Not every diet strategy works. (Exhibit A: Your old one.) Follow the wrong rules, and you could end up gaining just as much weight as you set out to lose.
To keep you on track (and the numbers on the scale moving in the right direction) avoid these common dieting mistakes:
1. You vastly underestimate the number of calories you eat.
When your math is all off, the results of your diet will be off too.
The fix: Because it's just about impossible to estimate the exact number of calories in an unlabeled food or restaurant dish, hedge your bets by purposefully overestimating. "If you think a food is 300 calories, double it," suggests Amy Rothberg MD, PhD, director of the University of Michigan Weight Management Program. Better yet? Write down everything you eat in a typical day—including portion sizes—and cut out 200 to 500 calories from your list of regular foods by reducing servings or swapping items. That way, you can be sure you're cutting back.
2. You only count calories.
"The calorie model is a complete delusion," says David Lutwig, MD, PhD, an endocrinologist and professor of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health as well as author of the book Always Hungry? That's because, he argues, almost nobody is capable of accurately estimating (1) how many calories their body burns and (2) how many calories they actually eat.
The Fix: Focus on the quality of what you're eating and let your body do the math. A filling bowl of whole-grain oatmeal, for instance, will satisfy you more than a sugary 100-calorie cereal bar every time—even if the oatmeal contains a few more calories. And satisfaction is what saves you calories—you won't get hungry and snack more later on—and contributes to weight loss in the long run, not stingy arithmetic, which is unsustainable IRL.
3. You treat fat like it's the Devil.
While it's true that gram for gram, fats contain more calories than pure carbs or protein, experts agree that low-fat diets are just about the worst way to lose weight and keep it off. "When you cut out fat, you have to replace it with something else, so it's not a reduction in calories, it's just replacing calories from fat with calories from carbs and sugar," Dr. Rothberg explains. Unlike fat, sugar causes a quick surge and dip in blood sugar that leaves you going back for more food shortly after eating. It's why it's smart to avoid products designed to tempt people who fear fat unnecessarily.
Another thing: Regardless of your weight-loss goal, you need at least a little bit of fat to function, and it's not just because fat makes food taste substantially better and more satisfying. Healthy fats like olive oil can help promote shiny hair and glowing skin, and moisten bowels to keep your digestive system moving, which reduces the bloat that makes you feel gross no matter how much you weigh.
The Fix: Include avocados, nuts, and oil-based dressings in your diet—they make meals more satisfying and better for you. And on the processed food front? When the caloric difference between full-fat and reduced-fat foods is negligible, go for the real deal—particularly when the food contains less sugar than the diet version and mostly healthy fats.
Just make sure you pay attention to serving sizes. Eating an entire jar of regular peanut butter can ruin you, while a tablespoon or two can compliment a weight loss diet quite well.
4. You add healthy food to your diet without cutting anything out.
Sure, it's smart to add more protein to your breakfast or eat more fat when your diet doesn't contain enough. But if that means washing down your morning bagel with a yogurt, or just drowning fully loaded salads with full-fat dressing, your pants are going to start to feel a little bit tighter.
The Fix: Instead of just adding a new food to your diet, swap foods. It's easy enough: When you wait for your restaurant meal to arrive, eat your side salad instead of emptying the bread basket. When your afternoon hunger pangs hit, reach for a handful of nuts instead of dipping into your candy stash. See how that works?
5. You deny yourself dessert.
Dr. Lutwig says the fastest way to jump-start weight loss is to cut out processed carbs and added sugars, including those from candy. But studies suggest that dark chocolate (bless it) doesn't cause weight gain. Experts suspect it's because cocoa is a rich source of polyphenol flavanols, which are thought to affect the absorption of fat and carbohydrates in a way that favors weight loss.
The Fix: If you're hell-bent on dessert, swap your regular sweets for a square or two of dark chocolate—the darker the better, as it contains more cocoa and less sugar. (Again, serving sizes are key here: Eating chocolate by the pound will obviously move the scale in the wrong direction.)
6. You don't eat enough.
When you're trying to lose weight, it makes sense to eat fewer calories because, at least in theory, it can create a calorie deficit that results in weight loss. The problem: "The approach completely ignores how biology affects body weight," says Dr. Lutwig. When you eat fewer calories, your metabolism slows down to conserve its fuel. Meanwhile, your stomach feels less full, so you feel ravenous and hangry and foggy-brained.
The Fix: Instead of setting out to eat as few calories as you can (*bad idea*), assess your current diet and make one small calorie-cutting change every week. Oh hey, ~HeAlThY mOnDaY~!
7. You use exercise to rationalize—or compensate—for cheating.
"You can spend 20 minutes sweating on the treadmill and replace all the calories you burned by eating a handful of raisins," Dr. Lutwig says. "Exercise is effective for stress reduction and promoting better quality sleep, lowering your insulin levels, calming chronic inflammation, increasing your metabolism, and reprogramming fat cells—but its value isn't in burning calories."
The Fix: If you deviate from your diet, shape up at your next meal instead of spending an hour on the elliptical beating yourself up.
8. You eat all the organic/vegan/raw foods.
"Clean" food certainly isn't bad for your health or detrimental to weight loss—but there's a big difference between organic broccoli and the organic cookies you splurged on at your natural market. "Just because it's made from a plant grown without pesticides doesn't magically means it has fewer calories," Dr. Rothberg says. When it comes to weight loss, she adds, "it doesn't make a difference if food is organic or not. You can eat Twinkies all day long and still lose weight as long as you're eating fewer calories." The same goes for vegan desserts and foods billed as raw or free of GMOs.
