Diet Double Whammies

You probably know that eating nothing but a big bowl of cheese-covered, refined-flour pasta for dinner or “forgetting” to eat a single vegetable for three days in a row isn’t great for you. But these slip-ups are minor; in terms of the big picture, they’ll have little, if any, effect on your weight and health. Unfortunately, some diet slip-ups have unintended consequences that go far beyond a few hundred excess calories. You may want to reconsider some of your actions when you hear about these Diet Double Whammies.

Indulging in Happy Hour

First offense: Sipping a glass of red wine once in a while – even every day – can be good for your mind and body. Studies show that enjoying one drink a day can improve cardiovascular health, reduce inflammation, improve insulin resistance, and promote better health in old age – plus, it tastes good and allows you to let loose with a few pals after a long day. But in this case, more is not merrier: overimbibing sets you up for taking in far too many empty calories, plus an achy hangover the next morning. The average person consumes three to four drinks on a night out. If you’re sipping cocktails, that can equal up to 1000 calories or more from alcohol and sugar – that won’t even quash your hunger.
Second offense: Alcohol has serious effects on your blood sugar. As it is metabolized by your body, it interferes with glucose stores and hormones that maintain normal blood sugar levels – eventually leading to insulin resistance. On a short-term basis, alcohol immediately increases the amount of insulin your body releases, leading to low blood sugar. Despite what you may have eaten earlier, after a couple of drinks you’ll likely be starving; and adding insult to injury, in your tipsy state, you probably won’t make the healthy food decisions you’d normally make. Between the couple handfuls of nuts you’ve nibbled at the bar to the supreme nachos you ate on your way home, you could take in another 1000 calories. In the course of one seemingly innocent happy hour, you may have inadvertently doubled your daily caloric intake.
How to avoid it: At happy hour, stick to one or two drinks. This will keep your intake of empty calories low, and it will also prevent you from getting to a point where you might make poor eating choices. If you’re in for a long night, sip a glass of water between alcoholic beverages. And stick to beer, wine or simple cocktails made with a liquor, citrus slices, and seltzer; avoid sugary cocktails mixed with sodas, sugary fruit drinks, and other additives.

Eating Every Last Crumb of That Rich, Fifteen-Layer Chocolate Cake

First Offense: Dessert is not inherently bad. In fact, eating dessert can help maintain a healthy diet by limiting cravings and preventing an all-out binge later on; a diet that forbids any sort of indulgences is simply not sustainable. As long as you keep your portion sizes reasonable, you can include desserts in your daily diet. Sweet treats become a problem when they’re served in behemoth sizes, like a the Great Wall of Chocolate from P.F. Chang’s, which contains 2,200 calories – more calories than you likely need in an entire day. If you were to indulge in this monstrosity of a dessert once a week, you could be carrying an extra 32 pounds around your waist by the end of the year.
Second Offense: Sugar is like a drug: the more of it you have, the more you crave it. A study from the University of Princeton even demonstrated how exposure to sugar can lead to physiological brain changes and behavior similar to the changes associated with drug abuse. Like any addictive drug, your brain continues to crave sugar after exposure; one study showed that after eating a high-sugar, high-calorie meal, subjects experienced increased cravings for sugar for up to three days. Another study found that when obese rats were exposed to sucrose, they showed 50% less neuronal activation than lean rats – implying that they were less sensitive to sucrose and thus needed more sugar to taste the same amount of sweetness. What does this mean for you? After you eat that slab of chocolate cake, you’ll crave more and more sugar, leading to a vicious cycle of sugar binges. Essentially, sugar begets sugar.
How to avoid it: Luckily, healthy food begets healthy food, too. If you cut out sugar for just three days, your cravings will start to diminish. As you retrain your body, your taste buds will be able to detect sugar in smaller doses – allowing you to feel satisfied with a piece of dark chocolate rather than the whole cake. When you do eat dessert, do so mindfully: enjoy and taste every bite until you feel you’ve had enough. Often, a few bites will do the trick. And consider options that normally wouldn’t be considered dessert, like raw or baked fruits with a sprinkle of brown sugar and cinnamon or a dish of low-fat Greek yogurt with honey.

