Some people have the time, skill and foresight to plan and prepare healthy meals, and the willpower and knowledge to make smart food choices away from home. But for many others, deciphering nutritional information and consuming the right ratio of fat, calories and nutrients can seem overwhelming or downright impossible. If you fall into the latter group, you may benefit from working with a dietitian or nutritionist—but to get the desired results, "working" is the key word. A dietitian provides education and guidance, but you're ultimately responsible for the success or failure of a weight loss program.
We asked a few nutrition experts to share the bad behaviors that are holding their clients back, and here's what they wish you'd stop doing.
1. Skipping Breakfast
In an effort to master the "calories in versus calories out" equation, many dieters choose to skip breakfast altogether. That's a grave mistake, says Lauren Harris-Pincus, a registered dietitian for Nutrition Starring YOU.
"Many of my clients have coffee or nothing in the morning, and they are missing out on a golden opportunity to benefit from protein and fiber in their first meal of the day," Harris-Pincus says. "Maintaining muscle mass is important as we age, and since we can only use about 30 grams of protein per meal for muscle building, doubling up later in the day won't do any good."
However, eating breakfast later could provide some benefits. According to Katherine Mattox, a registered dietitian with Mt. Lookout Chiropractic, research has shown that extending the period between the last bite of food you have at dinner and your first bite of food at breakfast—a form of intermittent fasting—can lead to weight loss, a stronger immune system and a decreased risk of breast cancer in women. "Eating breakfast at 9 or 10 a.m. may work in your favor," Mattox says. "Aim to fast for 12 hours, so if you finish eating at 8 p.m., try to not eat again until after 8 a.m." If you’re not a morning exerciser, Katherine recommends sticking to a low-carb combination of convenient fats and protein options, such as a handful of nuts, hard-boiled eggs or a protein drink with cocoa nibs (healthy dark chocolate chunks).
Jessica Fishman Levinson, registered dietitian and founder of Nutritioulicious, lists the many benefits of breakfast, including jump-starting the metabolism, improving cognition, regulating hunger hormones and blood sugar levels and preventing overeating later in the day. And when it comes to weight loss, Levinson points out that 78 percent of National Weight Control Registry members who successfully lost weight—and kept it off—ate breakfast every day.
"Rather than skipping breakfast, the key is ensuring your breakfast recipe is healthy, satiating and a good addition to your daily diet," she says. "The ideal breakfast has a combination of whole grains, lean protein, nonfat or low-fat dairy, healthy fats and fruit and/or vegetables."
2. Relying (Too Much) on Cleanses
Most of the nutritionists and dietitians we spoke with advise against using cleanses as a weight loss tool. Harris-Pincus says our bodies are designed for self-cleansing. "We have a liver that does our cleansing for us. If it's not working, you need a doctor, not a diet," she says. "Cleanses are often low in protein and can lead to loss of valuable muscle mass. When you regain the weight you lose, and you most likely will, you will put on more fat and end up worse off than when you started."
Levinson wishes people would stop going on "detox" diets and cleanses, pointing out that our bodies are designed to naturally eliminate toxins. "Detox diets and cleanses, which are often composed of juices and no solid foods, are lacking important nutrients that our bodies need," she says. "Yes, weight loss might occur, but that's mostly due to loss of muscle mass and changes in fluid throughout the body. These restrictive detox and cleanse programs are not sustainable, and can lead to the 'yo-yo' dieting effect."
Instead of going on juice cleanses, Levinson prefers to focus on nutrient-rich foods—especially those rich in fiber, like whole fruits, vegetables and whole grains—and cut back on processed foods that are high in refined carbohydrates and added sugars.
3. Drinking Your Calories
Lisa C. Andrews of Sound Bites Nutrition advises her clients that for long-lasting energy, better blood sugar and higher metabolism, it's best to eat their calories rather than drink them. "The act of chewing tells your brain you're filling up," Andrews says. "Plus, your metabolism is higher if your body has to physically tear up the food instead of just absorbing it in liquid form. My motto is, if you have teeth and a small intestine, let your body do the digestion."
Mattox puts beverages in two categories: designed for either weight loss or weight gain. For weight loss, she recommends choosing filtered water, unsweetened tea, unsweetened coffee or 100% dark berry juices. As a general rule, she advises against any artificially sweetened beverage, including diet iced tea, diet soda and calorie-free water, as some studies have linked artificial sweeteners to insulin resistance and weight gain. She also recommends limiting high-sugar beverages, such as soda, sweetened coffee drinks, fruit juices and energy drinks.
4. Falling for Fad Diets
When a fad diet seems too good to be true, it usually is. Andrews cautions her clients against any eating regime that claims to achieve miraculous results in a short amount of time, which feeds the need for instant gratification.
"The truth is, a change on the scale, an improvement in blood sugar or a drop in your cholesterol may take a few months of changing habits," Andrews says. "Starving stinks. Restrictive diets may cause deficiencies and binge behavior. Be patient and consistent, and results will follow."
