By Karen Gordon, health journalist
Is all that hard work you put into your diet getting you nowhere? You're not alone. Many of us keep making the same diet blunders – and this can make you abandon your attempts to lose weight.
We look at some common diet mistakes and how to avoid them.
Crash dietingWhen people want to lose a couple of pounds for a special event or a holiday, many turn to crash diets – such as the cabbage soup or grapefruit diet. It may work in the short term, but it will hinder weight loss in the long term.
Claire MacEvilly, a nutritionist at the MRC Human Nutrition Research Centre in Cambridge, explains: 'Losing weight over the long term burns off fat. Crash dieting or fasting not only removes fat but also lean muscle and tissue.'
So in the long term your metabolic rate will slow down. And when you finish the diet, your body will need fewer calories than it previously did, making weight gain more likely once you stop dieting.
Quick tip: the healthiest way to lose weight is neither crash diets nor bursts of exercise. Your body likes slow changes in terms of food and exercise.
Losing track of what you have eatenIt's easy to forget about the snacks that we eat during the day, so try and be realistic about what you're eating. There's the small slither of cake you ate in the office or the packet of crisps you ate for your afternoon snack. This doesn't mean that you always have to deny yourself treats, but you should learn to limit these foods to small quantities – say, for special occasions.
Quick tip: try keeping a daily diary of everything you eat and drink. You can use a notebook or an online diary. At the end of the week, review what you have eaten – it may surprise you!
Skipping breakfastMissing breakfast is a big mistake when you're trying to lose weight. It's important to start the day by eating a hearty healthy breakfast because it boosts your metabolism. Your metabolism will slow throughout the course of the day, so it's better to eat a greater percentage of your daily intake at the beginning of your day.
Also by skipping breakfast, you will be left hungry for the rest of the day, which will result in you being tempted to snack more and eating a larger lunch than you should have.
Quick tip: breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper.
Not including exerciseWhen you are not exercising, you are relying on your diet alone. By exercising as part of your diet regime, this will allow you to eat more of the things you like and still lose weight. And the more exercise you do, the more calories you will burn - someone who increases the amount they exercise, but maintains the same diet and calorie intake, will almost certainly lose weight.
Quick tip: the key is to find an exercise you enjoy – so try out some dance classes or start cycling to work.
Skipping mealsDon't be tempted to skip any meals to lose weight. While skipping a meal will reduce your calorie intake for that hour, you will be much hungrier later on. And you're more likely to overeat to compensate.
Irregular eating habits also disrupt your body's metabolism, which makes it harder for you to lose weight in the first place. You are also not giving your body the energy it needs to properly function.
Quick tip: plan your three main meals in advance – so you're never in the position to skip one.
Portion distortionUnfortunately a lot of us eat bigger portions than we need, even when we're dieting and eating healthily. When serving up your meals, your hand can be a great way to measure your food intake. Proteins, such as meat or fish, should be the size of your palm. A single serving of carbohydrates should be a handful and vegetables and salads should fit into two closely cupped hands.
Quick tip: eat your food slowly – if you bolt it down, chances are you haven't given your stomach enough time to tell your brain that you're full.
Drinks contain calories tooAlthough it's important to drink plenty of water when you are trying to maintain a healthy weight, don't overlook the calorie content of fizzy drinks. They will add significant calories to your diet without you realising it. Also watch out for fruit juices and certain coffees. A large latte can contain as many as 300 calories, and if you make it a mocha, it could be as many as 600 – or a third of your daily calorie allowance.
Quick tip: have a soda water with a splash of fruit juice – or lime cordial instead.
Weighing yourself too oftenAlthough it can be encouraging to see how much weight you've lost, doing it too much can be frustrating and can make weight loss harder. Weight loss on a successful diet is usually slow and gradual.
Women's weight can fluctuate during their menstrual cycle due to water retention. If you're regularly doing an exercise, such as weight training, you'll be building up lean muscle tissue, which is a must for weight loss. But weighing scales can be misleading because muscle is heavier than fat.
Quick tip: it's important to look long term for your goals – rather than daily. So limit yourself to weekly weigh-ins.
Fat-free doesn't mean low calorie'Low-fat' or 'fat-free' does not always mean low calorie or calorie-free. Extra sugars and thickeners are often added to boost flavour and texture, so calorie content may be only a bit less or the same as standard products. Foods labelled low-fat should contain no more than 3g of fat per 100g.
Quick tip: be careful when you pile your plate with low-fat cake – you may be better off eating a small slice of regular cake. The best way to be sure is to check the sugar, fat and calorie content on the nutritional values label.
Limiting low-fat/fat-free foodsThere's a common myth that cutting out all fat will help you lose weight. But the body needs fat for energy, tissue repair and to transport vitamins A, D, E and K around the body. There's no need to follow a fat-free diet.
Quick tip: so make sure you cut down on saturated fats, such as biscuits and margarine. But keep eating unsaturated fats in moderation. These can be found in things like olive oil and avocados.
Cutting dairy outMany people tend to cut out dairy when dieting. But this could prove to be counterproductive. Recent studies suggest that the body burns more fat when it has enough calcium – and produces more fat when it doesn't have enough calcium.
Quick tip: you can always opt for the low-fat dairy options.
Not snacking at allIt's a mistake to think that you'll lose weight by cutting out all of your snacks – but make sure the snacks that you do eat are healthy ones! People who snack throughout the day keep hunger pangs at bay, increasing energy levels and boosting their metabolism.
Quick tip: make sure you enjoy smart snacks.
• Nuts are packed full of protein and fibre, and are a rich source of vitamins B6, E and folic acid. They are high in calories, so a small handful should be enough to keep hunger pangs at bay.
• Dried apricots, dried and fresh fruits, oatcakes or rye crackers make a great snack because they are all low on the glycaemic index (GI), providing slowly released energy into our bloodstream rather than a quick sugar rush that soon dips, leaving us feeling hungry again.
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