets hiatus—a month is ideal, but do what you can—and you’ll see the cravings start to diminish. Then it will be easier to avoid sugar-laden foods that don’t give your body the nutrients it needs, leave you hungry, and make you put on weight. From there you can focus your attention on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and lean protein. Check out these 20 superfoods that are great for weight loss.

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And eat enough calories to actually sustain you.

Your body needs food, so eat it. The idea here is to create eating habits that you can actually stick with, not starve yourself. If you want to use a commercial diet to help you choose what you put on your plate, a 2015 Johns Hopkins study found Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers plans were the most effective after a full year.

Definitely don’t skip breakfast.

Eating breakfast helps maintain stable blood sugar levels and can help keep you full all day so you don’t snack. In fact, a study of people who successfully shed weight and kept it off, found that nearly 80 percent ate breakfast every day as part of their weight-loss strategy. Leave the croissants and muffins in the pastry shop—they actually make you hungrier later—and opt for protein and whole grains to start the day. Here are 10 yummy protein-packed breakfasts to try. What the heck, here are 5 more.

Pay attention to what you eat—literally.

They say you should watch what you eat. But what we’re saying is you should actually watch what you eat, as you are eating it. Look at the food, take in the smell and the texture, enjoy it as you chew. It’s not just about savoring, it’s about being mindful about what you’re putting into your body. When you eat in front of the TV or your computer, or you graze all day long at the office, you end up with what basically amounts to meal amnesia. You don’t remember what you ate—and you’re likely to eat more (a lot more) than you meant to. Try keeping a food diary for a week or two to get in touch with what you’re actually eating every day and to identify patterns that might be interfering with your plan. For instance, if you’re always starving by dinnertime and going back for seconds and thirds, maybe you need to schedule in a healthy snack at 4 P.M. Research finds time and again that monitoring what you eat helps you lose weight.

Drink a lot of water and not a lot of soda, juice or alcohol.

Your cells need water to function, so it’s crucial to keep hydrating throughout the day. (Here are 12 easy ways to drink more water every day.) Yes, you can get some of that fluid from drinks that aren’t just plain water, but be careful that you’re not gulping down tons of unnecessary calories. Soda and juice—despite its vitamin content—are packed with sugar. Alcohol is another source of sneaky empty calories. If you’re going to imbibe, try these 10 lower-calorie cocktails.

Don’t skimp on sleep.

Sleep is a surprisingly important factor in losing weight and keeping it off. People who are sleep deprived eat more calories during the day and are more likely to put on weight.

7 habits to help you lose weight and keep it off

Lasting weight loss demands that you transform your eating and exercise habits. But many other choices you make each day, such as how much time you spend sleeping or surfing the Internet, can also make a difference. The seven habits described in this issue of HEALTHbeat can help you move toward your weight-loss goal. Most target the common reasons people are overweight.

Don’t do all of these at once. Choose the one that seems the most feasible for you, and try to stick with it for a week or so. Once you’re doing it fairly consistently, add another one. Over time, you will realize that many of these habits can be interconnected.

1. Set small, specific, and realistic goals.

Perhaps you’d like to be the same size you were in high school or when you got married, but that would mean dropping more than 50 pounds. Don’t go there — not yet, at least. Set a more realistic goal of losing 5% to 10% of your weight, and give yourself plenty of time and some flexibility to reach that goal, keeping in mind that most people take at least six months to achieve that degree of weight loss.

2. Start self-monitoring.

Writing down what you eat and how much you exercise can help you gain awareness of your behaviors and track your changes toward specific goals. To keep tabs on your eating and exercise, you can go low-tech (a pocket-size notebook with a pen) or high-tech (a smartphone app). The idea is to pinpoint areas you need to improve.

3. Find a support network.

Find at least one weight-loss buddy — your spouse, a friend, a relative, or a colleague — to help motivate you and hold you accountable. In-person groups, like those offered by Weight Watchers, can serve this purpose; so can online support groups.

4. Energize your exercise.

Try a new form of exercise. Swim laps at a local pool; go dancing; play Frisbee. Finding a form of exercise that you really enjoy will make it easier to stick to an exercise routine — and incorporating new types of exercise can keep you challenged and less likely to become bored.

5. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep.

Research shows inadequate sleep can lead to weight gain. Most people need about eight hours of sleep a night, but there’s a lot of variability — some people need more, some less. You can tell if you’re getting enough sleep if you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go, rather than groggy and grouchy.

