In my one-on-one work with clients there is a dual focus: I help them adopt a healthy new eating regimen, but in order for new patterns to stick, we also have to zero in on unhealthy habits that tend to keep them stuck. If you’ve ever uttered the phrase, “I know what I need to do, but I just can’t seem to do it!” my bet is lingering detrimental habits are the culprit.
Here are seven that come up often, and why breaking them may just be the final solution to achieving weight-loss results that last!
Drinking too often
For most of my clients, drinking alcohol has a domino effect. After one drink, their inhibitions are lowered and their appetite spikes. That combo—in addition to the extra calories in the cocktails themselves—results in consuming hundreds of surplus calories. And it happens more often than they realize, because most people underestimate how much they drink until they begin keeping a food diary. The good news is when they consciously cut back, they drop weight like a hot potato. If you think you may be in the same boat, become a teetotaler for a 30 days, or commit to limiting alcohol in specific ways, such as only drinking one night per week, and a setting a max of two drinks. The results can be dramatic.
Eating “diet” foods
I loathe “diet” foods. First, they’re usually packed with lots of unwanted additives and impossible-to-pronounce ingredients. And let’s face it, they’re just not filling or satisfying. Dozens and dozens of clients have told me that after eating a frozen diet entrée, bar, or dessert, they were left with lingering hunger and thoughts of food, which led to nibbling on other foods—grabbing a jar of almond butter and a spoon, a handful or cereal, or a second (or third) “diet” product. As a result, they wind up taking in far more calories than they would have if they had prepared a healthy, satisfying meal. And here’s the kicker: a 2010 study found that we burn about 50 percent more calories metabolizing whole foods versus processed foods. This is likely why I’ve seen clients break a weight loss plateau when they ditch diet foods, and start eating more calories from fresh, whole foods.
Overeating healthy foods
I’m over the moon when clients fall in love with healthy fare like veggies, lentils, avocado, and whole grains. The only sticking point is they sometimes eat too much. I recall one client who swapped fast food breakfast sandwiches for oatmeal, which was fantastic. But his oatmeal portion was too large given that he sat at a desk all day, and in addition to topping it with fruit, he combined it with a smoothie, which was really a meal in and of itself. The truth is while whole foods are nutrient rich and they enhance metabolism, you can overdo it. To prevent that, listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, and use visuals to guide your portions. For example, a serving of fruit should be about the size of a tennis ball, a portion of cooked oatmeal should be half that amount, and if you add nuts or seeds, stick with a golf ball sized addition.
I’m sure you’ve heard this one before, but it’s a biggie. Going long stretches without eating can create two unwanted side effects that undermine weight loss. First, you’ll likely burn fewer calories as a way to compensate for not having fuel when you need it. Second, you’ll up your chances of overeating at night, when your activity level is low; and because it’s impossible to retroactively burn calories, the unneeded excess gets sent straight to your fat cells. In other words, timing is important. Several studies have found that it’s not just your overall daily calories, but also when you eat them that matters. A good rule of thumb is to eat larger meals before your more active hours, smaller meals before less active hours, and never let more than four to five hours go by without eating.
Aside from the fact that the quality and timing of the calories you consume is critical for weight loss success, the practice of counting calories can backfire. One study found that even without limitations, calorie counting made women more stressed. Nobody wants that. Plus, an increase in stress can cause a spike in cortisol, a hormone known to rev up appetite, increase cravings for fatty and sugary foods, and up belly fat storage. Also, the calorie info available on packaged foods or on restaurant menus isn’t a perfect system. I’m not saying that calorie info is meaningless, but I do think there are more effective and less cumbersome ways to shed pounds.
Shunning good fat
Despite the best attempts of nutrition experts (including me) to dispel the notion that eating fat makes you fat, Americans have remained fat-phobic. Just yesterday someone told me they avoid avocado because it’s high in fat, and last week a client was shocked when I recommended using olive oil and vinegar in place of fat-free salad dressing. But eating the right fats is a smart weight loss strategy. In addition to quelling inflammation—a known trigger of premature aging and diseases including obesity—healthy fats are incredibly satisfying. They delay stomach emptying to keep you fuller longer and research shows that plant-based fats like olive oil, avocado, and nuts up appetite-suppressing hormones. Plant fats have also been shown to boost metabolism, and they can be rich sources of antioxidants, which have been tied to leanness, even without consuming fewer calories. Aim to include a portion in every meal. Add avocado to an omelet, whip coconut oil into a smoothie, add nuts to your oatmeal, drizzle garden salads with olive oil, and enjoy dark chocolate as a daily treat.
The habit of reaching for food due to boredom, anxiety, anger, or even happiness is by far the number one obstacle my clients face when trying to lose weight. We’re practically taught from birth to connect food and feelings. Many of my clients share stories about being rewarded with treats after a good report card or a winning game, or being consoled with food after being teased at school or going to the dentist. We bond over food, bring it to grieving loved ones, use it to celebrate, or turn to it as a way to stuff down uncomfortable feelings. It’s a pattern that’s socially accepted (even encouraged) and it’s challenging to overcome. But it’s not impossible. And even if you found non-food alternatives to addressing your emotional needs 50 percent of the time, I guarantee you’ll lose weight. Instead of a fad diet, consider making this your New Year’s resolution—while you can’t break the pattern overnight, this change may be the most important and impactful for weight loss success.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.