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The Top 4 Reasons Why Diets Fail

At any given time, 66% of Americans are trying to lose weight or are on a diet — and yet almost the same percentage is either overweight or obese. And with so many different types of diets — from going vegan to the Paleo Diet — why are the majority of Americans failing to lose or maintain weight? According to Dr. Jessica Bartfield, M.D., who specializes in nutrition and weight management at the Loyola Center for Metabolic Surgery & Bariatric Care, there are four main reasons why dieters don’t lose weight. Read on to find out what they are — and the ways to sidestep each problem.

1. Underestimating Calories Consumed
The roadblock: According to numerous studies, humans tend to underestimate how many calories their meals and snacks have as well as the amount of calories they consume in one day. Experts speculate that Americans typically underestimate their caloric intake by 30% and sometimes as much as 45%. For the average male, that’s an excess of 720 calories per day — which, by conventional wisdom, could result in a gain of more than one pound per week. And unfortunately, restaurants are no better at estimating their meal’s calorie counts: a study from Tufts University found that one out of five restaurant dishes contains more than 100 calories than what’s listed in their nutritional information.

The fix: To reconcile the amount of calories you actually consume with the amount you think you consume, begin by measuring out your servings. That morning bowl of cereal — of which a serving clocks in at 120 foodjournalcalories — might actually be three servings, upping your calorie count to 360. Measure out the given serving (usually ¾ – 1 cup) until you can eyeball a correct serving size. Keeping a food diary and writing down every single food you eat and drink (every last morsel!) will also help: in a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, participants who kept a food journal lost 6 more pounds than those who didn’t. Don’t forget to record drinks (the average American consumes between 140 and 180 calories per day from sugary drinks) and the bites and tastes you might get at a grocery store.

2. Overestimating Activity and Calories Burned
The roadblock: That elliptical that says you just burned 450 calories? It’s a gross overestimation. The University of California at San Francisco used VO2 testing to ellipticaltrack fat burning and found that the calorie trackers on ellipticals overestimated calories burnt by 42%; the overestimation was less so on other machines (13% on treadmills, 7% on the stationary bike, and 12% on the stairclimber), but still enough to make a dent in your calorie output. The reason? Most exercise machines are calibrated for a 150 pound female; if you weigh less than that, you’ll burn fewer calories. They also don’t accurately measure your heart rate, which plays a role in the amount of calories you burn. Compounding this issue is the fact that many exercisers tend to reward themselves with food following a tough workout, believing that they “earned” those calories in that Jamba Juice Peanut Butter Moo’d or Grand Slam breakfast. So even if you just spent an hour burning 250-400 calories, that work can all be undone — and then some — in five minutes.

The fix: First, calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate: this is the amount of energy, or calories, your body requires to function at rest, and varies according to genetics, gender, age, weight, body surface area, body fat percentage, diet, exercise, and a number of other factors. To determine how many calories you need a day while taking into account your activity level (from sedentary to extreme), use the Harris Benedict Equation; this will leave you with the amount of calories you need to maintain your weight with your current activity level. Indirect calorimetry, which measures carbon dioxide production and oxygen consumption during rest and steady-state exercise, is the gold standard for measuring energy expenditure, but it’s too time-consuming and expensive to use on an individual basis. Several body monitors (like the BodyMedia Fit Link and FitBit) measure your calorie output, but even they can be inconsistent and inaccurate; online calculators measure the calories burned according to weight and activity. Your best bet may be to simply eat when you truly feel hungry and not according to how many calories you may have burned working out.

3. Poor Timing of Meals
The roadblock: Skipping breakfast, powering through the day without lunch, and late night snacking might all be the reasons you’re not losing weight. According to the National Weight Control Registry, eating breakfast is a shared characteristic of successful dieters (78% of those who lost and maintained a 30 pound weight loss regularly ate breakfast). Experts believe that eating a fiber- and protein-rich meal first thing in the morning stimulates your metabolism and keeps you from bingeing later on in the day. Regular snacks and a balanced lunch do the same thing; plus, they keep your mood and energy elevated so you don’t reach for comfort foods like chips and candy later in the day. And researchers now believe that late-night eating may, in fact, play a role in weight gain and loss: in a study from Northwestern University, rats who ate during their normal sleeping phase, as compared to those who ate during normal daily activity, experienced a 48% boost to their body weight, despite similar levels of activity and calorie consumption. Lead researcher Dr. Fred Turek and Deanna Arble theorize that our bodies, which run on circadian rhythms, are primed to burn calories more efficiently at certain times.

