If you find it hard to stick to a strict diet, here’s some good news: Breaking the rules could actually help you slim down—and keep the pounds off over the long term. A study published in International Journal of Obesity found that dieters with a flexible strategy that allowed for sweets and other indulgences were significantly more successful at maintaining weight loss during the three-year study than those who strived for rigid control of their eating habits.
That’s because the rigid control group typically had an “all or nothing” mindset. As a result, they yo-yoed between shunning all goodies—including their favorite foods—and falling off the diet wagon completely. Flexible dieters, on the other hand, deemed it good enough to “more or less” follow their weight loss plan, without letting slip-ups escalate into eating binges. But which rules are okay to break without sabotaging your diet? NSCA-certified conditioning coach Holly Mosier, author of Stress Less, Weigh Less (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2011), offers these myth-busting insights:
#1: Don’t eat after 7 PM.
Why it’s OK to break this rule: There’s nothing magical about avoiding eating at night. The key to weight loss success isn’t when you eat; it’s taking a close look at what you eat and staying within your daily calorie allotment, says Mosier. “It’s very helpful to keep a food diary and look at your eating patterns.” A study by Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research found that people who maintained a daily food diary had double the weight loss of those who didn’t keep any records. Writing down what you eat helps curb the urge to overindulge, by making you mindful of your dietary patterns and caloric intake, regardless of what time of day the food is consumed.
#2: Eat five to six small meals during the day.
Why it’s OK to break this rule: Although the theory behind this rule is that frequent eating keeps your metabolism stoked, the reality is that having more opportunities to eat often results in overeating, resulting in weight gain instead of weight loss. What’s more, new research from Purdue University founds that eating three regular-sized meals that include lean protein, such as chicken or tofu, made people feel more full than eating smaller, more frequent meals. The researchers also reported that eating three high protein meals also decreases late night eating and food cravings.
#3: Stick to fat-free or low-fat foods.
Why it's OK to break this rule: The American Heart Association recently reported that low-fat and fat-free foods can contribute to obesity, because these foods often contain as many or more calories than the full-fat versions, yet trick people into thinking that these are good choices for weight loss. Always check the nutrition facts on the label and avoid low-fat products that are loaded with sugar. Everyone, regardless of size, needs some fat in their diet to transport fat-soluble vitamins, such as A and E, around the body. Good fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, also play a role in heart health and may aid immune system function. The AHA advises limiting fat intake to less than 25 to 35 percent of total calories, with less than 7 percent of calories coming from saturated fat. Choose unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, nuts, or oily fish.
#4: Eat breakfast within 30 minutes of waking.
Why it's OK to break this rule: It’s true that studies consistently show that people who eat breakfast tend to weigh less and are more successful at maintaining weight loss. In fact, having breakfast daily is one of the habits that 78 percent of the “successful losers” who have enrolled in the National Weight Control Registry share. All of them have sustained a weight loss of 30 pounds or more for at least one year and some for up to 66 years. But that doesn’t mean you have to force yourself to eat first thing in the morning if you’re not hungry. Consuming breakfast later in the morning, perhaps after a workout to rev up your appetite, is equally effective. One study found that eating a big breakfast that’s high in protein and low in carbs helped overweight women lose an average of nearly 23 pounds.
#5: Cut out certain food groups.
Why it's OK to break this rule: This “rule” recycles every few years. Some years we’re told to cut out red meat. Other years we’re told to avoid dairy or fruits. And we are always told to shun sugar. However, even with the willpower of iron, it’s hard to stick to a diet that leaves you feeling chronically deprived, which can set the stage for bingeing, Mosier points out. Instead, eat your favorite foods in moderation, and tweak recipes to cut down on calories. Understanding nutrition and taking a flexible, balanced approach to weight loss helps you make the smart food choices, without saddling yourself with the stress and frustration of a rigid diet that’s impossible to sustain over the long term.
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