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The parties are over, the leftovers are eaten, and the lingering chocolates have been given away. Now, finally, you can get to the task at hand - tackling that excess weight you've resolved to shed this year.

For some, it's a matter of dropping only a few pounds that have crept on after a food-centred month. For others, 2010 goals involve losing 10, 15 or 20 plus pounds that have accumulated over the years - a task that requires motivation, focus and a willingness to work through the lapses.

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Unfortunately, there are no special formulas, effortless plans or targeted exercises that melt the pounds away.

Being successful at losing weight and maintaining your weight loss requires dedication throughout the year and for years to come. It takes a slow and steady approach to making permanent changes to your eating habits.

The following strategies will jump start your weight loss this year and, most important, help you stay on track. Many of these key strategies, while they may not sound sexy, have worked for thousands of people. As I mentioned last week, maintaining healthy habits year round is the only sure way to keeping those New Year's resolutions to get rid of unwanted pounds.

Set realistic goals

First determine your healthy weight goal. Although there is some debate over what constitutes a healthy weight, a good definition for adults aged 18 to 65 is based on the body mass index (BMI), the ratio of your weight to height.

You'll find many BMI calculators online. Your weight is considered to be healthy if your BMI is between 20 and 25. (If you have a muscular build, your weight can be healthy at a higher BMI since muscle weighs more than fat.) Consider also your weight history over the past 10 to 20 years. What's the lowest weight you've comfortably maintained for a period of time - not a fleeting moment - during adulthood? Maintain perspective when choosing a weight goal. Avoid setting your sights on a weight that's impossible to achieve because your current lifestyle won't permit it.

You don't have to set a big goal

Losing as little as five to 10 per cent of your current body weight can lead to significant improvements in weight-related health conditions such as high-blood pressure, high-blood cholesterol and elevated blood sugar.

To stay motivated, set small goals that will help you meet the long-term one. Set out to lose five to eight pounds per month, rather than 25 pounds by summer.

Spread out your calories

For women, aim for 1,400 to 1,600 calories per day; men 1,800 to 2,100. Identify where you can cut 500 calories from your daily diet. By eliminating second helpings? Curbing nighttime snacking? Making smarter choices in the food court at lunch?

To prevent becoming overly hungry during the day, divide your calories over three meals and one or two snacks. Aim to eat every three hours to prevent overeating. Eat breakfast everyday to help stimulate your metabolism.

Plan for a midmorning snack and an afternoon snack. Healthy snacks that sustain your energy should contain protein and carbohydrates such as fruit and nuts, fruit and yogurt or a small energy bar. A general guide for snacks is 150 to 200 calories for women and 200 to 250 for men.

Be organized

Bring your snacks to work so you're not tempted to hit Starbucks or the vending machine. Grocery shop once or twice a week to ensure your kitchen is stocked with healthy foods.

If you buy your lunch each day, make lower calorie choices. Order a sandwich with lean protein and vegetables instead of a slice of pizza or a burger. Ask for a half portion of rice and extra vegetables when ordering a hot meal. Be leery of gigantic salads that can serve a family of four.

Even better, commit to bring your lunch to work most days. You'll save calories (and money) and know precisely what you're eating.

Stay focused on weekends

Be consistent during the week and on the weekend. Once you start giving yourself a few breaks on the weekend, you're more likely to ease off on Friday and then Thursday. Eventually those breaks will show up on the bathroom scale and you'll end up chasing the same two pounds each week.

Fat-proof your environment

Even if you're following a healthy plan, it can be difficult if there are cookies in the cupboard or ice cream in the freezer. Eventually those foods will call out to you, usually when you're bored or stressed.

To stay in control, keep "off plan" foods out of the house. If the rest of the family doesn't buy in, ask them to keep their own treats out of sight.

Track your progress

The only way to know how you're doing is to measure your progress. Keep a food diary to stay focused on your goal. Use this diary to plan meals in advance; write down the foods and portion sizes you plan to eat the next day.

Weigh yourself on a weekly basis. Monitoring your weight provides motivation and impetus to keep on going. Avoid weighing everyday since normal daily fluctuations, mostly due to fluid gain, can be discouraging.

Consider keeping a graph of your weight loss to help you see the big picture. Seeing an overall downward trend on a weight-loss graph can help you cope with minor weight fluctuations.

Include exercise

You're more likely to succeed if you add regular exercise to your regime. Working out increases your motivation to stick to your plan. Physical activity also helps reduce stress, which otherwise might lead to overeating. And studies show that exercise is critical to prevent regaining your weight. Aim for 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise (e.g. brisk walking, jogging, stair climbing) most days of the week.

Get enough sleep

A lack of sleep can derail a weight loss plan. When your energy lags you're more likely to reach for something sugary to give you a boost. Feeling tired also reduces the motivation to exercise.

Sleep deprivation also alters hormones that regulate appetite. Getting too little sleep is thought to increase production of ghrelin, the hormone that tells us we're hungry, and decrease production of leptin, the hormone that tells us we're full.

Adults need seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Children and teenagers need nine to 10 hours each night.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com.

Follow on Twitter: @lesliebeckrd

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