Simple Diet Ideas: Effortless Ways to Lose Weight and Eat Healthy

I want to live a healthy life in the most effortless way possible.

I want to get my diet and nutrition right because it allows me to do the more important things in life, but I also don’t want to spend all day thinking about what I eat.

I think my time and energy should be spent building things that matter, pursuing adventure and exploring the world, connecting and sharing with the people around me, and working toward goals that are important to me.

Because of that, I have spent the last few months trying different strategies that make it easier for me to eat healthy without much effort.

Most people get wrapped up in the details and strategies of a particular diet and never get around to actually following it. I like to keep things simple. I’d prefer to abandon the details, understand the main idea, and actually make adjustments.

I don’t have all the answers, of course, but here’s what is working for me right now and how you can use these ideas to eat healthy, lose weight, and gain muscle.

How to Buy Healthy Food Without Thinking

The main idea of most good diets is the same: eat whole foods that are unprocessed and that grew or lived outdoors. Some of them have different variations — no animal products, no grains, etc. — but most of them fit the general “real food” mold.

The problem is that — if you’re anything like me — you will eat whatever is close to you, whether it came from Mother Nature or not. As a result, the best strategy is to surround yourself with healthy food.

Here’s how I do it…

When I go to the grocery store, I only walk around the “outer ring” of the store. I don’t walk down the aisles. The outer ring is where the healthy food usually lives: fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, eggs, and nuts. These are items that grew or lived outdoors. That’s what I eat.

The aisles are where all of the boxed and processed stuff is placed. Don’t go down those aisles and you won’t buy those foods. Don’t buy those foods and they won’t be around for you to eat.

Try this the next time you go to the store and do your best to not to make exceptions.

Sure, there will be the occasional time that you’ll need to go down an aisle to pick up spices or grab a bottle of olive oil, but this is rare. The last three times I’ve been at the grocery store, I have easily stayed on the “outer ring” and I bet you can do the same.

I know that I will eat everything around me, so I do my best to surround myself with good things. This is another way that I design my environment for success, which is a strategy that I wrote about in detail here: Environment Design.

How to Eat Less Without Thinking

A lot of people want to lose weight, burn fat, and build a lean body. Maybe you do too.

In my experience, the simplest way to do this is to buy healthier foods and eat less overall. If you combine these two strategies with consistency and exercise, then the rest usually takes care of itself. I already covered my simple approach to buying healthier food, so here are the two best strategies I’ve discovered for eating less.

Important Note: as with most diet ideas, these strategies should be used in moderation. There is a tremendous amount of social, cultural, and peer pressure in our world to “be thin.” The strategies I’m sharing below aren’t meant to promote that type of behavior. My goal is offer ideas that make it easier to live healthy in a sustainable way. Your ultimate goal should always be to regain your health and love yourself.

1. Use smaller plates, bowls, pans, etc.

Make less and serve less, and then you will eat less. These strategies work much better than relying on willpower or counting calories.

Multiple research studies have shown that you will always fill your plate to the brim and eat it clean. Given that, if you want to eat less, the best way to do so is to use smaller plates.

While you’re at it, making the switch to dark green plates might be a good idea as well because it will increase the amount of green vegetables that you eat.

I wrote about the science behind smaller plates and green plates in this article.

2. Eat fewer, but bigger, meals (i.e. switch to intermittent fasting)

Intermittent fasting is an eating schedule where you eat two bigger meals during an 8–hour span instead of three or four smaller meals throughout the day. Then, you fast for the other 16 hours of the day.

I have been practicing intermittent fasting for over 2 years. My first meal is usually around 12pm and my last meal is usually around 8pm.

In theory, you could eat the same amount of food during two meals as you could during three. (In fact, I’m trying to gain muscle right now, so I’m trying to eat way more during my 8–hour feeding window.)

In practice, however, most people end up eating less when they switch from three meals to two meals. There is a certain amount of food that you consider to be a “meal” and you tend to eat that same amount whether you have two meals per day or three meals per day. The end result is that you eat less without thinking about it.

What You Eat Is More Important Than When You Eat

Intermittent fasting tends to help you burn fat and retain muscle. It also makes your life easier because you have one less meal to cook and clean. Those are my reasons for practicing intermittent fasting.

