11 Things Dietitians Wish You'd Stop Doing When Trying to Lose Weight
For starters, step away from the scale.
If you've tried everything, but can't seem to shed those last few pesky pounds, you could be sabotaging yourself without even realizing it. Here are 11 weight-loss mistakes dietitians see all of the time—plus, what you should be doing instead.
1. You're eating less.
If you want to lose weight, just eat less and exercise more, right? Wrong. According to dietitians, this is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. "I see this all the time," says Alix Turoff, MS, RD, CDN, CPT, registered dietitian and personal trainer at Alix Turoff Nutrition. It's not just eating less, but what happens when you do. "People eat too little at meals, feel unsatisfied and then overeat or binge later."
Instead, she says to focus on getting enough calories to fuel your body at every meal. "Within those calories, make sure you're getting a combination of protein, fat and carbs to keep you full, help balance your blood sugar and keep cravings at bay."
Allison Knott, MS, RDN, CSSD, a New York City-based dietitian at ANEW Well says that the "eat less" mantra unfortunately gets applied to fruits and vegetables too and you should be eating more produce, not less. "Eating more plants is associated with a lower risk for chronic disease and has been shown to play a role in weight maintenance and loss," Knott says, "This may be because of the combination of fiber and water content of plants which is important for satiety."
Laura Krebs-Holm, MS RD LD, says that while cutting calories, "may work for a short period, eventually weight loss progress stalls and people think they need to keep cutting... sometimes as low as 800-1,000 calories per day!" which is not sustainable long-term.
Recipe pictured above: White Bean & Veggie Salad
Katie Andrews, MS, RDN, CDN, dietitian and owner of CT-based practice Wellness by Katie also wishes her clients would stop eating so little during the day, "I'm often convincing people that the first step to losing weight is ensuring they have a healthy metabolism, and your metabolism can't function properly when you're running on a calorie restriction. This prompts the body to retain energy (aka fat), not burn it! So Step 1: ensure you are eating enough calories throughout the day, with the right balance of protein, fat and fiber, to ensure even energy distribution and satiety. And yes, this could mean MORE food!"
2. You're categorizing foods as "good" and "bad."
Pictured Recipe: Cast-Iron Skillet Pizza with Sausage & Kale
Along with restricting total calorie intake, people often restrict foods they view as "bad" but Lauren Smith, MS, RD, LDN, dietitian and owner of Sorority Nutritionist says to stop, "Cutting out fun foods to lose weight like pizza, ice cream and Starbucks lattes."
"You don't have to give up any one food to lose weight," she says, "because one food doesn't cause weight gain and one food doesn't cause weight loss; it's your habits and how many calories you consistently consume."
Melanie Wong, MA, RDN echoes this recommendation, "One thing I wish people would stop doing when trying to lose weight is heavily restricting their diets and not allowing themselves to eat foods they enjoy or foods that hold meaning in their lives. Instead of skipping out on celebration foods like birthday cake, balance intake throughout the day and continue with a well balanced diet after celebrating."
3. You're looking for a quick fix.
There are a lot of fad diets out there—and none of them work long-term. So skip the fads and, "focus on losing weight in a safe and healthy way instead," says Abby Naely, MA, RD, LD.
"Many people think they are going to change behaviors and lose weight overnight," says Denise Fields, RDN, CSO, founder of DF Nutrition & Wellness. This thinking comes from a history of dieting, which leads to quick fixes but lasting weight loss doesn't happen overnight.
Julie Andrews, MS, RDN, CD, chef and dietitian, says "I have seen so many people make extreme changes in their diet, and follow a restrictive diet in order to lose weight, but most of the time this type of approach leads to deprivation and an unhealthy relationship with food. The biggest advice I can give is to be patient when trying to lose weight and take a balanced approach that you can follow the rest of your life."
Fields says this involves setting realistic weight goals. Then, "you have to plan meals out, go to the grocery store and meal prep. Many people are not used to planning ahead when it comes to meals. This behavior takes time to become a habit and is essential to eating healthy and losing weight," she says.
Work with—you guessed it— a dietitian to help develop new habits around meal prep and weight loss. (And, in the meantime, subscribe to ThePrep newsletter for helpful meal prep tips and tricks!)
4. You're placing too much focus on the scale.
When you say you want to lose weight, what you probably mean is that you want to lose fat. Remember that the number on the scale is a sum of not just how much your fat weighs but also your muscles, bones, fluid, tissue, etc.—everything in your body! Yet, so much emphasis is placed on the scale. "Stop focusing on the scale!" says Meridith Fargnoli, RD. "Success isn't always linear. Take measurements, before and afters [photos], a personal inventory of how you feel—all of these things can hold more weight (pun intended) than a number on a scale!"