The fix: Start with breakfast: aim to eat a fiber- and protein-rich meal within one hour of waking. Eating a balanced breakfast jumpstarts your Breakfast, Lunch and Dinnerbody’s metabolism, maintains steady blood sugar and energy levels, and helps stave off mid-morning cravings. Eat lunch about 4 ½ hours after breakfast, and dinner a few hours after that; waiting longer in between meals will only intensify your hunger and lead you to make less healthy food choices. Plan 150- to 200-calorie snacks (think an apple with almond butter or hummus and veggies) in between meals to keep hunger at bay. Plan to eat dinner no less than three hours before sleep: it may not only lead to weight gain, but the increased circulating insulin prevents the release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. In terms of other mealtime planning, sandwich weight lifting or intense exercise with complex carbohydrates and protein.

4. Inadequate Sleep
The roadblock: According to Dr. Bartfield, “studies have shown that people who get fewer than six hours of sleep have higher levels of ghrelin, which is a hormone that stimulates appetite, particularly for high-carbohydrate/high-calorie foods.” One study, specifically, found that sleep-deprived subjects ate an extra 549 calories a day–enough to make you gain an extra pound every week. Sleep deprivation is also linked to leptin, the hormone that signals satiety; plus, lack of sleep lowers willpower, increases cravings for high-calorie foods, and raises levels of cortisol, a stress hormone linked to weight gain. All of these factors combined make inadequate sleep a powerful precursor to weight gain.

The fix: To get more sleep, you need to to identify what is preventing you from getting enough sleep–and that could be any number of reasons, from drinking too much caffeine to poor time management. But no matter what your reason is, there are a number of simple fixes you can make to add more hours of sleep to your day. Begin by setting a bedtime: count back seven to eight hours before you have to wake up. Keep track of this time so that when 11PM rolls around, you’re in bed (not starting to get ready for bed). Shut off electronics about an hour before this time: TVs, computers, and cellphones emit blue light, which disrupts our circadian rhythms and melatonin production, tricking our bodies into believing it’s still daytime. And finally, exercise in the morning. And finally, avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed.

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Avoid these summer diet disasters

Usually, we tend to eat healthier in the summer: our cravings naturally lean toward light, fresh, minimally processed foods (salads, skewers, fruit). But some summer staples that seem light and fresh — and others that are just summer favorites — can actually derail your New Year’s resolution-imposed summer diet and be the cause of a few unwanted pounds. Learn about these surprising and not-so-surprising summer diet derailers, and try replacing them with healthier options.

Too Much Fro-Yo

Most frozen yogurts have about ⅓ to ½ of the calories and a fraction (if any) of the fat of regular ice cream, so it would make sense to automatically assume it’s a far healthier pick than ice cream. But the calories from fro-yo can add up fast: calorie counts are typically wrong, since aeration — the amount of air pumped into the fro-yo — differs between batches, and because your fro-yo server might overfill your cup. The serving size for a small cup might amount to only 120 calories, but add to that the decorative, towering swirl that topples over your cup, and you might be eating another 100. Further compounding this matter is the fact that frozen yogurt has a “health halo” — people believe it’s a healthy and nutritious snack, so instead of treating it like the dessert it is (like ice cream), we eat it in mammoth servings. Many fro-yo shops offer 16-ounce cups, which can amount to 380 calories and 76 grams of sugar.

Even with a reasonable serving size, frozen yogurt is still a sugar bomb: a ½ cup serving has 20 grams of sugar (fro-yo essentially replaces all of ice cream’s fat with sugar). And toppings like gummy bears, brownies, cookie dough, and Oreos add many more calories and sugar. Finally, replacing an ice cream craving with fro-yo may backfire: full-fat ice cream takes longer to digest and is more satisfying than fro-yo. Instead of handling a craving with a small portion of ice cream, you might end up hitting the fro-yo counter every night of the week to try to satisfy your craving. If you have a true ice cream craving, have a small bowl of the real, full-fat kind.

