A 12-Month Plan for a Lighter, Healthier You

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

A 12-Month Plan for Weight Loss

If you make a yearly resolution to lose weight only to find yourself making the same resolution again the next year, maybe you need a whole new approach. Failures are often due to trying to make too many habit changes at the same time and then feeling overwhelmed. You fall apart one day and then maybe you decide to ditch the whole effort. Key elements to a sustained lifestyle change include pacing the changes you make, focusing on fat loss (not just weight loss), allowing for some slip ups, and adjusting habits when they don’t feel natural.

Setting goals for new year.

Set goals for the year

To start, check in with your doctor — alert him or her to your lifestyle change decision. Take a full 12 months for habit changes — longer if you need more time for a particular habit change. Set short- and long-term goals. These don’t only have to be precise weight loss achievements. Use waist size, sleep improvements, feeling more energized, noticing fewer (sugar-fueled) mood swings, and improvements in co-morbid conditions like diabetes and heart disease, as progress points. Track goals.

Patient consulting nutritionist.

Basic nutrition rules

Determine a reasonable daily calorie count that will allow for one to two pounds of weight loss per week. One consult or a few visits with a dietitian or nutritionist can help you to figure out your calorie goals and create some basic menu plans. The basic goals are to eat healthier proteins, whole grains (carbs), eat fruits and vegetables daily, choose healthier fats and reduce sugar, sodium, and saturated fat. Learn basic portion sizes to construct a calorie-balanced, personalized meal plan.

Glasses of spring water.

January — fluid intake

Your first habit change targets fluids. Replacing sugary drinks (soda, juice, energy drinks) with water, naturally flavored-waters, and unsweetened teas will dramatically lower your caloric intake. Next, swap out whole and 2% milk and heavy coffee creamers for skim, 1% milk, or milk alternatives like soy milk or a protein-based milk like Ripple. Cut alcohol to three or fewer drinks weekly, considering each one a treat. Use silken tofu to cream soups. Use low-sodium broths to decrease your sodium intake.

Plant based proteins.

February — proteins

Choose more plant-based proteins. Over this month, start to reduce consumption of red meat — by week four it should be a once-a-week habit (or gone). That dramatically lowers saturated fat intake. Eat three to six-ounce servings (200 -300 calories) of poultry (skinless), tofu, tempeh, fish, beans and lentils, eggs, and protein-based pasta as your primary choices. Spices and marinades (watch sugar, salt) add flavor. Use non-stick sprays and healthy oils for cooking. Choose protein-based snacks, too.

Fresh fruits and vegetables on plate.

March — carbohydrates

This habit change is especially tough. The goal is to remove refined (highly processed) carbs from your diet and to understand portion size and frequency. We generally eat too-large portions of too many refined carbs. By month’s end the goal is to eat three to four 80-calorie portions of whole grains daily: a one-third cup serving of rice, half a small baked potato, or one-third cup of cooked pasta. Corn, peas, and potatoes are included. Begin to use cereal as a “topping.” Eat eight to 10 servings of whole fruits and vegetables daily.

Yogurt in bowl on table.

April — dairy and fats

Aim for two servings of milk products daily. Select milks carefully (80 calories per serving, no added sugars). Choose Greek low-fat yogurt (higher in protein) and low-sodium cottage cheese. A hard cheese portion should be the size of a pair of dice. Nuts are “high fat” healthy proteins — a snack size is 100 calories. Mashed avocado and healthy oils like olive oil, nut oils, and soybean oil are the best choices for heart health. These are all part of a Mediterranean-style diet.

Sweet treats lined up at restaurant.

May — dealing with treats

Life would be bleak without treats but we tend to have “too many too often.” Research shows that regular high fat meals can ruin your metabolism. Treats can be a slippery slope. A treat is an occasional, treasured pleasure. Instead of a total meal splurge choose a special appetizer or dessert once or twice a week – if it won’t set off a binge. Pre-plan these special treat moments so they don’t snowball and derail your hard-earned efforts. Initially, have these single treats out instead of at home so leftovers won’t be tempting you from your pantry.

