By Sandra Gordon
You’ve been hitting the gym, skipping the office donuts, and counting calories like crazy. Still, you’ve got pandemic pounds that won’t budge. What’s the problem? It could be hidden habits or mental mistakes you’re making that sabotage your efforts. Don’t worry—you’re not alone. “Most consumers are confused about what to eat because they’re deluged with conflicting advice,” says Sylvia Rowe, president and CEO of the International Food Information Council in Washington, D.C.
To help you gain clarity, we reveal seven common diet and exercise traps that may be keeping you from losing those unwanted pounds.
Trap: Skipping meals
You grab a bagel and coffee in the morning, work through lunch, nibble on cookies during an afternoon meeting, and arrive home later to devour everything in sight. If that scenario sounds even vaguely familiar, it’s no wonder you’re gaining instead of losing.
Fix: Feed yourself well and often
Although it sounds counterintuitive, “Feed yourself well and often by establishing a controlled eating routine that makes you feel great and works for you,” says Katherine Tallmadge, RD, author Diet simple. Is it breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Breakfast, lunch, healthy snack, dinner? It may take some experimenting, but the idea is to spread your calorie allotment throughout the day. Eating frequently—at least every four hours or so—stokes metabolism and short-circuits bingeing.
Trap: Failing to troubleshoot
“Most people need to dig deeper to weed out the diet and exercise changes they’d like to make that don’t match their values or their lifestyle,” says Susan Head, PhD, a weight-loss psychologist. They decide to start walking every morning, for example, when they’re not really a morning person. Or they vow to never eat fast food again, even though they’re married to a fast-food aficionado.
Fix: Map out a plan
Design a diet and exercise plan that’s truly doable—for you. Before deciding to jog every morning, ask yourself why you haven’t been doing it before, and anticipate how this change is going to affect your life. Before eschewing fast food, figure out the changes you need to make to be able to eat fast without resorting to the drive thru. One suggestion: “Cook on Sundays and freeze a bunch of lunch or dinner items for the week,” suggests registered dietitian Jennifer Keller.
Trap: Consuming empty calories
In the United States, we’re sipping an average of 19 ounces (1.6 cans) of soda per person per day. For non-diet soda drinkers, that adds up to about 240 nutrient-empty calories per day—about 25 pounds per year. “You can easily consume large amounts of soda (pop) without even realizing it. And you hardly miss those calories if you give them up,” says Walter Willet, MD, co-author of Eat, Drink and Be Healthy. And studies show that when we consume calories in liquid form, we don’t compensate for those calories by eating less at subsequent meals.
Fix: Try low-cal beverages
To curb liquid calories, “Start by making everything you drink between meals low-calorie or noncaloric,” suggests registered dietitian Byron C. Richard. Richard’s suggestions: water, seltzer, coffee, tea, diet soda, Diet V-8 Splash, or Crystal Light. Also, make specialty, high-calorie coffee drinks a splurge rather than an everyday event.
Trap: Sweating only the small stuff
You’re taking the stairs instead of the elevator when you’re out and about. That’s a good start. However, that’s not enough to keep your weight off long-term. According to the National Weight Control Registry, in a study of 3,000 people who lost at least 30 pounds and kept them off for a year or more, 90 percent of them said exercise was the key to their weight maintenance. Study participants reported doing roughly an hour of moderate exercise daily, like brisk walking.
Fix: Keep track of your progress
If you need motivation, consider getting a pedometer and trying to log in 11,000 to 12,000 steps per day (roughly 5 miles). That’s the amount Registry participants achieved. And with a pedometer, you get instant feedback and “credit” for all you do, like walking to and from the grocery store from the far end of the parking lot.
Trap: Multi-tasking meals
Eating while you’re doing something else, whether it’s driving or answering e-mail, is a good way to inhale calories without realizing it; this is especially true with snacking. On-the-go calories don’t satisfy you on an emotional level, which is an important component of satiety. “What you lack in emotional fulfillment, you may make up by indiscriminately nibbling at different times of the day,” says weight-loss psychologist Daniel C. Stettner, Ph.D. Consider: Even just hearing a television program can be a diet downfall. According to a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, study subjects ate 300 more calories while listening to a detective story than they did when they ate in silence.
Fix: Turn off the TV
Devote at least eight minutes to eating without focusing on the TV or reading material—that’s the time it takes for your brain to get the message you’re full. One caveat: Breakfast. “Most people don’t overeat at that meal,” says Joy Bauer, RD, author of The 90/10 Weight-Loss Plan. So go ahead and eat breakfast while watching The Today Show. But what about those off-the-cuff meals you seemingly can’t avoid, like the yogurt you consume between Zoom meetings? “When that happens, acknowledge and mentally account for those calories by saying to yourself, ‘This is half of lunch,” Bauer suggests.
Beginning in your 30s, you start to lose muscle—and gain fat—at a rate of about 2 percent per decade, says Michael F. Roizen, MD, author of The Real Age Diet. This subtle muscle-to-fat-ratio change makes it tougher to maintain your ideal weight as time goes on. As your muscle mass shrinks, your calorie requirement decreases—but that doesn’t mean you’ll be any less hungry.
Fix: Preserve your muscle mass
To help preserve the muscle you have and build even more, “Work out with weights at least three times a week, with a day off in between to allow for muscle growth and repair,” says Calvin Blair Jr., a personal trainer and speaker at large for the National Strength and Conditioning Association. To weight train at home effectively, choose a weight that fatigues your muscles after ten repetitions. For many women beginners, 5-pound dumbbells will satisfy that requirement; for men, 15 to 20 pounds usually fits the bill. If you have a gym membership, try for one to two sets of six to eight repetitions for each of the eight major muscle groups (chest, shoulders, arms, back, outer thighs, inner thighs, butt, and abs).
Trap: Takeout calories
Whether you’re eating out or bringing food in, restaurant calories add up fast. A review in the Journal of Nutrition by Tufts University researchers in Boston nailed restaurant dining as a major factor of weight gain because calorie-laden restaurant portions are generally larger than you’d normally serve yourself at home.
Fix: Plan ahead
To control restaurant calories, develop policies that reflect the type of restaurant you’re frequenting, says registered dietitian, Cathy Nonas, RD. In American and French restaurants, your policy might be, “I only eat half of my entrée,” suggests Nonas. In Italian restaurants, you might have a salad and half an order of pasta. In Chinese restaurants, you could get one steamed entrée and one regular entrée to share if you’re with a friend.
Other policies to consider: Ordering two appetizers—one as an appetizer, one an entrée, or allowing yourself dessert if you don’t have a glass of wine, or vice versa, or always ordering sauce and dressing on the side. No matter what your policy is, it should be consistent, repeatable, and take into account what’s most important to you when eating out. If you really love dessert, for example, your policy should reflect that.