Whether you’re trying to lose 5 pounds or 50 pounds, taking that first step on the path towards weight loss can feel daunting.  Perhaps you’ve tried to diet in the past without success, or maybe you’re frustrated with your fluctuations in weight over the years.  No matter what your weight loss history looks like, your future can look a lot brighter – and lighter – if you slowly incorporate small, healthy changes into your daily routine.

Make It Easier on Yourself
Plan your meals ahead of time – particularly those that involve some prep work.  If you spend a couple of hours cooking on Sunday, you can eat healthy leftovers throughout the week. When you cook dinner during the week, make enough for lunch the next day, as well. This will help you avoid skipping meals or reaching for higher-calorie convenience foods when you’re short on time.

Save the Date for Exercise
If you’re finding it difficult to fit exercise into your routine, try writing it down in your date book or adding it to your electronic calendar, just as you would a doctor’s appointment or important meeting.  This will remind you that physical fitness is a priority in your life, not just something that can be brushed off or pushed out of your daily schedule.  To make it even more likely that your regular exercise routine will stick, enlist the help of a fitness buddy.  If you and your friend make a daily date to walk and talk together, you may even start to look forward to your new afternoon habit of lacing up your sneakers and heading out the door.

Pay Attention to Your Plate
You may pride yourself on being a master multi-tasker, but when it comes time to sit down and eat, it’s best to focus on the task at hand.  Eating a snack or meal while watching television, reading a book, or working on a project often leads to mindless overeating.  Before you know it, you’ve either cleaned your plate or reached the bottom of what seemed like a bottomless bowl of ice cream – and you may not have consciously enjoyed a single bite of it.  Instead, give your plate of food the attention it deserves by pausing the TV, putting down the book, or taking a much-needed break from work when it’s time for a meal or snack.

Don’t Overdo It on the Good Stuff
Reaching for a healthy snack is a great decision.  Giving yourself the green light to eat healthy food to your heart’s content could be the reason that you’re struggling to reach your weight loss goal.  While whole grains, high fiber, and protein are key components in a nutritious diet, they still add to your daily total of calories and fat, and should therefore be consumed in moderation.  Pouring a giant bowl of high-fiber cereal for breakfast, snacking on nuts throughout the morning, grabbing a (high-calorie) protein bar in the afternoon, and reaching for a second helping of whole-grain goodness from the bread basket at the dinner table can all amount to “too much of a good thing” when you’re trying to lose weight.  Moderation doesn’t just apply to tempting treats; keep portion sizes in mind no matter what you’re eating.

Eat Many Mini Meals
Some experts believe that it is possible to speed up your metabolism by eating five or six small meals throughout the day instead of three big meals. The basis of this theory is that your body expends energy while digesting food, so the more frequently you digest food, the more energy your body expends. This is called the thermic effect of feeding (TEF). The TEF is generally 10 percent of your daily calorie burn. Protein has a particularly high thermic effect, which means that your body will burn more calories digesting it. Including a lean protein, such as low-fat cheese, chicken, fish, or beans, in each of your mini meals will boost your metabolism and keep you feeling full and satisfied throughout the day.

Don’t Go Hungry
While not everyone believes that eating more frequently can help speed up your metabolism, most experts do agree that when you eat less frequently (i.e., skip meals), your body holds on to fat and calories, not knowing when it will get another meal.  People who skip meals also tend to graze and snack throughout the day because they did not have a satisfying meal. They then consume more calories than if they had simply eaten that skipped meal in the first place.

Nix Nighttime Eating
Close your kitchen after 7 p.m., as it’s likely that the kinds of snacks you’ll forage for at the end of a long day will be higher calorie comfort foods.  When you sit down to relax in the evening, find a way to keep your hands occupied (such as knitting or solitaire) so that you don’t feel the need to reach out for a late-night snack.  This is a relatively painless way to save up to 500 calories per day, which adds up to a pound per week.

Cut Back on the Comparisons
Remember that your “happy and healthy” weight might be different than the “happy and healthy” weight of your neighbors, book club buddies, or even family members.  Be kind to yourself, be patient with yourself, and create a realistic weight goal that fits with your lifestyle.  The ultimate goal should be based more on how you feel than on the numbers you see on the scale.

Embrace the Small and Simple Changes
Once you reach your weight loss goals, it’s time to think about permanent lifestyle changes. Don’t bother with the all-or-nothing approach; it doesn’t work long-term. Rather than forcing yourself to spend an hour at the gym seven days a week or forever swearing off dessert, make small changes that can last a lifetime. Aim for one or two healthy substitutions every day. Trade a glass of soda or juice for a glass of water; pack a healthy lunch instead of dining out daily; take your dog for an extra-long walk on the weekend; squeeze in an extra serving of vegetables on your dinner plate.  Small changes can have a big – and lasting – impact on your weight, your health, and your overall well-being.

Do you have a tip for taking it off and keeping it off that you’d like to share?  If so, please feel free to leave a comment below.