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Following a Low-Calorie Diet

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Updated January 28, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Following a low-calorie diet might seem depressing and difficult. But it's not bad as long as you're prepared with plenty of low-calorie foods. Here's how it's done:

  1. See your doctor. It's always a good idea to get a physical examination before you start any diet or fitness program. Especially if you have any health conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Measure your body composition and decide on your goals. For example, you can measure your Body Mass Index (BMI) with my BMI calculator.
  2. Determine your daily calorie need. This step is going to be different for everybody and will even change for you over time. Use my calorie calculator for men or my calorie calculator for women to determine how many calories you need each day to maintain your current weight, then reduce that number by 100 to 500 calories. It's okay to start slowly with just a small reduction in calories - after all, this is a lifestyle modification, not a crash diet. If you're too exuberant in the beginning, you might find the calorie restriction too difficult later on.
  3. Get the right kitchen tools. In order to count calories, you'll need to know how much food you're eating at each meal. Start with a kitchen scale and some measuring cups and measure out all your servings, at least until you feel comfortable estimating your portions visually. Remember that your beverages may contain calories too, so you need to measure what you drink, as well.
  4. Keep a food diary. You'll increase your chances of success if you keep track of all the foods you eat. You can keep your food diary in a notebook or use an online service like Calorie Count where you can enter your foods and the amounts into your personal (and private) account. The program keeps track of your calories and grades your daily diet for nutritional value. And it's free.
  5. Choose nutritious foods. Since you're reducing your calorie intake, you need to be sure that every calorie counts - there's not too much room for junk foods on a low-calorie diet so eat foods that are nutrient dense. Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables. Choose lean protein sources.
  6. Leave a little wiggle room. Although there isn't much room for junk food, you may want to allow yourself 100 to 150 fun calories each day for a piece of candy, a few chips or another favorite treat. Just be sure to watch your portions, so you don't inadvertently eat too much. Actually, you can also choose healthier treats instead of junk food, such as dark chocolate or a small glass or red wine - both contain antioxidants.
  7. Re-evaluate your diet. When your weight goes down, your calorie requirement will decrease, and you'll need to adjust your calorie intake until you reach a healthy weight. Remember the goal of a low-calorie diet is good health; don't let your weight get too low (below a BMI of less than 18.5). If your BMI gets too low, you need to increase your caloric intake a bit.
  8. Don't forget about exercise. Increasing your physical activity is important for good health. If you don't exercise already, think about joining a gym, or setting up a home workout center. You can also walk, jog or run outside when the weather is good.

Think about some of the things you shouldn't do, like use food for comfort or as a reward. I can help with these tips for what not to do when you're on a low-calorie diet.

Now, if you're readyI've got some examples of low-calorie menus to get you going.

Tips:

  1. Plan your meals and snacks ahead of time. You can make meal plans for a few days or a week and use those plans to prepare your grocery shopping list.
  2. Eat slowly and chew your foods thoroughly. There's no need to rush through your meals - enjoy every mouthful.
  3. Drink plenty of water. Your body needs fluids, and water contains no calories. Add lemon or lime slices for a bit of flavor.
  4. It's okay to use artificial or non-nutritive sweeteners to reduce your calorie intake; however, you need to focus on good foods and not 'sugar-free' junk foods.
  5. Choose low-calorie versions of your favorite recipes. Don't worry, they'll still be delicious.

What You Need:

  • A doctor's appointment.
  • Kitchen scale and measuring cups and spoons.
  • A food diary or a membership at a dieting site.
  • A positive attitude - it may take some time to change your eating habits.

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