Just like training, healthy eating is much more than just knowing the basics. Sure, you probably realize by now that downing a plate of deep-fried onion rings isn't exactly conducive to maintaining a rock-solid midsection. But what about all those lesser-known acts of food sabotage that could be creeping into your everyday eating habits? Some, like eating too fast, could seem rather benign at first, but in fact can be a big reason your physique is more doughy than chiseled. Read on for nine surprising—yet all-too-common—diet traps.
The Trap: A report in The Journal of Consumer Research showed that individuals who make stimulus-based decisions when shopping—instead of choosing items based on what’s on a list—are more likely to succumb to urges for junk food (like that two-for-one deal on cheese puffs). This is because grocery stores are designed to overpower the senses; walking in without a detailed list almost guarantees you’ll come out of the store with items you never intended to purchase—especially junk food.
How to Avoid It: Plan out a week’s worth of healthy meals and snacks, then make a detailed list from your menu—and stick to it. This will save money, too, and protect you from budget- and waistline-wrecking impulse buys.
The Trap: Inhaling your food can give you a physique that looks more station wagon than Ferrari. When you feel like you’re starving, it’s only natural to eat fast, but a 2013 study by British researchers discovered that people who chewed each bite of their lunch for at least 30 seconds consumed half as much candy later in the day as those who ate more quickly. The researchers concluded that chewing food at a snail’s pace can help you remember meals for longer, so you’re less apt to reach for nutritionally corrupt snack foods later on.
How to Avoid It: Put down your utensils after every bite and thoroughly chew your food. (Will that seem agonizingly slow at first? Yes, but you'll get used to it.) The more time it takes to eat, the more satisfied you’ll be. You’ll eat only what you need at that meal and be less likely to cheat later.
The Trap: Too much late-night ice cream can blow up your physique. But scientists in Israel say cheating in moderation does work—as long as it's early in the day. Study volunteers who added a decadent item like cookies, cake, or ice cream to their high-protein, high-carb breakfast kept fat off better and had fewer cravings throughout the day than those who went without. Noshing on cheat foods earlier in the day can take advantage of your metabolism, which is higher in the morning and generally wanes as the day progresses. Or, at the least, eating early will give you more time in the day to burn those calories.
How to Avoid It: You shouldn’t necessarily top off your breakfast with cheesecake, but if you find yourself too often giving in to temptation for desserts, try adding a reasonable amount to your first meal of the day. It could be an ounce of dark chocolate, a few small cookies, or a thin wedge of cake.
The Trap: If you want to fend off flab, make sure the majority of your calories are in solid form. A study conducted by scientists at the University of Kansas Medical Center found that post-meal hunger and desire to eat were greater when subjects consumed liquid calories compared with when they ingested the same amount of energy from solid food. The scientists found that the solid meal led to a greater drop in the "hunger hormone," ghrelin, than the liquid meal did.
Thus, it appears that, calorie-for-calorie, solid food does a better job at curbing hunger and putting the brakes on overeating. What’s more, an investigation published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that fructose, a sugar pumped into many sweetened drinks, does a lousy job of telling your brain to suppress hunger.
How to Avoid It: We still encourage pre- and post-workout protein shakes to fuel muscle repair and growth, but avoid too many liquid calories elsewhere in your diet. This means eating a whole orange instead of chugging down OJ, taking your coffee without sugar, and going easy during cocktail hour. Turn to healthy calorie-free drinks like green tea instead of sugary options like bottled iced teas.
The Trap: If your mind is elsewhere while you’re eating, you could be unknowingly derailing your diet. Case in point: A review of studies published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that eating while watching TV was strongly associated with the consumption of higher portions of calorie-dense food and drink. Further, researchers from the University of Bristol, in England, discovered that people who ate a meal while playing a computer game consumed double the number of calories for dessert 30 minutes later than those who dined distraction-free.
