The weight-loss game has never been easy. Sure, we all understand the basic rules (eat less), but the tactics keep tripping us up, over and over and over again. Even nutrition-savvy dieters tend to make certain fundamental mistakes. Here’s how to identify — and correct — the common errors when you set out to lose some pounds.
Mistake #1: Guessing at your calorie needs
Pretty much everyone gets that you need to cut calories to lose weight, but few people know how many calories they personally need. Although nutrition labels use 2,000 as their magic number, it’s really just a rough average. Depending on your size and activity level, your calorie needs may be significantly higher or lower than that. The number also changes as you get older.
Fix it: To get a more precise idea of your daily calorie needs, use the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) calculator found here. Divvy up that number between your three main meals and one or two daily snacks, and you’ll be set to hold steady at your current weight. If you want to drop pounds, subtract 200 to 300 calories from your daily number. Most important, every time you lose 10 percent of your body weight, go back to the calculator and then readjust your daily calorie intake accordingly.
Mistake #2: Falling short on exercise
Counting calories is essential, but so is burning them. “Time is always the number one barrier to exercising,” says Duncan Simpson, PhD, assistant professor of sport, exercise and performance psychology at the School of Human Performance and Leisure Sciences at Barry University in Miami. “But with most individuals, it’s a perception of time rather than a reality. Think about it: One hour is just four percent of a day. When you put your health on your priority list, you can usually make the time. I’ve never had a client who hasn’t been able to find the time to exercise.”
Fix it: If you’re not already getting in 30 minutes of daily exercise, make that your goal. If you can’t find a solid chunk of time, it’s OK to break it up — just make sure you’re getting your heart rate up and challenging your muscles. If you already work out, you can rev up your metabolism by simply tacking on a few minutes to each session, picking up the pace, trying a new workout — or all of the above.
Mistake #3: Indulging in too much of a good thing
Just because a food is healthful doesn’t mean it’s low in calories. All those good-for-your-heart nuts, calcium- and probiotic-rich yogurts, and vitamin-packed mashed sweet potatoes carry higher caloric price tags. “You can’t lose weight without paying attention to quantities,” says Rebecca Solomon, director of clinical nutrition at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. “Salad and grilled chicken are both great meal choices, but you can’t eat a massive amount of them simply because they’re better for you than a hamburger.”
Fix it: Pay close attention to portions, and don’t go overboard. A serving of meat, fish or chicken should be roughly the size of a bar of soap; a serving of pasta, no bigger than your fist. A pancake should have the same circumference as a CD (remember those?), and nuts should fit into — not spill out of — your hand. A serving of oil should be about equal to the tip of your thumb. And when you’re eating out, make it a habit to push half of your food off to the side and enjoy those leftovers on another day. One more tip: It’s best to eat off a plate, not out of a bag, which makes it hard to keep track of what’s going into your mouth.
Mistake #4: Swapping serious sweets for diet treats
Diet sodas and low-fat cookies and cakes may seem like a smart choice, but in fact they make it harder to reign in munching. Research shows that people eat almost 30 percent more of a snack when it’s labeled “low fat,” even though these treats typically contain only 11 percent fewer calories than the full-fat originals. Clearly, the math doesn’t work out in your favor. “When it comes to satisfying our sweet tooth, we’re better off with real deal — in moderation,” says Leslie J. Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Fix it: Follow the lead of the First Family and allow yourself to savor a favorite dessert once a week. If you’re a chocoholic, buy bags of the pre-wrapped, bite-size squares of dark chocolate and have one a day — you’ll keep your sweet tooth happy and give your heart some needed flavonoids. A German study showed that eating a small amount of dark chocolate daily lowered blood pressure and reduced by 39 percent the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Mistake #5: Skimping on fat
Fat’s gotten a bad rap. While trans fats remain on the must-to-avoid list, your body needs some fat in order to properly absorb vitamins, says Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian and author of “The Food Is My Friend Diet.” Fats also help manage your hunger; they’re digested more slowly than carbs and protein, so you stay satisfied longer.
Fix it: Check nutrition labels closely. Fat should make up about 20 to 30 percent of your daily calories, but the type of fat you choose matters — a lot. Most of the fat you consume should be monounsaturated (MUFA) or polyunsaturated (PUFA), kinds of fat that contain essential fatty acids that your body needs to operate at its best. You’ll find them in some fish, nuts, olive and vegetable oils and avocados. Saturated fats (in dairy products, meats, many cooking oils and baked goods) tend to raise LDL, or bad, cholesterol levels. The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of saturated fats you eat to less than 7 percent of your total daily calories.
Mistake #6: Jumping on a bandwagon
Juice cleanses, gluten-free, raw food, the Fast Diet, paleo — trendy new strategies for losing weight keep coming. But that doesn’t mean they’ll work for you. “I don’t know where many of these ideas got started, but they’re not always rooted in sound weight-loss methods,” says Joan Salge Blake, a clinical associate professor at Boston University’s Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and author of “Nutrition & You.” “With many fad diets, you’re not always meeting your nutritional needs.”
Fix it: If you want to follow a weight-loss craze, make it the Mediterranean diet. With its focus on fresh vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and healthy fats, you’ll lower not just the number on the scale but also your risk of heart disease.
Mistake #7: Failing to make a plan
It’s not enough to want to lose weight, or simply to say you’re “watching what you eat.” You need concrete steps to follow, says Solomon.
Fix it: Start a food diary. Write down everything you eat and drink, carefully noting the quantities. Solomon also recommends recording the times of day and any feelings associated with what you’re eating or when you eat it. (Many adults eat to alleviate stress, or reward themselves with food without realizing how it impacts their calorie intake.) You’ll find the diary invaluable. In a 2008 Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research study, participants who charted their eating more than five days a week lost almost twice as much weight as those who didn’t. “The journal is a tool that can help you spot habits that are getting in the way of your goals,” says Solomon. “You may think you eat more fruits and vegetables than you really do, or you might be shocked to see how many liquid calories you take in. Seeing these things in black and white can be a powerful motivator to keep you on track.”