There are many healthy habits that can help you lose weight, like eating more vegetables, getting adequate protein, keeping a food journal and moving your body more. On the flip side, there are some habits that can keep you from seeing the scale move—eating mindlessly, turning to food when you’re stressed and drinking your calories to name a few. There is one habit that is deeply ingrained for those who are lifelong dieters, and while most people think it is helping, it actually could be the reason you aren’t seeing lasting results.
Related: 6 Habits You Should Break If You’re Trying to Lose Weight
What is the #1 habit you should break to lose weight?
The number one habit you should break to lose weight is eating too little at meals. Yes, you heard that right. Eating too few calories, especially at breakfast and lunch, is keeping you from losing weight and keeping it off. Yes, not eating enough is one of the biggest reasons many people can’t lose weight.
If you’re a lifelong dieter, then you’ve unfortunately heard countless times to “eat less and move more.” And while a calorie deficit is required for weight loss, this advice is more often than not taken to extremes leading people to eat 1,200 calories or less per day while trying to burn 500 calories or more per day. If you haven’t figured out already, this combination does not work for lasting weight loss. We repeat—drastically cutting calories and overexercising is not the way to lose weight sustainably. While you may lose weight initially, you won’t be able to keep it off because you’ll be so hungry you end up eating back the calories and putting the weight back on. Plus, you’ll be miserable in the process (read: hanger, headaches, tired and cranky).
Related: The #1 Food to Help You Lose Weight, According to a Dietitian
How does this habit keep you from losing weight?
Even if you aren’t currently on a diet, you may still be intentionally or unintentionally eating too little at meals out of habit. Years of hearing “eat less” has conditioned you to find the lowest calorie options around. The emphasis on quantity of food at the expense of quality can get you into trouble.
It looks something like this: a non-fat yogurt for breakfast, a salad at lunch with chicken and then from 3 pm on things tend to go downhill—cheese, crackers, endless grazing, a semi-healthy dinner, then dessert or more snacks post-dinner. In an attempt to start your day keeping calories low, you end up so hungry by the afternoon that you actually end up eating more calories than your body needs by the end of the day. (Try these best breakfast foods for weight loss to start your day.)
Eating so frequently later in the day can also keeps your body in fat storing mode versus fat burning mode. To understand this, we have to review blood sugar. Every time you eat, food is broken down into glucose (sugar) and blood sugar rises. This stimulates the release of insulin, a hormone that takes glucose from the blood to cells for energy. Extra glucose is stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver, and if there is any leftover after that it is stored as fat. Therefore, insulin is released every time you eat (which can be frequently, if you’re not satisfied from your morning meal) and if you are eating more calories than your body needs, your body will store fat. (Here are 8 Habits You Should Break When You’re Trying To Manage Your Blood Sugar.)
How to break the habit of eating too little
First, change your mindset. Drop the notion that you should always be eating less. Hungry people aren’t successful with losing weight and keeping it off; satisfied people are. When you build balanced meals that leave you full, you don’t really think about food between meals. Blood sugar rises steadily (instead of spiking) and keeps you energized for hours. Then it naturally falls versus crashing.
So, how do you do it if you are also trying to lose weight? The goal is to feel as full as possible while also still eating in a small calorie deficit every day so you can see results. Buckle up because this journey takes time, but it’s the only way to ensure you will keep off the weight that you lose and enjoy your life at the same time.
Eat fiber, protein and healthy fat at every meal. These three nutrients digest more slowly and help keep you full. Plus, they’re found in healthy foods like nuts, seeds, fruit, vegetables, chicken, salmon, whole grains and yogurt. Try to eat every 3-4 hours versus noshing constantly. This will prevent insulin from being released so many times throughout the day and allow your body to burn fat versus store it.
Related: Best Snacks for Weight Loss
For lunch and dinner, aim to make half your plate vegetables, ¼ of your plate whole grains, and ¼ of your plate protein. Then add some healthy fat, like olive oil or nut butter. Filling half your plate with vegetables fills your stomach with fiber for very few calories so you feel full but still achieve your weight-loss goals. One common mistake is skipping a whole grain at lunch due to fear of carbs (don’t be afraid of carbs!). But this backfires and leads to eating less healthful carbs in the afternoon. Don’t be afraid to add a half cup of cooked quinoa or farro to lunch or a whole-wheat tortilla. You’ll be surprised at how much more satisfied you will feel. Protein and fat are digested slowly and suppress hunger hormones, keeping you full longer. The combination of protein, fiber and fat slows the rise of blood sugar and release of insulin.
At breakfast this might look like oatmeal with peanut butter and berries or plain 2% Greek yogurt with fruit and nuts. If you crave savory, try whole-wheat toast with avocado and two eggs. And yes, it’s okay to have two pieces of toast, just choose high-fiber, whole-wheat toast, which will help keep you full for hours. (Try these 6 healthy breads, according to a dietitian.)
Finally, eat intuitively and listen to your body. Whereas diets tell you to measure food and eat the same portions every day, ditching restrictive diets allows you to recognize that some days you are hungrier than other days, whether because of a hard workout, stress or your menstrual cycle, and it’s okay to eat more those days. Try to show up to meals hungry but not starving, slow down while eating and finish when you feel satisfied but not stuffed.
Instead of eating less at every meal, aim to eat more but more of the right foods—nutrient-dense foods that will keep you full but also in a small calorie deficit so you can reach your health and weight-loss goals. You’ll be amazed at how satisfied and energized you feel when you bulk up breakfast, add whole grains to lunch and eat adequate protein, fiber and fat at every meal. No more feeling hungry all the time, constantly thinking about food and raiding the pantry after dinner. When you break the habit of eating less at every meal and replace it with a habit of building balanced meals, you will feel better and get results.