I’m a full-time student with four part-time jobs, which means I have no time for anything other than school and work. My hectic schedule has resulted in a fairly unhealthy diet. I usually eat numbered meals from fast food joints, plastic, clam-shelled dishes from grocery stores, and anything microwaveable at home. My diet has taken a toll not only on my overall health (I feel run-down and exhausted all the time), but also on my waistline. Even though I’m just 25, the numbers on the scale have been slowly creeping up.
I did try to go on a diet once. I cut out all of the foods I deemed unhealthy, like carbs, sodas, and meat, but it ended up being a complete disaster. My experiment ended on day four, with me sitting in a parking lot shoving KFC fried chicken nuggets and fries into my face.
If I was serious about losing weight, I knew I had to be smarter this time around. So I talked to some experts and read some studies. I decided to try five simple, time-tested methods to lose weight that actually fit into my insane schedule. Here's what I learned.
1) MEAL PREPPING HAS INCREDIBLE BENEFITS.
Usually, I either skip lunch or eat whatever affordable, calorie-dense food is most readily available, which usually leads me to eat too many calories or to binge at dinner time. I'd read a study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine that determined that spending a little time on meal prep is linked to healthier eating habits. So on my day off from work, I tried pre-preparing my lunches for the coming week.
The advantages of meal prepping aren’t a secret. Bodybuilders have been doing meal prep for decades, and there are entire YouTube channels devoted to the practice. But I quickly discovered firsthand that preparing my meals in advance actually did prompt me to eat more vegetables. While my old diet rarely included anything green, I managed to sneak nearly five servings of vegetables—the minimum daily requirement, according to the USDA—into most of my meals.
2) THE SMALLER PLATE TRICK TOTALLY WORKS.
Most people have probably dismissed the old chestnut that using a smaller plate can help you lose weight. But there's some evidence to suggest that it actually works: Using a salad plate instead of a dinner plate can reduce the amount of food you eat by 30 percent, even when you’re allowed to go for seconds, according to a study conducted by the University of Chicago. There's a pretty simple reason for this: the average dinner plate is big—between 10 and 14 inches—and people tend to eat everything on their plates if they cover all the free space in food. A smaller plate means you’ll have less food in front of you, which means you'll eat less.
When I tried this trick for the first time, I grabbed a salad plate and heaped on some spaghetti with meat sauce. The portion was about half as much food as I’d normally eat. I sat down and ate it, thinking I’d have to go back for seconds. But I just didn’t feel like I had to. I certainly wasn’t as stuffed as I usually am after eating spaghetti, but I also wasn’t hungry. If that “extra” food had been on my plate, I would have eaten it quickly. But the fact that I’d have to get up from the table, walk to the kitchen, and spoon out seconds was enough of a hassle that I avoided grabbing a second helping altogether.
3) USUALLY, YOU'RE NOT AS HUNGRY AS YOU THINK YOU ARE.
I realise that sounds like some abstract Zen philosophy, but it’s not. Your brain often convinces you that you’re much hungrier than you actually are, according to Stephen S. Holden, Ph.D., a food psychology researcher at Bond University. Holden told me that "much of our eating behaviour is driven by social norms," which means that most of the time, people don't eat because they're hungry, but because they feel compelled to eat in various social situations. If you're hanging out with a group of people and they want to grab pizza, or if you're working at your desk and you realise it's lunchtime, you're more likely to eat even if you're not actually hungry.
I decided to put this to the test one day while I was doing homework. When I realised that it was past the time when I would normally eat lunch, I suddenly started feeling hungry. But I reminded myself that this feeling of hunger might be in my head. I paused, did a mental scan of my body, and realised I didn’t really need food at the moment. Now when I get hungry, I check in with myself to see if I’m really hungry, or if I just want food for some other reason.
4) YOU ALWAYS NEED A PLAN B.
One morning, I slept in, which meant I didn’t have time to make the frozen fruit and protein shake I’d been eating every morning. When I got to campus, I stopped at the student centre, a place that offers a host of fast food options. I had no clue what to order. These restaurants surely didn’t serve my breakfast smoothie, but they also didn’t offer healthy staples like fruit or oatmeal. So I opted for my standard favourite breakfast, a bagel with cream cheese. I’m sure there were healthier options available, but I had no clue how to find them.
This is fairly common for people starting diets: when faced with new challenges, they often revert back to their old ways, according to the experts at the nutrition coaching company Precision Nutrition. Because I’m still learning the ins and outs of smart nutrition, I bought a case of protein bars to keep in my house. Until I know how to find the healthiest option on any menu, the next time I’m in a rush I’ll just grab one on the way out the door.
5) SPLIT THE DIFFERENCE.
Eating out on a diet is tricky. Restaurants have a financial incentive to make their portions large and calorie-dense, which means that portions at restaurants are large and some meals contain thousands of calories. If you must go out to eat, most nutritionists would recommend that you order a salad. But let’s be real — no one wants to order a salad at a dinner out. In fact, in my experience, ordering a salad instead of something I actually want ruins my dining experience.
So when I went out to eat, I decided to compromise. I ordered whatever I wanted, but I asked the waiter to put half of my meal in a box. Not only did this cut my calories in half, but it also saved me time and money: because I'd saved half of the meal, I had a ready-made lunch for the next day.
At the end of the day, I discovered that even some of the simplest weight loss tips and tricks really do make a difference. Within a few weeks, I lost 3kgs. That might not seem like a huge number, but it helped boost my self-esteem and it proved to me that even the smallest changes in diet and lifestyle can make a big impact.
This article originally appeared on Men's Health