The Fix: Ignore fancy food labels and zero in on nutritional facts before you toss processed foods into your shopping cart—organic or not. If you still want to indulge, go ahead. But make sure you call dessert dessert.
9. You treat fruit as a freebie.
Some brand-name diets suggest that it's cool to consume unlimited amounts of produce. And while there's no question that nature's candy is healthier than candy-candy, fruit, in particular, packs a substantial number of sugar and calories. No one is saying it's a crime to eat fruit, which is packed with many worthwhile antioxidants and fiber to help fill you up. But most experts agree you're better off eating a heaping bowl of veggies than one that's full of grapes, which can contain nearly twice as many calories as, say, broccoli. So much for freebies!
The Fix: When it comes to snacking, vegetables > fruit > chips and other snack foods—but only if the fruit is truly satisfying. (If you house a bushel of grapes in an effort to avoid eating a snack-sized bag of Doritos, you may be worse for the wear.)
10. You LOL at people who measure out their food portions.
Sure, some serving sizes you see on packages—like half a cup of pasta, LOL—can be ridiculously small. (It's why people are so prone to overeat certain foods.) And it's awkward AF to whip out an arsenal of measuring cups in public.
The Fix: Measure out new foods once using the plate or bowl you'd typically use to serve yourself at home. Eyeball that, noting about how much space the food takes up, and aim to hit the mark the next time you portion your plate. Another thing: Never eat directly out of the package. (It's the fastest route to the bottom of that box.)
11. You eat a minuscule breakfast for a "healthy start."
The handful of berries you eat on your way out the door might help you zip your pants in the morning, but it won't significantly tip the scale thereafter. That's because your metabolism works best in the a.m. and slows down at night, when starvation will catch up with you, and you'll eat a massive meal exactly when your metabolism is least prepared to process it.
The Fix: Front-load your food by making breakfast your largest meal. You'll naturally eat less at subsequent meals.
12. You nix protein to curb calories.
Sure, an all-green salad will set you back fewer calories than one topped with grilled chicken. But the bare-bones version is inherently less satisfying because, hello, it's only lettuce.
The Fix: While no one needs to throw back an 8-ounce steak at every meal, eating 4 to 6 ounces of lean protein (about the size of the palm of your hand) at breakfast, lunch, and dinner can set you up for success. That's because protein, which contains a unique mix of essential amino acids that suppress hunger, is the most satiating macronutrient you can eat, according to Dr. Rothberg.
13. You allocate calories for a drink, NBD.
The problem with putting alcoholic bevs toward your daily allotment is that they're just about the only thing you can consume that stokes your appetite and generally sets you up for disaster. (Enter, late-night pizza.)
The Fix: Instead of allocating the requisite 100 calories for your vodka soda and hoping you're sober enough to exercise self-control after drinking it, shift your regular eating schedule to account for a preplanned, post-bar mini meal. If you want to win at life, you'll prepare one that resembles the drunk food you typically crave, like a whole grain English muffin topped with marinara and low-fat mozz instead of half a greasy Domino's pie.
14. You eat around your cravings.
Successful weight loss relies on making small, sustainable sacrifices and smart choices in the name of creating a caloric deficit. So when you crave a Hershey's Kiss (22 calories), and eat a bag of carrots (175 calories), a non-fat Greek yogurt (100 calories), and a large apple (116 calories) to avoid it, you could end up even worse for the wear—and much less satisfied than you'd feel had you gone straight for the chocolate. "It's better to just eat it and move on—as long as you don't do it perpetually," Dr. Rothberg says.
The Fix: If you have a specific craving every once in a blue moon, savor every bite of a single serving.
15. You keep trigger foods in your kitchen.
If willpower worked, you wouldn't be dieting in the first place—and you'd still have the last gallon of ice cream you bought sitting in your freezer.
The Fix: If you know you can't eat just one serving of any given food, don't bother buying it at all. "I don't believe any one food is evil, but if it drives you to eat more, it's better to avoid it," Dr. Rothberg says.
16. You guzzle green juice.
"Juices are so high in sugar and calories that they're almost equal to cola," Dr. Rothberg says. And while some say fresh-pressed green juice can "cleanse" the system, don't believe everything you hear. "There's really no such thing as a 'cleansing' drink."
The Fix: "Drink a lot of water and eat a lot of fiber and your system will be cleansed," Dr. Rothberg suggests.
17. You cut out carbs.
Good luck doing this effectively—even vegetables have carbs. And like many healthy foods that contain the C-word, they're a vehicle for vitamins and minerals that are essential to your health, and fiber, which fills you up.
The Fix: Consider the kind of carbs you consume. You know that whole grains are best, but you'll want to eat them in their most natural form. "Most whole grains products are still processed," Dr. Lutwig says. And although products like whole grain bread contain fiber, you'll digest them more quickly than the whole grains themselves because the structure has already been disrupted, he explains. That means oatmeal is a better choice than whole grain toast or cereal made with whole grains. And quinoa or brown rice beat whole wheat pastas.
18. You worry more about mealtime than bedtime.
Sleep deprivation can sneakily lead you to eat an average of 549 more calories per day, according to a 2013 study. And it's not just because the more hours you spend awake, the more time you have to eat—although that won't help your cause. Separate research examining the brain's response to food suggests that unhealthy food turns you on more when you're tired.
The Fix: Figure out how much sleep you need to feel awake and alert (if you're tired right now you're probably not getting enough). Then set your bedtime accordingly—and an alarm 15 minutes beforehand to help you stick with the plan. Oh, and you know how you're supposed write down everything you eat to be more mindful? Begin each entry with the number of hours you slept the night before to better understand—and beat—your cravings.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.