Surprising Weight Loss Saboteurs

Featured Article, Fitness, News and Advice, Weight Loss
on February 8, 2012

Losing weight requires more than just willpower. It’s also important to arm yourself with knowledge, including those stumbling blocks that can trip you up before you reach your weight loss goals.

That’s where planning and preparation comes in, says Sandra Ahten, a diet, life and wellness coach in Urbana, Ill. “You can ensure your success if you focus 80 percent of your energy on planning and preparation and 20 percent on willpower, instead of the other way around,” she says. “Imagine how much less willpower it would take to stay out of the vending machines at work if you have a baggie full of veggies, string cheese and a giant salad prepared.”

Common sense tells us that a boring exercise regimen has no staying power, and that severe calorie restriction is unsustainable. But other diet don’ts aren’t quite so widely known. Here are some surprising factors that can hinder your weight loss.

Who you eat with: A friend, no matter what size, may influence the way you eat. A study from the University of British Columbia found that people tend to eat one and a half times more when they’re dining with a thin person who eats a lot than an overweight one.If you’re with someone who eats less, or healthier, you may make better choices. That’s not to say you should ditch your friends with bigger appetites or bad habits, but just be aware of the influence they can have. Consider making plans with them that don’t involve food, ordering first, or asking them to split an entree with you.

Restaurant portions: Here’s where it pays to forget your mother’s advice: Do not clean your plate. Restaurants are notorious for offering vastly more food than our bodies need per meal. Data from three national studies analyzed by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that over the past 20 years, hamburgers have expanded by 23 percent; a plate of Mexican food by 27 percent; soft drinks by 52 percent; and snacks by a whopping 60 percent. Ask for a to-go box when your food comes and immediately put half of your meal into the box to take home.

Ambience: Studies on environmental factors and eating habits show that both too bright or too dim lighting can make you eat more, says Dr. Brian Wansink, a nutrition-science expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Bright lights made people eat faster, which often leads to overeating, while dim lighting in restaurants caused people to linger and often order extra drinks or dessert. Use your dining room dimmer switch to strike the perfect balance, and be aware of a restaurant’s ambience and how it might affect your meal’s pacing. (Fast background music tended to make people gobble their food faster, too.)

Shape of your glass: Glasses are not all created equal, says another of Wansink’s studies. Unless your beverage of choice is water (and cheers to you if it is!), stick to tall and slender glasses rather than short and wide ones, which beg to be filled with more liquid. Sip slowly instead of chugging it down and going back for a refill.

Color and size of plate: Another way food plays with your head is on the plate itself. Research reported in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that the color of your plates and dishes and even your tablecloth can affect how much you end up eating. Generally speaking, the less color contrast there is between your plate and the food that’s on it, the more you’ll tend to eat. Opt for white, which gives you a pretty good view of what’s in front of you and visual cues to how much you’ve eaten. Similarly, eating off a large plate rather than a small one tricks the mind into serving up more food to fill the empty space.

All-or-nothing thinking: Sandra Ahten believes this is the biggest obstacle to weight loss—and we’re all guilty of it at some point. “I suggest starting a diet knowing that you will need to adapt it, hop on and off it, or get tired of it and change to something new,” she says. “Certainly, look for times in between that wavering, when you can be really focused and make great progress, but don't bury your head in the sand when you go off the rail.”