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The Cheapskate’s Guide to Weight Loss

You can make simple changes that produce real results over time — even without fancy apps, personal trainers, expensive gym memberships or Whole Foods–level income

Self-improvement is rarely exciting, because cutting out your favorite indulgences is no one’s idea of a thrill. Pondering the suggestion to just substitute your Big Mac for a big bowl of vegetarian chili, or park farther away from the grocery store to get more free walkin’ in does not exactly kick the salivary glands, much less your ass, into overdrive. Imagine doing so when you’re also sweating the number in your bank account. Or when you simply can’t bring yourself on principle alone to spend $5 on a bag of coconut chips when you’re still going to be hungry anyway. Dang, indeed.

But there’s some hope on the horizon, or at least proof that we have very little in the way of excuses no to do something to change. A new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine of 351 mostly rural, obese patients, aged 21 to 65, most of whom earned under $35,000 annually, found that being flat broke or chronically poor does not have to be an obstacle to weight loss.

In the research, Duke University gave participants a free phone app called Track to follow behavioral changes in their daily eating habits and personalize a weight-loss plan. To do so, the participants recorded and entered their daily weights and their eating habits. The app uses algorithms to tailor the advice and feedback, and operates on the idea that people desperately need novelty to avoid habituation when it comes to making changes.

The participants weren’t only overweight (the mean weight among the group was 81 kg, or 178 pounds), but they also had health problems related to weight, such as diabetes, cardiovascular issues or high cholesterol. There were check-ins and calls with dietitians as well. The study had no mention of exercise.

The result? After 12 months, 43 percent had lost more than 5 percent of their body weight. A full 56 percent had dropped at least 3 percent of their body weight. They also ended up with lower blood pressure and smaller pant sizes.

Research shows just 5 percent body-weight loss produces numerous health benefits for heart health, joint health, overall inflammation and even mood. The study is also significant for demonstrating you can do it on very little resources, and with a population less likely to be targeted or reached by primary care.

The researchers said the results are “among the best obesity treatment outcomes seen in a medically vulnerable population.” That’s because most of the existing weight-loss research is focused on middle-class people who want to lose weight — that is, people who have the means and the motivation.

This study proves you can make simple, good changes that produce real results over time, even without fancy apps, personal trainers, expensive gym memberships or the disposable income to shop at Whole Foods. The app used in the study doesn’t appear to be publicly available, but the Lose It! app is highly recommended and has a similar approach.

Now that we’ve shown you don’t need money to get your health on, what else can we take from the study? It calls to mind a cheesy inspirational quote I saw once about weight loss that goes something like this: Be stubborn about your goals, but flexible in your methods.

Cut 116 Calories a Day

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If you’re not in a mad rush, and you can’t afford altering your grocery bill much, you can think of losing weight the same way the study participants did, and not set too high a bar. For easier math, let’s say they lost only a pound a month. All that means is you have to lose 3,500 calories, but over 30 days. That’s cutting out only 116 calories a day from what you normally eat. So you could just cut down portion size, eat half the dessert or eliminate one tablespoon of butter a day, and for zero cost. (You can also easily double this if you like, and especially if you need quicker results to stay motivated. But the point here is that even tiny changes count.)

Try Vegan a Few Days

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Many weight loss fans swear by Meatless Monday, or just picking a few days a week or even one where you nix the meat. One friend told me he lost 30 pounds going vegan for a few weeks. It’s cheaper and healthier.

One-Pot Meals

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Yes, you’ll need some basic cooking skills to stretch your money a bit further when you’re broke, but there are numerous inexpensive, healthy meals that can be spliced and diced and all cooked in one stupid contraption, all toward something called meal prep, which weight loss experts swear by. The best budget solution is a one-pot approach. You don’t have to buy an Instant Pot to do it: You can buy a cheap slow cooker at a thrift store without the bells and whistles; it’ll do the same job.

The key is to combine lean, inexpensive protein (not necessarily meat, but could be chicken or lentils, or both) with veggies of your liking. Change up the seasonings and auxiliary ingredients, and you can trick yourself into feeling like you’ve embarked on global culinary tour every week. Then, split them into multiple meals. A friend I know cooks the entire week’s meals on Sunday so they’re already prepped and ready to go; they can be changed up at will. This also prevents last-minute fast-food eating when you’re pressed for time, because the food is already there and ready to eat.

Slash Your Grocery Costs by Stretching Ingredients

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We’ve already covered many budget-saving shopping tips in our guide on how to feed your family for $50 a week. You can tailor this to your liking, but the key is to buy more frozen produce or search for the in-season fresh produce and leaner meats at discount stores like Hispanic or Asian markets. In-season is always cheaper. Buy in bulk for rice and beans that you’ll use frequently. Stick to a list so you can’t get sidetracked in the snack aisle, and focus on cheaper, more filling ingredients (bananas, eggs) and seasonings that take otherwise bland meals up a notch.

Go Dumpster Diving

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Maybe those freegans are onto something: They hang around nice neighborhoods or upscale grocery stores and pick through discarded foods that are still completely edible, including hauls like “bottles of kombucha, stacks of pre-packaged guacamole and hummus, watermelons, peppers, breads, celery, salads and packages of tri-colored fettuccine.”

Also: The diving will easily knock off some cals.

Variety Is Also a Spice

The key to any sort of lifestyle shift is you absolutely must commit to variety. You have to change it up, because a lot of even a good thing is still a recipe for misery. No one can eat a sad desk salad every day (not even a poor person). No one can eat rice and beans for all three meals. It’s also not nutritionally sound anyway. Find a few key things you love to eat but space them apart so they don’t get old.

No Gym Membership

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You can burn 120 calories in 15 minutes of doing some basic stuff: basketball, lifting a propane tank (bend your knees!), riding a bike, walking. You could scrub your bathtub today. Mow the lawn tomorrow. Paint your kitchen the next day. Vacuum all your rugs. You get the idea. Find the nearest annoying activity you need to move to do, and get to it. For free! Obviously, if you have the time and inclination, you can double that time and activity as you like. But the point is, nothing is more freeing than the phrase But you don’t have to.

Keep Cheating

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There are diets built entirely around the above premises of leaner proteins, selected better carbs and veggies. There’s some monotony here, but not if, as we point out, you vary it up enough. One example is the Slow Carb diet, which is six days of eating the way we’ve outlined, only with no fruit and minimal carbs. It grants one day off to eat anything you like. Wine is okay, too, and you can Two Buck Chuck that. (A friend told me she’d already lost 15 pounds in six weeks.)

You can also still eat out, and even at nicer places if you plan it right. Since you can’t trust what’s in most commercially prepped meals, either only go to places you know and trust, or use your night out for cheat day. Just skip entrees for appetizers, or take home half. Order water to drink, and go for food (or booze) at happy hour. You can also follow the 80/20 rule, which advises that most of the stuff you eat should be “healthy,” but 20 percent can still be shitty.

Drink Water Before Meals

Drink it in general, but if you gulp a glass before eating, you tend to eat less.

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While none of this is all that exciting, it gets mad bonus points for being extremely easy, and ultimately effective, if you’re in it to win it on no money.

As a nurse told me when I asked for good, cheap weight loss tips for this guide: “Hot tip: the least sexy diets are the most effective in the research.”