Weight Loss

How to lose weight when you can't exercise, according to a dietitian

May 20, 2024

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Medically reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

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Key Points

  • Injury, surgery, chronic conditions, mental health issues, and busy days can prevent you from exercising.
  • However, it is possible to lose weight without exercise by maintaining a calorie deficit.
  • Eating a balanced diet is crucial to help you lose weight without exercise.
  • Weight loss is complex; a Registered Dietitian can build a personalized plan that works for you.

Dealing with an injury, chronic fatigue, arthritis, or other health conditions but still need to lose weight? Here’s some good news: about 80% of weight loss comes from your diet.

By adjusting your nutrition to consume fewer calories than you burn, you can accelerate your weight loss journey.

But diet isn’t the only factor. Issues like gut health, insulin resistance, and nutritional deficiencies can also contribute to weight gain.

Let’s look at what food to eat, how much you need, and the best way to make changes to your diet.

Best diet to lose weight without working out

1. Eat more whole foods

Incorporating more whole vegetables, fruits, and grains into a balanced diet can be a delicious way to enhance your weight loss efforts. Steamed or lightly sauteed in olive oil, they can be served as a side dish with your main meal.

  • Whole vegetables: Vegetables like broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, green beans, and beets are packed with nutrients and dietary fiber and are easy to cook.
  • Whole fruit: Try to get about 1.5 cups of fruit a day. To start, try eating blueberries and strawberries, apples, oranges, cherries (not canned), and grapefruit.
  • Whole grains: Choose brown rice over white rice and whole grain or whole wheat bread over white, ultra-processed bread.

2. Watch your portions

Your portion sizes matter immensely for your weight loss and overall health. After all, excess intake of carbohydrates, proteins, or fats (even healthy fats) are stored as fat in the body.

When practicing portion control for healthy weight loss, it's important not to obsess over exact sizes and cup measurements. If you are unable to meet the exact requirements in a day, it's okay. Try getting the right amounts over a few days.

Here are the recommended portions for your daily needs:

  • Whole vegetables: Fill half your plate with whole vegetables (steamed, lightly sautéed, or raw; not fried). This is about the size of your palm.
  • Whole fruit: The recommendation is to consume 1.5 cups of fruit daily, roughly the size of your palm.
  • Whole grains: You can fill about a quarter or less than a quarter of your plate with whole grains.
  • Healthy fats: Healthy fats like olive oil are great for your health and necessary to help you feel full longer. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) recommends 20% to 35% of your calories from fat and less than 10% from saturated fats. Healthy fats are plant-based oils like olive and canola, fatty fish like salmon, and nuts and seeds. Saturated fats are animal fat, butter, ghee, sausage, bacon, and cheese.
  • Protein: Fill about a quarter with lean protein or vegetarian sources of protein.
    Expert Registered Dietitian Rita Faycurry, RD, explains, "Generally, 10% to 35% of your diet must come from protein, but requirements vary from person to person. Also, if you're not working out, do not eat too much protein because excess protein is simply converted to fat. If you need to find the right amount of protein for you, consider seeing a Registered Dietitian."

    Lean proteins can be about the size of your whole hand. Proteins like beans and lentils contain carbohydrates as well, so the portion size is a little lower, about the size of your palm.

Boost your weight loss efforts with personalized support from a Registered Dietitian. Fay makes it easy to find a Registered Dietitian near you, covered by your insurance.

3. Switch liquid calories to plain water

Switch sugary drinks and other high-calorie beverages to plain water to kickstart your weight loss journey. Even if you’re not a fan of the taste, staying hydrated can work wonders to help you lose weight. Water has zero calories, helps you distinguish between hunger and thirst, helps you feel full, and curbs unnecessary cravings.

Start small and gradually increase your water intake. Proper hydration can reduce bloating, water retention, and constipation, helping you feel lighter and more energized.

How do you know how much water to drink?

Faycurry RD advises, "Everyone's water needs may be different. The best way to know if you're getting enough water is to look at your pee. If it's dark, increase your water intake. If it's light yellow, you're on the right track! Also, if you’re constipated, you may need more water."

How to make small changes to your diet for sustainable weight loss

1. Add before you subtract

Depriving yourself of your favorite foods all at once may lead to increased stress, which increases cortisol levels in your body (a stress hormone), and can lead to greater food cravings for sugary or processed carbohydrates.

Also, as cortisol levels rise, blood sugar rises, leading to weight gain, particularly hard-to-lose belly fat.

If you experience these types of cravings at the thought of restricting your food intake, focus on adding nutritious foods to your diet for weight loss. For example:

  • Even if you plan on eating a mac and cheese, eat a small garden salad before.
  • If you cannot bear to give up your breakfast cereal, try eating a poached or boiled egg right before. You could also add a chopped apple or pear to your cereal to get natural sugar with high fiber foods.
  • If you’re used to Chinese takeout, add steamed broccoli or green beans as a side.
  • If you’re used to eating white rice at dinner, try reducing its portion in your first round.
  • If you absolutely must have a sugary soda with your lunch, try having it right after a balanced meal with proteins, whole foods, and healthy fats. This can help lower your blood sugar levels and contribute to a more balanced diet.