If you want to lose weight, you're obviously focused on the outcome, but dietitians often see that clients become too focused on the result instead of on the behaviors that help them sustain the results long-term.
"Too many times I hear my clients (even my personal family members and friends) focus too much on the end 'result,'" says performance dietitian, Lindsay Oar, MS, RD, LDN. "Their goal weight is all that matters and once they reach it, they fall off the course and spiral back into their not so great habits they had before. Maybe it's a wedding, a vacation or a New Year goal that made them make those changes, so once it's reached, they lose the motivation to continue."
Jeanette Kimszal, RDN, NLC of Root Nutrition & Education agrees, "People get so focused on the end results that they may stress themselves out about every little thing they are doing. If they are not managing their stress that could ultimately affect their weight loss outcomes. I see a lot of clients who are focused on losing weight as a means to an end of feeling better about themselves. However, if someone does not have positive self-esteem before they lose weight they still may not have a positive self-image even after the weight is lost. Getting to a positive mindset is important during weight loss and this can be done by praising themselves for what they have accomplished."
"Please stop believing you need to hate yourself until you reach an 'ideal weight,' reiterates Kristi Coughlin, MS, RDN creator of Effect Positivity. "Learning self-love is just as important, if not more, than changing the way you eat."
5. You're counting calories.
Dietitians differ on their views when it comes to counting calories. Sarah A. Moore RDN, CD, CYT, wishes people were not so afraid of it. "Numerous research studies show tracking calories works to help people lose weight."
And while Knott thinks calorie tracking can absolutely be a helpful tool, it shouldn't "be the end-all-be-all of a weight loss journey," which is how many people use it. "Using apps to track only calories is likely to result in making decisions based on calories alone, while simultaneously missing the eating pattern as a whole," says Knott. "It's important to recognize that calories are only one measurement of a food and many other nutrients in food have a significant impact on total health as well as mental and physical satisfaction."
Calorie-counting apps can also provide unrealistically low calorie targets, she notes. And one of the biggest downsides? "Relying solely on a calorie-tracking app can result in ignoring hunger or fullness cues. Tuning in to hunger and fullness is likely to mean you'll eat more one day or less the next and you'll rarely hit the exact number the app is telling you to hit. Remember, our bodies are not computers and our hunger or fullness will fluctuate, depending on a variety of factors like activity level, stress, sleep and more. Trust yourself and remember that if an app is only one (optional) tool in a much bigger toolbox."
6. You're eating every 2-3 hours.
No more eating 5-6 small meals every day for weight loss. Megan Kober, RD and owner of Nutrition Addiction says eating every 2-3 hours, "causes us to think about food constantly and when we eat small meals that don't really satisfy us, we're much more likely to overeat later in the day. Thinking about food all day like this can cause major food anxiety. Meals should keep us full for at least 4 hours."
So what can you do if you're always hungry? Well, take a closer look at your meals. You may need to add more food (see #1), and make sure that you're getting a good amount of fiber, protein and healthy fats to keep you full.
7. You're sacrificing sleep.
Kober also sees her clients sacrifice sleep to go to the gym which she does not recommend for weight loss. "You've gotta earn your right to go to the gym in the morning by sleeping at least 7 hours," she says. "If you don't, turn that alarm clock off! Your body makes leptin and ghrelin (your satiety and hunger hormones) while you sleep, so if you don't get enough, you'll be more hungry the next day. Sleep deprivation is also stressful on the body which can lead to inflammation."
8. You're only doing cardio.
Doing cardio 5-6 days per week comes from the false idea that if you burn more than you eat, you'll lose weight. But you've (probably) noticed that this doesn't work.
There are a few reasons why. First, research shows that exercise doesn't lead to weight loss—changing your diet is key. Second, cardio exercise like running and spinning makes people hungry, and when you're hungry, it's hard to lose weight. Combine that with cutting calories and it's even harder to lose weight.
You also subconsciously feel like you can eat more when you workout. "People often feel entitled to eat more post cardiovascular activity—people tend to overestimate calories burned in the gym and underestimate their caloric intake, which negates any calories burned," says Tanya Zuckerbrot MS, RD, CEO and founder of F-Factor.
"Instead, use cardio for mood-boosting effects, heart health, etc. and support weight loss efforts through diet and weight resistant activity," she says.