6. Eat breakfast — slowly and mindfully — every morning.

Many people skip breakfast because they’re too rushed or they aren’t hungry. Try getting up 15 minutes earlier (which means going to bed earlier so you don’t sacrifice sleep time) to make time for breakfast and practice putting down your utensil or sipping water, coffee, or tea between bites.

7. Monitor and modify your screen time.

People often complain that they don’t have enough time to exercise or to shop for and prepare healthy meals. But in fact, most people spend many hours watching TV or using their computer for fun. Keep track of your screen time for a week, then try scaling back the number of hours by a quarter or a third, and devote that time to your weight-loss efforts.

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

In the mid-1980s, William Anderson lost 140 pounds in 18 months. The psychotherapist has kept the weight off ever since, but still eats whatever he wants, and looks forward to Thanksgiving.

“I’m going to have turkey and dressing and gravy and pumpkin pie, and all of those things, but it will be in the portions that I have become habituated to,” Anderson tells NBC News BETTER.

Anderson, who authored the popular weight loss book “The Anderson Method,” says he was obese from childhood until his mid-30s. He says finally losing weight after many years of struggle took more than willpower.

“I started to look at it as a behavioral problem, rather than a body problem or a diet problem,” he says, “and started to apply what we know works in terms of being able to change behavior.”

Here’s his advice on how to change long-term eating habits.

Before you diet, count the amount of calories you are currently eating

Most people only count calories when they are dieting, then go back to eating “normal,” says Anderson. But he says this way of thinking is backwards.

If you are going to lose weight and keep it off, Anderson says, you need to count the number of calories you currently eat.

Knowing how many calories you currently consider “normal” will deter you from falling back on old habits, he explains.

“If the ‘normal’ that you’re thinking of getting back to is the behavior that makes people overweight…what you’re doing is losing weight and planning to regain it again,” he says. “The main work that we need to do is not losing the weight — it is developing a way of living where you will not gain the weight.”

The best way to lose weight boils down to these three things

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Forget about a number on the scale

All too often, people who want to lose weight are hyper fixated on reaching a certain number on the scale, according to the author. If that’s your goal, he says, you will likely change your eating habits and exercise routines until you achieve that number, then go back to your old ways.

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“Losing weight is nice,” says Anderson. “It’s a great gift, but the main thing that people need to do is learn how to live in a way where they will not gain weight.”

Anderson says there are no fancy gimmicks to keeping a healthy weight: all you have to understand is the amount of calories you need to maintain it and stay in that range. It’s also important to be realistic, he says. If you enjoy a mostly sedentary lifestyle, how much you eat needs to reflect that.

“We need to look at what is the metabolic rate that I will have for the rest of my life for the way I want to live,” Anderson explains.

You can use this simple online calculator to understand how many calories you need to eat given your regular activity levels.

Eat what you enjoy

A recent study finds that people who maintain a low-carb diet after weight loss are likely to stay slim. While healthy eating is important, the behavioral therapist says it’s important to still enjoy foods you crave.

His first rule of thumb is to eat what you enjoy, but in smaller portions.

“I’ve learned to eat what I like in the portions that keep me from gaining weight, and I enjoy it more than the eating I used to do when I was overweight,” he says.

This “eat-what-you-like” rule goes against most conventional wisdom, he says, because people often believe they can give up certain foods for a stretch and then go back to their “normal” eating habits.

“This idea that I’m going to do something that I hate to lose this weight creates an aversion to doing it,” Anderson explains.

Instead, he explains, you need to reduce the amount you eat while still eating what you like.

“To create behavior, you have to associate reward with it,” Anderson says. “And if you do that on a daily basis, you’re going to get addicted to healthy habits, and that’s what we need to do.”

Time your meals

The number-one strategy Anderson employs to maintain a healthy weight is meal timing. He says he only eats at specific times during the day and fasts between meals.

RELATED: See how this woman lost 65 lbs through intermittent fasting.

On weekends, Anderson allows himself to eat more, but maintains a balanced caloric intake throughout the week. “It’s not a matter of just going crazy on the weekend,” he warns.

Losing 140 lbs and keeping it off has been life changing for the 69-year-old.

“To be able to solve that problem and feel good about myself and about my future, I mean, it’s just the best thing that’s ever happened in my life,” Anderson says.


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