Small, Cheap Steps to Weight Loss

Photo: Cardmaverick

There really is no magic diet plan that can help you lose& weight — the key is to burn more calories than you consume.

Eliminating calories from your diet doesn't have to involve drastic cuts or detailed meal planning. You don't need a gym membership to get exercise. If you prefer baby steps to great strides, try these tips and tricks for cutting calories from your diet and burning off some extra pounds. The results may take longer than what you would see with a crash diet or personal trainer, but because these changes are more incremental, you might find them easier to stick with. [Note: this is not medical advice; I'm just a blogger who refuses to pay for a Jenny Craig diet. As always, consult with your doctor before making any big changes in your diet or routine].

Eat Less

Eating less can be a bit tough, because we are often so busy and in such a hurry that we scarf our food down while standing up, or in the car. Also, so many people are emotional eaters that gorging becomes the trend, rather than the exception. Here are some simple ways to eat less.

Fiber and Water

You've probably heard that eating more fiber can help fill you up faster and keep you satisfied longer. You've probably also heard that drinking water before a meal can help you eat less. Well, there's an easy way to combine these two bit of advice into one: Metamucil.

[insert 'regularity' joke here]

Yeah, yeah, I know it's sort of a grandma thing, but it actually works. Metamucil is a fiber supplement in a powder form. You mix a tablespoon with 8 ounces of water and drink it before it gets too gooey. The taste is rather like Tang, but less overtly sweet. The sugar-free versions only have 20 calories per serving. Increasing your fiber intake can have a number of health benefits, including lowering cholesterol and reducing the risk of digestive issues in the future. It's important to get helpings of both soluble fiber (the kind found in Metamucil) and insoluble fiber (the kind you get in vegetables). Although they seem to counteract each other (soluble fiber absorbs water in your intestinal track, which means that it takes you longer to digest your food, resulting in a feeling of fullness; insoluble fiber sends the food through your intestines faster), they are actually complimentary.

If taken before a meal, soluble fiber (like the kind in Metamucil) will help you eat less by making you feel fuller faster. But if you eat enough insoluble fiber in your meal, your food will still move through your system in a timely manner.

It might sound like you're in for a real colon blow, but Metamucil is surprisingly gentle on your digestive track. I was surprised how much less I ate the first time I tried drinking a glass before a meal, and I didn't find myself stuck on the porcelain throne for days or anything.

Eat a Salad/Soup Course

I've written before about how eating meals in courses makes it easier to eat less. Anyone who knows me well knows that I really don't like preparing and serving food, but there are easy ways to break your meal into baby steps. One of these is to eat a vegetable bisque or salad course before you eat the rest of your meal. This can provide the aforementioned insoluble fiber, and will also fill you halfway up.

By the way, one of the only problems I have with salad is that I often find myself forced to drench flavorless lettuce leaves in a creamy dressing in order to make them halfway palatable. There are two things I have done to change avoid this:

1. Eschew romaine lettuce. I know it lasts a long time and is always crispy, but darn it, the flavor can be downright nauseating. I now try to buy more exciting lettuce (baby romaine or mixed spring greens or red leaf), especially when it's on sale for a 2-for-1 at Safeway.

2. Use herbs like they are any other green. I use my plentiful herb garden all the time, and I tend to eat most of the herbs raw. I'll throw plenty of basil, oregano, arugula, thyme, and tarragon into any salad, and the wonderful flavors more than make up for the relative blandness of the lettuce. As a result, I don't have to use an excessively decadent dressing — just a light oil-and-vinegar dressing will be enough to dress the whole thing.

By the time you finish your soup or salad, you'll probably notice that you're already partway full. Take advantage of this and only eat 50% of what you would normally eat for a main course.

Smaller Plates

American dinner plates are huge. I've quit using mine altogether, and serve my food on my salad plates. A very healthy serving looks positively HUGE when served on a smaller plate, and I can't really overload it in one trip to the stove.

Sit Down, Slow Down, Turn Off the TV (Mindful Eating)

It's much easier to overeat if you aren't paying attention to what, and how much, you are eating. Although it seems incredibly tedious to chew your food, put your fork down between bites, and drink small sips of water when you are finished chewing, it goes a long way into keeping you from eating too much. You might think it's purely mental, but the truth is, it takes between 12-20 minutes for your mouth and stomach to inform your brain that they are fully satisfied. Most of us can easily wolf down a foot-long Subway sandwich in 6 minutes.

