You’re slashing carbs, trimming fat and supercharging your workout routine—but the needle on the scale refuses to budge. You may be overlooking some sneaky saboteurs that can derail even the best weight-loss plan. Here are hidden factors that make you hang on to fat, and six common weight-loss mistakes everyone makes:
1. Weight-Loss Mistake #1: You’re Eating Fake Food
Stocking up on diet sodas and artificially sweetened yogurt? Those fake sugars can sabotage weight loss, even if they lower total caloric intake. The same goes for low-fat and fat-free foods: studies show when people eat low-fat versions of snack foods, they consume about 50 percent more calories. Packaged foods in general don’t support your slimming goals; highly processed foods contribute to obesity (and other health issues), likely by promoting inflammation and impairing gut bacteria. Instead of fake versions of your favorite treats, eat smaller portions of the real thing (plus, you’ll avoid feelings of deprivation that can trigger a super-binge). And focus on whole, unprocessed foods; they’re higher in hunger-blunting fiber, shown to reduce appetite and caloric intake, and some research suggests eating an extra 14 grams of fiber per day slashes calories consumed by 10 percent.
2. You’re Super Stressed
High levels of cortisol, one of the body’s primary stress hormones, can stymie even the best weight-loss regimen. When you’re stressed, your body’s fight-or-flight response is triggered and production of stress hormones is amped up in preparation to run or fight. The problem: chronic stress and high levels of cortisol prompt the body to seek out energy-dense (i.e., high-calorie) foods, especially those rich in sugar and fat—bad news for weight loss. Over time, elevated cortisol is associated with obesity, increased weight and excess fat, especially around the abdomen. Tension and anxiety also impact sleep, and research links sleep disturbances with weight gain, obesity and a higher risk of diabetes and other diseases. Keep that cortisol in check: get at least eight hours of shut-eye every night, and exercise daily—it blunts the cortisol response, eases stress and promotes restful sleep. And seriously lessen stress; try meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or safe, tension-taming herbs and supplements.
3. You’re Exercising the Wrong Way
Working out should be part of any weight-loss plan; exercise offsets the drop in metabolic rate from reducing calories and protects muscle mass—important, because muscle is metabolically active tissue that requires more energy (calories) for maintenance. But jogging an extra mile to offset that morning donut doesn’t work. Most research agrees aerobic exercise has a minimal effect on weight loss, and excessive aerobic exercise in combination with calorie-cutting can decrease muscle mass and impact hormones that promote weight gain. To amp up your slimming regimen, add interval training; short bursts of intense activity burn more calories and significantly more fat, while preserving lean muscle mass. Incorporate resistance training and weight lifting; workouts that focus on building muscle preserve lean muscle mass and prevent a decrease in metabolic rate. And definitely do both; studies suggest a combo of aerobic exercise and resistance training is the best way to lose weight, slim the abdomen and shed body fat.
4. You’re Kidding Yourself About Calories
There’s no getting around this one: to lose weight, you have to take in fewer calories than you expend—and you’re probably eating more than you think, a classic weight-loss mistake. Most people grossly underestimate how many calories they’re consuming, and some research suggests dieters underreport actual food intake by an average of 47 percent. And when you’re dining out, you’re likely eating for two; typical restaurant portions are about double the actual serving size, and that massive plate of penne may be four times the actual half-cup serving size for pasta. For a fast reality check, download a calorie-tracking app and keep track of everything you eat for a week. Don’t obsess; think of it as an education tool to gain insight and establish a baseline. And when you’re dining out, ask your server to pack up half your meal in a to-go box before you even start eating, or split an entrée with a friend. But don’t go too low; starving yourself is counterproductive, and very low-calorie diets slow metabolism and prompt the loss of (active, calorie-burning) muscle mass.
5. Weight Loss Mistake #5: You’re Skimping on Protein
Cutting calories may mean you’re not getting enough protein—a sure-fire way to stall weight loss efforts. Protein promotes satiety and blunts appetite, and some research suggests increasing intake from 15 percent to 30 percent of daily calories can lead to a significant reduction in total calories consumed per day. Other studies link higher dietary protein—at least 25 to 30 grams per meal—with reduced appetite, increased weight loss and enhanced fat burning. Protein also boosts metabolic rate and preserves lean muscle mass. To optimize weight loss, make sure you’re getting plenty of lean protein at every meal. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) recommends a daily intake of 0.8 to 1.0 gram of protein per kg body weight (54 to 68 grams per day for a 150-pound person). What that looks like: a scoop of whey or pea protein powder at breakfast, a lean chicken breast or a cup of lentils at lunch, and 4 ounces of salmon or 8 ounces of tempeh at dinner will rack up about 75 grams of protein.
6. You’re Obsessing Over the Numbers on the Scale
Numbers don’t lie—except when they do. A number of factors influence the reading on your bathroom scale, and weight can fluctuate as much as four pounds over the course of a day. Water retention from hormonal fluctuations or too much salt can freeze the needle (another reason to steer clear of packaged, processed foods). Food and beverages from undigested meals can add as much as a pound a day—or more, depending on how much you’re eating and drinking. Plus, muscle weighs more than fat, so if you’re doing resistance training or weight lifting, the number on the scale may not change that much—even though you’re shedding fat and losing inches. For the most accurate reading, weigh yourself in the morning after you pee, before the weight of undigested food impacts the scale and ideally after a bowel movement. Minimize salt to avoid water weight gain. And don’t take your scale so seriously; a weekly tape measurement around your waist and hips is a more meaningful way to see if you’re losing fat.
Read on for more helpful facts about weight loss: