Most of us know someone who works out obsessively, logging serious hours at the gym and berating herself after eating the occasional cookie. How many of us have gone on fad diets and then complained when the weight came back? Every year, countless people try to lose weight with minimal lasting success. These people are dedicated to their goals, but haven’t found a tried-and-true method for shedding pounds and—the hardest part of all—keeping them off.
I consulted with a personal trainer, a dietician, and a nutritionist and wellness coach in my city (San Francisco, voted one of the top ten fittest American cities by Men’s Fitness) to find out why so many of us struggle. Across the board, these industry professionals came across clients making the same mistakes. I asked them to shed a little insight as to why these habits are so detrimental, and what people should do to avoid them.
1. Not Prioritizing Ourselves
Because losing weight and becoming a healthier individual is a lifestyle change, it needs to be incorporated into our everyday lives. That’s why crash diets and counting each and every calorie tend not to work—most of us can’t (and don’t want to) keep up those behaviors for the rest of our lives. It can’t take a backseat to work, family, and social lives, either. “Sometimes you need to become a little selfish,” says registered dietician Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD, CSSD. “Make time to go food shopping, to plan your meals, to exercise. Not until you start prioritizing yourself and your plan will you see results.”
2. Over-Focusing on Calories
Many people believe that weight loss will come by simply cutting calories. They don’t factor in their bodies’ needs and believe that going on a low-calorie diet will be a quick-fix solution. “People over-focus on counting calories,” explains nutritionist and wellness coach Rania Batayneh, MPH. “What’s really important is the quality of your calories.” After all, there is a difference between eating 2000 calories worth of healthy food and its caloric equivalent at McDonald’s. She recommends keeping a food journal to keep track of food consumption, but stresses the dangers of becoming obsessive and reducing caloric intake too drastically. “You really need to understand your body’s needs,” she explains.
3. Eating Too Much of a Good Thing
With the increasing popularity of more natural, organic foods, it seems like the market is being inundated with products claiming labels like “all natural” and “whole grain.” While this push toward healthier food is great, the fact that such terms are used so freely means that some people are more free with their portion sizes. A label like organic or whole grain, while laudable, is not synonymous with low calorie. “I have clients say to me, ‘I eat organic, I buy everything at Whole Foods,’” relays Manuel. While these clients are committing to healthier lives by eating better quality food, they may also see that upgrade as a free pass. “One [client] was adding olive oil to toast instead of butter, but still couldn’t lose weight,” Manuel explains. “If you’re going to use fat, use olive oil; but you still need to follow the serving sizes.” Simply put—make healthier food choices, but don’t forget about portion control.
4. Comparing Our Progress to Others’
The American media constantly invites us to compare our bodies to celebrities—“Find out how Britney lost fifty pounds!” “Go on Beyonce’s cayenne pepper/water crash diet!” Most of us realize how impossible such standards are, but that doesn’t stop us from comparing our weight loss successes and failures to those around us. Having workout buddies and making lifestyle changes in conjunction with friends can be great for motivation, but not if it leads to an unhealthy competition. Rania wants to steer people away from this negative thinking—“Realize that you are a unique individual, and that your body’s needs are different than anyone else’s,” she advises. The danger is that when we don’t see as much progress as our friends’, we can start to feel like a failure, which only encourages defeat.
5. Not Eating Before Exercising
According to personal trainer Bianca Buresh, this is the biggest mistake that people make. Bianca says that her clients who work out on an empty stomach often experience nausea and fatigue—hardly optimal conditions when trying to get fit and burn calories. “You can’t have an amazing workout and sustain your energy without eating anything,” she explains. She recommends eating something (even just a little something) about forty-five minutes to an hour before exercising, though she says that, if necessary, twenty minutes beforehand would suffice, too. There are conflicting theories about this, but ultimately, our bodies perform better when they have energy to work with. You can Google “pre-exercise snacks” for ideas, or find out what works for you through trial and error.
6. Eating Too Infrequently
Metabolic rates lower not only when given an inadequate amount of calories, but also when there is too much time in between meals. “By delaying or skipping meals, you slow down your metabolism,” says Manuel. “The longer you wait, the more ghrelin [an appetite-stimulating hormone] is produced, and the more you have to eat later to feel satiated.” Eating more frequently—smaller meals and snacks—keeps our metabolism at a steady burn, regulates blood sugar levels, and staves off hunger-induced crankiness. It will also keep diets on track—if someone is starving and desperate, that person is less likely to make a smart meal choice and opt for whatever is fastest and most convenient, like a vending machine or fast food.
7. An All-or-Nothing Attitude
One of the worst mistakes people make when trying to lose weight is setting impossibly high standards for themselves. Having a goal to work toward is a great way to keep ourselves motivated, but if the goals are too drastic (e.g., never eating bread again), any misstep will promote feelings of failure, which impedes progress. “It’s better to set small goals, make them, and feel empowered rather than shooting for the stars,” Manuel advises. For example, if a sedentary person makes it a goal to exercise three times a week instead of every day, he is more likely to meet (or even exceed) that manageable goal rather than being overwhelmed.
Setting extreme rules for food choices is an equally bad idea. Labeling foods we’re trying to limit as “bad” will only make us feel guilty when we do eat them, which might encourage a “well, I already slipped; might as well make it worth it!” attitude. “Your mentality toward food choices should be positive,” Raina says.
8. Not Balancing Exercise and Diet
Raina and Manuel believe that people put too much emphasis on exercising when it comes to losing weight. “Exercise is important,” says Raina, “but I don’t think that it’s a 50-50 split.” Both Raina and Manuel gave the same ratio—80 percent diet, 20 percent exercise—for losing weight. The problem with focusing solely on exercise is that people don’t fuel themselves properly, which can lead to weight gain. “Many times, [people] get so involved in exercise, and they eat so little that their metabolism shuts down,” Manuel explains. “Or they start to exercise, the appetite goes up, and they eat more than they need,” he says.
Bianca agrees that exercise should be somewhat limited. “There’s no reason you have to spend any longer than an hour [per day] in the gym,” she says. However, she is quick to point out, “You should work out at least four to five times a week.” She also recommends synchronizing our diet with our exercise plan.
9. Not Realizing This Is a Lifestyle and Not a Quick Fix
Once the numbers on the scale or the sizes of our clothes decrease, that’s not the end of the journey. What many of us fail to realize is that it’s often keeping the weight off—not losing it—that becomes the hardest part of all. “People know how to lose weight, but they don’t know how to maintain,” Raina states. “Maintenance is for the rest of your life.” It goes along with not prioritizing ourselves—our plan needs to be something we can do forever, and that’s a difficult concept for many of us to accept. If we can’t live without brownies forever, or we can’t spend five days a week at the gym, we shouldn’t create those rules for ourselves. Instead, we should find a way to incorporate attainable diet and fitness goals into our lives, to make sure we can permanently stick to our plan. After all, each small, positive step we make toward our goals will ultimately yield a bigger payoff.
Updated July 20, 2010