Walk 30 minutes several days per week, do higher intensity cardio 1-2 days a week and do strength training 3-4 days a week. "The more lean muscle you have, the faster your metabolism because even at rest lean body mass is active, burning calories," says Zuckerbrot. "In contrast to cardio, when you do strength training, you essentially continue burning calories long after you finish working out." Plus, you get the lean, toned look that most people are looking for when trying to lose weight. Learn more about why strength training is so important for your health and weight-loss goals.
9. You're cutting carbs.
Recipe pictured above: Lemon Chicken Pasta
Dietitians wish you'd stop cutting out all carbs without understanding the different types and how they affect your body. Sugar and fiber are both carbohydrates, but they are digested differently. "Cutting out carbs is an issue because fiber, which is the most important tool for weight loss, is only found in carbs," says Zuckerbrot.
Plus, carbs are the body's preferred source of energy. The problem isn't the carbs themselves, but that we're eating too many of them, says Zuckerbrot. After your body uses what it needs for energy, it stores the rest as fat.
"While some foods high in carbs are not great for weight loss (think foods high in sugars with addition of fats, such as candy bars, ice cream or pastries) and some foods high in carbs have little nutritional value (bagels, white rice), many higher-carb foods can help with weight loss," says Jennifer Singh, RD, LDN.
That is—the ones with fiber, Zuckerbrot explains, "Fiber is the zero-calorie, non-digestible part of a carbohydrate that adds bulk to food. When eaten, fiber swells in the stomach. Therefore, when you follow a diet rich in fiber, you feel full after eating and you'll generally eat less throughout the day, leading to weight loss."
That's in stark contrast to cutting carbs altogether which leaves you "feeling tired, cranky, shaky and lethargic," says Zuckerbrot. "These feelings can trigger excess snacking and feelings of deprivation which can deter weight loss efforts."
"Fiber absorbs and removes fat and calories, and boosts metabolism," says Zuckerbrot. "Fiber allows you to eat carbs, without gaining weight, and puts your body in a position to burn fat for fuel. Aim for 35+ grams per day to reap the weight management and health and wellness benefits of fiber." Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds are rich in fiber (these 10 foods have more fiber than an apple).
10. You're neglecting the basics.
In the midst of all the fad diets, it's easy to lose sight of the basics that research shows lead to lasting results—things like making half your plate vegetables, 1/4 protein and 1/4 whole grains. Anyone can lose weight, but those who keep it off long-term keep up the changes forever. So if you can't stick to what you're doing forever, you won't see the results forever.
"I like to encourage my clients to focus on the basics: balanced plates with lots of color from fruit and veggies, lean proteins, whole grains, beans, legumes and plenty of water," says Oar. "Let those basics guide you (while obviously exercising and being in somewhat of a caloric deficit to lose weight) but focus more on the quality of food and your behavior change. We want to get to that goal weight and maintain!"
And focus on what you can have instead of what you can't have. "I work really hard to focus on what we can add instead of take away food-wise," says Caitlin Beale, MS, RDN. "Change meal patterns, composition of food, healthy fat/protein/carb at each meal. Essentially focus less on restricting and more on rethinking the balance of the meals and snacks."
11. You're giving yourself bad advice.
Recipe pictured above: Chocolate-Covered Banana Ice Cream Bars
Last but not least, you might be telling yourself things that are sabotaging your efforts. "Stop using the words 'I only eat this in moderation,'" says Kimberly Leneghan MS RDN LDN. "If the scale isn't budging, moderation may just be a fancier way of justifying a potentially poor choice."
Stop saying that indulgent foods are off limits too. "This mindset often backfires as we tend to over obsess about the item we've said we can never eat, which can lead to a binge," says Julia Stevens MPH, RDN, CPT. "Instead of saying, 'I'll never eat that,' try saying, 'I can have that, I'm just choosing not to have it today.' This language allows room for all foods in your plan, and also gives you the power of choice of moderation while still moving closer to your goal."
The Bottom Line
There's no quick fix for weight loss. Those who are successful at losing weight and keeping it off long-term find a way of eating they can keep up with every day. Eat more, not less—but of the right foods. Fill your plate with metabolism-revving fiber and protein in the form of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and plant-based proteins, fish, nuts and seeds.
Do less cardio and more strength training. Focus on actions, behaviors and habits, not the number on the scale. A calorie deficit is important and tracking calories may be helpful but don't let it be the end-all-be-all. Focus on your hunger and satiety cues, trying to go 3-4 hours between meals. Get 7-8 hours of sleep each night and practice positive self-talk. Finally, don't be afraid to ask for help! Reach out to a dietitian who can help you create healthy habits and stay accountable to your goals.