Road Trips

Unless you’re going on a Whole Foods tour of the United States, road trips are usually food disasters. Half of the problem lies in the lack of nutritious restaurants along the highway; the other half is long stretches of highway with no food at all (except maybe a gas station). When you’re stopping for lunch or dinner, look out for chains that offer customizable meals, like Subway, Chipotle, and Noodles & Company – you can add as many vegetables as you want and add lean, not-fried protein. Normally, local restaurants are the way to go, but on road trips — especially in less populous areas — stick to chains, where you can look up nutritional information.

Packing the right snacks will save you money, time, and calories. For lasting satiety, make sure your snacks have a little bit of protein and fat: whenever you ingest either, a hormone called cholecystokinin is released from your intestines. From there, it signals to your nervous system that you’re full; in the stomach, it slows the rate of digestion. Pack a cooler with cut up vegetables and fruit, and pair them with a handful of nuts or hummus.

If you turn to food when you’re bored, pack popcorn instead of chips and crackers. Popcorn is a whole grain, so it contains filling fiber; it’s a high-volume, low-density food, which decreases hunger; and it has antioxidants, including polyphenols and ferulic acid, which has been shown to fight cancer, diabetes, and neurodegenerative disorders. For more healthy snacks, see Rania Batayneh’s, MPH, recommendations for healthy summer road trip snacks.

Tropical Drinks and Smoothies

Bright, fruity cocktails scream summer. But just one can take up a third of your day’s calories, without adding any nutrients as other whole foods do, or satiating hunger. Summer favorites, like Long Island Ice Teas, Margaritas and Piña Coladas, all contain more than 600 calories. A lot of these calories come from alcohol; instead of the 1.5 ounce shot glass serving, they usually have at least three shots of alcohol. But the rest come from sugary mixers like soda, juice, cordials, and sweet and sour mixes — all of which are nutritionally void.

If cocktails are a must, seek out “culinary cocktails” (one of 2012’s top food trends): cocktails made with fresh herbs, fruits, vegetables, and spices — and a welcome dose of nutrients and antioxidants. Noticeably absent are the sugary, syrupy mixers that add only calories. The Kitchen Upstairs, in Boulder, as well as other restaurants in foodie towns, takes the trend further by incorporating local ingredients: the Whiskey in the Meadow is made of Stranahan’s Rocky Mountain whiskey, muddled 2r’s farm cucumbers, and honey lavender syrup. As a bonus, research has found that the alcohol in liquor enhances the antioxidant activity of fruits — so ask for a few more slices of orange or lemon. Otherwise, pick a portion-controlled beer or glass of wine (make sure it’s the appropriate 5-ounce serving!)

Even drinks sans alcohol can do some waistline damage. If you haven’t checked the nutritional stats at Jamba Juice and other smoothie chains yet, it’s time. Smoothies with sorbet, sherbet, and frozen yogurt contain about 350-400 calories per 16-ounce serving, which isn’t bad; it’s the carbs and sugar, and lack of protein or fiber, that turn them into a nutritional disaster. The popular Aloha Pineapple, for example has 97 g carbs and 91 g sugar, and only 6 g protein and 4 g fiber! Add to that the fact that most people treat smoothies like a drink, instead of a meal, and you’re adding 400 empty calories to your lunch (or indulging in a pretty heavy, but not satiating, snack!). Even smoothies containing just fruit, or just veggies and fruit, are still high in sugar and low in fiber and protein. Your best bet is to ask for an 8-ounce smoothie, which is actually the appropriate serving size — and get it with a fiber or protein boost.

If Your Best Friend Were A Dietitian…

You probably have a best friend who’s an expert in her field, be it a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, or a personal trainer. You can go to her whenever you have a question or a problem, without the hassle of an appointment or an hourly bill. Wouldn’t it be nice if your best friend were a nutritionist, and you could ask her anything you wanted and steal her most coveted pieces of advice?