As you slowly start to see positive changes to your body weight and find yourself enjoying your new habits, you may be more inclined to let go of less nutritious foods.

2. Pair carbs with proteins and healthy fats

When you eat your carbohydrates, try to pair them with proteins and healthy fats.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Toss a handful of walnuts and pumpkin seeds into your oats or cereal in the morning.
  • Snack on fruit with a few tablespoons of unflavored Greek yogurt.
  • Eat a handful of carrots and celery sticks with peanut butter as a handy snack.
  • Opt for a thin-crust pizza with grilled chicken or veggies as toppings.

3. Make it easier for you to drink plain water

If you're not used to the taste of plain water, it might take some time to adjust. However, making a conscious effort to increase your water intake can be incredibly beneficial in the long run. 

Faycurry RD says, “It's a chicken-and-egg situation—the more water you drink, the more familiar the taste becomes, and soon you'll stop thinking of it as something unfamiliar to your palate."

Here are some ways to get more water in your diet:

  • Make it easier to drink water by carrying a water bottle with you or keeping it by your desk.
  • Drink a glass of water while waiting for your coffee to brew. If you usually order coffee from a café, ask for a glass of water along with it.
  • Try drinking a glass of water before breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This ensures you get at least three glasses of water daily, in addition to the water content in fruits and vegetables.
  • At a bar or restaurant, request a glass of water and drink it before your meal or other drinks. You can still eat and drink what you want, but at least you get a little more water in your system.
  • Have a small cup of low-salt soup before lunch.

4. Break the rules

It can be tough to eat healthy when you're busy and tired. So, break some rules!

Who says you can't have leftover chicken breast with rice and veggies for breakfast? Or try an "upside-down day" where you eat eggs for dinner. If you're the cook, you can add a few vegan substitutes in a burrito or baked item and see if people can tell the difference.

5. Slow down and practice mindful eating

The first thing you can do to begin mindful eating is to slow down when you eat. Studies show that people who eat too fast gain more weight and are more likely to have obesity.

"Ideally, meals should take 20-30 minutes. If you rush through them in 5-10 minutes, you might overeat. Research shows eating slowly releases fullness hormones, giving your brain time to realize you're full and help you lose weight," Faycurry RD notes.

To eat more slowly, try putting your fork down between bites and chew your food fully.

6. Work on underlying reasons for weight gain

There are lots of reasons you might crave sugary, salty, fried foods, or highly processed foods. Figuring out what’s really behind those cravings is key to achieving a calorie deficit and sustainable weight loss.

Remember, if these habits have been around for a while, there could be several reasons at play.

It can often be difficult to unravel them on your own; consider getting help from a Registered Dietitian for personalized help.

Potential factors behind your food cravings:

  • Health concerns like insulin resistance, PCOS, and menopause: Your weight gain and food cravings might be due to underlying issues like insulin resistance, PCOS, prediabetes, diabetes, or nutritional deficiencies. To uncover and tackle these culprits, consult with a healthcare provider or a Registered Dietitian.
  • Lifestyle factors like poor sleep: Not getting adequate sleep can prevent you from losing weight. Other reasons may include excessive alcohol intake or other substance abuse issues, irregular eating patterns, side effects from certain medications, muscle loss from a lack of physical activity, and more.
  • Emotional eating triggers: Do you reach for certain foods to soothe anxiety, stress, sadness, or boredom? To distinguish between emotional eating and physical hunger, track when you crave less nutritious foods. Is it when you’re procrastinating after lunch? Rewarding yourself after a hard day? Trying to stop intense food cravings

    Noting these patterns can help you get started. In the early stages, seeking help from a therapist or a registered dietitian can help you manage stress and navigate negative emotions.

  • Mental health conditions like an eating disorder, disordered eating, depression, and more: Sometimes, you may be suffering from disordered eating or binge eating disorder that may prevent you from losing weight and achieving a healthy weight. Consider consulting a therapist or a Registered Dietitian specializing in eating disorders for more insight and guidance.

Addressing these factors is crucial for successful weight management and achieving a healthy weight.

Use Fay to start your weight loss journey now. Find a Registered Dietitian near you, covered by your insurance. Get a personalized meal plan and weight loss program that works for you.

The views expressed by authors and contributors of such content are not endorsed or approved by Fay and are intended for informational purposes only. The content is reviewed by Fay only to confirm educational value and audience interest. You are encouraged to discuss any questions that you may have about your health with a healthcare provider.


Fay Nutrition has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

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Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Chandana Balasubramanian is an experienced healthcare executive who writes on the intersection of healthcare and technology. She is the President of Global Insight Advisory Network and has extensive experience working in the medical devices and life sciences industries. Chandana holds a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

Rita Faycurry, RD

Medically Reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

Rita Faycurry, RD is a board-certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in clinical nutrition for chronic conditions. Her approach to health is centered around the idea that the mind and body are intimately connected and that true healing requires an evidence-based and integrative approach that addresses the root cause of disease. In her books and articles, Rita offers practical tips and insights on how to care for your body, mind, and spirit to achieve optimal health and wellness.