The common problem I see is that people are too focused on the calories-in-calories-out philosophy. Mathematically that all sounds well and good. People have learned that you have to burn 3,500 calories to lose a pound, so if you create a 500 calorie deficit each day, you should be able to lose a pound a week, more if you exercise. And there exist innumerable other formulas people have used to calculate exactly how many calories they should eat in order to lose weight. However, weight loss is so much more than that! Your body is smarter than any mathematical formula! Your body's main purpose is to adapt. So when you cut out 500 calories a day, you may lose a few pounds at first, but eventually your body adapts to the new low-cal diet, generally through slowing down the metabolism--NOT what you want.
Don't get me wrong--if you need to lose weight, you should consider a 500 calorie deficit per day; however, if you want to continuously lose weight and keep it off, it's going to take more than just that. Here are some tips to combat the common mistakes I see people making:
- No more "diet" foods. I had to stop looking at the labels on the front of packaged foods. Things that say "Reduced fat" or "High in fiber" etc, etc only say those things for the sole purpose of making money--not to actually inform you of how nutritious the food is. The very first thing I look at are the ingredients and I make sure that there are no or very few chemically altered ingredients (and if they are they are one of the last ingredients listed), especially no high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils. I make sure the first ingredients are plant-based. When there is only one or two plant-based ingredients, I am especially satisfied. Then, and only then, do I look at the "Nutrition Facts." And before looking at how many calories, fat, carbs, sugar, etc, I check the serving size to get a sense of how much actual food we're talking about. The biggest problem with "diet foods" is those pesky artificial sweeteners. These foods encourage cravings because they give your mind a sense of satisfaction, but not your body. If I'm craving something sweet, it is my body's way of telling me that I need glucose, and it prefers to obtain it from fruits. We'll talk about what to do if you want to treat yourself later down the list.
- No more (or very few) chemically altered foods. This goes back to what I was just saying, but it cannot be understated. Chemically altered foods sabotage any diet. They make the brain think you're eating a highly nutritious food because of their rich taste, but your body doesn't process it as such. These foods are linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. The way I eliminated chemically altered foods from my daily intake was by simply not purchasing them. You would not believe how amazing I feel when I eat a mostly whole foods diet. I have energy and I just feel full of life. I feel more patient and positive, and I just seem to handle stress better. That's because my body is getting exactly what it needs--real food. (note: a lot of people say you shouldn't eat "processed" foods, but I find that next to impossible for my lifestyle. Think about it: all natural peanut butter, whose only ingredient is organic blanched peanuts, is not chemically altered; however, it is considered processed since those peanuts had to be processed to be turned into peanut butter)
- Limit (or completely eliminate) refined sugar and white flour. This advice comes solely from personal experience. There is a ton of research out there that suggests why eliminating refined white sugar and white flour is good for you, but to be honest, the best thing I can say about it is that doing so made me feel fantastic. You decide how these ingredients affect you--some people seem to have more of a tolerance than others. For me, refined sugar contributes to cravings and white flour to fatigue and general sluggishness, as well as a low level of depression. I now put a little bit of honey in my oatmeal when I want to sweeten it and I opt for deserts and snacks sweetened with honey as well. The white flour is a little bit trickier to avoid, but Ezekial bread is something I highly recommend as opposed to white bread or even most packaged breads that claim to be "whole grain" because they rarely are. Ezekial bread is made of sprouted whole grains.
- Eat a fruit and/or vegetable with every meal. One person on the My Fitness Pal message boards was very distraught about not losing weight even though she was under her recommended calorie limit. When I looked at her food diary, I was amazed that she was trying to lose weight without eating any or barely any fruits and vegetables on most days! In order to get enough fruits and vegetables, I make sure that I have at least one (preferably more) with each meal--including snacks. So with my morning "Breakfast of Healthy, Fit Champions" I always have berries in my oats. For my mid-morning snack I usually have a fruit with my spirulina protein shake. For lunch I often have a salad or vegetable soup, but if not I make sure I have some side of veggies, and I'll usually have a fruit with lunch as well. For my mid-afternoon snack, I often enjoy raw veggies with two tablespoons of almond butter. And I always have a side of vegetables, usually steamed, with dinner.
- Eat all day long. I try to eat something nutritious ever 2-3 hours. This keeps my metabolism at top speed and prevents me from getting too hungry and overeating. It also prevents cravings for unhealthy foods. Not to mention, this is how I make sure I'm eating enough. Creating calorie deficit that is too high can actually be counterproductive to weight loss because it slows down your metabolism. I stick with my recommended number of calories, never going more than 100 calories over or below.