Eating while watching TV or surfing the internet is a sure-fire method for gulping down an entire meal without realizing it. It's OK to have some distractions (radio in the background), but while eating, try to concentrate on the act of eating. It's a form of meditation that we don't generally practice, and it can be hard to be "in the now" with such a mundane task, but try it once and see if it doesn't affect the amount that you need to eat in order to feel full.

Eat Decent Food

The key to eating slowly, of course, is to eat well. I don't mean that every meal has to be a gourmet masterpiece, but part of the reason we eat so fast is that we eat stuff that actually tastes pretty bad. Have you ever chewed a Doritos chip slowly and savored the taste? Probably not — chips are designed to be shoveled into our mouths at lightning speed. Try it one day — put a chip in your mouth and chew it very slowly, smelling the scent and noticing the texture. You may find, as I have, that it tastes odd and chemically.

Contrast this with the slow, mindful consumption of a ripe tomato or slice of freshly-baked bread with a smear of butter, and you'll understand why junk food and fast food are eaten quickly: because if you really take the time to taste them, you'll notice just how nasty they are.

You don't have to shop at Whole Foods to get good-tasting food — frozen meats and veggies can be made into delectable pot roasts and casseroles. The trick, though, is to eat food that is not heavily processed, but rather largely made from scratch. You don't have to make Beef Wellington every night, but try substituting real meat and vegetables for canned food.

Cut Calories from What You DO Eat

Cutting calories doesn't really have to be about deprivation. Try these tricks to cut a few dozen calories out of your diet every day.

Change Coffee Habits

While I don't loathe Starbucks (I actually quite like the one in my neighborhood), I think that morning beverages have gone too far. I have a former coworker who has a real love of Frappucinos, so much so that during the summer, she would get one every day at 10AM. If this were her breakfast, it might be one thing, but this was a midmorning snack. A midmorning snack that contains 420 calories.

A normal cup of drip coffee served black has roughly 8 calories.

If you're in it for the caffeine, consider being a regular Joe and just...getting a cup of regular joe (I'm also quite fond of Diet Red Bull, despite my better judgment). If you crave the sweetness, ask for your drink to be made with half the normally allotted amount of syrup, and add Splenda if you need more sweetness. If it's the overall package (the sweet, the caffeine, the whip cream), order the same drink in a size smaller, or see if you can make such coffee drinks more of a splurge (every three days or so) rather than a daily event.

Skip the Beer/Wine (or water it down)

This one really pains me, because my feelings on alcohol are: it makes life worth living. However, beer and wine contain a lot of calories, and even if you limit yourself to one drink per night, that's still an extra thousand or so calories a week. A Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve has about 130 calories in it. A Jack and Diet Coke has under 70.

A glass of red or white wine is still delectable if watered down into a spritzer using Fresca.

Exercise More

Exercise is one of the hardest things to desire once you are significantly out of shape. But you don't have to pour yourself into a pair of sweat pants and get tangled in a pilates machine to shed some pounds. Consider some of the easier options.

Park a Block Away

It's funny how some people will circle a parking lot for minutes trying to find a spot that is close to the entrance. Not only does it waste gas (and ultimately time, as it's faster to park far away and walk than to wait five minutes for a good spot), but usually, people who engage in this behavior are about to go into a mall and walk a good mile to two miles.

Rather than looking for that perfect spot, save time and money and just park a block away from the entrance of wherever you are going. It's not the biggest workout in the world, but the added exercise makes a difference over time.

Stride Around the Mall

Shopping burns calories. If you can happily window shop without blowing all your money, do it. Malls are generally comfortable and safe places to walk around, especially during cold winters.

Take the Stairs

Lordy, I hate taking the stairs, but the difference that it makes in your quads and hamstrings IS remarkable. If you have fewer than ten flights to go up (any more than that gets ridiculous), see if you can avoid the elevator.

Climbing actual stairs is much more difficult than the "stair climber" at the gym, so even people who work out regularly find themselves struggling to keep their breathing even after a six-flight traipse. Take your time — if you get winded, you can stop and rest. When I first started taking the stairs, I used to stop after three flights, walk across the length of the office building hallway, and then finish the rest of the flights.

Dance Around Your House

If you can't afford a Wii fit or just hate trying to get exercise in front of a TV, there's no reason you can't shake your booty all over your house for a decent workout. No one has to see you — draw the curtains or blinds, blast your favorite playlist, and make like a pudgy Paula Abdul (C-c-c-cold hearted snake! Look into his eyes...). Shake what your mama gave ya, and you'll find that, in time, you'll be jiggling less than before.