Running group, running on path.

June — time for exercise

With healthier nutrition habits in place, it’s time to add physical activity. This can help to limit weight loss plateaus. The goal is to preserve muscle while shedding fat. Start a daily walking program and over the next weeks and months, add time and increase effort (walk hills, speed walk, jog, or run. Include cross-training (treadmill, elliptical, Stairmaster, Stepmill, aerobic classes) to add challenge and reduce boredom. Join a running club.

Strength  training with resistance band.

July — weight train

Resistance training burns fat and will help to maintain and build muscle mass. Muscle cells utilize more calories. Devise a basic program that uses body weight, free weights, weight-training machines in the gym, and resistance bands (which are portable for travel). Aim for an initial goal of twice weekly and over the next few months increase to three to four 30 minute sessions weekly. A personal trainer can devise a basic program with modifications as you become more proficient.

Keeping track of exercise and goals.

August — final exercise tips

Remember that the goal is for you to become so accustomed to exercising, that you miss it if you skip it. It’s easy for life to get in the way, so pencil your daily exercise goals into your calendar with reminders. Exercising should help to nudge weight loss especially if you build muscle and meet heart-rate goals during aerobic exercise. Explore fun classes like kickboxing, Zumba, and ballet barre and consider adding some yoga for mind-body health benefits and flexibility.

Support to stick with program

September — How are you doing?

By this point many of your habits are holding strong, but you may be struggling with all the new changes in your life or experience a weight-loss plateau. Slip ups are bound to happen — view them as momentary lapses and don’t allow them to derail your hard work. If you have found the pace of monthly changes too hard, slow down the pace and keep working on these new habits. Ask for help from professionals or find support from a like-minded buddy. Start thinking about the upcoming holidays and navigating food temptations and the challenges (not slacking off).

Chewing gum to break stress eating habit.

October — Sleep & stress reduction

Poor sleep habits and stress are linked to overeating and a risk of developing obesity. Most people require eight hours of uninterrupted sleep daily, though some do just as well with six or seven hours. Learn about sleep hygiene and make it a priority this month. This is a good time to add small moments of meditation to prep for sleep and to bust stress. Break the habit of emotional eating by managing your stress. Try chewing gum, take a shower, step outside — eliminate your food-stress habit.

Reviewing habits, and what can be better.

November — Tweak your habits

Take this month to review what has and hasn’t worked for you as well as some of the habits that may have started strong but are now becoming a bit blurry in terms of execution. Maybe you’re back to drinking more alcohol than you should, maybe you’ve slacked off on exercise, or maybe you’re having too many treats. This program works because it asks you to constantly review efforts, and it asks you to own your failures without letting them derail all the progress you have made. Recommit and seek support.

Weighing in at doctors office for regular check up.

December: Let your doctor weigh in

If you aren’t seeing your doctor regularly for check-ups, it’s time to make an appointment to discuss all the changes you’ve made, get weighed, and have other health screenings. See how the habit changes have impacted your health. Your vital signs and blood tests may reveal some amazing improvements which should keep you motivated. If you are struggling with some habits, ask your doctor for help. Keep reviewing the recommended habit changes and avoid complacency. This is a program for life.

Habit change victory.

Final tips

This type of full-lifestyle makeover takes courage and commitment. Avoiding trendy diets and insane exercise workouts in favor of a 12-month plan means you’ll endorse a sensible lifestyle change. “Staying the course will require adjustments for travel, dinners out, or navigating big life moments such as a pregnancy, illness, or injury. But take heart: You can do this! By embracing these monthly goals, remaining accountable and mindful, and rallying a solid support system around you, you’re ready to start this path to a healthier, happier you!”

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at healthgal.com. Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”