Experts are aptly named because they’ve spent endless hours studying in school and graduate programs and performing research. But it’s not the information an expert has that makes her so valuable; it’s her unique experiences with clients. Dietitians have worked with countless clients to determine the nutrition advice that really works. I spoke with America’s top dietitians, from LA to New York, who have spent years linking experience with research to determine the most effective weight loss and healthy eating solutions. Read on to find out which tips really work.

Taste the Rainbow
Your Mom said it, and now the dietitians are saying it: eat your fruits and vegetables. No matter what. Shari Boockvar, MS, RD, advises her clients to eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. “They will give you a variety of antioxidants, phytochemicals, and different types of fiber; and in the long-term, they may protect against disease.” Besides the unique blend of nutrients in each plant, fruits and vegetables are an excellent tool in the fight against obesity. Nicole Geurin, MPH, RD tells her clients to tackle hunger with the colorful plants. “Fruits and vegetables are very low in caloric density, so they fill you up for fewer calories. Fill half your plate with colorful fruits and vegetables at mealtimes, and enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks too.” Snacking on raw sugar snap peas and carrots is easy if you naturally like vegetables, but since many people are vegetable-averse, add some flavor – and fat – to help them go down easier. Autumn Hoverter, MS, RD, CS of FoodWise Nutrition suggests adding a little olive oil or bleu cheese, because “if you’re filling half your plate with vegetables – however you prepare them – you’re still consuming more nutrients and fiber than you’d get with carbs or proteins.” Besides making vegetables more palatable, a little fat will also help you absorb more nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, meaning they need to be eaten with fats in order to become more bioavailable. So go right ahead: eat your vegetables sauteed in a little butter or olive oil.

Clean it up
Whole Foods is a wildly popular grocery store, but it’s also the way to eat. In addition to eating more fruits and vegetables, dietitians advise eating less processed foods and sugars. Kim Shapira, MS, RD, prescribes a clean eating plan by eliminating processed sugars. “Processed sugars cause physical addiction. Once you no longer crave those sugars, there will be more room for the ‘good stuff’ like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,” Shapira says. Indeed, a study from the Princeton Neuroscience Institute confirms that sugar causes the same cravings, withdrawal, and relapse behavior as in drug abuse. The easiest way to cut processed foods and sugars out of your body, says Emily Murray, RD, LDN, is to avoid high fructose corn syrup. You won’t find HFCS – or any other ingredients, for that matter – in an apple, so use it as a guide for which foods to avoid. Make sure to look out for unsuspecting packaged foods too, like ketchup, bread, and pickles: one jar of tomato sauce can have as much as a half cup of added sugar! Women should limit their daily intake of added sugars to 6 teaspoons; men should consume no more than 9 teaspoons.

Be thoughtful
According to the American Dietetic Association, at least 60% of America’s workforce regularly dines at their desktop. And while it may save time and money, eating at your desk may also be causing you to hold on to some unwanted pounds. “Be present during your meals and snacks,” says Alyse Levine, MS, RD, a Los Angeles-based nutritionist. “Actually taste your food and check in on your body’s hunger level throughout the meal.” A study from the University of Birmingham found that distracted diners take in more calories than their more mindful counterparts. Even worse, they tend to forget how much they previously ate, leading to even more overeating. Diners who sat down to notice the flavor, texture, and appearance of their food reported less hunger; do the same, and you might see some pounds fall off.

Eat with your brain, not your eyes
In addition to paying attention while you eat, pay attention to your hunger cues before and after you eat. Using a food log for a couple weeks will help you become more in tune with your hunger, allowing you to “establish your food and mood connection,” says nutritionist Randi Dukoff. “Don’t concentrate on each and every calorie – pay attention to how you feel one to two hours after eating. Do you feel 100% full and perfect, or full but still craving a sweet? This information will help you to understand how food makes you feel and let you get a grip on emotional eating and excess eating,”  Dukoff says. With this information, you’ll be armed to identify and face your emotions, instead of feeding your feelings with food. And most importantly – but so often forgotten – eat only when you’re hungry! “The tip I tell anyone, which is so primitive but lost so often, is to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are getting full,” says Alene Baronian, MS, RD. Melanie Sherman, MS, RD, CSN of West Side Nutrition simply tells her clients that “eating when you are not hungry is like answering a phone when it’s not ringing.” If you recognize that you’re full, but still want to eat more – just one more brownie! – just remember that “there’s always a next meal,” says Rania Batayneh, MPH of Essential Nutrition For You.

