Saturday, January 10, 2015

Why Can't I Get Over the Hump? Common Diet and Nutrition Pitfalls

It happens to the best of us: You make a point of eating well -- nutrient-dense food, reasonable portions, not too much junk -- but somehow you still can't create a calorie deficit. So what's the problem?

I think this is where a lot of people start turning to fad diets for help. If you just cut out carbs, you'll get over the hump. Or meat. Or processed foods. Or if you eat your foods in a certain order, that'll do it. Or on certain days. Or you should fast on certain days, or binge on certain days, or both. Or eat like a caveman -- because cavemen totally ate this.

Except none of it really works. At least not long term.

I believe that what really trips up Regular Guys are those calories we don't account for in our normal diets. So let's have a conversation about some common diet pitfalls.

Getting Too Hungry
I get 25-30 grams of protein five times a day, and I fill in the blanks with grains and fruit. It's a solid diet. But it's not perfect, and there are many days where I'm not at a deficit. My pitfall: I don't get home from work until after 8:00, and by the time I get to have dinner, I'm starving. On top of that, I'm usually pretty tired at that point, which hurts my discipline. And so the next thing I know, I've scarfed three bowls of chili or an entire steak.

When you allow yourself to get really, really hungry, two bad things happen: You eat too quickly, and you eat too much. If you eat too quickly, your brain may not register satisfaction when your stomach is full -- it takes a few minutes. And when you're famished, even if you eat slowly, you simply load up on too much food.

What can you do?
I'll be honest -- I'm still working on this one. I'm trying to eat some filling protein -- Greek yogurt -- toward the end of my work day. I load my dinner plate with salad whenever I can -- and I always eat that first to give the fiber a chance to fill me up. I've cut back my portions some of the time as a result, but not all. And honestly, I'm not having salad on Mexican night. I'm also trying to slow down when I eat, but again, when I'm famished, that's easier said than done. 

Late-Night Snacking
If you stay up long after dinner, you're bound to get hungry -- especially if you eat a sensible meal. I don't believe in the notion that calories consumed late at night turn to fat, and I have science on my side there. A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. But there is a danger in late-night eating: You make poorer decisions when you're tired.
When you're tired, your defenses get weaker. That cupcake you were perfectly happy to leave alone at 3:00 in the afternoon all of a sudden looks a lot more inviting. And it's also harder to limit your portions. Whereas when you're usually able to eat one cookie and leave it at that, all of a sudden you realize you've eaten six. When it's late, you're also less likely to prepare something and more likely to grab what's easy -- and let's face it, that's often a bag of chips.

What can you do? 
  • Get to bed earlier. Doctors say that a healthy adult needs around 7 hours of sleep a night. And I'll bet your Regular Guy schedule means that you're waking up by 6:00, anyway -- at least if your job is during normal business hours. If you eat dinner at 7:00 p.m. and you're still awake at 1:00 a.m., you're going to be starving, and you're going to make bad decisions.
  • Try not to keep too much junk food around the house, and put it away in places where you won't stumble onto it frequently. I'm not saying not to have a cookie here and there -- remember the 80/20 rule. But don't leave a plate of cookies out in plain sight. Force yourself to open a drawer or cabinet -- preferably one that you don't open 20 times a day -- take out the package and take a cookie.
  • Make some reasonable swaps. I am the Hummus Monster. Nom nom nom nom nom! But just this week, I tried a swap that really worked -- baby carrots in place of pretzel chips. Even in equal quantities, that's a winner, but the fiber in the carrots filled me up more quickly, so I wound up eating less hummus, too.
  • Take a portion back to the TV or computer. I'm horrible at this, but instead of grabbing the entire can of nuts to nosh on, pour yourself a reasonable amount. If you're having cheese, cut off a piece and put it on a plate, rather than taking the whole hunk with you. If you're genuinely still hungry later, you can always get more. But this is the best way to reduce mindless noshing.

Hidden Calories
How do you take your coffee? This is 8 ounces of coffee with 1 tablespoon of half-and-half. That's about how light I like mine. The coffee has 1 or 2 calories, so that's statistically insignificant. A tablespoon of half-and-half has 20 calories. 

No big deal, right? Wrong. This is where hidden calories can add up -- quick. 

First of all, what Regular Guy do you know who drinks a single 8-ounce cup of coffee in a day? Dunkin Donuts offers 10-, 14- and 20-ounce sizes. Let's say you get the large and make it as light as this photo. That's 2.5 tablespoons of half-and-half -- 50 calories. Do you take sugar? 16 calories per teaspoon. Most people will want at least 3 teaspoons -- 48 calories. Now your no-calorie drink actually has about 100 calories! And I don't know about you, but when I go to Dunkin, I have to say "just a splash" to get this. If you say "regular,"you'll get a lot more half-and-half -- and a lot more calories!

What else do you unwittingly add calories to? Are you careful about your salad dressing? Even if you use an average vinaigrette, a tablespoon is roughly 45 calories. And those ladles they use at salad bars are way bigger than a tablespoon. You can easily add 150 calories to your "healthy" lunch without even realizing it.