- Drink water all day long. I always have water on hand. I have a liter-sized water bottle with me that I take EVERYWHERE. Usually it's just good old fashioned water, but sometimes I add slices of cucumbers and spearmint leaves for a refreshing flavor (although I don't recommend drinking that all day long, as the cucumbers will make you bloated) or just a spritz of lemon, lime, or orange. I highly recommend completely eliminating soda of all kinds, as well as steering clear of flavored waters or low-calorie powders that can be added to water for taste (see rule #2).
- Sleep 7-8 hours a night during consistent times. Getting enough, consistent sleep each night prevents cravings during the day as well as a sluggish metabolism. Not to mention, not getting enough sleep is counterproductive to workouts, especially rigorous workouts, as you need optimum energy for your workouts to be effective and in order to prevent injuries.
- Eat generally the same things from day to day. My daily intake of food is very predictable. This has nothing to do with the chemistry of your body or metabolism, it's simply because it makes it easier to stay on track. So many fad diets advertise "variety," but variety can take the fun out of health and turn it into work. When I find nutritious foods I enjoy, I tend to know their serving size, nutrition info, ingredients, etc by heart. Not changing it up too much takes all the guesswork and calorie counting out. I'm NOT saying eat the exact same thing every day forever, but have a few staple meals and snacks and stick with them. When I get bored of those foods and find I'm no longer looking forward to eating them, then by all means I switch them out for a new food and come back to that one later.
- Exercise 5-6 times a week and vary your workouts. Regular exercise should be a no-brainer when it comes to weight loss and general health (although it wasn't for me). But some people don't do it enough or even do it too much--I give myself at least one rest day each week (I sometimes do light stretching on rest days but no strength training or cardiovascular exercise). Also, unlike my diet, I vary my exercise. One of the main reasons I used to think that working out wasn't effective was because I'd go to the gym and do the same things every day. Now, I do strength training three days a week on alternating days, only focusing on one or two muscle groups a day, and I do a variety of cardiovascular workouts three days a week on alternating days. Every four weeks or so I change up the nature of my workouts, which is called "muscle confusion" strength training. To learn more research High Intensity Interval Training (often referred to as HIIT) as well as muscle confusion strength training.
- Fail. When it comes to working out--I often aim to fail. I know that sounds crazy, but I've found that I need to get to the point when my muscles are so fatigued that I literally cannot do another push-up or run any farther. This means that I have to make my workouts slightly more challenging as time goes on (remember the body is constantly trying to adapt). When I do strength training, I keep a mental log of how many reps I do and how much weight I lift (most people write it down though), and I'm ever vigilant that I'm constantly improving and making my workout more challenging. When it comes to weight training, you should not wait to hit "muscle failure" in order to stop lifting, but with exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, lunges etc, I honestly think there is no sense counting your reps--just keep going until you can't go any more. I'm not, I repeat: I AM NOT, saying work yourself into the ground until you've injured yourself or over-trained, but you know the feeling you get after you've done X amount of push-ups and your muscles will simply not allow you to do another one? When I have that feeling of muscle failure, I know I've done enough reps. When I'm in a kickboxing class or doing plyometrics or running on the elliptical trainer, I'm constantly asking myself "Could I be doing more?" If the answer is yes, I have to increase my level of intensity. If the answer is "No, I can't go any harder," than I'm exactly where I should be in terms of intensity and should try to maintain that. If my answer is "I have to stop, I'm in real pain," then I should have stopped earlier. Learn the difference between "This is too hard, I want to stop" and "I've worked at my maximum for as long as I safely can, it's time to stop."
- Allow yourself treats, but not cheats. This is my own personal motto. A treat is something I can afford. If I've calculated the non-dairy, sugarless ice cream into my day, it's a treat. I'm going to enjoy every bite, knowing that I have room for it nutrition-wise. A cheat is an unexpected decision I made, without really considering whether or not it was a nutritious choice, and I feel guilty after eating it. If you're going to a birthday party, by all means have a piece of cake! It's a celebration! But on the day of the party, when you're considering what to eat beforehand--keep in mind that you'll likely have cake later. This eliminates guilt and the possibility of overeating.
- Make your goal more about health and less about weight. It's perfectly fine to want to lose weight and for some people it's necessary for their health, but when I used to focus all of my efforts on weight loss, I'd fall back into the calories-in-calories-out philosophy. Once my main purpose became choosing healthy foods over non-healthy foods, losing weight was just an added bonus.
In writing this post, I did not really research these tips--I stand by them because they worked for me. I learned about them through the success of others as well as my own success. I also highly recommend Tosca Reno's book, The Eat Clean Diet, in which she really spells out much of this better than I do. Remember: It takes 21 days to create a habit (make it 30 to be safe), so in the beginning it's going to be tough, but in just 3 weeks, you'll be so accustomed to these habits that they will be as natural as brushing your teeth each day.
Good luck and be well!