You snack on fruit, count calories, and get some form of exercise most days. So when you step on that scale and the needle stays put, you wonder what the heck you’re doing wrong. Even with clean eating and good fitness habits, you may be making a few small mistakes that can lead to a plateau and derail your results. Here’s how to upgrade your already-healthy habits to finally reach your get-slim goal. (Snack AND lose weight with this box of Prevention-approved treats from Bestowed.)
1. If you count calories… Determine the right intake for you.
Only 11% of Americans correctly estimate their ideal daily calorie requirements, according to one survey. The rest of us tend to overestimate, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Let’s say you assume that consuming 2,000 calories per day will allow you to reach your target weight, but it really takes 1,800: Those extra 200 are enough to keep an additional 20 pounds on your frame.
Do it better: If 1,800 calories is your max, split it into three 500-calorie meals and one 300-calorie snack.
2. If you’re consistently active… Rev your routine.
When you spend a few hours running errands, it feels like you’ve worked off some serious weight. But despite hauling around those grocery bags, you burned only about 400 calories—that’s about 1/10 of a pound.
Do it better: Short bursts of intense activity burn more calories—and up to 36% more fat, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. Strolling around the mall or a park for an hour works off about 150 calories; pick up the pace 1 minute out of every 5 to burn over one-third more calories (try a similar method if you bike). Swimmers can switch from freestyle or breaststroke to a more challenging crawl every few laps, or just go a little faster. Give these quick calorie-burning interval workouts a try.
3. If you choose nutritious foods… Keep portions in check.
What you put on your plate is important, but healthy eating is also about being mindful of how much you consume. For example, your husband has pancakes with butter and syrup for breakfast, your son grabs a doughnut, and you opt for a cup of oatmeal with a handful of walnuts, a sliced banana, and a large glass of organic blueberry juice. You may win on nutrients, but when it comes to calories, you’re dead last: That healthy-sounding meal adds up to almost 700 calories, more than a third of your allotment for the day.
Do it better: The best way to know if you’re eating too much is to write it down. “Even if you note it on a napkin and then throw it away, that’s okay. Just the act of writing makes you more aware,” says Taub-Dix. Portion control cues help too: A baseball-size serving for chopped veggies and fruits; a golf ball for nuts and shredded cheese; a fist for rice and pasta; and a deck of cards for lean meats.
4. If you order the “healthiest” menu item… Do your dining out research in advance.
Choose the turkey sandwich over pizza and you think you’re set, but again, looks can be deceiving. A turkey sandwich that comes on focaccia with cheese and mayo can deliver 970 calories. Two slices of pepperoni pan pizza total 520 calories. Put your sandwich in a spinach wrap instead of regular bread? It’s the same difference, says Tara Gidus, RD, a former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “My clients think they get more nutrients and save on calories with ‘healthy bread,’ but often that’s not the case.”
Do it better: Look up nutrition facts before you eat there. See if your favorite eatery has nutrition facts online or in the store—you may be surprised at what you see. Here are 13 helpful tips for dining out on a diet.
5. If you choose “diet” treats… Eat the real thing, but downsize your portion.
When you want something sweet, all those fat-free, sugar-free options seem like a smart choice for weight loss. But researchers at Cornell University found that overweight people who choose low-fat versions of snack foods rather than the regular kinds consume, on average, twice as many calories. “The terms ‘fat-free’ or ‘sugar-free’ can create a green light effect, triggering people to eat more,” says dietitian Cynthia Sass, RD. But many fat-free foods have about the same number of calories (or more) as their full-fat counterparts.
Do it better: Go for reasonable amounts of the real thing. If you love ice cream, have a small scoop of premium. “You won’t stick to a diet that doesn’t include your favorites,” says David Grotto, RD, author of 101 Foods That Could Change Your Life. Bottom line: Life’s too short for forbidden foods.
6. If you’re a crunch queen… Don’t forget your cardio
One of the biggest mistakes women make when trying to figure out how to lose belly fat: too many crunches, too little cardio. No matter how toned your abs are, your belly won’t look flat until you get rid of the layer of fat on top of them, says Jessica Smith, a certified personal trainer and star of fitness DVDs. For that, you need to rev your calorie burn. Interval training, in which you alternate high-intensity bursts of activity with easier bouts, has been shown to zap more belly fat than steady-paced moderate workouts.
Do it better: Try these quick calorie-burning intervals. Each week, aim for three interval sessions and two or three moderate, steady-paced workouts of 30 to 60 minutes each—along with ab exercises—for best results.
7. If you eat snacks to quell cravings… Be more mindful of your intake
You may think you’re vigilant about watching what you eat, but research shows that stolen bites and tastes can rack up a few hundred uncounted calories, which can put on pounds fast. Eating while distracted can cause mindless eating, too. When women who normally watched their portions had lunch in different situations, they ate 15% more (72 additional calories) while listening to a detective story, compared with when they ate alone and free of any distractions, found a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Do it better: Avoid eating when your mind’s elsewhere (while on the computer, for example), and eliminate unnecessary distractions (turn off the TV; set aside the book).