By Dr. Laura Kruskall, PhD, RD, CSSD, FACSM

It’s that time of year when many of us start thinking about what we need to do to get our bodies ready for summer. Whether your goal is to slim-down to look flattering in your summer clothes or to shed excess weight to make outdoor activities more enjoyable, the key concept underlying both goals is to eat fewer calories than you burn, but not so little that you inadvertently reduce your metabolism or fail to consume the nutrients (e.g. vitamins, minerals, fluids) that your body needs to thrive. Below are some tips to help.

Get to know your metabolism
If your weight has been stable for at least six months, your metabolism is perfectly matched to the amount of food you are eating. This is important because it tells you exactly what you need to do to maintain the status quo…keep eating and exercising at the same level and you will stay just as you are. However, if you wish to lose weight, then you need to shake things up a bit. You can eat less or exercise more, or even better, do a little of both. Combining regular aerobic exercise with moderate calorie restriction can help you safely shed 1-2 pounds of body fat per week without feeling physically exhausted or deprived of nourishment. In fact, walking briskly for only 45 minutes per day combined with a reduction of 250 calories consumed per day should result in about a pound of weight loss per week. If you can’t set aside 45 consecutive minutes for exercise, then purchase an inexpensive pedometer to wear and set a goal of accumulating at least 10,000 steps throughout the day.

Understand food portions
There are many weight loss books and gimmicks on the market, but the current research we have suggests that the most effective approach to sustainable weight loss is a combination of portion control and regular physical activity. To get a good idea of how much food you should eat and which types of foods to include, I recommend that you visit the My Pyramid website maintained by the USDA. This site allows you to create a basic meal plan based on your gender, age, and physical activity level. This will teach you about the different food groups, how many servings are suggested from each group, what a serving size looks like, and what are the healthiest choices within a food group. This is a great start for anyone looking for a basic meal plan, but keep in mind it does not replace the advice or individualized meal plan developed by a Registered Dietitian. If you want an even simpler strategy, one that does not involve exact calories or portions, a good rule of thumb is to use your dinner plate as a guide. At mealtime, fill your plate with different food groups so that one-half of your plate contains non-starchy vegetables, one quarter has lean protein, and the remaining quarter has starch.

Watch for hidden calories, especially when dining out
It is relatively easy to control the calorie content of food you prepare at home because you can simply read the nutrition label on the package and avoid high-calorie ingredients. It is not so easy if you dine out frequently. There is such a wide spectrum between restaurants that it is not uncommon to find a salad at one restaurant containing only 350 calories while a different one may have well over 1000 calories. Fortunately, an increasing number of restaurants publish the nutrient content of their meals on their company website. For those of you with access to an iPhone or iPad, you can download a free application from the App Store that lists nutrition information from many chain restaurants all in a single location. It is a good idea to check these before you go out to eat and plan your selections ahead of time.

Regular physical activity
Before you begin a new exercise program or ramp-up an existing one, be sure that you are healthy enough to do so. One way to gauge your readiness is to complete the Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR-Q), or if you want further assurances then you can visit your personal physician.