10 Hidden Reasons Your Diet Isn’t Working

You think you're making all the right moves, so why aren't the pounds melting off? You might be making these crucial mistakes.

You aren't getting enough calories

01_hidden_reasons_istock/monticellloWait, isn't the point of a diet that you are supposed to cut calories? Yes, but according to registered dietitian and author of Belly Fat for Dummies Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, it's only a piece of the puzzle. "A calorie is not just a calorie," she says. "Depending on what you consume, calories from nutrients such as protein and unsaturated fat keep you full for an extended period, whereas calories from simple sugars digest rapidly." If you're cutting calories but not getting the proper vitamins, protein, and fiber you need, your weight loss plan is not going to work. According to a study from Japan, calorie restriction leads to slower metabolic rate, which means without enough calories, your body goes into survival mode, slowing down your metabolism to conserve energy and prevent weight loss. "Focus on improving the nutritional quality of your diet rather than your calorie intake for improved body weight and health," Palinski-Wade says. Doctors wish you'd stop following these weight loss "tips."

You're skipping meals

02_hidden_reasons_istock/_thesomegirlAs with cutting calories, cutting meals isn't effective for healthy weight loss. Being overly hungry throws off the balance in your body, as Laura Moore, RD, director of the dietetic internship program at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health, explains. "Energy intake, or what's consumed, and expenditure, or what's burned, is coordinated by signals from several systems, including the endocrine, adipose tissue, neurologic, and gastrointestinal systems," she says. Chemical signals that increase and decrease appetite are sent to the brain. "This weight regulation system helps maintain a healthy weight for most people by modifying hunger, activity, and metabolism to keep the body weight within a target," Moore says. "Moving below this target, or set point, by skipping meals can be challenging because the brain's energy-balance system goes into action, pushing the weight back to its set point or even above." That means you're basically fighting with your body over where your weight should be. Instead, Moore recommends listening to your body's signals, eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full. Here's what happens to your body when you skip breakfast.

You're not mindful when you eat

03_hidden_reasonsistock/Eva-KatalinBut if your goal is to eat less, how can you still satisfy your body's hunger signals? The trick may be in changing how you eat as well as what you eat. Moore recommends "mindful eating," which means being acutely aware of everything you put into your mouth. "Take small bites of food and chew it slowly, stopping two or three times during a meal to determine if you are hungry or if you feel satisfied," she says. Reexamine your potions based on how big your plates are—according to research from Cornell, serving food on bigger plates has a direct effect on how much is consumed. Be mindful of other triggers that promote overeating like noshing directly from a package, buffet meals, and food advertisements. And if you're paying attention, you'll be less likely to finish off those extra bites of mac and cheese from your kid's plate. Also, Moore says to eliminate distractions while eating. "Are you watching television, working through lunch, eating at your desk, or while driving in your car?" she says. "It is important to disengage and focus on the meal, which will allow a person to experience hunger and satiety." Read about the healthiest foods from every color of the rainbow.

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You're on a fad diet

04_hidden_reasonsistock/MarsBarsThere are so many diets out there that claim to be the best way to lose weight—or even to be healthiest. But should you really avoid whole food groups, as with Atkins or paleo? "Atkins, alkaline, blood type, Ornish-style, Weight Watchers, Paleo, Zone—all of these diets either restrict calories or specific macronutrient composition and for the most part lead to a temporary weight loss but are not sustainable for the long-term," Moore says. Studies have shown that sticking to a healthy number of calories is more important than which "macronutrients" (high protein, low carb, low fat) are eliminated or consumed. "Meals that contain lean protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber, and healthy fats offer longer satiety," Moore says. "Nutrient-dense foods will provide the needed vitamin and minerals and will help maintain a feeling of fullness." And this will help you stick to your goals long-term. Find out why low-carb diets aren't the answer.

You're not planning ahead

05_hidden_reasonsistock/RawpixelIt's easy to think you're going to eat healthy—until life gets in the way. "Families have busy schedules and it may be easier to pick up fast food or snack on the run, but these habits add excess calories due to the portion size that may lead to weight gain," Moore says. If you can expect and plan for these situations, you can help avoid a diet fail. Cook large batches of meals when you do have the time and freeze them for later so you don't have to start from scratch every night. Fruits and veggies can also be frozen and pulled out for a quick side dish or snack. Keep quick healthy snacks like nuts, apple slices with peanut butter, popcorn or healthy granola bars on hand. And don't toss those leftovers—use them. "Make chicken salad with Greek yogurt, nuts, and fruit from leftover roasted chicken," Moore suggests. Mix in last night's veggies with scrambled eggs, which can be cooked in seconds, for breakfast. Always have a supply of beans, avocado, or hard-boiled eggs for quick, satisfying lunches. "Beans or legumes make great plant protein additions to salads, and hard-boiled eggs mixed with avocado make great egg salad sandwiches," Moore says. Here are healthy snacks nutritionists always keep in their bags.