How about pasta? You take a reasonable portion and an average amount of red sauce -- great! If you're like me, you add a bunch of Parmesan cheese. A tablespoon of grated Parmesan will cost you 22 calories, and I know I have a hard time stopping with 1 tablespoon.

So there you go. You've eaten the right foods in reasonable portions all day, you haven't had a single item of junk food, and you've added 250-300 hidden calories to your intake. Do that every day and you're talking about 25-30 pounds in a year!

What can you do? 
Easier said than done, but you need to be cognizant of all those little extras throughout your day. It's not reasonable to cut out half-and-half, salad dressing or Parmesan (or whatever else) entirely, but you can cut those calories down. They're just examples, but let's work on the coffee, salad dressing and Parmesan. Without really changing anything about your diet, we can cut 135 calories a day -- 13-14 pounds a year!
  • This cuts against trendy diet thinking, but embrace artificial sweeteners for your coffee. I use Truvia. Despite what you may have read, there is scant actual scientific research backing the idea that it revs up insulin production and leads to sugar cravings. Cut out 3 tablespoons of sugar in your coffee and you've saved 48 calories. And if you can cut a tablespoonful of half-and-half, you'll save another 20.
  • You'll be shocked how little dressing you really need if your salad is properly tossed. If you're at one of those salad places, ask for very little, because they toss the salad well. If you're at home, make it in a big bowl and do the tossing yourself. If you can cut even one tablespoon, there's another 45 calories.
  • Spread your grated cheese around your pasta before heaping on more. It is, more or less, a seasoning to make your meal taste a little better. Get a little bit in each bite before you pile on more. If you can eliminate a tablespoonful, you've cut 22 calories.
Some other suggestions: 
  • Buy plain yogurt and add your own fruit, rather than eating the fruit syrup at the bottom of the cup. 
  • Same goes for instant oatmeal. Plain has about 60 calories fewer than flavored. Even if you put back 30 of those with fruit, you're saving 30.
  • Buy a cereal you like instead of dumping sugar on top of something you don't. The calorie counts of most cereals are pretty close. For example, 3/4 of a cup of Honey Nut Cheerios has 110 calories. 3/4 of a cup of Cheerios has 100. 3/4 of a cup of Cheerios with 2 teaspoonfuls of sugar has 132. 
  • Try not to pick when you're clearing the dinner table. That crust of bread from your daughter's plate counts.
  • Just drink water. Again, there's little evidence saying artificial sweeteners are bad, so if you like Diet Coke, go for it. But if you have even one can of regular Coke a day, you're adding 140 calories to your daily intake.

Eating Out
One of life's great -- and easily accessible -- pleasures is going out to dinner. You don't have to cook, you don't have to clean up, and you have lots of choices. Unfortunately, going out to dinner usually packs a mighty caloric punch.

To me, there are three basic issues:
  • Portion sizes. Restaurant portion sizes are often 3 times the RDA allowance.
  • Calorie-laden food. There are a few exceptions, but a chef sees his or her job as making delicious food, not healthy food.
  • Social eating. It's human nature to eat more and to indulge in high-calorie foods when you're out with family or friends.
What can you do?
I've said it before: You don't want to be that guy who's noshing on the celery while your friends chow on the wings. It's no fun to sip on water or seltzer while your buddies are knocking back beers. And what's the point of going out to dinner if you're going to eat plain grilled chicken and steamed veggies?

When my wife and I go out to dinner, we rarely order an appetizer. Again, restaurant portion sizes are way too big to start with. But the temptation to finish everything is huge. First of all... It. Just. Tastes. So. Good. Add in that you're paying good money, and it's hard to let it go to waste. So don't order twice as much food as you realistically need.

Remember when you were a kid and your parents used to warn you, "Don't fill up on bread"? It's good advice. You know I'm not a low-carb zealot, but white bread is nutrient poor and quickly digested. Even if your entree is fried or doused with cheese, it's surely going to do way better on both macros and micros.

I learned this trick from my wife, and it's my favorite: If you order a burger or sandwich, the first thing you should do is cut it in half. Set one half aside, and enjoy the other half. Don't worry if it's a bacon cheeseburger with fried onions. Savor it. Most restaurants are going to give you 8, 10 or even 12 ounces of burger. Half of that is still plenty of food. And if you're still hungry, take the other half and halve it again. You'll be far less likely to overeat if it's not in your hands.

The Bottom Line
Nobody's perfect. Your diet is never going to be perfect. That's the point of being a Regular Guy. And I'm not going to sit here and claim that if you just follow these tips, you'll cut out hundreds of calories a day and lose 20, 30, 40 pounds. But even a minor deficit can bring about nice results if you're consistent. Remember, for every 100 calories you cut each day, you'll lose 10 pounds over the course of a year. 

And the best calories to cut are the ones you really don't want or need in the first place.

Do you have some other diet pitfalls? Have you come up with creative ways to avoid them? I'd love to hear some Regular Guy success stories, so bring 'em on!

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