Do as I say, not as I do?
Turns out, this adage applies to nutrition and diet advice as much as anything else, according to the experts we interviewed for this story. Even nutritionists canât estimate calories correctly, recounts NYU professor Marion Nestle, PhD, in her recent book Why Calories Count
. In one experiment, nutritionist Lisa Young found that when dietitians were asked to estimate the number of calories in several fast-food meals during a meeting of the American Dietetic Association, they underestimated the amount by about 30 percent. Whatâs more, even the most well-meaning health experts may give outdated advice. Read on to learn the biggest pitfallsâand how to outsmart them.
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Mistake: Cutting Too Many Calories
âCut calories, lose weightâ is the most basic weight-loss advice out there, but eating too little can actually slow your metabolism, causing the pounds to creep back on. âEven if youâre restricting calories healthfully, itâs hard to meet all your nutritional needs when you go too low,â says Samantha Heller, RD, author of Get Smart: Samantha Heller's Nutrition Prescription for Boosting Brain Power and Optimizing Total Body Health. Itâs a trap sheâs seen experts fall into, thinking that an extreme weight-loss program may help âget me kickstarted.â
Lose-it lesson: Donât fall for big gimmicks. Depending on your size, activity level, and other factors, dipping below 1,200 calories a day isnât a good idea for long-term weight loss.
Mistake: Falling for "Health Halos"
So-called âhealthy foodsâ such as green juices, whole-grain pretzels, or organic-labeled anything may coax you into eating more than you usually would. âLast night, someone brought these coconut vegan donuts to a party I was hosting,â shares Brooke Alpert, RD, founder of B Nutritious, a private practice in New York City. âAnd this morning I couldnât help but eat one after I dropped my daughter off at school, even though I would otherwise never eat dessert at 10 in the morning. Iâm proof that even professionals fall for health halos!â
Itâs a common pitfall, research shows. Last year, Cornell scientists gave study participants chocolate sandwich cookies, plain yogurt, and potato chips; some were labeled organic and some werenât. Even though all the foods were exactly the sameâall organicâthe tasters rated the ones labeled organic to be healthier (lower in fat, higher in fiber, and lower in calories) than the âconventionalâ foods.
Lose-it lesson: Read nutrition labels, and be mindful about your choices. Ask yourself, âAm I really hungry right now? Do I need to be eating this?â and try sipping a glass of water first to see if those pangs go away.
Mistake: Not Embracing Carbs
âA common piece of advice I see others give out is to âscoop out your bagelâ or cut out carbs to lose weight,â says Heller. âBut whatâs the point of indulging in a bagel if youâre going to scoop it out?â She adds that itâs easy to overdo it with carbs, but eliminating them isnât healthy either. âSkimping on whole grains means skimping on energy, as well as fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, protein, and antioxidants,â Heller says. âThey also help balance blood sugar highs and lows.â
Lose-it lesson: Donât ditch carbsâin fact, any weight-loss plan that eliminates entire categories of nutrients is a big, fat red flag. But re-educate yourself about serving sizes (read labels, use measuring cups) to make sure you eat a reasonable amount.
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Mistake: Believing Eating at Night Causes Weight Gain
Some evidence, especially from animal studies, suggests that late-night munching packs on pounds, but encouraging people to cut off eating at an arbitrary time isnât a good idea. âItâs OK if you eat dinner at 8 or 9 p.m.âyou have to eat, after all,â says Heller, whoâd rather people eat dinner late than skip it, wake up famished, and start the next day off on a binge. A bigger problem is eating all evening: nibbling when you get home from work, having dinner, then snacking while you watch TV or relax. Before you know it, youâve munched for four hours straight.
Lose-it lesson: Portion out specific meals on plates and eat them sitting down at the table, not in front of the TV or standing up in the kitchen.
Mistake: Getting Portions Wrong
No matter how healthy your meal choices, eating too much will thwart your weight loss. Too many of us, health experts included, have no clue what a real portion looks like. A recommended 3-ounce serving of meat, poultry, and fish is much tinier than you thinkâthe size of a deck of cards. A cup of cereal is just the size of your fist. A half-cup of ice cream is about the size of half a baseball.
âEven we donât have X-ray eyes,â says Heller. âAnd weâre all susceptible to environmental influences that encourage us to overeat.â For example, a recent study found that patrons in a Hardeeâs restaurant section with dimmer lighting and softer music ate 18 percent fewer calories than those in an unchanged area. Researchers suspect the revamped environment encouraged people to talk more and eat more slowly.
Lose-it lesson: Spend a day measuring out portions to gauge just how wrong or right you really are. Then course correct. Just being aware of your environmental influences can give you more control over your eating habits.
Mistake: Thinking Fat Is the Enemy
âAt this point, anything low-fat makes my skin crawl,â says Alpert. âFat is such a necessity in our diets, but people are still petrified of fat.â Alpert, who is confident that eating more healthy fat and less sugar is how we should be battling the obesity epidemic, is surprised to still see others recommending strict low-fat diets to clients.
Lose-it lesson: Eat some filling, healthy fat at each mealânuts in your breakfast cereal, an olive oil-based dressing on your salad for lunch, grilled salmon for dinner. When processed foods cut out fat, they typically have to add in sugar, salt, and other unhealthy ingredients to compensate for taste; these can still make your body cling on to weight.
Mistake: Being Too Busy to Be Healthy
What over-extended professional hasnât felt like âthereâs no timeâ to squeeze in a workout or eat a home-cooked meal? This canât-do-it-all mentality affects health and nutrition experts as much as the rest of us, assures Alpert. âWhen I start neglecting myselfâskipping my morning run or Spinning classâI feel it a couple of days later. Iâm more lethargic, I lose my patience more easily. I have to tell myself âOK, mama needs to eat a saladâ to get back on track and feel better.â
Lose-it lesson: Lifeâs busy traps ensnare the best of us. When they do, remember this mantra Alpert applies herself: âThe healthier you feel, the better and more efficient youâll be at your job and the happier youâll be with your family and friends.â