07/07/2016 07:28 EDT | Updated 07/07/2016 07:59 EDT

Eating Smarter Helped Me Maintain My Weight Loss

I started thinking about all the lessons I've learned from being overweight and dieting for much of my 45 years. I did a little research. I came up with a plan. I lost 51 pounds by January 2016, and my weight has hovered (mostly) between 52-54 pounds lost since. This is how I did it.

In July 2015, I joined my friend Danielle's DietBet group. I felt like I had been making an honest effort to lose weight since Christmas 2014, but the scale was not budging. When Danielle invited me to join her group, I joked that the other players would likely win all my money.

But, as it turned out, I didn't want the group to see me fail. I started thinking about all the lessons I've learned from being overweight and dieting for much of my 45 years. I did a little research. I came up with a plan. I lost 51 pounds by January 2016, and my weight has hovered (mostly) between 52-54 pounds lost since. This is how I did it.

I joined games at

The basic premise of DietBet is that you pay in a sum of money and attempt to lose a percentage of your body weight within a set amount of time. If you don't lose the weight, you don't get your money back. If you do lose the weight, you get your money back, plus a share of the money from the people who didn't win.

The group worked for me for a number of reasons. Knowing that people were keeping tabs on my success (or failure) kept me accountable. The deadlines kept me on track. The support from the other people in the game was invaluable. One of the best things about it is that you can use any weight-loss method you like. You can follow Weight Watchers or paleo or low carb; or you can make up your own plan.

I used apps to help determine a healthy caloric allowance

I bought an activity tracker (a Jawbone Up2) to track my exercise. However, it was the calorie-counting features that ended up rocking my world. My Up2 can both track the calories I consume and tell me how many calories I burn. This was especially helpful in determining a healthy daily caloric allowance. Depending on how much I exercise, I usually burn 1800-2500 calories per day. A daily intake of approximately 1600 calories has helped me lose weight and has not felt especially restrictive.

I started eating smarter

I knew I needed to eat healthier and eat less, but I also knew that I wouldn't succeed long-term if there were certain things off limits to me forever. I decided that my best option was to keep eating similar foods, but in smaller amounts, and with smarter options.

I buy low fat dairy. I use whole wheat pita pockets instead of bread for sandwiches. I use stevia on my Greek yogurt, instead of buying sweetened yogurt. I buy the smallest buns I can find for burgers. I use a spiralizer to make zucchini "noodles," which I use as a base for things like Kung Pao chicken, and chicken pesto pasta with roasted tomatoes. I eat protein at almost every meal, because protein keeps you feeling full. And, if someone offers me birthday cake, I'm all over that. I just take it into account when adding up my daily calories.

I eat five small meals a day -- but rarely after 8 p.m.

This is such a classic piece of advice, and it works. Because of my life schedule, I initially started with a plan for four meals a day. Within about a month, my weight loss stalled. My friend and DietBet buddy Danielle suggested eating another small meal at night. The first day after doing this, bingo! The number on the scale dropped.

I eat four meals a day, that are 300-400 calories each. My evening snack -- usually around 200 calories -- is consumed by 8:00 p.m.

I prep healthy meals and snacks

Having healthy food on hand has made a big difference. When I'm rushed, or not feeling well, or arrive home after a vacation, there are always healthy options waiting for me.

Every Sunday, I make five days' worth of lunches and afternoon snacks -- things like salads in jars, a big pot of vegetarian chili, yogurt parfaits, and pre-portioned hummus and veggie sticks. I often roast large amounts of chicken at once, chopping and separating the cooked chicken into two- or three-ounce portions, which I freeze individually. I can pull these out for pitas, or to add to soups or other meals.

I take care to avoid feeling "deprived"

One of my biggest issues is emotional -- wanting something but not eating it. A classic example is going to the movies and not getting popcorn. Movie theatre popcorn isn't healthy and it's just empty calories. But, the smell is intoxicating and, for me, it's part of the whole movie experience. If I don't buy any, I will usually feel sad about missing out and then stop on the way home to get myself a treat instead. The easiest solution is just to plan ahead for the popcorn and include it in my daily caloric allotment.

I also allow myself a weekly cheat day, where anything goes. This is normally a restaurant meal with anything I like, but it might be waffles, or I might bake something up. At the beginning of this journey, I would start dreaming about my Saturday cheat day on Monday. But now, sometimes cheat day arrives and I have no idea which unhealthy thing I would like to indulge in. I take this as a good sign.

I know how to maintain

I'm hopeful that I've found a lifestyle change that I can comfortably follow for the rest of my life. It involves eating healthy most of the time, not depriving myself, moving more, and using my group to get back on track when needed.

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