More Americans are overweight or obese than ever before, but fewer are trying to lose weight—possibly because of increasing social acceptability of higher body weight. That’s disconcerting news, since excess pounds, even in "metabolically fit” people, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and other health problems. No doubt, weight loss is hard. Keeping it off is even harder. Still, taking a few relatively simple steps may be enough to get you on the road to a healthier weight. Here are 10 dieting do’s and don’ts, based on research we reported on in 2017.
In an Iranian study, overweight or moderately obese women took part in a clinic-based weight-loss program, with half making lunch their biggest meal, the other half dinner. They chose their own food but got guidance from nutritionists and were encouraged to exercise. Though there were no differences in their calorie or macronutrient intakes, the lunch group lost 3 pounds more, on average, after 12 weeks than the dinner group (9½ vs. 12½ pounds).
You’ll be less hungry and thus less likely to order impulsively. When researchers analyzed data from 1,000 online lunch orders at an employee cafeteria, they found an average reduction of 38 calories for every extra hour between placing the order and picking it up. In the same study, students who selected lunch before class ordered about 100 fewer calories than those who ordered right before eating. If you can’t order in advance, you may at least be able to view the menu and decide what to get ahead of time.
Research has consistently linked excessive sugar intake to weight gain. And two-thirds of all packaged foods and beverages have added sugar, according to a Canadian study. Sugar may be listed under at least 30 different names, including sucrose, fructose, corn syrup, dextrose, honey, molasses, agave, and fruit juice concentrate. The highest sugar content was seen in expected sources such as sodas, candies, snacks, baked goods, and breakfast cereals, but also in condiments, sauces, and spreads. These results are comparable to estimates reported in the U.S.
Plain coffee is naturally calorie free. But if you take your coffee light and sweet, the calories can add up fast. In a study in Public Health, coffee drinkers who added milk, cream, and/or sugar consumed an extra 69 calories a day on average, mostly from sugar, compared with coffee drinkers who drank their coffee “black.” Over a year, that adds up to more than 25,000 extra calories, which could, at least in theory, lead to a weight gain of 7 pounds.
Skimping on sleep may lead to overeating the next day, according to an analysis of 11 intervention trials involving 172 people. Compared to those who slept 7 to 12 hours a night (their usual amount), those who had to restrict sleep to only 3.5 to 5.5 hours a night had a net gain of 385 calories a day, on average (they ate more and didn’t expend more energy). By disrupting the body’s internal clock, sleep deprivation may affect appetite hormones (leptin and ghrelin), as well as insulin, leading to increased hunger and food intake, decreased calorie-burning, and increased fat storage.
In a small Australian study, participants who alternated two weeks on a diet with two weeks off for 16 weeks lost more weight than continuous dieters (31 vs. 20 pounds). They also regained less weight (7 vs. 13 pounds) over the next six months. While prolonged calorie restriction causes the body to lower its resting metabolic rate to conserve energy, thus burning fewer calories, the researchers hypothesized that two-week cycling on and off the diet lessened this compensatory biological change.
Though nearly all food packages and many restaurant foods list calories, a wide latitude in accuracy is allowed, with little policing from the FDA. Not surprisingly, these labels usually undercount calories by at least a little, and sometimes by a lot (studies have found discrepancies ranging from 4% to over 100% between listed calories and actual calories). A better option for many people than calorie counting is to eat mindfully—with awareness of how much you are serving yourself, how much you are eating, and how full you feel.
Many people are unaware of how many calories are in wine, beer, and liquor, since the bottles have no calorie labels. Did you know, for instance, that a glass of wine has anywhere from about 100 to 190 (or more) calories, while some 12-ounce beers can exceed 200 calories? A 1.5 ounce shot of liquor without the mixers has about 100 calories. Plus, alcohol can have a disinhibiting effect on appetite control, leading to possible overeating. These 7 tips can help you limit your alcohol intake and the calories that come with it.
Do zero-calorie sweeteners really help with weight loss? Studies have consistently yielded inconsistent results. Some have even found that they can contribute to weight gain because they may cause taste distortions that lead to increased appetite for very sweet, high-calorie foods, or they may cause metabolic dysregulation such that the body increases fat production. People who use them may also reward themselves by eating more of other foods—the so-called health halo effect.
If you’re trying to lose weight, you don’t have to give up dairy products, even full-fat types, suggests a study that found that dairy was not associated with increased body fat. In fact, people who ate the most dairy had lower body mass index and less body fat than those who ate the least. Milk and yogurt, in particular, were linked to lower body fat. Some previous studies (though not all) support the notion that dairy consumption has a modestly beneficial effect on body weight and body fat.