If you’re looking to keep your lifestyle (mostly) the way it is while also losing weight, you’re probably wondering how to lose weight without dieting. The good news is that it’s definitely possible, and it’s actually the healthiest approach to making changes that last.
Many of the most popular weight loss plans out there involve instructions to drop calorie levels to very low levels and overexercise. However, even if you do manage to stick to the diet, there’s no guarantee that you’ll lose weight in the way that’s promised - and even less chance that you’ll keep it off.
Everyone’s body is different and every body will react differently to certain lifestyle changes. Whether you’re looking to learn how to lose belly fat or you want to get out of the cycle of dieting and not losing weight, making small progressive changes to your diet, exercise routine, and lifestyle will be the way forward, rather than following a plan (or trend - like Ozempic for weight loss) that promises top results in an unrealistic amount of time.
Can you lose weight without dieting?
Yes, you can lose weight without restrictive dieting. If you want long-term weight loss that stands the test of ‘normal’ life, opting for healthy lifestyle changes over a diet that cuts calories and limits food will be the way forward.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of plans out there on the internet that promise to tell you how to lose a stone in a month or (worryingly) even more. However, research from several institutions - including the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health - resoundingly confirms that any quick weight loss will quickly be regained once you return to eating regularly. There are nasty side effects of rapidly reducing your daily food intake involved too, such as headaches, irritability, feeling constantly tired and run down, and menstrual irregularities.
Switching up your lifestyle by making healthier eating choices, doing exercise you enjoy, reducing stress, and getting more sleep will be so much more effective in the long run. However, as certified personal trainer and weight loss specialist Aroosha Nekonam warns, ”you cannot out-train a bad diet.”
Nekonam, who works alongside Ultimate Performance, explains, “You lose weight by being in a calorie deficit. That means consuming fewer calories per day than you expend. Of course, exercising will help you burn more calories but if you don’t complement that by dropping your overall calorie expenditure through diet, you are essentially self-sabotaging your efforts.”
So, what should you prioritize? We asked several experts from across the fields of nutrition and exercise for their advice.
How to lose weight without dieting
1. Prioritize a balanced diet
Dietary changes will be necessary if you want to learn how to lose weight without dieting, confirms Nekonam. “Unless you are blessed with incredible genetics and a metabolism operating at the speed of light, you cannot lose weight without making dietary changes.”
Those changes, nutritionist Signe Svanfeldt explains, should be based on three specific food groups:
- Complex carbohydrates rich in fiber, such as vegetables and pulses
- Protein, preferably lean sources such as pulses, tofu, fish, and poultry
- Unsaturated fats, such as nuts, seeds, fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, olive oil, and avocado, to provide us with the essential fatty acids as well as helping us to stay fuller for longer
But if you have a sweet tooth, this doesn’t mean you should cut out the foods you love - just take a look at the 80/20 diet rule, which allows for 80% balanced eating and healthier choices with 20% allowance for the sugary, high-fat foods we may prefer. By following this rule, which is very similar to a balanced diet structure, you’ll naturally consume fewer calories without really cutting back on anything as you’ll prioritize nutrient-dense foods over others.
2. Eat more protein
As well as eating more protein in your main meals of the day, protein-based snacks - such as a shake made of the best protein shake for losing weight - will be the way forward when learning how to lose weight without dieting.
“Choosing the best high-protein low-calorie foods helps you stay fuller for longer compared to eating unbalanced meals rich in easily digestible carbohydrates, like plain toast, pastries, and sugary cereals,” explains Svanfeldt, who is also the resident nutritionist at healthy eating app Lifesum. This means you’re less likely to consume more calories than you need to throughout the day as you won’t be as hungry.
“Nutritious foods that are beneficial if you want to lose weight include pulses, vegetables, and lean protein such as fish, poultry, and tofu,” she adds. You’ll also find that many of the top snacks for dieting are also high in this important macronutrient.
3. Eat more whole grains
Similarly, it’s important to pick foods that are high in fiber. Much like protein, according to research by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, fiber is a macronutrient that takes longer to digest than many of the others. This means that foods high in fiber, including whole grains, will also keep us full and less likely to snack.
“Wholegrains contain more minerals and vitamins compared to refined grains, where most of the beneficial parts of the grain are removed,” explains Svanfeldt. “The whole grain contains plenty of fiber, which not only aids our digestion and gut health but can also help support weight loss as it helps us to stay fuller for longer by slowing down the digestion and providing a smoother blood sugar rise compared to refined, easily digestible grains.”
4. Kickstart your motivation to exercise
When it comes to creating and maintaining a calorie deficit, which is essential but doesn’t need to be achieved through restrictive dieting, exercise is one of the most useful tools. It’s important to move in a way that you enjoy though, as you’ll actually go and do it. There’s no point in learning how to start running if you know you don’t enjoy it as you’ll likely ditch the plan within a few weeks and feel demotivated. Instead, something else could be a better choice and keep you in the zone.