Eat early, eat often
Because of busy work schedules, screaming toddlers, and a general lack of sleep, many Americans tend to skip breakfast, pick their way through lunch, and blow their day’s calories with a huge dinner and plenty of midnight snacks. But research has found that individuals who eat most of their calories in the morning and then taper them off into the evening tend to lose more weight than those who skip breakfast. Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, a sports nutritionist in Boston, explains it perfectly: “Fuel by day and eat less at night. If you want to lose weight, lose it at night when you’re sleeping, instead of suffering through the day being hungry.” The best way to fuel by day? Instead of the typical three square meals, snack on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and lean protein throughout the day. “Eating frequent, appropriate meals and snacks provide controlled amounts of energy, limiting insulin release and modulating subsequent swings in blood sugar. In turn, these habits will enhance metabolic function and increase the ability to make thoughtful, healthy dietary choices,” says Anna Peabody, a registered and licensed dietitian.

Dieting Doesn’t Work
When you hear the word “diet,” you might think of restriction: no fat, no sugar, no carbs. But any diet that eliminates an entire food group is unsustainable, not to mention unhealthy. Carbs, for example, trigger the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, effectively regulating mood. And even if you do lose weight in the short-term, you’re likely to gain it back, say Minh Tran, MS, RD, CSSD of Mindful Nutrition. In addition, diets are “linked to lower self-esteem, increased risk of disordered eating, including bingeing and weight gain.” Instead of the typical yo-yo dieting, dietitians urge their clients to think of a diet as their new, sustainable eating plan for the rest of their life. LeeAnn Smith Weintraub, MPH, RD sees a lot of her friends, family members, and new clients try the trendy, media-hyped diets and then, confused, fail to see results. She coaches them according to their unique, individual nutrition needs, telling them that no idea should require starving, cleansing, or restricting entire food groups. “Eating a balanced diet and watching portion sizes is the best, most sustainable way to achieve and maintain a healthy weight,” she says. Jennifer Regester, RD and founder of Eat With Knowledge, agrees: “It’s never about ‘being on a diet.’ It’s about changing your relationship with food and living a healthy lifestyle one meal at a time.” As opposed to dieting, find an eating plan that works for you and stick to it. Ana Ladd-Griffin tells her clients not to “bend or change for any person, event, or situation.” Just because your aunt is pushing another piece of her famous pecan pie in your face doesn’t mean you have to eat it: eat for yourself only.

Have Fun
You might think that dietitians spend their life eating raw vegetables, grilled chicken and fish, nuts, and quinoa. And while they probably do, there are also nights when you’ll find them noshing on fried chicken, ice cream, and pizza. Boockvar loves eating healthfully, but she also loves good food, which can sometimes end up on the  indulgent spectrum – like one of her favorites, fried chicken. She tells her clients that it’s okay to splurge every so often, as long as they eat healthful foods for the rest of the time. Sarah Mirkin, a Registered Dietitian and Diet Coach in Los Angeles, reiterates that “Everything is healthy in moderation. What’s unhealthy is food deprivation. If you eat healthfully 90% of the time, you have room to include other foods in moderation.” As long as you follow this advice, any food – a slice of dark chocolate cake, lobster thermidor, or fried mac and cheese – can fit into your new, healthy diet.

Now that you essentially have sat down with your new best friend, the dietitian, take these tried-and-true healthy eating nuggets and put them to use. One of my favorite pieces of advice is that it’s never too late to start eating healthfully. Even if you just noshed your way through a box of Krispy Kremes, forget about it; next time you sit down for a meal, nosh on your favorite nutritious, functional foods.