Taking attention away from the food you’re consuming causes a lack of awareness about how much you’re actually eating, which may lead to calorie gluttony. You’ll also remember less about the food if you ate while watching TV or working on the computer, which can leave you feeling famished later on.
How to Avoid It: Make it a priority to make mealtime just that: a time to focus on the food you’re eating, not the never-ending spam e-mail in your in-box. This means meals should be eaten at the dinner table or in the office break room instead of on the couch or in front of the computer.
The Trap: Stress in the weight room is a good thing, but when it comes to healthful eating, not so much. In a recent report in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, scientists asked volunteers to read statements designed to heighten negativity and stress, then performed brain scans while the volunteers viewed pictures of high-calorie foods, such as cake or a hamburger. They found that the same parts of the brain that equate pleasure with sinful foods lit up like a Christmas tree. Stressful situations like work deadlines and falling behind on bill payments can set up a scenario in which the reward portion of your brain takes control of your exhausted mind, making it difficult to resist diet-derailing foods.
How to Avoid It: During particularly stressful times, look for ways to distance yourself from unhealthy temptations such as the drive-thru on the way home from work. A walk in the park during your lunch hour or an all-out workout after a workday can help calm your nerves so you won’t dig deep into a tub of ice cream. Keep healthy snacks like baby carrots and almonds in your office or car so you can munch on these when your boss is pushing your buttons. And remember that it’s much harder to eat crap when you’re stressed if you don’t have it in the house in the first place.
The Trap: Products labeled “low-fat” or “fat-free” can do your waistline more harm than good. A 2013 study published in the journal Appetite fed subjects identical meals on separate occasions. The information they received about the meals differed, however, in that one was said to be lower in fat and calories than the other. The researchers found that men consumed on average 3% more calories when noshing on the meals they believed to be low-fat. Foods labeled as such can cause you to increase what you think is an appropriate serving size, underestimate total consumption, and even alleviate guilt in the aftermath.
How to Avoid It: When companies alter processed foods like cookies, salad dressings, peanut butter, and fruit yogurt to become “low fat,” they typically add sugar to compensate for taste. So if you scarf down a jumbo low-fat muffin, you’ll likely end up eating more calories than if you had a normal-size full-fat muffin. You’re almost always better served by sticking with the real deal (read: plain 2% yogurt and full-fat natural peanut butter) and enjoying them in sensible servings. Besides, the fat these foods contain will help temper hunger pangs, so you’re less likely to raid the vending machine later on.
If you think forgoing the drive-through for a sit-down restaurant will help in your pursuit to get lean, think again. According to a recent American Journal of Preventive Medicine study, dishes at family establishments like Applebee’s and Olive Garden have higher calorie counts on average compared with those served at fast-food joints. Why? The common restaurant practice of bringing elephantine serving sizes to the table assures an avalanche of calories. And researchers reported in the Journal of Consumer Research that patrons are likely to underestimate the calories in a meal from a restaurant they believe is “healthier.”
How to Avoid It: Be the chef. Because restaurant fare is often a sea of nutritional pitfalls, trimming the fat means preparing as many of your own meals and snacks as possible so you can control the ingredients used. When you do eat out, try to select restaurants that post the calorie count of their dishes so you’re more informed and have a fighting chance.
The Trap: Eating at regular intervals is common advice, but it can be all too easy to nibble your way to a soft physique. These ideas might seem familiar: "It seems silly to leave just one rice cake in the bag…Nobody will notice the missing brownie in the office lunchroom… It won’t matter if you grab a few extra handfuls of pretzels here and there as you plug away on the computer." But such mindless, seemingly innocent munching adds up—and it could sabotage a well-planned diet geared toward torching fat.
How to Avoid It: If you’re serious about eating to get lean, one of the best ways to do it is to write down everything you eat in a detailed food journal that tracks each bite. A report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine involving nearly 1,700 participants found that those who kept daily food records lost about twice as much body fat as those who failed to jot down what they ate. A food journal keeps you honest and lets you pinpoint where you might be falling into bad habits.