Depending on constant weigh-ins as your sole measure of success can put you on an emotional roller coaster. Daily fluctuations, mostly due to water weight, are normal, yet many people are obsessed with the scale, getting discouraged every time the number remains unchanged. (Or, if it drops from one day to the next, they gain a false sense of security and think they can indulge.) That's why it's a smart idea to get the scale out of sight and out of mind -- put it in the closet or under the bed -- and weigh yourself only once a week.
How fast should pounds come off? "If you're losing between half a pound and a pound per week, you're on track," says Anita Lasswell, Ph.D., R.D., research assistant professor in the department of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
This slower rate often frustrates dieters, but pounds shed gradually are more likely to come from stored fat rather than from water or muscle.
3. Cutting Calories Drastically
"While most dieters are quick to blame themselves for eating too much, in truth they may not be eating enough," says Joan K. Barber, M.D., director of the eating disorders program at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, DC. A diet too low in calories is counterproductive because your body slows down its metabolism to conserve body fuel and uses fewer calories.
The results? You diet yourself into a starvation state; some people consume as little as 700 calories a day and still the scale won't budge. Weight-loss specialist Lori Henke, R.D., L.D., nutrition director of WellPlan, Inc., a corporation in Salina, Kansas, specializing in health education, reports that as many as one third of her clients fit this description.
To get them back in line, Henke increases their total daily caloric intake in small increments -- adding as little as 100 extra calories at a time -- until their intake is at a level that will normalize metabolism yet still allow for weight loss. This process may take three to six months.
4. Not Counting Nibbles
You may forget that spoonful of peanut butter you ate when making sandwiches for the kids or the repeated "tastings" as you cooked dinner, but your hips keep track of every calorie.
Many of us sabotage our diets with the "if it's not a sit-down meal, then it doesn't count" excuse, but there's no such thing as a "free" sample of food, and all of those bites do add up.
In a study at the Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York, researchers found that 10 obese subjects who were unable to lose weight on 1,200 calories a day were actually eating about 1,000 calories more daily than they had estimated because of their nibbling.
"Jot down every bite you eat for a week or two," says Evelyn Tribole, M.S., R.D., a dietitian in private practice in Beverly Hills and coauthor of Intuitive Eating. Keep paper handy so you can do it immediately. As you become aware of a pattern, plan strategies to minimize the problem. If you sample while preparing meals, chew gum, sip water or keep a plate of raw vegetables nearby. If leftovers tempt you, let someone else clean up after dinner.
5. Exercising to Excess
Starting a vigorous exercise program along with a new diet may sound good, but it can backfire. The combination of reduced calories and increased exercise is likely to leave you exhausted and sore, upping the odds that you'll just scrap the whole thing.
A better strategy is to increase activity gradually -- without pushing too hard. Instead of focusing on how many calories exercise burns, pay attention to how it makes you feel, both during and after. Is it invigorating? Does it reduce stress? Do you sleep better?
"While exercise does help you lose weight -- both by burning calories and revving up the metabolism -- its other benefits are even more important," says Foreyt. "Physical activity helps individuals feel in control of their lives, which, in turn, increases their motivation to eat a more healthful diet."
6. Overloading on High-Calorie Liquids
The calories you drink count -- even when they come from nutritious beverages like low-fat milk or fruit juice. Research at Georgia State University in Atlanta and Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia has shown that people who drink calorie-containing beverages with or between meals consume more calories overall than those who drink water or other no-cal thirst quenchers.
So while you shouldn't hesitate to include low-fat milk and juice in your diet, don't think their "good for you" status means you can drink all you want. They have about 80 to 130 calories per cup, which is often more than soda pop. Limit sweetened seltzers, iced tea and tonic water too -- they offer little except calories.
7. Overindulging on Diet Foods
Light or sugar-free doesn't mean calorie-free. Low-fat products are often packed with so much sugar that calorie wise they're about the same as their full-fat counterparts. "Sugar-free" foods may not contain table sugar (sucrose), but can be loaded with other sweeteners such as sorbitol, fructose, honey, syrups or fruit-juice concentrates that cram in calories.
And be wary of nutrition claims on locally made baked goods, such as muffins and cookies, which are marketed as "diet" or "light." Researchers at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Obesity Research Center in New York analyzed a variety of these products and found that, on average, they contained 85 percent more calories than their labels stated.
Another study revealed that soft-serve frozen yogurt often had two to six times as many calories per serving as advertised (mainly because the claims were for a four-ounce serving, and actual servings were heftier).
8. Cooking Family Favorites
Food is often mingled with love and nurturing, so it's not surprising that many women use food to show they care. But you don't have to dish up a rich dessert every night to show your affection.
If you do occasionally cook high-fat favorites like meat loaf with gravy or lasagna with extra cheese, keep your serving small and fill up with lower-calorie vegetables or grains (like a scoop of rice with fresh herbs or pasta with a sprinkling of Parmesan).
Use your savvy to gradually improve the whole family's nutrition. "Prepare lower-fat dishes more often, and experiment with new recipes," says Tribole. "Teach the kids good eating habits by keeping fruit and other nutritious snacks on hand instead of chips and cookies. Don't let feeding others become an excuse for overfeeding yourself."
9. Pigging Out While Eating Out
It's natural to want a break from dieting, but for most of us, eating out is becoming more the routine than the exception. The average American dines out about 213 times a year, or about four times a week -- so the "I can have it because I'm eating out" excuse is losing its meaning.
What to do? "Move beyond the pigging-out mentality and be selective," says Alexandria, Virginia-based nutrition consultant Hope Warshaw, R.D., author of The Restaurant Companion.
Ask about ingredients and preparation methods, request sauces and salad dressings on the side, and order à la carte.
Avoid set combinations (like a complete dinner) that include side dishes, a beverage and a dessert.
If portions are large, take half home.
If you really want dessert, share it.
And if you're planning a truly special night out at a fine restaurant, budget calories in advance by eating less and exercising more -- then enjoy without guilt.
10. Not Rewarding Yourself
Changing the habits of a lifetime is hard work, and you need regular positive reinforcement to keep motivation high.
Give yourself nonfood rewards (a movie, a manicure, earrings) when you meet goals -- even losing the first two pounds is worth celebrating. And don't feel that you have to reach "ideal" weight to be a success. Focusing on a long-term goal -- like dropping more than 50 pounds -- can be overwhelming.
Many experts recommend that you don't set your sights on losing more than 10 percent of body weight at a time. Research shows that losing just 5 to 10 percent of your weight can improve health by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels, which is an accomplishment in itself.
Give yourself a pat on the back. "Once you reach your goal weight, never stop congratulating yourself for all your hard work," says Anne Fletcher, M.S., R.D., author of Eating Thin for Life: Food Secrets & Recipes from People Who Have Lost Weight & Kept It Off. "You no longer have the reinforcement of watching the scale go down, and attention from others has waned. It's up to you to remind yourself of your success and celebrate."
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