If you’re looking for a place to start, download one of the best workout apps. Available across almost all the app stores, this selection has a pick for almost every activity to help you find something you enjoy, from yoga for weight loss to a beginner’s guide to resistance training.
5. But don't rely on exercise to lose weight
However, it’s important not to solely rely on exercise as a way to lose weight without dieting. Diet and exercise are two ends of a see-saw: you have to balance them out for it to work. Too much of one and you won’t be able to do the other but if you pick one over the other, you’ll also have to totally rely on it for your progress. And that, both Svanfeldt and Nekonam agree, is not the way forward.
“If you exercise regularly and burn anywhere between 800 to 1000 calories per session but you are consuming the best part of 3000 calories a day, you’re going to get nowhere with your weight loss goals. It’ll be like swimming upstream, a lot of effort with no reward,” warns the personal trainer.
Relying on exercise completely for weight loss may even encourage weight gain, according to a review by Duke University Medical Center, as we all tend to get hungry after exercise and eat more than we otherwise would.
6. Aim for a higher step count
“Being more active doesn’t just mean going to the gym for an hour,” Nekonam explains. “If you want to lose weight, you need to increase your activity levels throughout the day. How active you are daily is a huge determinant of whether you successfully lose weight or not, and whether you keep it off.”
Your activity outside of exercise is called non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT - and it's one of the ways you can learn how to lose weight without exercise. “Put simply, this is the energy expended doing anything active that isn’t formal exercise, such as shopping and cleaning, walking the dog, or playing with children,” she explains. “Boosting this can be a game-changer when it comes to losing weight without dieting as NEAT accounts for anywhere between 15 to 50% of your total energy expenditure throughout the day and can be the difference between you being in a calorie maintenance [where you stay the weight you are] or a calorie deficit [losing weight].”
To start off on the right foot, so to speak, download one of the best health apps and aim for a minimum of 10,000 steps a day and build in activities like walking to work where possible, always taking the stairs, and carrying shopping home.
7. Focus on strength training
Most people when they think of exercising with a weight loss goal in mind will immediately think of cardio activities, like walking as a workout or running. We’re taught from school age that these two activities are good for our fitness levels and they’re two of the most accessible, so it makes sense when considering how to lose weight without dieting.
However, if you really want to burn more calories, include some strength training in your routine. “Physiologically speaking, if you want to vigorously pump blood to skeletal muscles and train the heart then you need to work hard. And the most optimal way to train for cardiovascular health is through intense resistance training sessions,” explains Nekonam.
“This idea, that you can speed up your metabolism, raise your heart rate and burn more calories by lifting weight is backed up by thousands of different studies,” she continues. One such study by the University of Kansas shows that traditional cardio exercise actually has no impact on your resting metabolic rate (RMR), whereas resistance training improves RMR by an impressive 15%. The higher your resting metabolic rate, the easier it is for your body to burn calories naturally when you’re going about your day, doing activities like sleeping, sitting down, and even eating.
“Look at it like this,” adds the trainer. “In order to lift weights, you need to expend a lot of energy. That increase in energy will raise your metabolism for the next 24 to 48 hours, so you will continue to burn fat even after you’ve left the gym floor.”
Doing an exercise you enjoy will be the most effective way to boost your workout motivation and get moving. However, if you’re still stuck for ideas or want to focus on building muscle, aka ‘toning up’, then strength training should be on your list of activities to try out.
8. Plan your meals in advance
Planning your meals in advance, either making them ahead of time or just working out what you’re going to eat, has proven associations with a lower risk of obesity in women. The study by the University of Paris found that those who meal prepped and planned ahead of time tended to have a healthier diet too.
If you’re not into cooking at home, try one of the best weight loss meal delivery services. These boxes arrive at your door, whenever you like, and include fully-prepared meals for you to enjoy. They might also give you some ideas of healthy meals to make at home when your subscription ends.
9. Drink more water
“It can also be helpful to ensure you get enough hydration in your diet when you’re trying to lose weight without dieting,” explains Svanfeldt. While it’s important whatever your goals are as water plays several essential roles in the body, from helping our brains to focus to getting rid of waste products, research does show that drinking more water can increase the number of calories you burn while at rest.
The study from Humboldt University found that participants who drank 500ml water tended to burn 24 to 30% more calories within 10 to 60 minutes than those who didn’t because there was more water available for lipolysis, the process that burns stored fat and/or carbohydrates for energy.
“Try to always choose water as a beverage as it not only hydrates but has fewer calories than soft drinks and juices, which means more room for nutritious foods to make you feel fuller for longer," the nutritionist says.
10. Fix your sleep schedule
Wondering ‘should I exercise if I feel run down'? Chances are that you’re not prioritizing recovery from exercise, which could be impacting your ability to lose weight to some degree.