However, it’s important to realize that what you eat will always be more important than when you eat.

Intermittent fasting works best when combined with a healthy diet. You can’t pound Doritos from 12pm to 8pm and think that those extra pounds will magically fall away. Intermittent fasting is simply another weapon to use in the blubbery battle against fat — just like smaller plates and the “outer ring” strategy are weapons at your disposal.

If you want more information, I’ve written about intermittent fasting in great detail in these articles:

  1. The Beginner’s Guide to Intermittent Fasting
  2. 12 Lessons Learned from 1 Year of Intermittent Fasting
  3. Reader Mailbag: Answers to the Most Common Intermittent Fasting Questions
  4. 25,000 Mornings: 8 Ways to Improve Your Morning Routine

How to Eat Whatever You Want Without Feeling Guilty

I think life is meant to be lived joyfully. I have no desire to judge myself for eating pizza or to feel guilty for drinking a beer.

But, I also know that I feel much better when I eat healthy. Plus, I love the idea of maximizing my potential and turning my body into an athletic machine.

Here’s how I balance the two…

I start by making sure that it’s easy for me to make the right choice, most of the time. The “outer ring” shopping strategy helps to make that possible and as a result, I eat whole foods 80% of the time.

Because I know that I’m already making good choices most of the time, I don’t worry about eating a soft pretzel at the ballpark or going out to get pizza with friends.

I also have a simple rule that I try to follow: whenever I eat an unhealthy meal, I follow it with a healthy one.

Top performers get back on track faster than most people, and that’s what I try to do with my diet. I don’t worry about having fun and I try to enjoy life, but I also use this simple rule to guide me back toward a healthy diet as quickly as possible.

Avoid the Hype and Make Simple Changes

I like simple rules.

  • I don’t follow a diet plan. Instead, I shop on the outer ring of the store and buy foods that come from outdoors.
  • I don’t count calories. Instead, I let my intermittent fasting schedule regulate my eating.
  • I don’t judge myself when I eat something unhealthy. Instead, I try to follow it with a healthy meal.

As a result of these simple strategies I’ve been able to eat healthier without much effort or thought.

And most importantly, I’ve actually made improvements instead of getting bogged down in the details of a particular diet. When it comes to diets and nutrition, I think you are better off moving in the right direction rather than searching for the perfect direction.

Less effort, better food, and more time for what matters.

36 Comments

  1. Hey James –

    Right on as usual. I will add just one trick from your guide Transform Your Habits that has helped me — identity-based habits. I am pretty sure I am not actually gluten-intolerant (at least to the extent of many people), but when I went gluten-free several years ago before it was a common thing, I told SO MANY people that I was gluten intolerant just to make them stop questioning me that it became part of my identity. Now, I never think of eating gluten – even on cheat days.

    Since reading your guide, I realized that the identity-based habit was what made me so successful at sticking to that concept, and I have used the same process to make other dietary changes possible (I am the type of person who cooks every meal myself, I am the type of person who eats a wide diversity of plants, I am the type of person who never eats grain-fed meats, etc.). Of course I mess up on all of those things, but use your ideas on getting back on track afterwards.

    Be well and keep inspiring us!

  2. Another home run James. This is pretty much the way I eat now (minus the intermittent fasting), but if it wasn’t, this simple guide would be just what I’d want to read to inspire me to make a change. Way too much (conflicting) info out there on the subject.

    • James Clear says:

      Glad to hear you enjoyed it, Michael! I try to keep things simple enough to act upon. There is a lot of information I glossed over, of course, but I’ll deep dive into the details in another article.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Kent says:

    Hello James,

    Such and clear and simple message. It took me 10 mins to read, and I love that it contains years of wisdom in that very short read. It doesn’t hurt either that I already follow many of the concepts you discuss, and it sure doesn’t hurt to get that affirmation every once in a while. Thank you so much for your clarity and thank you for being so open to providing it to the general public. The web is an amazing place to gain insights and you are doing a wonderful service for people. I really needed this article right now to reinvigorate my efforts.

    Thanks,

    Kent

    • James Clear says:

      Happy to help, Kent! It sounds like you have some momentum going and you are moving in the right direction. Keep up the good work. Our community is rooting for you!