Debunking Nutrition Myths: Part III

Diet soda is harmless.
The nutritional panel on a diet soda reads all zeros: zero calories, zero sugars, zero fat. These numbers have led many weight-conscious Americans to switch from regular soda to diet soda – it’s an easy way to cut out 12 teaspoons of excess sugar a day (per drink!). Statistics tell us that diet sodas may not be so friendly to your waistline, however: a University of Texas study found that  people who drank three or more diet sodas per week have a 40% greater chance of being obese. Experts believe this oddity is due to the fact that artificial sweeteners tend to trigger your appetite – making you want more and more sugar – but without actually satisfying a desire for sweets like normal sugar does. Diet soda-drinkers end up eating tons of sugary and fatty snacks in order to satisfy their cravings. Diet sodas are also often loaded with additives, including caramel coloring. Although it sounds harmless, this caramel coloring is made by reacting sugars with ammonia and sulfites, resulting in 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole – two compounds that have been found to cause lung, liver, and thyroid cancers in mice. Gradually wean yourself off the diet soda by switching to fruit juice mixed with seltzer, and eventually switch entirely to water flavored with fresh fruit and green tea.

I’ll lose weight faster if I don’t eat before working out.
Some exercise experts advise against eating before a workout in order to burn more fat. Their reasoning is that exercise normally burns away your glycogen (carbohydrate) reserves; when you’re done burning those, you’ll start dipping into your fat stores for energy. So when you’re already running on empty, you burn fat right away. However, the problem here is that exercise takes energy, and without energy, you might feel weak and lethargic, unable to complete your workout at a high intensity. And energy, of course, comes from calories. A study from the University of Birmingham compared a group of cyclists who ate before their workout and a group who fasted. While the group who fasted did end up burning more fat, the group who ate cycled at a much higher intensity than the fasting group – thus burning more calories. A person needs fuel to run, just like a car. Find the foods that give you the energy to work out at your hardest.

Cravings point to nutritional deficiencies.
This myth is more of an excuse to wolf down cookies, cupcakes, french fries, and ice cream without feeling guilty about it. The foods we often crave – sugary, fatty, salty fare – often have no nutritional value anyway, so what nutrients would our body be craving? And it’s not that often that you see someone deficient in vitamin A crave dandelion greens and kale. Cravings are usually due to either emotional or hormonal reasons or a very restrictive diet that limits yummy treats. With practice, cravings can become easy to control (self-control can actually be exercised, and made stronger, like a muscle); try avoiding trigger foods and environments, sip a cup of mint tea with a good book, or call up a friend to chat. And remember, it is okay to indulge every once in a while and eat that piece of cake!

All saturated fats are bad and should be avoided.
For a while, nutritionists, scientists, and the population believed that all fats are unhealthy. Then researchers found that certain fats – monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3s, the fats found in nuts, seeds, fish, and oil – have cardioprotective benefits, enhance the immune system, protect against disease, and contribute to skin and hair health. These fats were in, while others – saturated and trans fats – were out. But now, researchers have begun to discover that certain saturated fats, such as lauric acid (found in coconuts), have health benefits as well. Lauric acid strengthens the immune system and stimulates health digestion. These fats are made up of medium-chain fatty acids, as opposed to long-chain fatty acids (found in meat, milk, eggs, and vegetable oils), and are digested differently. Medium-chain fatty acids are used for energy immediately, so they are never stored as fat; they have also been shown to increase metabolism and slow digestion. Even though coconuts are 90% saturated fat, you can safely add them to your diet without raising cholesterol – and with health benefits, as well!

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.

Debunking Nutrition Myths, Part II

Going vegetarian or vegan is healthier.
Various research efforts have shown that vegetarians and vegans, on average, consume fewer calories and less fat than omnivores. A 2009 Oxford study showed that vegetarians weigh 3 to 20 percent less than their meat-eating counterparts. And a National Cancer Institute study of more than 500,000 people found that participants who consumed four ounces or more of red meat weekly were 30% more likely to die of any cause than those who ate less. But these numbers may be misleading. Often, newly-assimilated vegetarians replace animal protein with more carbs. At a barbecue, for example, a vegetarian may chow down on just pasta salad, cole slaw, and a slice of apple pie, forgoing protein altogether. And because protein is more filling than carbohydrates, vegetarians often feed their hunger with empty calories. Experts recommend that we get about 10 to 20 percent of our calories from protein, or about 1 gram per kilogram of body weight. In order for vegetarianism to actually benefit your health, it’s necessary to replace animal protein with healthy plant proteins, like those found in beans, legumes, eggs, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy, and soy products. A lesson everyone could stand to learn however? Eat more green, leafy vegetables!

