Do as I say, not as I do?
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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 can’t estimate calories correctly, explains NYU professor Marion Nestle, PhD, in her 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. What’s more, even the most well-meaning health experts may give outdated advice. Read on to learn the biggest pitfalls—and how to outsmart them.
Mistake: Cutting too many calories
“Cut calories, lose weight” 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. “Even if you’re restricting calories healthfully, it’s hard to meet all your nutritional needs when you go too low,” says Samantha Heller, RD, author of Get Smart: Samantha Heller's Nutrition Prescription for Boosting Brain Power and Optimizing Total Body Health. It’s a trap she’s seen experts fall into, thinking that an extreme weight-loss program may help “get me kickstarted.”
Lose-it lesson: Don’t fall for big gimmicks. Depending on your size, activity level, and other factors, dipping below 1,200 calories a day isn’t a good idea for long-term weight loss. Follow the 7 rules of counting calories to make sure you're losing weight the healthy way.
Mistake: Falling for "health halos"
So-called “healthy foods” such as green juices, whole-grain pretzels, or organic-labeled anything may coax you into eating more than you usually would. “Last night, someone brought these coconut vegan donuts to a party I was hosting,” shares Brooke Alpert, RD, founder of B Nutritious, a private practice in New York City. “And this morning I couldn’t 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. I’m proof that even professionals fall for health halos!”
It’s a common pitfall, research shows. In one study, Cornell scientists gave study participants chocolate sandwich cookies, plain yogurt, and potato chips; some were labeled organic and some weren’t. Even though all the foods were exactly the same—all organic—the tasters rated the ones labeled organic to be healthier (lower in fat, higher in fiber, and lower in calories) than the “conventional” foods.
Lose-it lesson: Read nutrition labels, and be mindful about your choices. Ask yourself, “Am I really hungry right now? Do I need to be eating this?” and try sipping a glass of water first to see if those pangs go away.
Mistake: Not embracing carbs
“A common piece of advice I see others give out is to ‘scoop out your bagel’ or cut out carbs to lose weight,” says Heller. “But what’s the point of indulging in a bagel if you’re going to scoop it out?” She adds that it’s easy to overdo it with carbs, but eliminating them isn’t healthy either. “Skimping on whole grains means skimping on energy, as well as fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, protein, and antioxidants,” Heller says. “They also help balance blood sugar highs and lows.”
Lose-it lesson: Don’t ditch carbs—in 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. Here are some examples of carbs that really are good for you.
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 isn’t a good idea. “It’s OK if you eat dinner at 8 or 9 p.m.—you have to eat, after all,” says Heller, who’d 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, you’ve 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 think—the 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.
“Even we don’t have X-ray eyes,” says Heller. “And we’re all susceptible to environmental influences that encourage us to overeat.” For example, one study found that patrons in a Hardee’s 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. Don't miss these other portion control tricks that can help you lose weight.
Mistake: Thinking fat is the enemy
“At this point, anything low-fat makes my skin crawl,” says Alpert. “Fat is such a necessity in our diets, but people are still petrified of fat.” 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 meal: nuts 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 hasn’t felt like “there’s no time” to squeeze in a workout or eat a home-cooked meal? This can’t-do-it-all mentality affects health and nutrition experts as much as the rest of us, assures Alpert. “When I start neglecting myself—skipping my morning run or Spinning class—I feel it a couple of days later. I’m more lethargic, I lose my patience more easily. I have to tell myself ‘OK, mama needs to eat a salad’ to get back on track and feel better.”
Lose-it lesson: Life’s busy traps ensnare the best of us. When they do, remember this mantra Alpert applies herself: “The healthier you feel, the better and more efficient you’ll be at your job and the happier you’ll be with your family and friends.” Start by trying out these easy tricks that can make anyone healthier, and you'll be turning them into regular healthy habits in no time.