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Are You Guilty of These Diet Crimes?

  • Jose Luis Merino

    Diet Crime Stoppers to the Rescue!

    If you've ever cheated on a diet, you're probably guilty of the number-one crime in the weight-loss world: self-sabotage. More than 40 percent of dieters have trouble sticking to a plan for a year, and most people gain back any pounds they lost (and more) within four to five years, according to research. But you've got a good alibi. "It's really not your fault," says Judith Beck, PhD, director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research in Philadelphia. "Just as you wouldn't expect to be a good musician if you never took music lessons, you can't expect to succeed at dieting if you've never learned the skills you need to lose weight," she explains. We tracked down the most common weight-loss offenses to show you how to break free from the yo-yo-diet trap for good.

  • Jose Luis Merino

    The Night Eater

    THE CRIME: You consume more than half your daily calories after 6 p.m. — mostly through mindless munching in front of the TV. Because you scarf down so much at night, you're not hungry for breakfast or lunch the next day, causing your blood sugar to crash and your metabolism to slow. By the time you get home from work you're starving, and the bingeing starts all over again.

    Your Rehab Plan

    Eat every four hours. Even if you aren't hungry, try to have 300 calories in the morning to give you the energy you need to get through the day. Consume a healthy lunch of around 400 calories, followed by a small snack. "Regular meals keep your blood sugar stable, so you don't get the urge to inhale everything in sight at night," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, a FITNESS advisory board member.

    Set the dinner table. Research shows that we consume 163 more calories per day when we chow down in front of the TV. Sitting at the table forces you to pay attention to what's on your plate and how much you're eating.

    Ask yourself what you're really hungry for. "If you've already eaten dinner, you aren't snacking because you need the calories," says Martin Binks, PhD, director of behavioral health and research at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center in Durham, North Carolina. You're probably eating for comfort. "Think about what can distract you from the urge to eat," Binks advises. "For instance, if you're bored, go for a walk. If you're lonely, call a friend."

  • Jose Luis Merino

    The Social Snacker

    THE CRIME: Whether it's doughnuts at the a.m. meeting, cake for your coworker's birthday, or mixed nuts at happy hour, you just can't say no to food in social situations. All that grazing adds up to a lot of extra calories. "There's always going to be a reason to go off your diet; the key is to recognize that doing so too often is what's packing on pounds," Binks says.

    Your Rehab Plan

    Focus on your goals. "Write down the top reasons you want to lose weight, and keep the list in your wallet. Read it over when you feel your motivation sagging," Dr. Beck says. "If your goals are in front of you, it makes it easier to stick to healthy habits."

    Order smarter. Your best friend can put away a burger and fries without gaining an ounce. It's not fair, but eating like her isn't going to give you the body you want. Instead, follow the lead of other successful dieters, Dr. Beck suggests. "They know that portion control is key," she explains. "When everyone else at the table is having sundaes for dessert, they'll order just one scoop. This way, they won't feel deprived — or guilty."

    Allow for treats. Splurging once a week on coconut shrimp isn't going to derail your diet. "If you're on such a strict program that you can't eat anything extra at a party, that's just not reasonable," Dr. Beck says. "When your rules are too rigid, you set yourself up for failure."

  • Jose Luis Merino

    The Procrastinator

    THE CRIME: You're totally going to start exercising and eating healthfully — just as soon you can save up for some personal-training sessions, buy cuter gym clothes, have time to go to the grocery store, and find a cookbook with recipes you actually want to eat. You know you need to lose weight and you even know what you need to do to get there, but somehow you never seem to make it happen.

    Your Rehab Plan

    Stop waiting for that magic moment. "Think back over the last few months and ask yourself when work wasn't crazy, you weren't tied up with family obligations, and you had all the time in the world to tackle your diet," Binks says. Drawing a blank? There will never be a perfect point to start your diet, so today is as good as any to get going.

    Cut yourself some slack. Losing weight can be daunting. Rather than stress about the big picture, take it one day at a time. "Tell yourself that if your diet isn't working, you can stop tomorrow," says Heather Jones, RD, author of What's Your Diet Type? "It's easier to make smart choices if you know you can let yourself off the hook later. Chances are, once you start you'll be motivated to continue."

    Make it easy. Print out your grocery list so all you have to do is circle the healthy items as you run out. Put sticky notes on your bathroom mirror with messages to hit the gym or the salad bar at lunch. "It may feel silly, but studies suggest that little cues and prompts are hugely successful at getting procrastinators to change their habits," Blatner says.

  • Jose Luis Merino

    The "Healthy" Eater

    THE CRIME: Your dinner plate is loaded with fresh, organic food: vegetables (straight from the farmers' market), free-range chicken, whole wheat pasta, a slice of nine-grain bread with flaxseed. You eat all the right things, so why aren't you slimming down? "I know plenty of overweight vegetarians," Binks says. "You can overdo it on the healthy stuff if you don't watch portion sizes."

    Your Rehab Plan

    Slow down. "It takes about 20 minutes for your gut to send the 'full' signal to your brain. If you shovel in food, you don't stop until you're past that point," Blatner says. Scoop a little less onto your fork and chew your food thoroughly before you swallow. These tricks can save you more than 200 calories a day.

    Avoid fat traps. Dish out dinner in the kitchen instead of placing platters of food on the table; the extra effort required to get up for seconds may make you think twice. At restaurants, ask the waiter to doggie-bag half your entree before it hits the table.

    Measure up. "Research shows that even dietitians can be off by as much as 30 percent when they're asked to guesstimate serving sizes," Binks says. Spend a day or two measuring out your food. "You'll probably be surprised by what proper servings look like," he notes. "There's no need to become obsessive, but occasionally checking your portions helps you stay on track."

  • Jose Luis Merino

    The All-or-Nothing Dieter

    THE CRIME: When you have the time, you stock the fridge with produce, lean protein, and low-fat dairy and work out five times a week. But as soon as life gets busy you skip the gym and order takeout. "You figure you've already blown your diet, so why bother trying at all?" says Jones.

    Your Rehab Plan

    Brainstorm a backup. "Just as it's important to have goals for eating and exercising when life is routine, you need a second set for those weeks when things get crazy," Binks explains. For instance, prepare for hectic times by circling healthy options on your take-out menus.

    Remember, one slipup doesn't justify a crime spree. "If you ran a red light and got a ticket, would you break every other traffic law for the rest of the day?" Beck asks. Of course not. "Similarly, if you splurge on a piece of cake, don't use it as an excuse to eat whatever you want."

    Make small changes. "Trying to revamp all your eating habits at once is overwhelming," notes Michelle Segar, PhD, a women's health behavior psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Instead, take baby steps. Spend a few weeks focusing on the two habits you'd most like to improve, such as consuming more fruit and eating out less often. Once these become second nature, you'll find it easier to start making other tweaks.

    Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2009.