  4. Dennis says:

    WOW this was RIGHT On the money!!! This was exactly how I started going toward the right path. I accepted that change won’t be an overnight thing. Once I finally took that to heart it was all about consistency, consistency, and more consistency. BEAUTIFUL write up, and I love your book ‘Transform Your Habits… Concise to the point and can immediately be ACTED upon. Good stuff keep up the great work.

    • James Clear says:

      Thanks Dennis! I’m glad you’re enjoying my writing and work. I’ll do my best to keep good ideas coming your way.

      And it sounds like you’ve made great progress on your own. Keep up the good work!

  5. I really like the “outer ring” rule. I actually just thought about it at the grocery store the other day. I sorta imagine I’m on a trek across a desert or something when I’m walking all the way across Safeway to get between both ends. It’s pretty crazy to think about all that stuff packed into the middle that we pass over.

    • James Clear says:

      It’s great to have you reading here, Jeffrey! And it was good to see you the other week.

      You’re right — it’s crazy how much food is created, boxed, and packaged that we should just pass over. Glad to hear the “outer ring” rule is working well for you! Keep up the good work.

  6. Christina Waldman says:

    Intermittent fasting may work better for some than others; I am thinking it might work better for men more than women; the Women to Women site recommends regular meals for the adrenals. I think I do best when I eat regular meals, say every 4 hours, each containing some protein, to perform at my best mentally and physically, to keep my metabolism stable and avoid getting too hungry. My boyfriend only eats one real meal a day, in the evening, with a bit of toast, juice, coffee in the morning, and I am not at my best that way. I am liking Jillian Michael’s book, “Slim for Life.”

    • Hey Christina —

      You are right on with that. I am always very careful to note to all of my female friends that want to know about diet optimization that IF may not be as beneficial for women. Stephani Ruper pioneered a lot of this: http://www.paleoforwomen.com/shattering-the-myth-of-fasting-for-women-a-review-of-female-specific-responses-to-fasting-in-the-literature/

      “He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.” -Lao Tzu

      Keep learning what’s best for you!

      Be well and keep sharing your results!

    • James Clear says:

      Christina — thanks for sharing! I haven’t read Jillian’s book. I’ll have to check it out.

      Also, I think your attitude is spot on: the most important thing is to experiment, pay attention to your body, and find out what works for you. Everybody has an opinion (including me), but that doesn’t mean their ideas are best for your circumstances. Taking your health into your own hands and making choices that fit your body and lifestyle is the most important thing to do.

      Keep up the good work!

    • Heather-mae says:

      Hi Christina, I have been doing intermittent fasting for around three months now, I started on the 5:2, which is five days of eating normally and two non consecutive days of restricting myself to 500 calories per day, then I read about James Clear and the 18:6 method, which I have been doing now for the past month. I love it, I have absolutely know problems with it. I eat more then double what I would normally eat if I was not dieting,and my weight is completely stable. I have lot’s of energy and I feel terrific. My experience that it’s good for women as well. Heather-mae.

  7. Alex says:

    Excellent article James, I’m only doubtful about intermittent fasting. I am used to eat every few hours and I hate feeling starving, and I want to gain weight. Do you think is for me?

    • James Clear says:

      If you want to gain weight, then I would focus on eating as much as possible — but with whole, unprocessed foods. That’s the best way to do it. Intermittent fasting is better for losing fat or simplifying your day.

      Good luck!

  8. Tammy R says:

    Hi James! I haven’t tried intermittent fasting, but we do stick to the outer ring of the grocery store except for beans which I know some people don’t like to have in their diet. I don’t buy or cook meat and eat very little, so I do eat an egg a day and beans for protein – plus it helps me feel very full. My overall health has really improved – not to mention my skin. Hopefully it will start to reverse my aging soon! Ha! I appreciate you sharing with us and thank you very much for writing.

    • James Clear says:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Tammy. It sounds like the outer ring strategy is working well for you. Keep up the good work!

  9. Esther L. says:

    This “outer ring rule” is awesome! I would like to add one other trick to that.

