By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY
This is the time of year when many people gear up to lose weight. For the past 25 years, USA TODAY has been offering readers practical advice on how to trim down in the annual Weight-Loss Challenge series. Nutrition reporter Nanci Hellmich shares 25 of the best tips from over the years.
1. Set a realistic weight-loss goal. Most experts recommend aiming for half a pound to 2 pounds a week.
2. Keep track. Dieters who keep track of everything they eat lose twice as much weight as those who don't, research shows.
3. Motivate yourself. Get a pair of jeans or pants that are too tight and hang them in the kitchen instead of the closet to keep yourself inspired.
4. Get help from family and friends. Dieters who have support from a partner at home lose more weight than those who don't, studies show.
5. Move it to lose it. Research shows that people who do physical activities such as walking or biking for two to four hours a week during weight-loss efforts lose an extra 3 to 5 pounds over a year.
6. Pay attention to portions. A 3-ounce portion of meat, poultry or fish is about the size of the palm of your hand or a deck of cards; 1 teaspoon of butter or margarine, a standard postage stamp; a cup of cold cereal, berries or popcorn, a baseball; 4-inch pancake or waffle, the diameter of a CD.
7. Clean out your pantry and refrigerator. Get rid of the foods that sabotage your weight loss.
8. Create "a dinner deck." This would include 10 favorite quick and healthful dinners written on index cards. Each card should list the ingredients for the recipe on one side and directions for making it on the other.
9. Avoid hunger. Eat regular meals and snacks. Make sure you have some protein foods such as yogurt, tuna, beans or chicken for most meals. Some research suggests that protein helps you feel full longer.
10. Keep produce on hand. Place a bowl of vegetables such as broccoli, snap peas, cucumbers or carrot sticks in the refrigerator. You can eat them as a snack or when preparing meals to take the edge off your hunger.
11. Stock up on "impulse fruits." Keep things like grapes, clementines, small apples, small bananas and pears around the house. These foods are easy to eat without having to do much cutting and slicing.
12. Make some stealth changes. That will get everyone in the family eating healthier. Buy low-fat 1% or skim milk, low-fat cream cheese and reduced-fat cheese instead of the full-fat versions. Use them in recipes to cut the fat and calories.
13. Cut out liquid calories. Eliminate soda and sugary drinks such as sweetened iced tea, sports drinks and alcoholic beverages. Liven up the taste of water by adding lemon, lime, cucumber or mint. Choose skim and 1% milk.
14. Practice the "Rule of One." When it comes to high-calorie foods, you won't go wrong if you allow one small treat a day. That might be one cookie or a fun-sized candy bar.
15. Pace, don't race. Force yourself to eat more slowly and savor each bite.
16. Hydrate before meals. Drinking 16 ounces, or two glasses, of water before meals may help you eat less.
17. Downsize plates, bowls, glasses, silverware. Using smaller versions of your serving ware will help you eat less food naturally.
18. Adopt the motto "after 8 is too late" for snacks after dinner.
19. Buy a pedometer. Health experts recommend taking at least 10,000 steps a day, which is roughly 4 to 5 miles, depending on your stride length.
20. Treat yourself occasionally. If your chocolate craving is getting to you, try diet hot-chocolate packets. If you need a treat, go out for it or buy small prepackaged portions of ice cream bars. If you love chocolate, consider keeping bite-size pieces in the freezer.
21. Dine at a table. Eat from a plate while seated at a table. Don't eat while driving, lounging on the couch or standing at the fridge.
22. Dine out without pigging out. Figure out what you are going to eat in advance. Get salad dressing on the side. Restaurants usually put about one-quarter cup (4 tablespoons) of dressing on a salad, which is often too many calories. Best to stick with 1 to 2 tablespoons. Dip your fork into the dressing and then into the salad.
23. Get plenty of sleep. Scientists have found that sleep deprivation increases levels of a hunger hormone and decreases levels of a hormone that makes you feel full. The effects may lead to overeating and weight gain.
24. Weigh yourself regularly. That's what successful dieters and those who manage to maintain weight loss do. Some step on the scales once a week. Others do so daily.
25. Reward yourself. When you meet your incremental weight loss goals, say losing 5 pounds, treat yourself to something — but not food. Buy a CD or DVD you've been wanting or go out to a movie with a friend.
Source: USA TODAY research; nutrition bloggers: registered dietitians Dawn Jackson Blatner, Elizabeth Ward, Bonnie Taub-Dix and Keith Ayoob