When you start on a new weight loss plan, it's easy to set out on the first few steps full of energy and optimism. But all too often, the forward progress slows, or stops completely, and you give in to the temptation to just toss over the whole attempt. Whatever pounds you have lost return--and bring along some of their friends!
Instead of throwing in the towel, analyze what you have been doing. Have you made any of these weight loss mistakes that can sabotage even the most well-intended plan?
1. You Don't Know Your Calorie Maintenance Number.
What is your calorie maintenance number? It's the number of calories you need to take in per day to stay at your current weight, neither gaining nor losing. It is calculated based on your height, current weight, age, and the amount of exercise you get. There are plenty of websites that provide this number; the calorie calculator at freedieting.com is a good one. Remember, don't fudge your current weight or the amount of exercise you are doing. You want the calculation to reflect where you are, not where you are trying to go.
Once you have your maintenance number, subtract 500 from it. (Many of the online calculators provide this number, too.) The result is the number of calories you need to take in daily in order to lose weight at a healthy pace.
2. You Cut Too Many Calories.
If cutting out 500 calories is good, subtracting 1000 is twice as good, and you will lose weight twice as fast, right? Wrong!
Cutting more than 500 calories from your maintenance number may make you lose more weight in the short run. But ultimately, it will sabotage your efforts, because you will trigger your body to enter into survival mode. In the end you will gain back everything you lost and add a few more pounds besides. Why? Because we are built that way!
For many centuries, humans dealt with the reality that food was sometimes scarce and sometimes plentiful. We evolved to have a mechanism to deal with this. When the body experiences a drastic calorie deficit, it slows down the metabolism so that you burn off your stored energy (AKA fat) at a slower rate. Then, when times are good and the food is abundant, it diverts more of it into rebuilding your fat stores. After that, it tacks on a little more, just in case. Gotta be ready for the next lean time!
Our bodies don't understand that these days, we always have enough food to eat. When we go on a crash diet by cutting out a lot of calories, we flip that survival switch. Your body thinks it is in a famine; it doesn't realize you are doing this on purpose!
So your weight loss slows, and then stops. It's harder to keep to your plan because your body hates it when your calorie intake is too low, and complains about it all day. You are obsessed with the thought of food, and at the same time, the initial steep weight loss that motivated you through the first few days is no longer there.
Eventually the inevitable happens and you start eating more. Your body thinks it is in a post-famine time of plenty and responds accordingly, by replacing the lost weight and adding more just in case the famine comes back.
3. You Don't Track The Food You Take In
"I hate counting calories!" This is the complaint of so many dieters. You don't have to count calories; there are other systems for calculating your caloric intake. But all of them require that you track everything that you eat.
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And that means track everything! Remember to record the refill the waitress brought you on your soft drink at lunch, the cookie dough you licked off your fingers while making cookies for your kids, and the tablespoon of ice cream you ate in front of the freezer just before bed.
You can use this information to count calories the old-fashioned way. Or you can use a points system like Weight Watchers, that assigns a point value to every food and allows you so many points per day. You can use the system where you have "free foods" that you can eat as much as you want (AKA the healthy stuff) and only track the calories of the rest of what you eat. Or you can use an app to both track your intake and have it count the calories for you. The important thing is that you acknowledge and record every calorie you take in. If your weight loss stalls, you have an accurate record to analyze and see where you can make changes.
4. You Count On Exercise To Make Up For Your "Cheats."
Multiple research studies have divided participants into two groups, one of which strictly controlled what they ate but did no exercise, while the other did lots of exercise but made no dietary changes. Every time, the group who controlled their intake (food) rather than expenditure (exercise) lost the most weight.
It's a sad fact that exercise alone won't bring about the weight loss you need. And going over your calorie number but attempting to cancel it out by upping your exercise just doesn't work.
5. You Replace Your Calorie-Heavy, Nutrition-Light Foods With "Diet Foods."
You will simply never lose the weight you want, and keep it off, without cleaning up what you eat. If you are used to eating three Oreos for dessert every day, and replace it with a 100-calorie snack pack of an Oreo-like cookie-cracker, it will work for a little while. But the Oreo-like cookie-crackers can't compete with the real thing. Eventually you will give in and return to the treat that really satisfies you, or eat multiple packs of the cookie-crackers!
If your sweet tooth is the main reason you have put on weight, you have to break the sugar hold on yourself. Low-calorie substitutes won't cut it. Artificial sweeteners won't either.
Sugar, and sweetness in general, is in some ways a physical addiction. Sugar teaches your brain and body to want more sugar. Artificial sweeteners don't break that cycle. If you can't face going "cold turkey" from your sweet treats, use the cookie-crackers and the like as a stepping stone. Better that than feeling deprived and crazy until you can't stand it, and eat an entire package of Oreos. But look at the "diet snacks" as a way to transition to healthier food, not an end in themselves.
6. You Try To Make All The Changes At The Same Time.
One day your diet is a nutritionist's nightmare -- sugary drinks, calorific desserts, and fast food galore -- and the next you are eating nothing but steamed veggies, whole grains, and fruits and nuts. Very few of us have the strength to go cold turkey, ride out the cravings and the misery, and keep on going. Some people do it, and they are awe-inspiring.
The rest of us? We slip and slide--just a taste here and there, maybe a Coke or a chocolate bar at 3:00 on a stressful day to see us through, or a calorie-fest at Cracker Barrel or TGI Friday's because it's a celebration--and before we know it, we are back to our old ways.
The best way to make changes that will stick is to make them one at a time, gradually. If you have a three-cans-per-day soda habit, try drinking just two a day, and water the rest of the time. Then one per day, then one every couple of days. If you make all those work, then stop completely. In the end, if you go from three cans a day (420 empty calories if you are drinking Coke) to one can (140 calories) permanently, you have already cut 280 calories out!
Then tackle the next step. Trying to do everything at once will lead you to fail almost every time. And failing makes you feel awful about yourself. Making one significant change that sticks is a success, and success makes you feel great. You want to keep feeling that way, and you can look at the progress you have made as motivation for taking the next step.
The best way to avoid sabotaging yourself is to take things slowly, and place a higher priority on being completely honest about what you eat and drink than on being perfect on your eating plan. If you begin by "going on a diet," you are subconsciously telling yourself that this interlude of being disciplined about your calorie intake will end, and that things will return to "normal."
However, if you set out to develop healthier eating habits, you will gradually construct a 'new normal" that won't feel like deprivation, and the old temptations will lose their grip on you. If you make slow but steady and consistent changes, you will lose the weight. What's more, it will stay lost, and never find you again!
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