You're not drinking enough water

06_hidden_reasonsistock/gilaxiaThe benefits of water work in several ways. First, water itself is just good for the workings of your body. "The body is composed of 50 to 60 percent water, so it's a necessary nutrient to maintain body fluids," Moore says. It also helps fill you up so you actually eat less. Plus, drinking water instead of other unhealthy choices like juice or soda can benefit a healthy diet. "Water isn't the key to weight loss, but it can substitute for sugar-sweetened beverages, which decreases calories," Moore says. A recent study from the University of Illinois found that people who increased their water consumption by one to three cups reduced their caloric intake by 68 to 205 calories daily. They also lowered their consumption of saturated fat, sugar, sodium and cholesterol. If you don't like the taste of plain water, try making your own lemon water. Or, Moore suggests upping fruits and veggies with a higher water content, like watermelon, strawberries, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cucumber, lettuce, celery, radish, and tomato. Do you know how many calories you add when you trick out your coffee?

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You're not shopping smart

07_hidden_reasonsistock/_gilaxiaAlong with meal planning, getting prepped to go to the grocery store is important to sticking to healthy eating. "When grocery shopping, always have a list," Moore says. This will help you refrain from impulse buys. Plus, "a list will help you stay on a budget too." Next, don't hit up the store before you've eaten. "Shopping hungry is not a good idea because people tend to purchase more food and make unhealthy choices," Moore says. A study from Cornell University found that people tended to buy more food, and specifically more unhealthy food, when they were hungry. While at the store, make sure you check out labels, because sometimes foods packaged as "healthy" are anything but. "Read labels on food in the 'Nutrition Facts Box' and focus on serving size, total calories, fat, protein, fiber, and sugar," Moore says. But do take advantage of the store for some pre-made items to help you stick to your goals for healthy meals. For example, "if you don't have time to roast chicken, purchase the rotisserie chicken from the grocery store," Moore suggests. Pick up these spring superfoods at the grocery store or farmer's market.

You're not exercising

08_hidden_reasonsistock/wundervisualsEating right is only one aspect to achieving a healthy weight—you can't skip out on exercise either. "If you have been adjusting your food intake without seeing the scale move, it may be because diet is just one part of the weight loss puzzle," Palinski-Wade says. "If you are taking in fewer calories but also moving less, you will be burning fewer calories as well. That cancels out your overall calorie deficit, which leads to limited weight loss." This is another reason to not cut calories too drastically: You need to have enough energy to exercise. Although studies have shown that increased exercise is not enough to achieve weight loss on its own, it's still important for overall health, as well as for speeding up your metabolism. Just don't use that trip to the gym as an excuse to chow down on unhealthy food later. Read more on the diet vs. exercise debate.

You're paying too much attention to the scale

09_hidden_reasonsistock/Rostislav_SedlacekIf you are exercising more, you may not see a change in actual weight—but that doesn't mean you're not getting leaner. "If you have recently taken up an exercise routine, especially one that involves weight training, you may be losing inches without seeing a change on the scale," Palinski-Wade says. "This is due to muscle taking up less space than fat mass. If you lose a pound of fat and gain a pound of muscle, your weight will stay the same on the scale, yet you will have lost inches." Plus, muscles burn more calories than fat, so an increase in muscle mass will help you lose even more. So judge yourself by the way you look and feel—and how your clothes fit—rather than by a number. Eat these foods to build more muscle.

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You're too restrictive

010_hidden_reasonsistock/gvictoriaAs with fad dieting that cuts out entire food groups, you don't want to be too restrictive with what you allow yourself to eat. This will just set you up for failure because you won't be able to stick to it. "Being too restrictive with your meal plan leads to burn out and often times binge eating," Palinski-Wade says. "There's a reason we say that diets don't work, and it's because you typically have the mentality that a diet is something you will 'go on' only to 'go off' again in the future. Instead of 'dieting,' focus on making one or two small changes and build upon this over time to not just lose weight, but to keep it off for life." If you ease into it, and still allow yourself a treat every now and again, you'll get used to the change gradually and will adapt better to healthy eating. "Bottom line: Long-term lifestyle changes are necessary to maintain a healthy weight," Moore says. "This includes mindful eating, daily exercise, and portion control." Read these inspiring stories of people who lost over 50 pounds—and kept if off.
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