If you want to lose weight, there’s no shortage of tips, plans, and expert advice available on the Internet. That sounds like a good thing, but it’s not.
For every truly effective, research-backed weight loss tip out there, there are at least three “truths” that are flat-out false and will waste your time and energy—or even make you gain weight.
The solution isn’t committing to a lifetime of trial and error. Instead, streamline your efforts by forgetting these five common weight loss rules forever—and learning what to do instead.
Ignore This: Always Eat Breakfast
You’ve surely heard this one before: A healthy diet begins with a great breakfast. The problem is that a good breakfast doesn’t guarantee an overall healthy diet. Plus, while previous breakfast research has found an association between breakfast and weight management, a 2014 study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham shows that eating breakfast has no influence on weight loss.
In fact, nixing breakfast a few times a week may be a smarter strategy to shed pounds. Nutritional scientists at Cornell University found that people who skipped breakfast wound up eating an average of 408 fewer calories by the end of the day than when they ate breakfast. This type of intermittent fasting has major health benefits too.
The bottom line: No one meal is more important than any other. What matters most is total calorie intake and the quality of food you’re eating. So don’t feel like you must eat a morning meal if you’re not hungry. Instead, jumpstart your day with a cup of energy tea.
Ignore This: Trim Your Fat Intake
Eating fat will not make you fat. In fact, fat helps with satiety, so there’s a good chance that if you eat a meal rich in healthy fats—think salmon, avocado, or nuts—you’ll feel fuller faster (and longer) and won’t overeat.
What’s more, when food manufacturers remove fat from products such as ice cream, chips, and cookies, they typically add in sugar, calories, and loads of chemicals to keep the foods from tasting bad, says Virginia-based registered dietitian Jim White, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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As if that’s not bad enough, simply seeing the words “low fat” on a label may trick you into eating more. Researchers at Cornell University found that people ate 28 percent more M&Ms when they were labeled as “low-fat” than when they were labeled regular.
To help promote weight loss, ditch low- and no-fat diet foods and focus on eating monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—the healthy kinds in fatty fish, nuts, seeds, avocado, and most veggie oils. Just remember to keep portions in check—even healthy fats are high-calorie, at nine calories per gram (versus four calories in protein and carbs).
Ignore This: Cut Carbs to Get Lean
Carbohydrates are your body’s number-one fuel source, and without them, everything suffers, says White, noting that many carb-containing foods are also rich in a variety of weight-loss friendly vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
So why do carbs get such a bad reputation? Because up to 50 percent of the carbohydrate intake in the typical American diet is in the form of highly processed carbs and sugar. So when people say carbs are bad, they’re usually talking about eating lots of sugar, which isn’t really fair to all the good carbs out there.
Instead of avoiding carbs completely, follow these general rules: Eat more carbs on the days you’re active and fewer carbs on the days you’re sedentary. And make sure most of your carbs come from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes—not highly processed white breads and pasta.
Ignore This: The Less You Eat, the More You’ll Lose
Calories in and calories out is what leads to weight gain or loss, White says, but it’s not quite so simple. “Too much of a calorie deficit can be harmful to your metabolism,” he adds.
Extreme calorie cutting puts your body into starvation mode, causing it to store, rather than burn, the calories you consume. It also contributes to muscle loss that, despite causing the number on the scale to drop, can result in increased body fat percentage.
“A general rule of thumb is for women to not go below 1,200 calories per day,” White says. However, for some women—especially those who are tall, active, or have a lot of weight to lose—1,200 might be too low. That’s why it’s important to talk to a registered dietitian or nutritionist about your energy needs before significantly reducing your calorie intake in the name of weight loss.
Ignore This: Always Skip Dessert
The no-dessert mentality reflects the popular belief that there are “good foods” and “bad foods.” Not entirely true. Even healthy foods, while good for you, still have their limits and can make you pack on pounds. Plus, you create a terrible relationship with food when you think you have to completely avoid what you love.
“You should never feel bad about eating something you enjoy,” White says. This instills a mindset of restriction, which leads to frustration, which often leads to giving in and overdoing it when you finally do indulge.
Your best bet for sustainable weight loss is to focus on eating nutrient-dense foods most (say, 80 percent) of the time and allowing yourself the more indulgent choices 20 percent of the time, White says.
Science agrees: Researchers from the University of Toronto discovered that restricting food entirely makes it harder to stick to a plan. In this case, the removal of chocolate from a diet for just one week led to extreme cravings. A more effective approach—not surprisingly—is one that allows you to satisfy your cravings in controlled portions.
When you have the option to eat something you enjoy every day, the desire to eat, say, an entire pint of ice cream is significantly reduced.