When you’re young—in your twenties, say—it’s easy to think that no matter how many pounds you put on, you’ll always be able to starve and exercise yourself back into fighting shape. Here’s some bad news: Weight gain is self-reinforcing. As your weight climbs, your body’s metabolism adjusts to maintain your new girth.
The solution? Don’t let yourself slip in the first place. Maintaining a low weight over the course of your entire life is about more than looking good; it’ll preserve your overall health. By being vigilant about how much you eat—no matter how old you are—you’ll save yourself from a lifetime of fending off weight gain and the health problems that accompany it.
2. “Low Fat”? No Thanks
If you grew up in the ’80s, the notion that fat is evil is probably lodged deep inside your brain. But remember: It’s calories you’re concerned about, and you needn’t obsess over where they’re coming from. Certain low-fat foods replace fat with sugar and can actually end up containing more calories: Low-fat yogurt, for example, can contribute more to your daily caloric intake than the richer, creamier (and tastier) full-fat stuff.
3. Learn Your Portions
Even though you’re eating the right mix of things, you’re almost certainly eating way too much of everything. According to Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, for an adult male, a healthy portion of meat is “about the size of the palm of your hand and as thick as a deck of cards.” The more fat or sugar an item has—i.e., the more it resembles dessert—the smaller the serving size. You probably have a good feel for it already; test yourself on these items:
1. An average serving of peanut butter should be the size of:
(a) a Ping-Pong ball, (b) a pea, (c) a tennis ball.
2. A serving of cheese should be the size of:
(a) a wheel of Brie, (b) your fist, (c) a stack of Post-it notes.
3. A serving of pasta, rice, or potatoes should be the size of:
(a) your netbook, (b) your cupped hand, (c) a travel tube of toothpaste.
(Answers: 1.a; 2.c; 3.b.)
4. Starting Now: Less Meat
Want to know where most of your calories are coming from? Follow the lead of two anonymous GQ editors—one a fish-eating vegetarian, one a barbecue fan—and record what you eat for a few days.
29% Non-meat protein
Total calories: 10,472
Total calories: 13,126
5. You Can (Almost) Never Go Wrong With Fruits and Vegetables
As a general rule, you can eat them until you’re full. One of the great triumphs of modern supermarket shopping is the sheer variety of produce on offer—half a dozen kinds of apples, a few kinds of pears, kiwis, mangoes, papayas—and you’ll improve your chances of keeping a healthy amount of fruit in your diet by cycling through different varieties. For veggies, avoid steaming and boiling; they may be the lowest- cal options, but you’ll be bored to death within days—and return to your old, higher-calorie way of eating. Instead, sauté, roast, or grill them.
6. Eat Protein, Curb Hunger
Protein—especially the sort found in lean meats and dairy—is another great way to trick your body into satiety. When digested, it causes the release of a hormone called CCK that makes you feel full. Combine lean protein and fruit—say, yogurt and strawberries—and there’s a perfect breakfast.
7. A Lower-Calorie Night Out
First the bad news: Alcohol is calorie-dense, and a few drinks add up quickly. But by having a glass of water with each drink, you’ll wind up ordering fewer of them (and have less of a hangover the next morning, too). Per serving, wine has the fewest calories, then beer, then cocktails.
8. Keep It Simple
Instead, try focusing on just a few basic ways of cutting back—a salad instead of a burger and fries for lunch (800 calories less) or the petite portion of steak when you’re out for dinner (200 calories less)—and once you’re doing that consistently, adopt another, like buying smaller dinner plates to use at home (you’ll put less food on them).
9. It’s Okay to Indulge—Every Once In Awhile
You will slip up and help yourself to a coma-inducing plate of nachos every now and then—don’t let that derail you. “This is not all or nothing,” says Harvey Simon, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “It’s not a question of changing everything all at once. That doesn’t work.”
10. Stock Your Low-Cal Pantry
We went grocery shopping with Mark Bittman—bestselling cookbook author, New York Times columnist, and with his latest book, Food Matters, vocal booster of low-calorie eating—to find out how to stock our shelves. Wheat berries? In. Snackwell’s cookies? “Those,” says Bittman, “are the death of America.”
• Olives: For snacking.
• Whole-grain crackers: “Kavli, Wasa, Ryvita, Ak-Mak—they have real guts.”
• Hummus and avocados: For the crackers.
• Popcorn: “Put a fourth of a cup of popcorn in a paper bag and throw it in the microwave. Add lime, salt, and hot sauce like sriracha.”
• Cooked, peeled, vacuum-packed beets: For salads, snacks.
• Olive oil, vinegar (balsamic, white wine, apple cider), and Dijon mustard: For salad dressing.
• A bag of lemons: “Lemons add zest to baked fish, salad dressings, chicken dishes, whatever.”
• Steel-cut oats: For breakfast.
• Wheat berries, bulgur, quinoa, barley, millet: “They’re cheap, they keep forever, and they’re lower in calories than processed grains.”