We've all been exposed to various "diet rules" over the years and, accurate or not, many of us still live by them. It's time to debunk six of these outdated and unhelpful rules once and for all, and get some new guidelines that will actually help you reach your goals.
Old rule: Don’t eat after 7 p.m.
So what makes 7 (or 8 or 9) p.m. a magical cutoff time, anyway? The original idea was that people should stop eating about three hours before bed, using 10 p.m. as an average bedtime. Although it is a good idea to stop eating a few hours before bed, the reasoning has nothing to do with weight gain; it’s basically an issue of digestion and personal comfort. Going to sleep on a full stomach may make sleeping uncomfortable, as the body is simultaneously shutting down to rest while still exerting energy to digest the food. This may lead to fitful sleep as well as gas and indigestion—but not weight gain. Your body is smart, but it doesn't know what time it is when you eat. It will metabolize calories eaten after 7 p.m. the same way as it does the calories you eat earlier in the day. They will not automatically be stored as fat.
New rule: Don’t mindlessly snack in the evening
What does cause weight gain for many people is eating a large amount of unhealthy food at night. Not eating after 7 p.m. is a good rule if you tend to mindlessly munch on food all evening long, whether to soothe the day's stress or relieve boredom. But your total caloric intake for the day is what matters—not the time at which you eat your calories. You can eat at night without gaining weight, as long as you are eating mindfully to satisfy real hunger rather than stress or boredom and don't go over your calorie needs for the day when doing so.
Old rule: Always choose fat-free foods
These days, nearly every full-fat food, from cookies to ice cream, has a fat-free counterpart. It's the first instinct of many people to simply eat these reduced-fat foods to control their weight; however, this tactic could actually derail your good intentions. Why? Because most of the fat-free foods you can buy are things you shouldn't be eating anyway: empty-calorie junk food and heavily processed sweets, crackers and cookies. These items have been available for over a decade, but people aren't getting any thinner by eating them. Remember, dietary fat isn't the sole culprit that has made us overweight—excess calories are. Sure, most of us could stand to cut back our fat intake to a more reasonable level, but calories count when it comes to weight loss. All the reduced-fat foods in the world will not help you lose weight if you're making poor food choices or eating too many calories in general.
New rule: Include a moderate amount of heart-healthy fats in your weight loss plan
Your body needs dietary fat for day-to-day organ protection, vitamin absorption, hormone production and more, so you won’t be doing yourself any favors by completely depriving yourself of this macronutrient. A sensible amount of fat can also aid in satiety, making you feel fuller longer. Try adding healthful fats such as nuts, avocado or olive oil to your diet. Choose low-fat or fat-free products when it comes to dairy and meats to limit your intake of unhealthy fats and control calories, but leave the other fat-free foods on the supermarket shelf.
Old rule: You should burn every calorie you eat through exercise
To lose weight, it's true that you need to burn more calories than you consume. But some people misinterpret this weight-loss equation, thinking they must burn off every calorie they eat—and then some—by exercising. Besides being inaccurate, this practice can be unsafe and lead to exhaustion, overuse injuries and stalled weight loss, among other problems. Remember, your body is constantly burning calories throughout the day, even when you're not physically active. This is known as a basal metabolic rate (BMR), and it accounts for more than 1,200-1,500 calories per day (on average). Add to that all the calories you burn by moving, walking, standing and yes, exercising, and it's easy to see how you can "burn more calories than you consume" without spending your life in the gym.
New rule: Move more and exercise moderately
Try to achieve an active lifestyle by adding more physical activity to your days. Not all of this activity needs to be planned exercise (although you should exercise three to six times per week for 30-60 minutes per session to help burn additional calories and enhance your health). Small things that get you moving more—taking the stairs, walking to a co-worker's desk instead of emailing, or playing an active video game instead of watching TV—add to your daily calorie burn and help you lose weight. There is no need to resort to exercise extremes; you only need to burn about 200-600 calories per day (not thousands) through actual exercise to safely lose weight.
Old rule: Skip meals to lose weight faster
Many people believe that skipping meals like breakfast will help them eat fewer calories and therefore speed up weight loss. In theory, this idea seems to make sense, but skipping meals to save calories backfires more often than not. When you go several hours without food, you will be ravenous by the time your next meal comes along, and this will make you more likely to throw your eating plans out the window and consume anything within reach. In addition to this, eating too infrequently may slow down your metabolism, sending your body into conservation (or "starvation") mode because it thinks calories are scarce.
New rule: Eat sensible portions at regular intervals throughout the day
Try to keep your body's metabolism running as efficiently as possible by fueling it at regular intervals. Try eating small, balanced meals every three to four hours to properly nourish yourself and encourage weight loss, or at the very least, eat three meals (including breakfast) and a couple of healthful snacks to curb hunger and keep your metabolic fire stoked.
Old rule: Eating low-carb is the way to win at weight loss
Over the past several years, low-carb diet fads have given carbohydrates a bad rap, but this reputation is unfounded. Carbohydates are an important fuel source for your body, and they are necessary for safe, steady weight loss, too. Your body needs carbohydrates to efficiently burn fat, so skimping on the carbs could actually hurt your weight loss efforts and be detrimental to your health.
New rule: Cut back on processed carbs and choose whole foods instead
It is true that some carbs (whole grains, vegetables, legumes, etc.) are better for you than others (white bread, sugary cereals and sweets). Rather than omitting carbs from your diet plan, be more selective. Choose more whole grains and unprocessed foods like brown rice, quinoa, whole-grain bread and oats, and limit your intake of unhealthy carbs that sneak into your diet via processed foods, sweets, caloric beverages and refined flours.
Old rule: Give up eating all of your favorite fattening foods
This is a common practice that can backfire, even for those with very high levels of willpower and motivation. It’s simply unrealistic to think that you can cut out all the foods you love without ever rebelling. Chances are, if you keep yourself from eating your favorite "bad" foods all the time, you’ll eventually end up giving in and bingeing on those foods since you haven’t had them in so long. By categorizing foods into "good" and "bad" groups, you’re only setting yourself up to want what you can’t have. Good-for-you foods feel like punishment and "bad-for-you" foods are more alluring.
New rule: Eat anything you’d like, within moderation
Instead of giving up certain foods and forcing yourself to eat others, don’t make any food off-limits. With moderation and portion control, you can still eat your favorites without straying from your goals. Try sprinkling a few chocolate chips on your oatmeal in the morning instead of eating an entire chocolate bar, or have one tablespoon of peanut butter with some celery instead of slathering it on a sandwich. By allowing yourself these little treats, you’ll still be able to eat what you love, gradually decrease the intensity of your cravings and avoid binges that could derail your weight loss efforts.
When it comes down to it, the new rules for weight loss are common sense—and easier to stick with. The bottom line is to ultimately listen to your body’s signals and honor your cravings in a sensible way while incorporating regular exercise, portion control and healthy eating habits into your lifestyle for the long term. Incorporate these new "rules" into your repertoire and you’ll be amazed at what a difference such small changes can make!