    I used to drink sodas at any time in the day not long ago, and it can be hard to quit this habit. Here is how I got rid of it: since switching from sodas to water is hard because of the “loss” of both taste and sugar, I just got rid of the second one, by drinking infusions. I’m not sure infusions are as healthy as water, but at least they are much healthier than sodas! And after some weeks without any sodas between meals, I was feeling kind of queasy when drinking sugared beverage between meals, so the trick really worked well on the long term! Hope that can help!

    • James Clear says:

      Esther — nice work! I like how you took gradual steps toward your goal. That’s directly in line with what I try to write about. Thanks for sharing with our community. I’m sure people are benefitting from reading your tips.

      Great job and thanks for reading!

  10. Viraj says:

    This may work if you are buying all your groceries yourself. If somebody else in the family is buying the groceries (for example your spouse or children) then it won’t work! Also it is very interesting that many people advices on eating smaller meals for more number of times throughout the day and on contrary your advice is to eat 2 big meals in day and then to go on fasting for rest of day!

    • James Clear says:

      Viraj — why not share the “outer ring” strategy with your spouse/kids? Then they can use it to buy healthy food as well.

      In any case, thanks for eating! It’s great to have you in our little community.

  11. Lukas Blagus-Smonig says:

    Hi James, the community that you have established is surely expanded quickly. I come from a tiny country called Slovenia in Central (for most North Americans, Eastern) Europe, yet I currently study and work in Austria. I regularly read your posts and have shared various of your articles with my friends (many of the top 10 ones). Even though I have to confess that a part of today`s article does not necessarily fit me personally (I simply cannot survive without having breakfast), you have taught me many things about life (overcoming a tough period is always difficult, and you helped me achieve that!). Your posts are truly inspirational, for which I wish you give you heads-up and let you know that you are also being followed across the ocean! Lovely greetings from Vienna, Lukas

    • James Clear says:

      Hi Lukas! It’s great to hear from you. I’m always happy to have a reader in Vienna. (I really enjoyed my time there.)

      I haven’t been to Slovenia, but I did make it somewhat nearby (Slovakia, Hungary, etc.). I’ll have to make a trip to your home country sometime!

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the articles. I’ll do my best to keep the good ideas coming your way. And no worries about breakfast — do whatever works best for you!

      Thanks for reading!

  12. Velina P. says:

    Hey James! Great article, as usual!

    I am proud to say that I don’t have to keep to the “outer rim” anymore. I can walk around the store, see all the “tempting foods” and just walk by them.

    How I managed that? It was quite simple: I knew exactly what I wanted to buy before I entered the store and I knew exactly where to find it. This way I didn’t spent a lot of time wandering around.

    • James Clear says:

      Velina — that’s great! Ideally, we would all like to get to that point where the good choices are simply automatic. Your strategy of planning beforehand makes those choices easier. Good work and thanks for reading!

  13. I’m definitely stealing this one: “whenever I eat an unhealthy meal, I follow it with a healthy one.”

    Thanks James, nice article.

  14. Malou says:

    Hi James! I love the “outer ring” rule. This will really help me a lot in preparing healthy food for my family now that I am just starting to do the grocery myself and cook after retiring from my work. Thanks for sharing this article. Hope to hear more from you.

    • James Clear says:

      Glad to hear you enjoyed it, Malou! Good luck with the cooking. I’ll do my best to keep useful ideas coming your way.

  15. Elaine says:

    This makes more sense than anything I’ve read, heard, etc. I’m so tired of the diet gurus that well you get it…the details are mind numbing and court disaster.

    I really do also appreciate your straight common sense approach to doing, changing, etc. Common sense is not so common.

    Thanks for the challenges.

    • James Clear says:

      Happy to help! I’m glad you enjoyed the article, Elaine. I’ll do my best to keep good ideas coming your way.

  16. Heather-mae says:

    Hi James, Love your article as all of your articles are great. The ‘Outer ring’ doesn’t work in my household, because my husband eats totally different to me, we do shop together most times, however I do not find any shopping problems, because I plan out what I’ll eat, and no matter how much I eat my weight is stable anyhow, so I feel this wonderful feeling of freedom, which is great. Thank you James for all your help and encouragement. (((hugs))) Heather-mae.

  17. Ron says:

    Some great ideas here, in particular I’m with Malou – I like the outer ring idea to eat healthier. And on top that I’m going to get myself some small green plates to cut down the amount I eat.

Leave a reply

Close