Ask an Expert: Ten Dietary Mistakes that lead to Weight Gain

Q: “I think I follow a pretty healthy diet, but I must be doing something wrong, because my weight keeps creeping upward. What dietary mistakes most often lead to weight gain?”

Answer provided by Valerie Edwards, M.S., R.D., L.D., clinical dietitian, Providence Portland Medical Center, and Michelle Guitteau, M.D., director of ambulatory education, Providence Portland Medical Center: 

That’s a great question, because it’s such a common problem. Sometimes, the very things we do to avoid weight gain actually end up causing it. Even the best intentions can be sabotaged by a few common dietary mistakes. Here are 10 of the most common mistakes we see that lead to weight gain:

Mistake #1: Skipping meals (especially breakfast)

Skipping breakfast or lunch may seem like an easy way to cut calories and lose weight. However, this strategy almost always backfires. Skipping meals leaves you hungrier and more likely to overeat later. It also may slow down your metabolism, so you burn fewer calories. Research suggests that people who eat breakfast eat fewer calories overall, and that eating breakfast may help maintain weight loss.

Solution: If you’re not hungry in the morning, try eating less at night. If eating in the morning upsets your stomach, start small — just eat half a banana with a little yogurt or a piece of whole-grain toast, and gradually add to that as your body gets used to it. If you never seem to have time for lunch, start packing a lunch that includes things you can eat on the fly, like dried and fresh fruits, veggie sticks, whole-grain crackers and string cheese.

Mistake #2: Consuming too many liquid calories

Think about all of the things you drink in a day: coffee drinks, fruit juice, milk, sports drinks, energy drinks, sodas, alcoholic beverages — these can easily add 500, 600, 700 calories or more to your diet every day. Yet studies show that most of us do not reduce our food calories to compensate for these liquid calories.

Solution: Make water your beverage of choice and limit calories from liquids to no more than 200 calories per day. Focus your liquid calories primarily on beverages that provide nutrition. Milk, for example, is a good source of calcium, compared to sodas, which have no nutritional value. (Two cups of low-fat or fat-free milk a day puts you at about the 200-calorie limit; drinking three cups is OK if it’s your only source of calcium, but other non-liquid dairy sources might be more satiating.) Providence’s nutrition expert offers more advice at Ask an Expert: How Many Calories Should I Drink Each Day

Mistake #3: Portion distortion

Studies consistently show that when we have large portions in front of us, we eat about 25 percent more calories than we would if we were served smaller portions. (See also Diliberti, N. et al, Obesity Research, 12(3):562-8, 2004 Mar.) That’s a huge difference, and it holds true for children as well as adults. In one study, children who were served larger entrees ate 25 percent more of the entree, and 15 percent more calories overall, than they did when they were allowed to serve themselves. In another study by food psychology professor and author Brian Wansink, people who were given a free, large bucket of popcorn at a movie ate 53 percent more than people who were given a free medium-sized bucket — even though the popcorn was so stale that some people asked for their money back.

Solution: Many people have great success managing portions by using the plate method.  Find yourself a smaller plate — about 9 inches in diameter — and use it for your meals. Mentally divide the plate into quarters. Fill two quarters with vegetables (two kinds, or a mixed salad), one quarter with protein, and one quarter with grains or starch. At buffet-style parties, you can use the same technique by choosing the smaller-sized plates. But remember, going back for seconds defeats the purpose of the smaller plate.

Mistake #4: Overestimating fruits and vegetables

Most people overestimate how many fruits and vegetables they eat in a day, and hardly anybody eats the recommended five or more daily servings. This is a mistake that can quickly lead to weight gain, because eating fewer low-calorie fruits and vegetables leaves you more room for high-calorie food. Eating more fruits and vegetables helps manage weight while controlling hunger
Solution: Include at least one fruit or vegetable with each meal and as snacks. The plate method (see #3) is an excellent reminder of the role that produce should play in your diet. In addition to filling half of your plate with vegetables, the plate method encourages adding fresh fruit “off the plate.” If you’re not a big fan of vegetables, try roasting them to sweeten their flavor, or chopping them up really small and adding them to soups, salads, omelets and pasta dishes. Read more about how many fruits and vegetables you should eat
Mistake #5: Eating too many processed, packaged and refined foods

Cookies, crackers, chips, bagels and baguettes — they’re instantly satisfying, but these refined carbohydrates just don’t keep us satisfied. Once the initial spike in blood sugar subsides, we crash and crave more, setting in motion a cycle that leads to weight gain.

Solution: Better choices are natural, unrefined, unprocessed, whole foods that provide protein and/or complex carbohydrates. Think whole-grain breads and crackers, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, and low-fat yogurts and cheeses. They’ll fill you up and help you feel more energized and satisfied throughout the day.

Mistake #6: Dining out too often

Restaurant food, whether it’s dine-in or takeout, is generally higher in calories than what you would eat at home. With the hidden fats, large portions and extra courses (how often do you have appetizers at home?), it’s easy to consume twice the calories in a restaurant than you would consume if you had stayed home.

Solution: Limit restaurant and takeout meals to two or three times a week. Instead of takeout, shop the prepared-foods section and the salad bar of your local health-oriented grocery store. Supplement takeout entrees with fresh salads and vegetables, using the plate method. Choose restaurants that serve healthier foods and more vegetables.
Mistake #7: Eating the whole meal when dining out

The other problem with dining out is the portion sizes. Most of the time, we can get all the calories we need by eating just half to two-thirds of the portion served at a restaurant — and that’s just the main dish.

Solution: Consider asking your server not to bring the bread basket. Split an entree, or request a doggy bag up front and put half of your entree in it before you start to eat. Watch extras, like desserts and drinks. Share a dessert for the table.

Mistake #8: Diets that eliminate an entire food group

Following a diet that severely restricts or eliminates an entire food group (such as low-carb diets) is not a healthful, balanced way to eat. More importantly from a weight-management perspective, it is not sustainable. You may lose weight initially simply because by eliminating a food group, you are reducing total calories. But because no one can or should stay on this type of diet long term, the weight comes back even more easily than it left.

Solution: Forget these fad diets. Instead, follow a sensible, balanced diet that includes whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein and small amounts of healthful fats. And remember your portion control.

Mistake #9: Classifying foods as good or bad

You may think it’s helpful to avoid “bad” foods, such as pizza, French fries and ice cream. But the label itself — declaring a particular food as “bad” — leads to feelings of deprivation, which isn’t sustainable. Depriving yourself generally leads to overeating and even to binging.

Solution: Allow all foods that you like — in moderation. If there are certain foods that you absolutely cannot resist, however, you may want to limit your access to them. If you can’t resist pie, for example, don’t bring home a whole pie. But do allow yourself to go out occasionally and enjoy a slice.

Mistake #10: Keeping too many treats in sight

Research by Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, suggests that if you have five different treats that you like at home, you’ll probably want to have some of each of them. This can lead to grazing as you try to satisfy first the desire for one type of treat and then another. Keeping your treats out in plain sight compounds the temptation.

Solution: Keep only one or two treats in the house at a time, and keep them out of sight. Use counter space for more healthful snacks, such as a beautiful bowl of fruit. We hope this helps you recognize and correct some of the dietary mistakes that could be contributing to your weight gain.

Good luck!

June 2008

For more information:
Losing the last 10 pounds  

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