When we’re sleep deprived, research from the University of California confirms, our hunger hormones are all over the place. Ghrelin is the hormone that controls how hungry we are and it’s significantly impacted by our sleep patterns. The study shows that adults who are deprived of good sleep tend to have higher levels of this hormone in their bodies and feel more hungry as a result, leading them to eat more throughout the day. If you tend to reach for sugary snacks when you feel tired, now you know why.
To help you sleep better, Nekonam recommends a well-timed carbohydrate-based dinner. “I find from experience with hundreds of clients over the past decade that carbs are best eaten post-workout when your body is most likely to use the glucose properly and refuel the muscle and in the last meal of the day, which can aid with relaxation and improved sleep.”
11. Mindful drinking
Much like how a lack of sleep causes us to feel hungrier, alcohol stimulates nerve cells linked to hunger drive in the brain’s hypothalamus, research in association with the Mill Hill Laboratory in London reveals. This means we’re more likely to believe we’re hungry after a couple of drinks even if we’re actually full, so if you're not losing weight in a calorie deficit, this could be one reason.
Plus, when we’re under the influence our judgment tends to be one of the first things to go out the window, and the food choices we make under the influence tend to be very different than those we’d make sober.
Mindful drinking isn’t cutting back on alcohol totally. It’s a way of readjusting our relationship with it and considering why we drink, how much, and when we drink. Part of the process for some people is switching to alternatives to alcohol occasionally, which also tend to be lower in calories than their boozy counterparts.
12. Limit stress
We’re told to learn how to deal with stress better because it can make us feel overwhelmed, nervous, anxious, and irritable, and it prevents us from enjoying many things in life. However, research from Cardiff University shows that stress can be a vicious cycle for our minds and bodies.
When we feel overworked or consistently under pressure, we tend to overeat foods typically high in fat, salt, and sugar, and consume fewer meals with lots of fruits or vegetables. We’re also more like to take a break from exercise. This not only prevents us from losing weight by pulling us out of that all-important calorie deficit but leads to other symptoms like fatigue, headaches, and difficulty sleeping, which all impact our ability to achieve this goal too.
13. Don't skip meals
“Skipping a meal because of your busy schedule or to save on calories is never a wise idea,” warns Kyle Crowley, a sports nutrition advisor. “Usually people become hungrier from this and eat more than they would have usually as their ability to make sensible food choices is diminished.”
Many studies have looked into this as well and while some dieting methods, such as intermittent fasting plans, promote skipping meals as a natural way to cut down on calories, the resounding conclusion is that skipping meals will just lead you to make up for it with food later in the day. A study from the Food Economic Division in Washington, for example, found that adults ate almost 200 calories more than they otherwise would at lunch after skipping breakfast and almost 800 calories more at dinner after skipping both meals.
Crowley, who works with ProteinWorks, suggests that if you’re skipping meals because you’re short on time and don’t want to grab something easy from the store, which may be higher in calories than you’d like, healthy meal replacements could be an option. “They have the right amount of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals to ensure you are well-nourished throughout the day. There is little preparation required and a variety of options out there at good prices.”
However, there is evidence that plans like the 16:8 diet are effective and this particular type of intermittent fasting looks at when we eat to help with weight loss, rather than skipping meals specifically.
14. Switch to vegetarian and vegan alternatives
If you’re looking for a simple ‘hack’ when learning how to lose weight without dieting, this could be it. Although you’ll need to maintain that calorie deficit still, switching to vegetarian and vegan alternatives of some products may help that process as a plant-based diet tends to be naturally lower in calories. For example, 3 ounces (100g) of lean beef mince is around 137 calories while Quorn, just one of the worldwide brands that specialize in meat alternatives, offers a similarly-tasting mince made from soy at just 69 calories for the same amount.
Plus many sources of vegan protein, fruits, and vegetables are high in protein and fiber, which will keep you fuller for longer as the day goes on. Leading nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert explains, “Many people think that plant-based nutrition won’t give you enough protein but this is simply not the case. There are plenty of plant-based sources of protein such as tofu, tempeh, quinoa, nuts and seeds, beans, and pulses. Some foods are even fortified with soya, which when combined, you get a complete protein source to help you reach your daily requirements.”
Easy swaps like this, and switching to ‘lighter’ versions of spreads, dressings, and dairy products, means you can still enjoy all your favorite foods and recipes without needing to touch a calorie counter app.
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Grace Walsh is woman&home's Health Channel Editor, working across the areas of fitness, nutrition, sleep, mental health, relationships, and sex. In 2024, she will be taking on her second marathon in Rome, cycling from Manchester to London (350km) for charity, and qualifying as a certified personal trainer.
A digital journalist with over six years experience as a writer and editor for UK publications, Grace has covered (almost) everything in the world of health and wellbeing with bylines in Cosmopolitan, Red, The i Paper, GoodtoKnow, and more.
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