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Guest's picture

**oh my she likes diet red bull too, guess I’ll be hanging around for a while…**

Guest's picture

some great advice there. it is amazing really how big our serving sizes have become here in America. I lived overseas in London for 3 years, just moved back here last year. You quickly learn why Americans have a reputation for being fat and eating crappy food. People in London are very wealthy too, far richer than the average American so the rhetoric about Americans eating more because they are richer is just nonsense. Go to any developed country and people don't eat as much as we do, but they do eat much better both in terms of healthier meals as well as wider variety and much better quality food. When I first moved out there I wasn't used to the smaller portion sizes you would get in restaurants but quickly became accustomed to it. I lost all my excess weight while I lived there and felt so much better. My meals were not only smaller but much tastier too. Almost no fast food and even the chain restaurants served high quality food, not like the chains here (Applebees, TGIF, etc. which serve garbage). Over the last year since moving back I have gained back some weight and gotten high blood pressure and just feel unhealthy. I really like the smaller dinner plates idea because when I think about it my dinner plates are much larger than the ones I used when I lived in London. But in both places I ate around one plate of food and felt satisfied, even though out there it was much less food.

Guest's picture

These are all great tips for the slow and steady as she goes route to weight loss. Unfortunately that never worked for me. For years I kept my weight down by exercising hard to make up for eating too much of everything not so good for me. But, when I started blogging, I realized I didn't want to keep up that heavy workout schedule. I'd rather be at home blogging! : ) So, I tried water fasting and it worked like a dream. I needed to reset my "body clock" if you will to stop wanting all that high-fat, high-sugar, super spicy food I used to crave -- not to mention yummy cocktails (cosmos and margaritas were my favorites). But, long story short, water fasting did the trick for me. Now, I'm on mostly raw food and love the extra energy and no more NEED to exercise to keep the weight down. An unexpected side benefit, I actually want to exercise to burn off the extra energy! Go figure! Anyway, I chronicled my fast, how to do it, the risks and benefits in a "Fasting Log" at for all who are interested. It's definitely a cheap way to lose weight!

Guest's picture

Great post- it's true about serving sizes, like JohnS above I've noticed the difference between Europe and North America, my partner and I both noticed the weight creeping on when we first moved here. Now we mostly split portions.
As for the exercise- I have a rule; if I go out for coffee or lunch when at work I have to take the stairs, the thought of climbing 7 flights is usually enough to convince me to pack my lunch and if I do succumb, at least I'm going part way to working it off!

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

you know what.. I found a large bottle of metamucil in the office kitchen.  I'm going to try it.

Guest's picture

I agree with, and like, most of the suggestions. I find that in the summer a nice bowl of gazpacho is quite a tasty treat and so easy to make. Just cuisinart a bell pepper (any color), tomatoes, cucumber (peeled) and a bit of onion add broth or tomato juice as needed. Delicious and helathy.

But and this is a HUGE BUT I will never EVER put fresca in my wine. That's repulsive. I'd rather not drink wine at all. The very thought turns my stomach. Ick. Wine is meant to be enjoyed and savored NOT ruined.

Guest's picture

Being healthy is critical to being long-term frugal. Not only does maintaining a healthy living standard cost less than routine overindulgence, but the costs of healthcare favor the person who has made a habit out of managing portions, and keeing their arteries clear.

I really liked the water/metamucil tip...I'll have to try that starting today. I'd also like to suggest splicing meals into smaller, frequent portions. I'm a bit fan of snacking and feeling regularly nourished throughout the day. The worst thing to do is binge when starved!

Guest's picture
ML Harris

Not that good for you. Contributes to bad intestinal health. This is great advice. Not.

PS- small caloric deficits created by walking more have NEVER been shown to be a long term solution to anyone's weight problem.

I'd suggest we stick to money. What we know.

Andrea Karim's picture

Adding fiber has been shown, time and time again, to contribute to better intestinal health. Walking has been shown, time and time again, to contribute to weight loss. There are some individuals who probably shouldn't take extra fiber, but for most healthy adults, it's helpful.

Uh, yeah. I'm in the pockets of Big Fiber. Whatever. You can take whatever kind of fiber you want - I just happen to like Metamucil because it's not grainy and it tastes OK. You might have noticed that I also recommended eating lots of salad and vegetable soups, had you read farther than the third paragraph.

