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(From Zenhabits.net)

Diet is the biggest component to losing fat — you can burn 600 calories (for example) in a workout, but you can easily eat 2-3 times that much in one sitting if you’re eating junk food. As they say, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet. I’d still recommend getting active and burning calories as much as you can (with adequate rest), but if you really want to lose fat, you need to look at your diet.

So if diet is important, how do you stick to a good diet? The meal plan is often the simplest answer — plan out the foods you’re going to eat, measured for your calorie goal, and then just eat those meals (for the most part). You don’t have to track your eating because it’s already planned out.

Sticking to the meal plan is often the hard part, though. Most people aren’t used to it, and they often fail and feel guilty. So I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned, what’s worked for me, in hopes that it’ll help you.

I’ve gotten pretty good at sticking to my plan, and I actually enjoy it. Go figure.

The Simple Method

So here’s what I’ve done, and what I’d recommend. Keep it simple.

1. Eat real, whole foods you love. Do NOT see this as a sacrifice. If you hate carrots or eggplant but you eat them because they’re somehow “virtuous” or you think that sacrifice is the only way to lose that fat, you’ll fail. You cannot stick to something you hate for very long. Instead, go for healthy foods you actually enjoy eating. For me, this is berries, fruits of all kinds, raw almonds, veggies cooked tastefully in stir-fries or chili or what have you. Your list will be different, and it could take some experimenting with different recipes you find online, in magazines or in cookbooks to find the healthy foods you like best. Main rule of thumb, though: try for real foods, not packaged ones (not even “healthy” convenience foods). In as natural a state as possible — meaning, not processed or extracted, not fried or smothered with cream or sauces.

2. Improve in iterations. Cut back a little at a time. You don’t have to go from Standard American Diet to a diet of Only Raw Carrots in one day (nor should you ever eat only raw carrots, but you know what I mean). Try a meal plan that’s a little better than the diet you’ve been eating for years — perhaps cutting out the liquid calories at first, or adding more fruits or veggies you love. As I said above, cut the calories just a little. This first meal plan doesn’t have to be perfect — just a little better. Then, once you get used to that, make a meal plan that’s a little better yet — maybe a couple hundred calories less, more veggies, less fatty stuff, less snack food, or more real food. With each iteration of your meal plan, get a little better. I’m still getting better at mine.

How to outsmart your cravings

3. Look ahead for bumps, and plan. We all have those bumps in our routines: an office party, someone’s birthday dinner, going on a date with your honey, taking a trip, being on the road all day and not having access to your usual foods. The key is to think ahead — what’s going on tomorrow? How will I deal with it? Should I pack food, or find out what the menu is at the restaurant so I can pick something healthy, or should I use this as a cheat meal? Thing is, don’t just do cheat meals all the time — then you’re not on a meal plan anymore. More on that below. Again, plan ahead and prepare — as you keep doing this, you’ll get good at packing snacks or meals so you’re covered, no matter what the occasion.

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