Skipping Breakfast

First Offense: In this case, it’s a lack of calories–not excess–that leads to disaster. According to recent research, 31 millions Americans skip breakfast daily, and for a variety of reasons. They don’t have time to sit down and eat a balanced breakfast. They have no appetite in the morning. They think that skipping breakfast is a good way to easily remove a couple hundred calories from their daily total. But breakfast is the meal that sets you up for a productive, less stressed day – so skipping it has disastrous consequences, both mentally and physically. Studies show that children who regularly eat breakfast are more alert, perform better on standardized tests, and appear to be more creative and energetic than kids who skip it. These results transfer over to adults, as well: eating breakfast increases productivity at work. Skipping breakfast can mess with your weight, too. Researchers at the Imperial College of London found that when subjects who hadn’t eaten breakfast looked at pictures of high-calorie food, like pizza and cake, the brain’s reward center showed more activity than when they looked at foods like vegetables and and fish. These findings suggest that a person who skips breakfast is more likely to crave high-calorie foods, possibly leading to high-calorie binges later on in the day. Indeed, those who skip breakfast are more likely to be overweight and consume more calories during the overall course of a day than breakfast-eaters.
Second Offense: When you eat breakfast, you are literally breaking your fast. In the morning, you have likely not eaten for ten or more hours. While you sleep, your metabolism, heart rate, and breathing rate naturally slow down. Eating breakfast soon after you wake revs your metabolism up, boosting calorie and fat burn from the moment you eat. But if you skip breakfast, your body is essentially undergoing a 15-20 hour fast. As your body senses possible starvation, it conserves energy by slowing your metabolism to a crawl and limiting the production of essential metabolism-boosting enzymes. Eventually, a slow metabolism will make weight maintenance and loss very difficult.
How to avoid it: Simply put, eat breakfast. Eating within an hour of waking will give you energy to get through a busy morning in addition to increased productivity and less stress. Aim for a breakfast with 350 calories of high-protein, high-fiber fare; research shows this specific balance of nutrients is most effective in achieving satiety and improving cognitive performance. Try a cup of low-fat yogurt with high-fiber cereal and a serving of fruit; a whole wheat English muffin topped with one whole egg and one egg white and low-fat cheese and a serving of fruit; or a bowl of oatmeal made with low-fat milk, chia seeds, chopped nuts, and cinnamon. If you’re cramped for time in the morning, bake some grab-and-go options on a Sunday, like whole wheat pumpkin muffins and vegetable frittatas, and reheat them on your way out the door. And eating leftovers or typical dinner foods is perfectly fine, as long as they provide filling fiber and protein.

Forgoing Fat

First Offense: In the 1980s and 90s, the low-fat diet craze blacklisted dietary fats as the cause of obesity and weight gain. Yet as research found that some types of fats were actually healthy, Americans still avoided them, incorrectly attributing their weight and health problems to fats in general. While health and nutrition experts recommend limiting saturated and trans fat intake, they also recommend getting 25-35% of your daily calories from healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from sources like fish, olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds. These fats have been shown to decrease LDL cholesterol levels while raising HDL cholesterol, improve heart health, and act as disease-fighting anti-inflammatory agents. On a short-term scale, fats are essential for nutrient absorption. Certain nutrients, such as lycopene, beta-caroten, and vitamins A, D, E, and K, are fat-soluble, meaning they require fats to become bioavailable to your body. These nutrients are dissolved in fats in the stomach, which then diffuse through the small intestine into the body, where the nutrients are absorbed and used. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition reported that participants who ate a salad with avocado absorbed 4.5 times more lycopene , 7 times more lutein, and 18 times more beta-carotene than those who ate a raw salad. If you’re currently avoiding fats – any kind – you’re also missing out on a bevy of nutrients and could be vitamin-deficient.
Second Offense: Fats are one of three macronutrients that are required by the human body to live and function, along with protein and carbohydrates. Disturbing the imbalance of these three macronutrients, by removing fat, has serious consequences. Fat makes up more than 60% of the brain, insulating nerves and axons and acting as precursors to hormones and chemicals. A zero- or low-fat diet takes away this critical component of brain function, leaving you risk for depression and an inability to concentrate. And although fat is knocked for its high energy density – 9 calories per gram – this energy is essential for everyday activities and exercise. A lack of fat can lead to weakness and fatigue, leaving you unable to perform daily activities.
How to avoid it: To start, take an inventory of how much fat you’re eating and from which sources. If your diet is already 25-35% fat, make sure most of these fats are unsaturated fats (the American Heart Association recommends getting no more than 7% of your daily calories from saturated fat, which is about 16 grams). Replace foods like red meat, butter, and high-fat dairy products with healthy fats from fish, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds, and low-fat dairy. If you’re currently on a no- or low-fat diet and are wary of adding fats to your diet, consider the fact that there is no evidence that healthy fats contribute to weight gain. In fact, research show that unsaturated fats promote satiety and can even enhance weight loss efforts. A Purdue University study found that participants who added three ounces of nuts to their daily diet experienced significantly more weight loss than participants on a low-fat diet. You don’t have to add greasy pizza and creamy ice cream to your diet to reap the benefits of fat – simply stick with the aforementioned healthy fats.

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