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7 habits to break when you’re trying to lose weight
These common strategies seem like they should work, but they may be getting in the way of your weight-loss progress. Here’s what to do instead.
Bringing your weight into a healthy range is about much more than how you look. Research shows that maintaining a healthy weight can be key for preventing many illnesses. Those include type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis and at least 13 different types of cancers.1
That’s a powerful motivation to start a weight-loss effort. But many people struggle to make meaningful changes to their bodies. And it can be difficult to keep the weight off for a long time.
Looking at what habits are or are not working for you is a necessary step in the process. Jacki Howard, a health coach for Optum, weighs in on seven common habits that tend to be problematic and offers some smart swaps.
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1. Only focusing on calories
The “calories in, calories out” theory of losing weight is a bit misguided. Many weight-loss plans put calories at the center of their program. But Howard says not all calories are created equal. The 2,000 calories from a balanced meal are different from the 2,000 calories that come from snack food.
A balanced meal is lower in sugar and higher in protein and fiber. It won’t spike your blood sugar in the way snack food will. The fiber in the meal will help keep you fuller for longer. Plus, the meal has disease-fighting nutrients that boost health.
In one study, people who ate less sugar, refined carbohydrates and highly processed foods lost more weight than those who counted calories. They filled up on more vegetables and whole foods. And they never even monitored their calorie intake.2
2. Skimping on protein
Another thing to think about when choosing meals and snacks: nutrient density. And that includes getting enough protein, notes Howard.
Your weight is actively regulated by your brain. It processes all kinds of signals to tell you when and how much to eat. Some of the most important signals to the brain are chemicals that change in response to food.
Eating more protein increases the levels of appetite-reducing chemicals. At the same time, it reduces the level of a hunger chemical called ghrelin. When you replace carbs and fat with protein, the hunger chemical is reduced. And several satiety chemicals get boosted. This leads to less hunger, which is the main reason protein helps you lose weight. It makes you eat fewer calories.
Research also suggests that eating the recommended amount of protein helps you lose weight. And it helps your body composition by decreasing how much fat you have.3
3. Fearing fat
Some types of fat, such as trans fat and saturated fat, are considered unhealthy. That’s because they raise the level of bad cholesterol in the body. Cholesterol is a type of blood fat. But you shouldn’t stay away from fat altogether. Our body needs it to act properly, Howard says.
Fats are the last to leave the digestive tract. That means fats can help us feel fuller longer. They keep us from overeating or snacking too much.
Healthy fats are called monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Your body needs them to work properly. For example, some vitamins are fat soluble. That means if you don’t have enough fat in your meals, you can’t soak up as many nutrients. Look for healthy fats in foods such as olive oil, avocado, fish, whole eggs and nuts.
4. Falling into sugar and salt traps
When you’re trying to lose weight, many people look at the calories per serving on food labels. But Howard says you shouldn’t stop there. Some packaged foods can have surprisingly high amounts of added sugar. Sugar is high in calories but low in nutrition. So consuming too much can sabotage your efforts. Salad dressing, condiments, breakfast cereals and flavored yogurts all have hidden sugars.
That can happen with salt, too. Eating too much of it can make you bloat and retain water, which will show up as extra pounds on the scale. This is especially true if you’re not drinking enough water to balance out that salt intake.
And there is some evidence that high-salt diets lead to higher body fat overall. That may be because foods that are high in salt also tend to be high in calories.4 These include potato chips, bread and boxed mac and cheese.
High-fiber foods can help you feel fuller longer.
5. Ignoring hunger cues
It might seem like skipping a snack or meal will help keep your food consumption in check. But ignoring hunger pangs is not a good idea, according to Howard.
When you skip meals, your metabolism slows. Metabolism is your body’s process of converting food into energy. Your body goes into survival mode to try to conserve energy. A slowed metabolism can make it even more difficult to shed pounds.
Your blood sugar also drops when you skip meals, which can make you feel annoyed or sensitive. “If you let yourself get super hungry, it can lead to impulsive choices and overeating,” Howard explains.
6. Trying to do it alone
Having a support network is important for any kind of effort, not just weight loss. After all, change can be tough, Howard says. Finding resources will make you feel less alone when it comes to sticking to your goals. Joining a weight-loss group can help hold you accountable. So can buddying up with friends. Accountability is a vital part of staying on track.
“There is nothing wrong with getting help,” Howard says. “The more support, the better. It will help tremendously with motivation, confidence and accountability.”
7. Not planning ahead
Howard recommends planning as much as possible.
“Try to get into the habit of setting weekly goals. And check in with yourself regularly to make adjustments as needed,” she says. Maybe your plan has been to clean out your fridge and refill it with fresh, healthy foods, but it somehow never happens. “If a plan isn’t working, change it up based on your new knowledge so you can be more successful next time.”
Planning and setting goals help create focus, she adds. That’s important because changing habits can be uncomfortable. It’s easy to drift back into your comfort zone. A plan can help keep you motivated and moving forward.
Taking the first step
There’s no one single habit that’s best for everyone, Howard says. That’s why there are so many different weight-loss programs, books and videos. She emphasizes that the best habit for you is the one you can stick with consistently.
Choose a habit you feel confident about and that helps you take the first step, Howard suggests. A balanced life is one with many different habits that work together. Tackling everything at once can be overwhelming when you begin.
“Focus on the first step,” she says. “Once you notice how much better you feel every time you make one healthy choice, you’ll be motivated to keep going. You can build off that momentum. Think deeply about your motivation and how following through on your goals each day will improve your life.”
Need extra support for creating and sticking with your goals? Work one-on-one with a virtual coach from AbleTo. Find support now.
- National Cancer Institute. Obesity and cancer. Reviewed April 5, 2022. Accessed July 7, 2022.
- JAMA (2018). Effect of low-fat vs. low-carbohydrate diet on 12-month weight loss in overweight adults and the association with genotype pattern or insulin secretion. Published February 20, 2018. Accessed July 7, 2022.
- Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome. Clinical evidence and mechanisms of high-protein diet-induced weight loss. Published September 30, 2020. Accessed July 7, 2022.
- PubMed.gov. A positive association between dietary sodium intake and obesity and central obesity: Results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999-2006. Published April 14, 2018. Accessed July 7, 2022.
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