Each year, millions of Americans get on the scale, sigh, and resign themselves to going on “yet another diet,” as my friend Kathleen describes her weight loss roller coaster ride. Popular methods include the high protein diet, the low calorie approach, the fat-free plan, the glycemic-index-based regime, and the perennially popular cabbage soup diet.

How many types of diets have I personally been on? Let me count the ways, which began when the kindly pediatrician put me on my first diet at age six. “She’s too chubby,” said Dr. Bedside-Manners to my parents. Birthday cake, candy, cookies, ice cream – all the goodies that a six-year-old loves were on the “banned” list. The result: I learned to sneak forbidden food up to my room at a very early age, and my mother could never understand why I gained weight despite my virtue in eating my broccoli and bypassing the buttered biscuits at dinner.

As I grew older, my reasons for dieting, like yours, were as varied as the types of diets:

There’s a big event coming up (a high school reunion is a classic gotta-diet-motivator).
A friend or family member made a remark that, unintentionally (or maybe not) stung (“Gee, Sis, that dress looks awfully tight on you – have you gained a few pounds?”)
A doctor or other health care provider issued a stern warning (“Lose weight, or you’ll need to go on high blood pressure medication.”).
A colleague lost a lot of weight on a new diet, and claimed it was as easy as pie (“In fact, it’s called the Eat All You Want Pie Diet!”).
I attempted and failed at diets that required group meetings, food plans that demanded weekly and expensive doctor visits, regimes that involved laboriously prepared dishes (“Combine 1/2 cup drained albacore tuna, 1/2 cup finely chopped celery hearts, 1/8 teaspoon each of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, and 87/100 cup of nonfat plain yogurt whipped for half an hour with 1/3 cup of diced fresh scallion.”), and weight loss programs that involved weird combinations of food eaten at peculiar hours (“At 3:45 pm daily, eat one-eighth honeydew melon, two bran crackers, and three-fourths of a baked Rome Beauty apple.”). They all worked temporarily – and they all failed long-term.

The reality: there are no magical diets that will give you overnight (or even two-week) success. What does work? Learning the basic guidelines of good nutrition.

To succeed on a weight loss plan, follow these steps:

Check with your doctor or healthcare provider and explain that you want to lose weight. Ask about any special health precautions that you should observe and make sure that your doctor or provider approves your proposed approach. For example, if you are allergic to a food or have a condition such as diabetes, you may need to modify the plan described here. Be sure that you understand your own health needs.
Plan a start date, such as a Saturday, when you’ll be able to take the time to get off right. First, clean out your kitchen. Foods that contain sugar or any form of sugar, such as molasses, should be given away or tossed out. Follow that same rule for foods containing saturated fats and/or white flour. For example, crackers, processed cereals, candy bars, cookies, and ice creams typically contain one of these foods on your “out of the house” list.
Time to shop! Make a list and check it twice. Page 1 of your list: fresh vegetables, such as lettuce, celery, cucumber, zucchini, summer squash, radishes, mushrooms, and asparagus. You can enjoy as many low-calorie vegetables as you like. Use them for snacks and for preparing a big salad at lunch and dinner. Top with zero-calorie vinegar, such as garlic wine vinegar, and sprinkle with herbs, such as garlic powder and basil.
On page two of your list: fresh fruits, from strawberries to grapefruit to oranges. Although fresh fruits are not as low-calorie as most vegetables, you can enjoy two to three each day to satisfy your sweet tooth.
On page three of your list: lean protein, such as skinless chicken breasts, water-packed tuna fish, and nonfat plain yogurt. Are you wrinkling your nose at the idea of nonfat plain yogurt? Studies show that dairy foods can help you with your weight loss goals. And if you stir in a few packages of sugar-free sweetener, such as Equal or Splenda, a teaspoon of cinnamon, and half a cup of diced fresh strawberries or blueberries into your nonfat plain yogurt, then put in the freezer until it’s the consistency of ice cream, you’ll find yourself loving that “yucky yogurt!” Another tip to turn nonfat plain yogurt into dessert: mix one-half cup plain nonfat yogurt with one package of sugarfree hot cocoa mix (I like diet Swiss Miss hot chocolate). Put in the freezer until it is the consistency of ice cream, and it tastes like chocolate frozen yogurt. Yummmmy! Plan on three servings of protein each day, and learn what a serving means. Check the can, for example, to see how much tuna fish constitutes a serving. Measure the nonfat plain yogurt to see how much is half a cup. And weigh your chicken after it is cooked rather than try to guess how much four ounces of chicken looks like.
Whole grains go on page four of your list. For example, whole-wheat bread, brown rice, and bran cereal are all whole grains. Read the ingredient list carefully and make certain that there are no added sugars or refined white flour. Wasa crackers, such as the Lite Rye flavor, are also good. Try melting a slice of nonfat cheese on a Wasa cracker for a satisfying snack. You can enjoy three servings of whole grains a day, measured or weighed.
Beverages go on page five of your list. Bottled waters (skip the sugar-laden flavored ones – if you go with flavored waters, make sure they are sugar-free!) should always be available to you. If you’ve been indulging in sugar-filled sodas, substitute diet sodas. If you haven’t gotten into the soda habit, don’t start!
Eat before you shop (never shop on an empty stomach, or you’ll find yourself buying based on appetite, not on your list!). Once you get home, put away the good food you’ve chosen and plan your meals and snacks ahead of time.