April 15, 2008 -- Still struggling to lose weight? Here are five mistakes that many people make -- and advice to help you shed pounds. Also, Click here for a calorie counter, which will tell you how much you burn when you exercise.
1. You're Following Bad Advice
Sometimes the government goofs. In the late 1970s, the United States began advocating a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet. In the early 1970s, the average daily energy intake was 2,450 calories. By the year 2000, that number had risen to 2,618. Almost all of those extra calories came from carbohydrates, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Do this: Eat fewer carbs. People are overeating carbohydrates, not protein and fat. So if you want to lose fat, start by cutting back on carbs. After all, ask just about any nutritionist what the main purpose of carbohydrates is and they'll say "energy." Trouble is, most people are consuming more energy than they can burn.
Imagine that the carbs you eat go into a bucket. When the bucket is full, the carbs overflow and are converted to fat. This is how it works in your body. But by eating lower carbs most of the time, your bucket is always about half full -- even if you're not as active as you'd like to be.
This not only keeps your body burning fat, but when you do eat lots of carbs -- as long as you consume them when your bucket isn't full -- they don't end up on your hips or belly.
Bonus tip: The best time to eat a high-carb meal -- even if it's high in sugar -- is right after a workout. After all, your "carb bucket" is lower than ever, since you've just burned up a bunch of calories with exercise.
2. You Eat Fat-Free Foods
Warning: Low-fat foods may make you fat. Cornell University researchers reported that when overweight men and women were told they were eating low-fat M&Ms, they consumed 47 percent more calories than those who were given regular M&Ms (the M&Ms were actually all the same). On average, low-fat foods contain 59 percent less fat, but only 15 percent fewer calories than full-fat products.
Do this: Go ahead and eat full-fat foods -- for instance, cheese, sour cream, nuts and even a nice, marbled steak. They have slightly more calories than their lower-fat counterparts, but they'll help you feel full longer after you eat. And that'll reduce the number of calories you eat at your next meal.
Keep in mind that you won't store fat if you aren't eating too many total calories. Studies show that calorie-reduced diets containing upward of 60 percent fat are just as effective for weight loss as those in which fat provides only 20 percent of the calories (both approaches lower risk of heart disease).
Plus, the high-fat dieters also report feeling less hungry and deprived. And just as important, they tend to automatically reduce their food intake so that they lose fat without counting calories.
3. You (Still) Don't Eat Breakfast
Sure, you've heard this one before. But it's important: Researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that people who don't eat breakfast are nearly five times more likely to be obese than those who make it an everyday habit.
That's because if you sleep for six to eight hours, and then skip breakfast, your body is running on fumes by the time you get to work. And that sends you desperately seeking sugar, which happens to be easy to find.
Do this: Eat your first meal within 90 minutes of waking. The UMass scientists determined that people who waited longer increased the likelihood that they'd become heavyweights by 147 percent; those that didn't eat breakfast within three hours of waking elevated their risk by 173 percent.
Bonus Tip: As soon as you wake up, consume 16 ounces of chilled water. German scientists recently found that this strategy boosted metabolism for about 90 minutes afterward (a smaller amount of water had no effect).
4. You're Eating Too Much Sugar
According to a USDA survey, an average American eats 82 grams of added sugar every day. That's almost 20 teaspoons, which contribute an empty 317 calories.
The researchers report that 91 percent of these added sugars can be attributed to intake of regular soda (33 percent), baked goods and breakfast cereals (23 percent), candy (16 percent), fruit drinks (10 percent) and sweetened milk products (9 percent) such as chocolate milk, ice cream and flavored yogurt.
What's not on the list? Meat, vegetables, whole fruit, and eggs, along with whole grain and dairy products that haven't been sweetened.
The bottom line: If you simply eliminate the added sugars from your diet, you're going to automatically weed out most of the junk food as well as empty calories. The result is a pretty decent whole food diet. And from there, you can tweak your diet even more -- by managing your "carb bucket" -- to speed your results.
Do this: Carefully read labels -- especially when it comes to cereal (a serving of Kellogg's Health Heart Smart Start packs as much sugar as a serving of Froot Loops).
Or even better, trade your morning bowl for an omelet. St. Louis University scientists found that people who had eggs as part of their breakfast eat fewer calories the rest of the day than those who ate bagels instead. Even though both breakfasts contained the same number of calories, the egg eaters consumed 264 fewer calories for the entire day.
5. You Don't Lift Weights
In a study at Ball State University, scientists put overweight men on a 1,500-calorie-a-day diet, and divided them into three groups -- one that didn't exercise, another that performed aerobic exercise three days a week, and a third that did both aerobic exercise and weight training.
Each group lost almost the same amount of weight -- about 21 pounds. But the lifters shed 5 more pounds of fat than those who didn't pump iron. Why? Their 21-pound weight loss was almost pure fat, while the other two groups lost just 15 pounds of lard, along with several pounds of muscle.
Do this: Make three total-body weight training sessions a week a non-negotiable part of your weight-loss plan. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that lost muscle is replaced by fat over time. This not only makes you look flabby, but it also increases your pants size -- even if you somehow manage to keep your scale-weight the same. The reason: each pound of fat takes up 18 percent more space on your body than each pound of muscle.
Bonus Tip: This is just as important for women as it is for men. But don't be obsessed with the scale. Your weight can fluctuate up or down by up to 4 percent a day. So your best gauge is really the way your clothes fit -- especially your jeans. If they're feeling looser around your hips and waist, you're making progress.
Adam Campbell is co-author of "The TNT Diet," and the fitness director at Men's Health magazine.