OK, I’m not really going to tell you HOW to fail, but I will talk about a few ways you might have in the past, and how you can fix it. This may surprise a few people, but you can be overweight or at your ideal weight on any diet. I have seen a vegan patient who was very obese, while on the other hand a professor in Kansas lost 27 pounds eating nothing but Twinkies, Oreos, Doritos, and sugary cereal. While I don’t recommend this “Twinkie diet” – professor Haub was doing it to make a point about energy balance – I will say that maintaining a healthy weight and getting the best performance out of your body is based on many factors. Research has shown a variety of eating patterns including the Mediterranean diet, Paleolithic diet, and low fat diets can help people lose weight and improve health markers like cholesterol and blood sugar. No matter what type of nutrition plan you follow, there are a few key things that will help you maintain optimal weight and perform at your best. In this post, I’ll talk about some of the common mistakes people make, and how you can fix them.
The Paleo diet is unique in that it is one of the few that doesn’t place a heavy focus on portion sizes. While Weight Watchers followers for example are measuring everything, Paleo eaters are encouraged to toss the measuring cup back in the drawer and eat fruits, veggies, and meat until they are full. And it makes sense. It’s way harder to over eat broccoli, with about 50 calories per cup, and grilled chicken. But sometimes it’s easy to get busy and distracted and end up eating too much of the wrong stuff. Here are a few common mistakes made by Paleo followers:
- Too many nuts. Nuts and nut butters provide healthy fats and help keep you full longer, and they are a good addition to a balanced diet. But if you’re finishing a whole jar of almond butter or you go through a whole bag of walnuts in under a week, you’re not going to see the results you want.
- Paleo “Treats”. Just because you can make something Paleo doesn’t mean it’s healthy or that it’s OK to eat regularly. In fact, I have made Paleo cookies that are double the amount of calories in a normal cookie. Almond flour is energy dense and the sugar in honey is still sugar. These treats add a lot of calories and fat while still not giving you very many of the nutrients you really need – fiber, protein, and vitamins – that you will get from meat, fruits, and vegetables.
- Backsliding. This is what happens when your “80-20” (aka eating Paleo 80% of the time while allowing a few other items like dairy, dark chocolate, or beer in from time to time) becomes “60-40” and then “kinda Paleo”, and then… you get the idea. This also happens when your one cheat day becomes the whole weekend.
Other Diet Mistakes
The Paleo diet is not the only diet that can be “done wrong”. Here are a few other mistakes people make:
- Overeating a food because it is “low this” or “healthy”. Really, too much of anything is bad news. Even healthy stuff. I wouldn’t recommend anyone eat 3 brownies in a day, but I also wouldn’t recommend eating 3 avocados or 3 bananas in a day either. The key is balance, variety, and choosing whole, unprocessed foods.
- Misreading the labels. A food can be “high fructose corn syrup free” but still contain a lot of a different type of sugar. Grains and cereals can be labeled “whole grain” but contain little whole wheat flour and plenty of other not so awesome ingredients (like added sugars). And many foods can be labeled “natural” but still contain as many processed ingredients as your not so natural Pop Tart. It’s important to check the back of the box. If you want whole wheat bread, the first ingredient should be “100% whole wheat flour”. If you want unprocessed food, look for a short list of ingredients that don’t have complicated names. Also, check your dried fruit and nut butters for added sugars, and go for the option without them.
- Trusting the names and claims. Just because something is vegan, vegetarian, low fat, low carb, “healthy choice”, or Weight Watchers approved doesn’t mean it’s good for you. In fact, many Weight Watchers and Healthy Choice meals and desserts contain artificial crap and preservatives (think about how long they’ve been in that freezer). Same goes for the vegan items. Have you seen the ingredients in vegan cheese? Just stick to whole foods.
Be mindful of portions. Don’t stress about measuring vegetables, but keep in mind that serving of nuts is ¼ cup and a serving of nut butter is 2 tablespoons. Try to shoot for no more than one or two servings per day. If you don’t have a measuring cup on hand, ¼ cup is about the size of a large egg or an average handful, and 2 tablespoons is similar in size to a ping pong ball. This is important even if you’re an athlete trying to gain weight. Too much fat at one time can make you feel sluggish, and if you eat it too close to a workout can cause an upset stomach.
Keep eating a balanced diet. Meals should be a colorful array of protein, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. If your whole plate is tan or white, add some color. And spread meals throughout the day. Eating big meals usually leads to points of sluggish fullness and hunger. Have moderately sized meals and a few smaller snacks every 3-4 hours to stay fueled, ward of hunger, and keep your metabolism humming at a good pace.
Track your food. You can use apps like MyFitnessPal (compatible for iPhone and droid, and usable online via computer) to enter your food and create recipes from a very wide database of foods. Tracking food keeps you more attuned to what you’re eating, which can help you avoid mindless snacking and prevent a back slide. It will also alert you to any glaring issues in your diet, like eating too little carbs or over doing it on the fat. You can also graph sodium and vitamin levels to see if you’re getting too little or too much of any nutrients.
Plan ahead. It’s easy to keep up the same bad habits when you’re on autopilot. If you want to change up your meals, revamp your snacks, or be more mindful of portions, then plan for it. Sit down with a cookbook and come up with a few new meal ideas. Make a grocery list so you don’t forget anything or buy additional items you don’t need (like cookies!). Make a few balanced meals and pre-portion them in Tupperware on an off day. This way when you get busy you’re well prepared with good food.
Cheat now and again. Instead of trying to “health-ify” your favorite pancake or cupcake recipe, just go get a Georgetown cupcake or make a batch of pancakes once in a while. As I’ve mentioned before here, having a planned cheat day on occasion can beneficially impact certain appetite regulating hormone levels and allow you to take a mental break, and can be very helpful in the long term maintenance of a good nutrition plan.