The more fiber you eat, the better.
Over 96% of Americans don’t get enough fiber in their diets, and we can blame a diet of overly processed junk food and a lack of whole foods for this. Depending on age and gender, the recommended intake is 20 to 38 grams of fiber daily. There are two types of fiber; insoluble fiber is not water-soluble and acts as a “bulking agent,” while soluble fiber forms a gel-like substance in the stomach, slowing down the rate at which the stomach empties. In terms of satiating hunger, fiber makes you feel fuller, but its benefits go beyond that: it can help prevent hemorrhoids and colon cancer, decrease blood cholesterol levels, and help control blood sugar levels. So the more fiber you eat, the more benefits, right? Recently, American food brands have started fortifying any product they can with fiber, including yogurt, milk, fruit juices, and even desserts. These foods are often infused with “faux fibers” such as inulin, maltodextrose, and polydextrose, and scientists are skeptical as to whether these have the same health benefits as naturally-occurring fiber. In addition, adding too much fiber to your diet at a time can cause bloating and gas, so if you’re looking to increase your fiber intake, build up slowly to give the natural bacteria in your intestines a chance to adapt. Add in natural fiber from beans, whole grain cereals and breads, fruits, vegetables and nuts.

Skipping meals and/or breakfast will help me lose weight faster.
More than half of America regularly skips breakfast. Whether it’s due to a hectic morning or a desire to cut calories, it’s certainly not doing you any favors: studies show that people who regularly skip breakfast consume more calories throughout the day and are heavier than their breakfast-eating neighbors. One explanation is that breakfast-skippers become so hungry later in the day that they gorge on high-calorie lunches and dinner, usually high in fats and sugars to instantly quell their hunger. In addition, after a night of fasting, a healthy breakfast jumpstarts your metabolism for the day. Eating a healthy breakfast gives you lasting energy for a busy day; try 350 calories of fiber- and protein-rich fare for maximum benefits.

Using a juicer is a great way to get my daily nine servings of fruits and vegetables.
Shoving five servings of vegetables and another four servings of fruit into a juicer seems like a simple and efficient way of getting all nine daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, juicing fruits and vegetables removes one of their most valuable components: fiber. And, as mentioned previously, fiber’s list of benefits ranges from filling you up instead of out to maintaining stable blood sugar levels. Let’s compare a cup of orange juice with one whole orange. One cup of orange juice has 110 calories, 0 grams of fiber, and 22 grams of sugar; one orange has 62 calories, 3 grams of fiber, and 12 grams of sugar. By removing fiber, you’re left with a vitamin- and nutrient-rich juice – but one that is brimming with sugars and a skyrocketing glycemic index. Ultimately, this will lead to unstable blood sugar levels and hunger, so stick with whole fruits and vegetables for maximum nutritional benefit.

“Skinny-fat” is healthier than being overweight but exercising.
“Skinny-fat” is a term used to describe people who are at a healthy weight but have little, if any, muscle tone, and thus higher-than-acceptable body fat percentages. In one study, 45% of women with a normal Body Mass Index had excessive levels of internal fat; for men, the number was 60%. Internal fat is the fat that surrounds organs including the heart, lungs, pancreas, and liver, and can be more dangerous than fat that accumulates externally. Researchers believe these “thin outside, fat inside” people are at risk for a host of metabolic problems, as well as heart disease, diabetes, and even obesity. On the other hand, people who are overweight and have higher-than-normal BMIs, but who exercise regularly and eat a heart-healthy diet, may be better off. In a study from the Archives of Internal Medicine, half of the overweight people and one-third of the obese people were deemed “metabolically healthy:” their cholesterol, blood pressure, and risk of heart disease were similar to those of a healthy weight. No matter what your size or weight, make sure to exercise regularly and eat a healthful diet for cardiovascular and metabolic health.

Keep reading for Part III!

Debunking Nutrition Myths

Myths regarding nutrition are about as common as new diet trends: new ones pop up every day in the media, health magazines, blogs, and from grapevine at your gym or supermarket. And like diets, false information regarding nutrition can get in the way of your health and weight loss efforts. This series takes some common – and not-so-common – myths and deconstructs them into real and usable advice so you can start eating more nutritiously for better health today.

