Conventional wisdom says adopting healthy lifestyle changes — like cleaning up your diet, spending more time in the gym, and going to sleep a few hours earlier — will help you lose weight because doing something is better than doing nothing at all, right?
The problem is, what works for someone else may not always work for you. There is no singular answer to weight loss, but some habits can set you back more than others, even when you have the best of intentions.
Here, the “healthy” strategies that might prevent you from losing as much weight as you could, and what you should do to shed pounds instead.
Downsizing Your Portions Dramatically
Sticking to proper portion sizes will help you lose weight, but if you cut them down too drastically too quickly, your hunger hormone ghrelin will spike, signalling to your brain that you’re not full. At the same time, your body won’t produce as much of the satiety hormone leptin.
The result? “You’ll end up in a perpetual state of ‘starvation mode,’ which often results in overeating followed by the subsequent feelings of guilt, shame, or failure from not following your diet,” explains metabolic training expert Nathan Trenteseaux, owner of Underground Fitness Revolution in Florida.
Try this: If you want to reduce your portion sizes the right way, you need a balanced ratio of protein, vegetables, and healthy fats to feel satisfied for the 3 to 5 hours in between your daily meals.
Aim for at least 25 grams of lean protein per meal, ideally at least 30 if muscle gain is your goal. If you need to eyeball it, protein should make up roughly a quarter of your plate, says Karen Ansel, M.S., R.D.N., author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging. The other quarter of your plate should contain fibre-rich whole grains, while the rest — about half your plate — should be loaded with vegetables.
Opting For Low-Fat Foods
“Any time a food is listed as low-fat, the food manufacturers have replaced the fat with sugars or other potentially harmful chemicals and additives,” Trenteseaux says, meaning they’ll typically pack more empty calories than their full-fat counterparts. “In addition, your body needs healthy fats for a number of processes, including hormone production, brain function, and, yes, even fat loss.”
That’s because fat is a super satiating nutrient, so it will help you feel fuller, longer. It’s true, eating too much of it can contribute to weight gain (it clocks in at 9 calories per gram) — but going overboard on any food, including those heavy in carbs and protein, will pile on the pounds, too.
Try this: “The only fat you should avoid is trans fats, which are found in processed foods containing partially hydrogenated oils,” says Trenteseaux, like chips, cookies, and crackers. The FDA does not recognize trans fats as safe, since they are associated with a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, according to the American Heart Association.
Instead, focus on eating whole foods that contain healthy fats. This includes grass-fed meats, wild fish like salmon, whole eggs, raw nuts, avocados, and full-fat dairy products like raw cheese, plain Greek yoghurt, kefir, and cottage cheese.
Fueling Up With Energy Bars And Sports Drinks
Energy bars and sports drinks may seem like a great go-to snack, but they’re really only necessary for exercise lasting 90 minutes or longer.
“Most men typically spend 60 minutes or less training and burn, on average, 250 to 500 calories during that time depending on the mode of exercise chosen,” Trenteseaux says. “Loading up on sports drinks and energy bars can negate all the calories burned during exercise,” he says, which can halt your fat loss.
Plus, most energy bars are just candy bars in disguise, packing in empty calories and added sugar. The same goes for sports drinks.
Try this: “A better option is to consume water before, during, and after exercise and throughout the day,” he explains. A good rule of thumb? Pay attention to your thirst, and drink up when it hits.
He also suggests eating a pre-workout snack containing protein and carbs such as an apple and a handful of almonds. Go for a whey protein shake post-workout instead.
Doing Cardio All Day Every Day
“Cardio alone does not build or maintain muscle,” Trenteseaux says. In fact, a study published in BMC Public Health found that overweight people who included both cardio and weight training during a 12-week exercise program lost more body fat than those who did just one or the other.
Strength training is crucial because you tend to lose muscle as you drop pounds, he explains. Muscle is metabolically active tissue, meaning you will burn more calories at rest, helping you lose more weight — and keep it off — for the long haul.
Try this: “Perform high-intensity strength training three times each week and perform cardio on alternate days 1 to 3 times each week to get the most bang for your buck,” says Trenteseaux.
He recommends bursts of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) if you really want to fry fat. If you need to sneak in cardio and resistance training on the same day, do your lifting session first, and tackle a quick HIIT circuit (like this one) afterwards as a finisher.
“This way, you have plenty of strength to devote to your resistance training,” he says.
Replacing Dessert With Sugar Substitutes
Foods low in added sugar? Great idea. Foods packed with artificial sweeteners? You might want to skip them.
Switching to sugar-free foods with artificial sweeteners may save you some calories, but artificial sweeteners have been linked to long-term health effects, like a higher obesity risk, type 2 diabetes, and heart problems. Some research also suggests that artificial sweeteners can ramp up your cravings for sweet foods in general, Trenteseaux explains.
“There’s so much conflicting research on artificial sweeteners and weight loss that the jury is still out at this point,” adds Ansel. “Given that we still really don’t know if artificial sweeteners help or hurt with weight loss, why potentially sabotage your efforts with them, especially since they tend to travel in unhealthy foods and drinks?”
Try this: “When you want something sweet, make it yourself with as little sugar as possible,” Ansel says. “That way you control what goes into your food and you satisfy your sweet craving at the same time.”
Choosing Gluten-Free Packaged Foods
Gluten-free diets have ballooned in popularity as a means to lose weight, but it isn’t worth the hype. Unless you have celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or other GI issues that are exacerbated by gluten — a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley — you don’t really have to avoid it.
“Gluten makes foods light and airy, so when food manufacturers remove it, they have to add other high-calorie ingredients — like fat, sugar and starch — to help foods taste good,” Ansel explains. “As a result, many gluten-free packaged foods have more calories than their original gluten-free counterparts.”
Try this: If you have to go gluten-free, stick with minimally-processed foods, like brown rice, quinoa, and baked or sweet potatoes, Ansel says. “They’re naturally filling without all the added fat, sugar, and starch you’d find in packaged gluten-free foods,” she explains.
And if you don’t need to avoid gluten, just swap out the types of carbs you’re eating. Nixing refined carbs — like white bread and sugary cereal — for whole grains can help you take in fewer calories and more gut filling fibre.
By Kate Dwyer