How to Deal with Common Diet Downfalls

Seemingly harmless habits like skipping breakfast or downing diet sodas could be sabotaging your weight loss. Here's how to get back on the right track.

Reforming Diet Habits

If you can't start your day without a mocha latte or are unable to watch a movie without buttered popcorn, you know that taming a tendency to reach for certain foods can be tough — almost like breaking an addiction. "The good news is they're learned behaviors," says Mark Gold, MD, a psychiatry professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville. So you can teach yourself to change. Of course, giving up a routine is no simple task. The key is to replace it, not erase it. "Instead of trying to quit cold turkey, substitute a good behavior for the bad behavior," says Susan McQuillan, a food and nutrition consultant in New York City and the author of Low Calorie Dieting for Dummies (Wiley). Kiss your unhealthy habits goodbye and slim down fast with these swaps.

"I can't function without my daily diet sodas. I drink several cans a day."

Why it's a diet downfall: Consuming just two cans of diet soda daily increases your chances of becoming overweight by 57 percent, reports research from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. Experts suspect that when we taste the sweet flavor of a diet drink — but get no calories — our bodies crave the calories that weren't delivered, which may prompt us to eat more.

Cure your craving: To get your fizz fix, swap one diet soda a day for a glass of sparkling water. After one week, have two waters a day instead of two sodas — and so on — until you're drinking only sparkling water. "To make it more refreshing, squeeze in lemon or lime juice, throw in a sliced cucumber or, for a spicy kick, mix in 1/8 teaspoon of [ground] ginger," suggests Tara Gidus, RD, a dietitian in Orlando, Florida. If the caffeine withdrawal causes any unpleasant side effects, like headaches or irritability, then switch to green tea, which has less caffeine than diet soda and still zero calories.

"I never have time for breakfast, but often grab a vanilla latte on my way to work."

Why it's a diet downfall: Breakfast skippers are 50 percent more likely to be obese than breakfast eaters, according to a recent study from Harvard University. Regularly missing a morning meal slows your metabolism, and the lack of calories early in the day prompts your body to store more calories when you do eat — because it doesn't know how long it will be until you eat again.

Cure your craving: Switch to a low-fat latte — ask for skim milk and sugar-free syrup if you like it flavored. You'll still get a healthy dose of protein and vitamins, says McQuillan. "Have some food with it as well to prevent going overboard on calories later in the day." Boil a dozen eggs on Sunday night so you can grab two, along with a few whole-grain crackers, on your way out each morning. Or make an extra peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread when you're packing the kids' lunches.

"I have something sweet at the end of every meal."

Why it's a diet downfall: Almost all desserts pack extra calories. What's worse, many of those calories are "empty," meaning they lack nutritional value. Common treats like candy and cake are also simple carbs that get digested quickly, so you feel hungry again shortly after eating them. Sweet foods can toy with your emotions, too. University of Michigan researchers found that when we eat chocolate, our brain releases endorphins — chemicals that make us feel good. Experiencing that mild high can sometimes make you want even more chocolate.

Cure your craving: Choose desserts that offer protein — they take longer to digest, so you'll satisfy your sweet tooth and stave off another trip to the kitchen. Try sprinkling walnuts over a scoop of low-fat frozen yogurt. Another option is fruit, suggests McQuillan, because it has natural sugar but fewer calories and more nutrients than most desserts. "And it's hard to believe, but you may reach for sweets just to get rid of your meal's aftertaste," says Gidus. "So brush your teeth right after you eat or chew a piece of sugarless mint gum to cleanse your palate."

"I love to wind down with a glass of wine after work, but it often turns into two or more."

Why it's a diet downfall: At about 100 calories per glass, wine is a better choice than most cocktails. But down three a night and you'll put on close to seven pounds in two months. Plus, the buzz may encourage you to let your guard down when it comes to late-night bingeing. To make matters even worse, a study from the University of California found that drinking alcohol causes you to burn 73 percent less fat. Because the liver converts alcohol into a substance called acetate, when you need fuel to keep going, it burns that acetate first, not fat.

Cure your craving: Before you even pour yourself a glass, drink at least 8 ounces of water first. "Otherwise, if you're thirsty, you'll gulp the wine faster and want more," says Gidus. Experts agree that an alcoholic beverage a day decreases the risk of heart disease, so make seven glasses your weekly limit. To further reduce calorie intake, drink a wine spritzer (half wine, half club soda or seltzer). Or to really change things up, suggest switching your socializing spot, suggests Dr. Gold. You don't have to always go to a restaurant or bar — instead head to a bowling alley or visit a local museum.

"At the end of the day I collapse on the couch with a bag of chips."

Why it's a diet downfall: When we eat directly from the bag, it's easier to lose track of exactly how many servings we're stuffing into our mouths. People who reach right into the package consume 134 calories more than people who eat the same food from a bowl, says research from Brian Wansink, PhD, the John Dyson professor of marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University. If your couch is in front of the tube, you might do even more damage. "Distractions can redirect your attention and cause you to ignore bodily cues that tell you when you're full," says Wansink.

Cure your craving: Sit at a table instead of on the sofa when you eat so you can focus solely on your food. Buy snacks that take a little work to eat, like sunflower seeds or pistachios, since it's tough to scarf down a serving of those quickly. "If you love the texture of chips, replace them with healthier foods that are also crunchy, like soy crisps," suggests Dr. Gold. Divide snacks into one-serving portions in zip-top bags to prevent yourself from munching on more than you realize.

Success Stories

With a little creativity and a lot of self-discipline, these three readers beat their greatest temptations:

"My kids, Dawson, 14, and Hayden, 12, always want snacks when they get home from school, and it's hard for me not to have some too. Now I put out food and go tend the garden while they eat." -Denise Allan, Bothell, Washington

"In order to relax after work, I'd grab a pint of Ben & Jerry's. That didn't help my waistline. So I started going to the Y to swim for 30 minutes instead. Now when I get home, I've already burned off the stress, so I crave veggies, fish, chicken, and even fruit for dessert. It's my body's way of saying, 'You just did something good — now don't mess it up!'" -Ann Sackrider, Brooklyn, New York

"I used to love bite-size candy bars. They're so tiny that I'd eat several before realizing it. I couldn't give up chocolate, so I switched to a dark variety that's packed with antioxidants and much lower in sugar. Best of all, it's so rich that just one ounce satisfies my cravings." -Elisa Bosley, Boulder, Colorado

Could You Be Addicted to Food?

It may just feel like a lack of willpower, but research shows that for some people, the drive to eat can be as strong as an addict's urge for drugs. "In both situations there's a lack of dopamine in the brain, which is a chemical that helps us feel good," says Mark Gold, MD, a psychiatry professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville. "Addicts have an intense motivation to do something that prompts its release, like taking drugs or eating."

If you're struggling to control your food intake, respond to the questions below:

  1. Do you hide your food from others so that you can have it just for yourself?
  2. Do you go out of your way to eat alone?
  3. Do you seek out companions who eat the way you do?

If you answered yes to all of these, you might be experiencing an addiction. First ask your doctor for a referral to a food-addiction specialist, and then check out some of the national support groups online, like Overeaters Anonymous (OA) at oa.org or Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA) at foodaddictsanonymous.org for more information.

Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.