BTW, it's worth noting that these are some tips and tricks that I use, and this is not medical advice. Blah blah blah consult your doctor. In addition, I do not recommend using laxatives as a weight-loss method, overall. Lots of people abuse laxatives (including some celebrities) and it's a really good way to lose nutrients, make yourself sick, and screw up your colon. Please, respect your butt and act responsibly with your diet.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Works for me!  Even if it's only an extra 130 calories a day, it's something.  And with such a busy schedule, it's something that most anyone can fit into their day.

Thanks for such a good list of tips!



Guest's picture

While advertising for Metamucil might make financial sense for you, your readers would be better served by eating foods high in fiber like wheat/oat bran and legumes which are cheaper and healthier.

Guest's picture

Good tips. Not all are specifically ideal for me and my situation, but different things work for different people (Mr. Cranky Metamucil Poster).

One thing I've started doing lately is boiling eggs and eating 2 for breakfast. Super cheap. They are very low calorie too (~75 calories per hard-boiled egg) and incredibly filling. I don't feel hunger pains until 4-5 hours have passed. Only downside is that they are high in cholesterol (1 egg has about 2/3 the daily recommended dose of cholesterol). :(

I've also started hitting the apartment pool after work (would rather swim in private, but until I can...). Funny how much fun swimming is-- easy to forget when it's been so long.

I'm off to dance in my corner cube (...she was like static cling...but that's what happens when body start slappin'...)

Linsey Knerl's picture

The egg idea is a good one.  BTW - farm fresh eggs have actually been proven to contain lower levels of cholesterol and saturated fat, so that's an option of you're concerned.


Andrea Karim's picture

Also, remember that eggs contain good and bad cholesterol and that the net effect is sometime neutral - anyway, the jury is still out on that one. I'm pretty sure that as long as you eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits and veggies, hardboiled eggs in the morning are just fine.

Guest's picture

This is such a great article :)

I can absolutely 2nd the motion to skip the beer/wine. I stopped drinking beer completely after I started to notice my clotes fitting tighter this summer.

I lost 8 pounds in 2 weeks by simply stopping my 1 to 2 beer a night intake -- unbelievable! I didn't change anything else that I was doing -- just no more beer with dinner. I had no idea I was drinking so many calories! And I'm sure my liver is happy for the break from beer as well (even if it is so darn tasty) :)

Guest's picture

As an individual who has lost over 60 lbs, I loved the article. For information about my tips and tricks visit my web page


Guest's picture

Great tips but a key piece you are missing that underlies all of your suggestion is glucose control. Unless you are controlling your blood sugar levels, you can exercise and exercise and won't see great results in the first month or two of your program. Yes exercise helps your insulin sensitivity, but it takes some time to adapt. Also if you don't have adequate antioxidant status, exercise if done too harshly in the beginning can actually be damaging. I recommend cutting out refined flours and sugars for a few weeks and then starting a gradual walking program and moving up from there. When it comes to exercise, you need a balance of aerobic exercise and weight training (at least 50% of your max) and attempt when at all possible interval training where you vary the intensity of your workout within the actual workout (ex. walk 10 minutes, speed walk for a minute, walk 10 minutes). These are lifestyle changes so small changes are fine as long as they are permanent and you gradually ratchet up your goals.

Guest's picture

"PS- small caloric deficits created by walking more have NEVER been shown to be a long term solution to anyone's weight problem."

This summer I was housebound for four weeks because of a heatwave, so I stopped doing all the "small calorific deficit" stuff, such as walking up six flights of stairs daily, striding around the mall window-shopping every weekend, strolling to the convenience store down the road, etc. Really small stuff, that I assumed didn't make any difference to my health.

Guess what? I gained 10 pounds in four weeks, without even trying.

Guest's picture

Splenda is chlorinated sugar, produced useing a process that involves toulene (part of gasoline) and wood alcohol.

Not really something I would trust putting in my body.

I'll trust regular sugar, but try and limit it instead.

Guest's picture

Two words: Hula Hoop!

Guest's picture

About two years ago, I started stair-climbing at work with a colleague. We start at the 2nd floor and walk up to the 24th and then back down. At first, I had to stop almost every second floor to catch my breath. Now, I take a short break at 10, another and 17 and from 24 back down without stopping. Sometimes if we're having an interesting conversation, I forget about 17 and go all the way to the top. We do the whole thing in about 10-12 minutes of our lunch break. It's not that hard and it doesn't cost anything.