Is gluten-free the same as low-carb?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, as well as some lesser known grains such as spelt, semolina,  farina, bulgar, and matzo meal. Although it sounds like gluten is a component of all dry carbohydrates, there are plenty left that do not contain gluten: buckwheat, millet, amaranth, quinoa, rice, and oats. These grains can all be used to make products that are normally made with wheat, including bread, pasta, cereals, and baked goods. A gluten-free diet, therefore, does not necessarily mean a low-carb diet; a person who eats gluten-free can ingest plenty of carbohydrates from gluten-free breads, pastas, cereals, and baked goods as well as vegetables, fruits, beans, and legumes (don’t forget that these “wet” carbohydrates count as carbs, to!).

Starches and carbs are fattening, and should be avoided when trying to lose weight.
Ever since the Atkins diet (which proposes a high-protein, high-fat diet with virtually zero carbs), starches and carbohydrates have been black-listed in the diet community. Starches and carbs are not inherently fattening, however: it’s when they’re covered in sugary and fatty toppings (butter, alfredo sauce, maple syrup) or eaten in huge portion sizes (the average restaurant serving is 2 to 4 times the USDA recommended serving) that they become diet-derailing. Starches and carbs are actually an important tool in weight management; they provide belly-filling fiber and complex carbohydrates to keep your engine running all day. Carbohydrates also stimulate the production of serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter that regulates mood.

Products that are labeled “reduced fat” or “fat free” are more nutritious than their original counterparts.
Foods that have been modified to become fat-free or reduced-fat might seem more nutritious than their original form. If you take out the fat, you take out some excess calories, and you get virtually the same product, right? Let’s compare one brand’s regular peanut butter to their reduced-fat version: per 2 tablespoons, the regular version has 190 calories, 16 grams of fat, and 3 grams of sugar. Their reduced-fat version has 190 calories, 12 grams of fat, and 4 grams of sugar. Essentially, the reduced-fat version has been stripped of one quarter of its healthy monounsaturated fats, and to replace that flavor, the brand has added in fillings, additives, and sugar.  And all for the same amount of calories! Picking reduced-fat products may even end up hurting your waist-line: in one study, average-weight participants ate 22% more calories if the food was labeled “low fat,” and overweight participants ate up to 50% more. Stick to the full-fat versions to retain the healthy benefits of peanuts and their monounsaturated fats: increased satiety and a decreased risk of heart disease and diabetes (and avoid those empty fillers!).

Another marketing ploy to watch out for: naturally fat-free products that are marketed as being healthier because they are “fat free.” Candy is naturally fat-free, but that doesn’t make them a health food: it’s still loaded with high-glycemic sugars.

Organic or natural foods are more nutritious.
In one study, two groups were asked to rate the nutritional value and sensory attributes of the same cookie; one groups’ cookies were labeled as organic, whereas the other groups’ cookies had no label. The participants whose cookies were labeled as organic estimated that their cookies contained 40% fewer calories, significantly more fiber, and were more appetizing than other brands. Trigger words like “organic,” “natural” and “local” promote misconceptions about the true nutritional value of a food and can give otherwise junk food a health halo. A cookie is a cookie, even if it’s made with organic grains, cage-free eggs, and local honey – and it still contains calories, fat, and sugars!

Any food you eat after 8 PM turns directly into fat.
Calories are calories, no matter when you eat them. What does it matter is what and how much of it you eat. Late-night snacking gets a bad rap because often, the foods that are consumed late at night are calorie-dense foods, such as chips, ice cream, pizza, and other junk food. In addition, the snacking you do after dinner and late into the night are excess calories to your daily caloric requirements. And because weight gain is a simple equation of eating more calories than you expend, this often leads to weight gain. Your metabolism, however, doesn’t know what time it is, so if you account for a 200 calorie after-dinner snack, you won’t see the scale creep up. Evidence even shows that regular snacking can lead to weight loss, as long as the snack contains filling protein or fiber. Avoid snacking in front of the TV so you don’t mindlessly munch away a whole bag of chips!

Keep reading for Part II…