You’ve been walking the straight and narrow—counting calories, working out—and yet you’re not dropping pounds. What gives? The answer may be hiding out amid the random things you do over the course of an average day—those little habits that have seemingly no connection to weight loss, but may in fact be sabotaging your best get-fit efforts.
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Do you always eat "healthy"?
A funny thing happens when you focus on making careful diet decisions. If you just "think" of your meal as a light choice, it can cause your brain to make more of the hormone ghrelin, reports a study from Yale University.
"More ghrelin makes you feel less full and signals your metabolism to slow down," says study author and PhD candidate Alia Crum. To keep your ghrelin balanced, focus on the more indulgent parts of your meal—say, the nuts and cheese on your salad, rather than the lettuce.
It also helps to pick foods that are both healthy and seem like a treat, like a warm bowl of soup with crusty whole-grain bread.
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Do you pay with plastic?
Carrying cash may feel a little last century, but people who use a credit card when grocery shopping buy significantly more unhealthy, calorie-dense food than people who pay cash, according to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research.
Junk-food buyers were perfectly aware of the extra calories and cost of those treats, but since they didn’t feel the immediate hit in the wallet, they gave in more easily to impulse buys, explains study co-author Kalpesh Desai, PhD, associate professor of marketing at Binghamton University.
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Do you think about exercise a lot?
There’s a downside to that, says a French study: Simply thinking about exercise can cause you to eat 50% more. Why? People assume that the upcoming workout gives them license to snack. Avoid excessive munching with a pre-gym snack of no more than 150 calories, advises Keri Glassman, RD, author of The Snack Factor Diet. Try two slices of turkey with whole-grain crackers.
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Are you laser-focused at work?
Sit for just a few hours and your body stops making a fat-inhibiting enzyme called lipase, researchers at the University of Missouri–Columbia found.
Stand and stretch every hour, and you’ll boost your metabolism by about 13%, says research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Or, fidget all day (tap your feet or bounce in your chair) and increase calorie burn by 54%.
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Do you sleep too little?
"Not enough shut-eye puts your body into a carb- and fat-craving survival mode," says Michael Breus, PhD, author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan. A study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who slept fewer than four hours ate 300 more calories and 21 more grams of fat the next day.
Try this to gauge your sleep needs: For a week, go to bed seven and a half hours before you need to get up. If you awaken before the alarm, you can get by with less sleep. But if you hit snooze, you may need eight, even nine, hours a night to wake up refreshed, recharged, and ready to burn some fat.
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Are you stressed?
A hectic schedule, challenging job, family drama—whatever the reason for your stress, it may be the underlying cause of your weight loss struggles. That’s because of the stress hormone called cortisol, which may increase the amount of fat your body stores away. In fact, research has shown that higher levels of cortisol have been linked to greater amounts of visceral fat.
When in doubt, skip any refined foods. That means white bread, crackers, chips, plus all those sneaky refined sugars in packaged foods. All of these unhealthy items increase inflammation in the body, says Kate Patton, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic. "Belly fat is associated with inflammation, so eating too many processed foods will hinder your ability to lose belly fat." Instead, stick to whole, clean foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
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Are you skipping weight day?
Sure, cardio is important. But if you always opt for a run or bike ride, you likely won’t reach your weight loss goals. “If your primary goal is fat loss, there are other forms of exercise that give a much better bang for your buck,” says celebrity trainer Jennifer Cohen. “The best way to lose weight and build lean muscle by doing some form of strength training in addition to your cardio. The more muscle tone your body has, the more fat you'll burn.”
But if you’re not ready to let go of your daily cardio routine just yet, try adding interval training, suggests Cohen, since these types of workouts are much more effective at targeting fat than cardio alone.