Most lackluster weight-loss results have nothing to do with the absence of willpower and everything to do with misinformation. Here are five common mistakes that stand between people and weight-loss success.
1. Going “All in”
Going “all in” with your weight-loss plan actually tends to set people up for failure, says Wesley Delbridge, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. After all, if on Day 1, you resolve to do everything all at once — cut 500 calories from your daily intake, eat five servings of fruits and veggies per day, work out, etc. — you’ll likely slip up. “Try easing into everything you do,” he says. “Everything should be a buildup to what your lifestyle will be.” By slowly integrating healthy habits into your routine in manageable chunks, you’ll have a chance to master each change before adding more.
2. Slacking on Sleep
No matter how much you work on nutrition or fitness, if you don’t give your body the sleep it needs, your efforts aren’t going to be maximized. (Unfortunately, 35.3% of U.S. adults get fewer than seven hours a night, per survey data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) “The hormone imbalance associated with lack of sleep works to counteract every weight-loss maneuver you try,” says bariatric surgeon Brian Quebbemann, MD, president of the N.E.W. Program. In one University of Chicago-led study, when dieters slept for only 5.5 hours per night, they lost 55% less weight from fat than they did when sleeping for 8.5 hours — despite following the same diet.
3. Confusing “Low-Calorie” with “Weight-Loss Friendly”
If cutting some calories leads to some weight loss, cutting more calories will lead to more weight loss, right? Unfortunately, the body isn’t that simple, and when you maintain too large of a caloric deficit, it enters “starvation mode.” Deprivation is not doable over the long term — and it fosters an unhealthy relationship with food, Delbridge says. Plus, in the short term, drastically cutting entire food groups can hinder energy levels, metabolism, digestion and overall health. To lose weight in a healthy way, consume about 500–1,000 fewer calories than you burn per day, according to the CDC.
Keep in mind that there’s a huge difference between low-calorie and nutrient-rich foods. The quality of your calories determines your satiety, blood sugar levels, hormonal patterns and overall health. After all, a serving of diet soda might not make a big dent in your caloric intake, but it doesn’t offer you any real nutrients, either, Delbridge says. For that reason, it can be tempting to swear off soda and fries, but again, take things slowly. Saying you can never have x or y sets you up for cravings and failure, he says: “When you do total restriction, the psychology screws you up.”
4. Focusing Only on Cardio and Not Taking a Recovery Day
Steady-state cardio leads to many benefits, but fat loss isn’t a big one. While cardio burns calories during workouts, it doesn’t help you burn calories afterward, Quebbemann says. Strength training, however, does. Strength-training sessions result in excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (aka the afterburn effect). And by building muscle, strength training increases your metabolic rate — the number of calories you burn before factoring in activity. That explains why, in a 2015 Harvard study that tracked 10,500 adults for 12 years, those who strength trained for 20 minutes each day gained less abdominal fat compared with those who spent the same amount of time performing cardio.
But remember, every workout stresses your body, Quebbemann says. It’s in the days between your workouts that your body comes back stronger, fitter and faster. “Without recovery, exercise is simply traumatic and will break down your metabolism rather than build it up,” he says. Try alternating high-intensity exercise sessions with low-intensity or recovery days, take at least a day or two completely off per week and listen to your body.
5. Obsessing over the Scale
Your weight isn’t the ideal measure of your health or body composition. As anyone who strength trains will tell you, 10 pounds of muscle take up much less space than 10 pounds of fat. Limit weighing yourself to once a week and also consider how your clothes fit, your body-fat percentage (many digital scales can estimate that for you), how you feel and your lifestyle, Delbridge says. Think of weight loss as a by-product of living in a healthy way that nourishes your body for the long haul.