Habits are behaviors that the brain has made automatic. We notice a cue (workout clothes), it triggers a behavior (go to the gym) and elicits a reward (endorphins) that makes us want to do it again. But since habits are so ingrained, we don’t even realize some of the ones that are sabotaging our good efforts. Slash these six habits and you’re likely to see the scale start moving.
1. Focusing on exercise more than food
It’s January 1 and you’re ready to hit the gym. That’s great for your health, but it’s not the most effective weight-loss strategy. People tend to overestimate how many calories they’ve burned exercising (calorie trackers aren’t always accurate) and then eat back the calories. Take the theory that you have to cut 500 calories per day to lose 1 pound per week: a 155-pound person burns about 300 calories running for 30 minutes. He or she would have to run almost one hour every day of the week to lose 1 pound per week, assuming no changes in diet. Talk about time-consuming, difficult and a recipe for hanger.
The percentage of calories burned exercising is also a small percentage of overall energy expenditure. Most calories burned in a day come from basal metabolic rate (BMR)—the number of calories burned at rest. You’d be surprised how much energy your body uses simply to keep your heart pumping, lungs breathing and other internal organs working each day. While building muscle can boost BMR to a degree, it’s not enough for lasting weight loss unless combined with changes in diet.
2. Eating too little
The calories in, calories out thinking oversimplifies the complicated science of weight loss and often backfires. Not eating enough during the day is associated with overeating at night. Calorie restriction over time also slows your metabolism. If the body doesn’t have enough fuel for its basic functions, it works to conserve energy, not burn it.
“Although creating an energy deficit is an important component of healthy weight loss, the types of food you eat to get those calories is most important,” says Titilayo Ayanwola M.P.H., RD, LD, a registered dietitian at Plateful Of Yum. “From a metabolic perspective, all calories are not alike and our bodies also have ornate hormonal responses to the types of food eaten. The quality of the calories going in is important, and feeds information to your body to either store fat, or burn fat, promote good health or promote inflammation.”
To keep the body in fat-burning mode, eat protein, fiber and healthy fats at every meal and reduce refined sugars and carbohydrates. The key to weight loss is being full, not hungry. Fiber fills you up by slowing digestion. Protein suppresses ghrelin, the hormone that tells the brain you’re hungry.
3. Counting calories
Anyone who’s counted calories knows you start to play games with yourself to get the numbers right, often losing sight of your hunger and satiety signals. For this reason, Ayanwola says to quit counting calories altogether. “Most people who are preoccupied with tracking calories rarely take the time to savor their food or make conscious eating choices when it comes to food quality, and ignore many of the signals their body gives for hunger or fullness; because it all boils down to making the numbers work,” she says. “For sustainable weight loss you should look beyond calories when evaluating your food. Focus on the quality of your food choices and watch your portion sizes instead. You will also have better protection against oxidative stress and diseases with this method.”
4. Sacrificing sleep for exercise
Dragging yourself to the (home) gym in the morning? Don’t, says Megan Kober, RD, a registered dietitian at The Nutrition Addiction. “The No. 1 habit you should break to lose weight is sacrificing sleep for exercise,” says Kober. “Sleep is SO important for weight loss. If you go to bed at midnight and then get up at 5:30 for a workout, you’re actually just doing more harm than good. This will put your body in a state of inflammation and mess with your hunger hormones and that is going to make you hangry. If you know you’re going to bed late, skip the morning workout. Try to squeeze one in later in the day and don’t worry if it’s something short.”
Research confirms that, indeed, lack of sleep throws leptin and ghrelin out of whack. In one study, those who slept five hours per night had lower leptin levels and higher ghrelin (read: higher hunger), along with higher body mass indexes, compared to those who slept eight hours per night. Sleep deprivation affects functioning of the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for decision making. The prefrontal cortex also doesn’t function properly after too much booze. In other words, fries are going to sound more appealing than salad after a sucky night’s sleep.
5. Mindless snacking
Twelve chips have 130 calories, but when you munch on them mindlessly out of the bag while watching TV you’re more likely to consume about 48, bringing your “empty” calories up to 520 (remember: a 500-calorie deficit per day can lead to 1 pound of weight loss per week). Eating mindfully is an easy way to reduce calories without feeling deprived. Pause before eating and ask yourself if you’re physically hungry, bored, stressed or craving something specific. Then you can make the best choice for your goals. Maybe you need some protein because you’re physically hungry. Maybe you are just craving chocolate but aren’t hungry, in which case a square of dark chocolate would do the trick.
Whatever you choose to eat, start with the portion on the nutrition label, put it in a bowl, sit down at the table and savor the snack, paying attention to how satiated you feel. Still feel hungry afterward? Go back for more.
6. Drinking your calories
We love a good latte and a nightly glass of red, but guzzle a grande mocha from Starbucks and you’ve added 290 calories and 35 grams of sugar to your day. Five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer and 1.5 ounces of liquor all have about 120 calories. But do you just drink 5 ounces? You don’t have to dump the drinks altogether to see the scale move. Ask for half the sugary syrup in your coffee and reduce the number of nights you drink each week. These are the exact small changes that can make losing weight and keeping it off simple and manageable.