There’s an old saying: If you find yourself standing in a deep hole with a shovel in your hands, stop digging. So if you’ve been gaining weight, but you haven’t been making any changes to your daily habits, you’re just digging yourself a little deeper into the hole every single day but still ask yourself “why is this happening?”
In fact, as much as you may guilt-trip ourselves over a couple of innocent indulgences—the decadent dessert you broke down and ordered, or the extra helping you served yourself of a pasta dish you finally mastered cooking—it’s not the occasional extravagances we should focus on. An extra 500 or even 1,000 calories a week isn’t going to make a dent on the scale.
Instead, it’s the little things you do, day in and day out, things that you barely notice you’re doing, that determine whether your waistline is trending outward or inward.
1. You eat low-fat
It sounds crazy, but stop buying foods marketed as low-fat or fat-free, even weight-loss smoothies. The answer to “does fat make you fat” is “no.” Typically, low-fat products save you only a few calories.
Only a few, you ask? It’s because food manufacturers replace harmless fats with low-performing simple carbohydrates that digest quickly—causing a sugar rush and, immediately afterward, rebound hunger. Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that meals that limited carbohydrates to 43% were more filling and had a milder effect on blood sugar than meals with 55% carbohydrates. That means you’ll store less body fat and be less likely to eat more later.’
2. You ignore sodium counts
Your favorite trail mix only has 150-calories, but did you check to see how much sodium is lurking inside the package? All too often, those who aren’t suffering from a health condition overlook that part of the nutrition label. “Americans consume, on average, about 50% more than the daily recommended intake of salt, and most of the excess sodium is coming from processed foods like frozen waffles, bagels, cheese cottage cheese, veggie burgers and salad dressings,” says Michelle Loy, MPH, MS, CSSD, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and owner of Go Wellness in Orange County, California.
Does salt make you fat? It’s not likely to cause fat gain, but salt will make you look fatter as it causes bloat. Sticking to The Institute of Medicine’s daily recommendation of 2,300 milligrams per day or less can help you keep a bloated belly, high blood pressure, and other health conditions at bay.
3. You don’t drink enough water
Adequate water intake is essential for all your body’s functions, and the more you drink, the better your chances of staying thin. In one University of Utah study, dieting participants who were instructed to drink two cups of water before each meal lost 30% more weight than their thirsty peers. And you can magnify the effect by adding ice. German researchers found that six cups of cold water a day could prompt a metabolic boost that incinerates 50 daily calories. That’s enough to shed five pounds a year!
4. You’re sleeping too little or too much
According to Wake Forest researchers, dieters who sleep five hours or less put on 2½ times more belly fat, while those who sleep more than eight hours pack on only slightly less than that. Shoot for an average of six to seven hours of sleep per night—the optimal amount for weight control.
5. You don’t get tested
Although you may get scanned for high cholesterol or diabetes at your annual exam, doctors don’t typically test or look for physical signs of nutritional deficiencies—which can be dangerous! Loy suggests having your vitamin D levels checked if nothing else. “Many people are deficient and don’t even know it—and not getting enough may increase the risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, and certain types of cancer,” she warns.
6. You eat too quickly
If your body has one major flaw, this is it: It takes 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that it’s had enough. A study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that slow eaters took in 66 fewer calories per meal, but compared to their fast-eating peers, they felt like they had eaten more. What’s 66 calories, you ask? If you can do that at every meal, you’ll lose more than 20 pounds a year!
7. You eat off large plates
One study published in the journal Obesity Science & Practice found that when given an option, a whopping 98.6% of obese individuals opt for larger plates. Translation: More food, more calories, and more body fat. Keep your portions in check by choosing smaller serving dishes. If need be, you can always go back for seconds.
8. You watch too much TV
A University of Vermont study found that overweight participants who reduced their TV time by just 50% burned an additional 119 calories a day on average. That’s an automatic 12-pound annual loss! Maximize those results by multitasking while you watch—even light household tasks will further bump up your caloric burn. Plus, if your hands are occupied with dishes or laundry, you’ll be less likely to mindlessly snack—the other main occupational hazard associated with tube time.
9. You order the combo meal
A study in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing shows that compared to ordering a la carte, you pick up a hundred or more extra calories by opting for the “combo” or “value meal.” Why? Because when you order items bundled together, you’re likely to buy more food than you want. You’re better off ordering your food piecemeal. That way you won’t be influenced by pricing schemes designed to hustle a few more cents out of your pocket.
10. You ignore nutrition advice
When Australian researchers sent diet and exercise habits to 75 people, they found that the recipients began eating smarter and working more physical activity into their daily routines. Not surprisingly, the habits (and waistlines) of the non-recipients didn’t budge.
11. You drink soda
The average American guzzles nearly a full gallon of soda every week. Why is that so bad? Because a 2005 study found that drinking one to two sodas per day increases your chances of being overweight or obese by nearly 33%. And diet soda is no better. When researchers in San Antonio tracked a group of elderly subjects for nearly a decade, they found that compared to nondrinkers, those who drank two or more diet sodas a day watched their waistlines increase five times faster. The researchers theorize that the artificial sweeteners trigger appetite cues, causing you to unconsciously eat more at subsequent meals.
12. You don’t set aside time to relax and destress
You manage to avoid sweets, which is pretty impressive—especially on super stressful days—but you’ve got to let off some steam somehow. If you don’t, it could lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels, causing sleep and immunity problems, blood-sugar abnormalities and weight gain. How should you chillax? Registered dietitian Lori Zanini, RD, CDE, says stress relief is very individualized, so what helps your BFF relax may not work for you. Give a few different tactics a try and see what works best for you. Practicing yoga, meeting up with friends and unplugging from technology for an evening are all things Zanini says are worth a shot.
13. You try extreme diets
If you’ve just hopped on the Paleo or low-carb bandwagon, proceed with caution! “Often diets that cut out entire food groups do not allow for the balance and moderation we need to follow a healthy, lifelong eating plan,” warns Zanini. “Plus, dieters who follow these plans may be prone to potentially dangerous nutritional deficiencies. Or they may simply get bored with their restricted plan and end up overeating down the road,” warns Zanini.
14. You eat when emotional
A study from the University of Alabama found that emotional eaters—those who admitted eating in response to emotional stress—were 13 times more likely to be overweight or obese. If you feel the urge to eat in response to stress, try chewing a piece of gum, chugging a glass of water, or taking a walk around the block. Create an automatic response that doesn’t involve food and you’ll prevent yourself from overloading on calories.