You've heard that every rule has an exception, and that’s especially true when it comes to dieting. There’s lots of good, sound advice out there, but sometimes sticking to it too closely — and not considering the nuances — can get you into trouble. Banning chocolate, for example, might seem like a great way to cut calories … until you find yourself devouring an entire chocolate cake late one night.
To lose weight and keep it off, moderation is definitely key — as is personalization. “There’s no one-size-fits-all diet plan,” says Tara Gidus, RD, an Orlando-based nutritionist. While experts agree that certain basics — like good nutrition and physical activity — are always essential for slimming down, there’s room for variation in the details. “It’s important to try different approaches and see what works for you,” says Rena Wing, PhD, cofounder of the National Weight Control Registry. The following advice is all grounded in truth but also has the potential to backfire. We help you figure out which tried-and-true tips could work for you — and which might actually hurt your efforts to slim down.
1. Fill up on whole grains
Why it’s good: Whole grains like whole-wheat bread, brown rice and whole-grain pasta have more fiber, so they help you stay fuller longer.
Why it might backfire: Just because a food has whole grains doesn’t mean you can eat endless amounts of it — especially if you’re loading up on products that say they’re “made with whole grain” but aren’t necessarily healthy, like cookies and sugary cereal. Good sources of whole grains should list one of them (like whole-wheat flour, whole rye, brown rice or whole oats) as the first or second ingredient.
Bottom line: Read labels carefully, watch portions and remember a calorie is still a calorie.
2. Stick with home-cooked meals
Why it’s good: “If you’ve made it yourself, you know exactly what ingredients are being used and how much,” says Nancy Snyderman, MD, author of "Diet Myths That Keep Us Fat." That means you won’t be sabotaged by excessive (or hidden) oil and butter the way you might be in a restaurant.
Why it might backfire: Home-cooked doesn’t always equal healthy. Researchers at Cornell University found that the average calorie count of recipes appearing in all editions of "The Joy of Cooking" jumped 63 percent since the book was first commercially published in 1936.
Bottom line: Pay attention to nutrition info on recipes, alter your favorites as needed to keep fat and calories in check, and always remember to measure out high-cal ingredients like oil and cheese. Love to eat out? Just remember the basics (grilled, sauce on the side, etc.).
3. Fill your plate (and pantry) with many different foods
Why it’s good: Variety prevents boredom, which is a recipe for diet disaster. No one wants to eat grilled chicken with steamed vegetables every single night, and if you try to force yourself to do it, you’ll end up eating a double cheeseburger before the week’s up.
Why it might backfire: Too much variety might actually cause you to eat more. Blame it on a phenomenon called sensory-specific satiety. “When flavors are limited, we tend to eat less,” explains Hollie Raynor, PhD, RD. In a study led by Dr. Raynor, dieters who were limited to one type of snack ate fewer calories from snacks than those who had several to pick from.
Bottom line: Go for an array of fruits, vegetables and other low-cal foods that you’re trying to eat more of. But when it comes to fattening stuff (like cheese), sameness rules.
4. Eliminate alcohol
Why it’s good: The calories in your favorite cocktail can really add up, and people usually make worse food choices once alcohol lowers their inhibitions.
Why it might backfire: Research shows that moderate drinkers (one to two glasses a day) tend to be leaner than heavy drinkers and nondrinkers. One possible reason is that people who have small amounts of alcohol regularly are able to indulge in all things (including fattening foods) in moderation. Another study, from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, suggests that regularly having a little alcohol increases the production of leptin, a hormone that curbs appetite.
Bottom line: If you can limit yourself to a glass a day of a low calorie option (like light beer or wine), go ahead and raise a toast to a slimmer you. But if you can’t stop after one or two rounds or go for high-cal drinks (an apple martini, for example, has about 235 calories), then you’re better off abstaining.
5. Say no to seconds
Why it’s good: It’s an easy way to keep portions in check and avoid eating too much at one meal.
Why it might backfire: You may feel an urge to make that one serving count and end up with a heaping plate of more calories than you’d get from two small plates.
Bottom line: If you can have a portion that’s ample but not excessive and not go back for more, keep doing what you’re doing. But if you always crave a return trip to the kitchen no matter what you dish up — or pile your plate high to avoid taking seconds — scrap this rule. Instead start with a small portion and wait 20 minutes (that’s how long it takes your stomach to tell your brain that you’re full). If you’re still hungry, take a little more.
6. Take time to enjoy your meal
Why it’s good: Eating slowly helps you savor the flavors and textures, so you feel more satisfied. It also helps prevent overeating — if you eat too fast you’ll probably miss that “I’ve had enough” message.
Why it might backfire: Research shows that we eat many more calories at long, lingering dinners with friends. You’re apt to order more and choose heavier dishes if that’s what everyone else is doing. Plus, when you catch up over a two-hour dinner, you may eat the entire time or order dessert just to have a reason to stay and talk.
Bottom line: Don’t rush, but don’t lose sight of what you’re eating. If you can’t resist food that’s in front of you, ask the waiter to pack up half your entrée. And if you’re full after the main course but not ready to head home, suggest that everyone take a walk around the block instead of ordering dessert.
7. Wake up 30 minutes early to work out
Why it’s good: Exercising first thing is a great way to make sure that you don’t lose motivation (and free time) as the day progresses.
Why it might backfire: If you’re not getting enough sleep to begin with, waking up earlier can take a toll on your waistline. A University of Chicago study found that people who regularly slept 5 1/2 hours per night ate about 200 more calories each day in snacks than those who got 8 1/2 hours per night. More time awake may simply equal more time to eat. Other studies have suggested that lack of sleep disrupts hormones that regulate appetite.
Bottom line: Sleep experts say you should get at least 7 hours of sleep per night to stay at a healthy weight. So if you’re going to wake up 30 minutes earlier, turn in 30 minutes earlier, too. Not possible? Forget the a.m. workout and instead sneak in three 10-minute bouts of activity during the day.
8. Avoid liquid calories
Why it’s good: Soda and coffee drinks can be calorie bombs.
Why it might backfire: Not all beverages are created equal. While soda, for example, is empty calories, some drinks provide nutrients and might help you eat less later. One preliminary study found that dieters who drank at least one 8-oz glass of low-sodium vegetable juice each day lost 4 pounds in 3 months (those who skipped the juice only lost 1 pound). According to Carl L. Keen, PhD, professor of nutrition at University of California, Davis and one of the study authors, the volume and nutrient density of juice may help curb your appetite.
Bottom line: Most of your drinks should be calorie-free, but if you’re always super-hungry, try drinking 8 oz low-sodium vegetable juice or a fruit smoothie (keep it to about 100 calories) once a day to see if it makes a difference.
9. Keep sweets out of the house
Why it’s good: You’ll be less likely to devour a whole carton of ice cream or box of chocolates in one sitting.
Why it might backfire: If you feel deprived, you’re more likely to order the jumbo-size double-fudge sundae the next time you’re at the ice cream shop. Having some tempting treats on hand also teaches you to build willpower, according to research published in the Journal of Consumer Research. “It allows you to develop a strategy for resisting them or controlling how much you consume,” explains lead author Kelly Geyskens, PhD.
Bottom line: If you can’t have a little ice cream (or another personal trigger food) without overdoing it, ban it from the house. Buy treats that you can enjoy in small quantities and feel satisfied, like individually wrapped dark chocolate squares.