It’s only a matter of time before these “hacks” backfire.
Weight loss is hard—really hard. It’s no surprise that bookstores offer countless titles on “how to finally lose the weight,” and the internet has a bottomless supply of “hacks” or products that claim to help you slim down once and for all. But what if it’s these “tricks” and “hacks” that are making weight loss such a battle?
“Basically, any ‘trick’ is not going to work,” says Philadelphia-based weight loss physician Dr. Charlie Seltzer, MD. “We have evolved over tens of thousands of years to store fat. If you try to trick your body into losing fat, it will backfire.”
The “tricks” that so many people try are often unrealistic, unsustainable, and—well—downright unpleasant. Many do not promote a healthy relationship with food, and instead promise quick results and instant gratification that are unlikely to last.
Here are the weight loss “hacks” that experts say almost never work:
1. Shaving off too many calories.
Some calorie reduction may be necessary for weight loss, especially if you’re currently eating more calories than recommended—but there’s a limit. Eating fewer than 1200 calories a day is neither safe nor sustainable, according to Matthew Peale, certified personal trainer.
“What people don’t realize is eating below 1200 calories puts them into starvation mode,” says Peale. “When you eat too few calories, the body stores everything as fat because it does not know when the next meal is coming.”
The truth is, you might lose weight in the beginning, but when you inevitably ditch that restrictive diet, you’ll probably gain it back, according to Rebecca Lee, registered nurse in New York City and founder of Remedies For Me, a natural health resource.
Lee points to a 2007 study reviewing the long-term outcomes of low-calorie diets, which “found that up to two-thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost,” says Lee. “The eating habits that caused people to put on weight in the first place are usually resumed shortly after their weight-loss goal has been reached.”
2. Ignoring what's on your plate and focusing on the gym.
The best lifestyle for weight loss involves physical activity *and* healthy eating patterns—not one or the other. Focusing only on exercise may be one reason you’re not seeing results at the gym.
“Many people trying to slim down think about ramping up their exercise,” says Julie Upton, MS, RD, co-founder of Appetite for Health. “While it sounds good in theory, you can never outrun the fork.”
Exercise and food have an intimate relationship. Firstly, high-quality foods (e.g. whole grains and vegetables) help fuel your exercise so you can more effective workouts. Secondly, on a purely mathematical level, if you are overeating at every meal, it will take a lot of exercise to negate that (and that much exercise could put you at risk of injury or burnout).
Dr. Seltzer agrees: “Exercise is great, and everybody should do it, but not for weight loss.” (Check out all the benefits of exercise here.)
3. Eliminating an entire class of foods (e.g. carbs or fats).
When it comes to low-carb diets, “the average person has a hard time sticking to them, or they replace the missing food group with high-calorie options,” says Kelly Morgan, PhD, certified health coach, nutrition specialist, and personal trainer. There’s a number of snack foods marketed as “low-carb,” but that doesn’t mean they’re healthy.
Low-carb diets are once again trendy due to the comeback of the keto diet. This fad diet uses extreme carb restriction to force the body into ketosis, a state in which the body switches to using fat for energy (instead of its preferred source, carbs).
“The ketogenic diet may help you move from mindless eating to making more mindful choices,” says Jill McKay, certified personal trainer and owner of Narrow Road Fitness, “but it’s not sustainable over time, your body won’t truly be in ketosis for long, and you need fiber from vegetables (which are carbohydrates).”
4. Celebrating "cheat days."
A study assessed the shared habits among people who successfully maintained weight loss over the course of 5.7 years, on average. One of those habits was sticking to their healthy eating patterns seven days a week, including weekends and holidays. The people in the study who allowed themselves “cheat days” were statistically more likely to gain the weight back.
Most experts promote balance, so why are cheat days given the boot? “Cheat days create the wrong mindset,” says Morgan. “They encourage deprivation all week and overeating on the cheat day.” Most people tend to “overshoot their caloric intake” on cheat days.
A better approach to balance means eating well most of the time, but granting yourself permission to have a treat at social events with intention. “For example,” says Morgan, “if you have a piece of cake at a birthday party, stick to healthy food the rest of the day.”
5. Turning to artificial sweeteners.
“The mass consumption of artificial and non-nutritive sweeteners is one of the biggest issues we face in nutrition in my opinion,” says Laura Burak, RD, registered dietitian in private practice in Roslyn, NY. “These sweeteners are so much sweeter than actual real sugar that it’s feeding our sugar addiction and creating such a high threshold of satisfaction from sweets that we end up eating more sugar because we can never be satisfied.”
Eating less sugar is important, but replacing it with zero-calorie sweeteners isn’t the answer. “I teach people to use real sugar from natural sources in small amounts to help wean them off of the crazy addiction crisis we face,” says Burak.
6. Eating "healthy" foods with reckless abandon.
Sure, it’s better to choose a smoothie over a malted milkshake, but that doesn’t mean you should sip on as big a smoothie as you want. In other words, portion sizes matter, regardless of how many nutrients a food offers.
Many people make the “mistake of assuming ‘healthy’ foods can be eaten in unlimited quantities,” says McKay. (Think energy bars, nuts, nut butters, avocado, hummus, etc.) What could be a healthy snack or meal can quickly turn into a calorie bomb if you ignore portion sizes.
“The best way to lose weight is by eating real food, mostly vegetables, in appropriate portion sizes, “says McKay, “and to move your body not just for an exercise session, but throughout the day as much as possible.” For example, here are ways to stay active at the office.
“Slow and steady weight loss is proven to be maintainable, whereas quick weight loss often isn’t lasting,” says McKay. “Consistency is key!”