How to Cheat on Your Diet and Still Lose Weight

Calorie counting with a smartphone app is a popular weight-loss strategy, and research shows it can work even if you don’t track every bite.
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  • Tracking your food can help you lose weight by keeping a calorie deficit, eating less than you burn. 
  • But you don’t need to monitor every meal — researchers found even part-time calorie tracking can help. 
  • Consistency, rather than perfection, can add up to healthy changes over time, researchers said. 

You don’t need to count every single calorie you eat in order to lose weight — tracking your food about 40% of the time is enough to see results, a new study suggests. 

Researchers from the University of Connecticut and weight loss company WW (formerly known as Weight Watchers) analyzed data from 153 users of the WW app to compare food tracking consistency with weight loss results. 

They divided dieters into three categories, based on how often they tracked their meals and snacks in the app. Unsurprisingly, people who tracked the most often — about 70% of the time — lost the most weight, around 10% of body weight during the six month study. 

However, people still lost weight if they started tracking regularly but dropped off a bit over time, according to the results of the study, published June in the journal Obesity.

The part-time calorie counting group tracked about 40% of days overall and still lost about 5% of their body weight, enough to see significant improvements in health, according to Ran Wu, lead author of the study and professor of health science at the University of Connecticut. 

“The key point here is that you don’t need to track every day to lose a clinically significant amount of weight,” Wu said in a press release.

Why tracking calories works for weight loss

Watching what you eat, even if you only track calories part-time, can help you become more aware of your diet, and make healthier choices, personal trainer Jordan Syatt previously told Insider’s Rachel Hosie. 

Regardless of how you keep track of what you eat, adding more protein and fiber to your diet can help manage appetite and boost weight loss, dietitians previously told Insider. 

Small, sustainable changes like this can be key to improving health and managing weight over time, according to Sherry Pagoto, co-author of the most recent study and professor of health science at the University of Connecticut.

“A lot of times people feel like they need to lose 50 pounds to get healthier, but actually we start to see changes in things like blood pressure, lipids, cardiovascular disease risk, and diabetes risk when people lose about 5-to-10% of their weight,” she said in in the press release. 

That’s about 2 pounds a week over six months, which is typically considered a healthy pace for weight loss. 

However, more research is needed on long-term weight loss results, since the study only followed participants for six months. Evidence suggests people who diet may lose weight in the short-term but can gain the weight back (and sometimes more) after a year or longer.

The research was conducted by WW, which provides a commercial weight loss app that uses a point system. Some foods, like non-starchy veggies, fruit, beans, and fish, are categorized as zero points so participants don’t need to track them, which could save some time and mental energy, researchers theorized. 

But you don’t need to pay for that specific service to keep count, since plenty of other apps offer food diaries and calorie trackers, some of them available for free. 

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