Guest's picture

i find the hardest part with dietary/lifestyle changes is getting started. once such new habits have settled, things become much easier.

one of the tricks that have helped me a lot with weight control is to eat more protein (i have lost 15 pounds in the last 6 weeks). i find protein more satisfying, more filling and it keeps hunger away for longer.

the challenge was to find a protein with a low fat content. its amazing how much fat most protein has! i have ended up with soya-mince. any other ideas for low-fat protein?

Guest's picture

A lot of people brought up bread. Not all bread is good. While whole grain bread is good, white bread is really bad for you and your waistline. It is rapidly digestible, causes quick rise in blood sugar. This causes your pancreas to quickly produce insulin. Not only this makes you hungry quicker, but it also raises your risk of type II diabetes. Most up-to-date sources suggest minimizing eating rapidly digestible starchy foods like processed grains (white rice, white bread) and potatoes (yes it is potatoes, not what you put on them), and eating whole grains like whole grain bread, brown rice, out bran.

Good article about eating healthy from Harvard Institute of Public Health - it is based on most up-to-date information:

Guest's picture

do you mean eschew iceberg lettuce? I like the taste of romaine...

Great tips by the way :)

Guest's picture

My biggest problem is late night snacking while watching television or using the internet. I've been doing it consistently for about four years now, knowing all along it's the worst thing not only for my waistline (which has, of course, grown many inches) but also for my heart, blood pressure and the acid reflux that seems to be common in my family.
Many of the suggestions offered here are things I have been doing for years as part of maintaining my weight, including using smaller plates, parking further away, dancing for exercise and drinking as much or more than the recommended amount of water but I know that so long as I keep up the late night eating, which my body has come to expect and therefore I find my stomach grumbling by 11:30 each night, I will most likely continue to gain weight.
As soon as I read this article, I drank a glass of Metamucil and fifteen minutes later, I don't feel hungry! Thanks so much for that bit of advice. I may find myself shedding some pounds because of it.

Guest's picture

After reading all of your comments, I had one thought. I want to loose weight and keep it off but like most people I am not quite sure what to do first. I understand that you need to make healthier choices and to exercise but that is not always easy, especially for someone that has never really done those things. My problem is that I am a picky eater. I don't eat a lot of meats or veggies due to veggies being flavorless or due to the texture of the meat. I find myself adding butter to my vegetables to make them taste better and drenching my salads in my dressing and I don't like steak, ribs, roasts, etc. For meats I mostly eat chicken, pork and hamburger. I am not sure how to flavor my food with herbs for the healthier choice. I am not great a cooking but not horrible. How do you make these changes, as far as what kind of herbs do you use an how to cook for a picky eater like me. I am new to this way of life. In the past I would loose weight by taking diet pills only to put they weight back on. I am frustrated and depressed by my weight gain. It not only affects my but everyone around me. I am just at a loss on what to do to loose my weight and keep it off.

Guest's picture

Really motivating article! Thanks for sharing :)

Guest's picture

I love this article, it's so refreshing to read a down to earth and realistic approach to changing your diet and lifestyle. I've been making smaller changes and better eating choices combined with aerobic exercise and plenty of fluids and it seems to be working. I sometimes get down hearted when I read huge lists of what not to eat when trying to lose weight so now I ignore them, instead I cut down portion sizes and try to substitute with veggie, rice etc, slow and steady wins the race :D

Guest's picture

thanks for the great advice. i have been struggling with my weight for 15 years... when i was a child i was skinny, when i got to high school i gained a lot of weight, up to 350 lb i am also tall.. then in my early twenties i lost a lot of weight down to 190.. and now i have gained back 100 lb and am 30... and i don't wanna be big anymore or ever agian so i am on my mission to loss the 100 lb and some. i am a college student and eating healthy is harder than most people think.. its much easier for me and cheaper to eat a dollar burger or couple of tacos from taco bell then go cook a chicken breast or get fresh veggies.. i don't tend to eat a lot ... its just crappy food. so i am going to try your fiber and water idea and i am getting a membership with the college gym. thanks for the inspiration and ideas from Texas!

Guest's picture

I think all this is a very good way of helping people lose weight. The only thing that i have to say is that, what if people don't have the money to do the weight loss programme? And what if their desperate to lose weight? Maybe because of health issues or because they want to look good in their wedding dress or something. Then there isn't a way for people to lose weight if they don't know how to, all because they won't be able to afford it. My arguement is, that, there should be at least one website on any of these diet programme's, where they could just write down how to lose weight and what to eat and what to avoid. Not pay to get the weight loss, but to just put it on the website and then all they have to do is cook it or something :) !!