Alissa Rumsey, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, doesn't even like to use the word "diet." "Anything you are going on, you will eventually go off," she says. "By using the word 'diet,' you limit yourself to black-and-white thinking, but that’s not how it works in real life. I help my clients set up healthy habits that are sustainable and doable for life—not just for the next few weeks." Rumsey recommends following the 80/20 strategy to develop a long-term healthy eating pattern, which entails making smart food choices 80 percent of the time and cutting yourself some slack for the balance.
According to dietitian Toby Amidor, it's a mistake to put too much stock in a single superfood. "There is no one food that contains all the nutrients you need to keep your body healthy and functioning properly," he says. "For optimal wellness, you need to eat a combination of nutrient-packed foods from a variety of food groups, including whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, fruits and vegetables."
5. Taking Advice from Non-Experts
Andrews points out that many people make the mistake of taking nutrition advice from people in the health field who aren't licensed dietitians, such as personal trainers, chiropractors or other types of healers.
"Dietitians have the education and license to provide sound nutrition counseling," she says. "Our information is based on science, not fads in the industry. We won't sell you pills or powders that promise to boost your metabolism, libido or testosterone."
It’s important to note the difference between a registered dietitian (RD) and a nutritionist. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but aren’t necessarily the same. A registered dietitian is licensed by the Commission on Dietetic Registration and has fulfilled specific educational and professional criteria. Although some nutritionists may be licensed, not all of them are: In the United States, anyone can use that title without meeting any certain requirements.
6. Weighing Yourself Every Day
It's normal to want to monitor your results, but stepping on the scale every day could actually derail your weight loss efforts. "Your weight fluctuates, especially throughout the month for women," says Amidor. "It can even fluctuate each day, due to natural shifts in water weight." Amidor recommends weighing yourself on the same scale once a week, always at the same time of day—such as first thing in the morning or before bed—wearing the same amount of clothes.
The scale isn’t the only way to gauge your progress. Alternate methods include trying on clothes to see if they fit differently, using a tape measure, taking note of energy levels and paying attention to your emotional health.
7. Avoiding Fruit
Meghan Wilkinson, a clinical dietitian, feels that fruit can often get a bad rap because of its high sugar content, but that the benefits far outweigh any potential drawbacks. "The sugar found in fruit is naturally occurring, and fruit contains many polyphenols and phytonutrients," Wilkinson says. "Fruits are also a good source of fiber, which can help you feel fuller longer and help regulate your bowel function."
8. Being a Creature of Habit
It's easy to fall into the same routines day after day, whether it's always walking a certain three-mile route or eating the same thing for lunch. If your goal is to break through a weight loss plateau or take your fitness to a new level, the key is to step out of your comfort zone.
"When it comes to diet, if you're feeling frustrated by a lack of progress toward your health goals, switch things up," recommends Mattox. "Try new vegetables, or prepare a vegetable you love in a different way. If you’re eating dairy products at every meal, cut back. Measuring your protein portions to control calories? Try larger portions of anti-inflammatory options, such as seafood."
9. Putting Yourself Down
Becky Hand, registered dietitian and health coach, hears many of her clients derail their own motivation and momentum through negative self-talk, such as "I was so bad this week; I’ll never reach my goal." Or, "I’ll only like my thighs when I get to my ideal weight."
"Would you talk this way to your best friend?" Hand asks. "Heck, no! Then why are you saying these hurtful and destructive things to yourself?" Hand spends a great deal of time with her clients to ensure that their goals, expectations and action plans are realistic. She often has them make lists of the positive actions they've achieved, along with improvements in their wellness.
Self-labeling is another potentially destructive practice, one that Mattox often sees in her nutrition practice. "During our first appointment together, many clients warn me that they are picky eaters, don’t have time to exercise or don’t like to cook. As we discuss their likes and dislikes, so many people that label themselves as 'picky eaters' end up liking a wide variety of healthy foods. The client that 'doesn’t like to cook' actually has a great time in the kitchen cooking with friends, but doesn’t like to cook in isolation at the end of long day."
Instead of slapping negative labels on yourself, such as "unhealthy," "picky" or "hopeless in the kitchen," Mattox recommends putting a positive spin on the labels, such as "a past picky eater open to new culinary experiences" or "a non-exerciser who now clocks 10,000 steps a day."
10. Giving Up Too Soon
Making a long-term lifestyle change and reaching weight loss goals takes hard work, discipline and plenty of time. Registered dietitian Tricia Silverman has seen some clients give up too soon. The first two weeks are often very rewarding, as they see the weight start to come off, but they often hit a plateau around the third or fourth week. Tricia calls this "the fork in the road," the point at which some people become frustrated and fall back into old habits, while others have faith in the process, stay on track and ultimately lose the weight.
Tricia also wishes her clients wouldn’t get derailed by the occasional slip-up. The key, she says, is bouncing back quickly and not letting a single setback turn into a trend. "Eating one cookie won’t do a lot of damage, but if that one cookie turns into an eating frenzy, followed by self-hatred and disgust, and repeated in days to come, then it will become hard to lose weight," she says. "If you slip up on your diet or exercise plan, self-compassion is key. This is the notion of being kind to yourself, picking yourself up, realizing this happens to a lot of people and learning from the slip-up to prevent it from happening again. The quicker you get back on track, the closer you will be to your wellness goals."