Nutrition Articles

6 Diet Rules Meant to be Broken

Out with the Old, in with the New

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Almost every time we turn on the television or glance at a magazine cover in the supermarket checkout line, we are bombarded with the new weight-loss rules and diet plans. We're constantly given suggestions to drink a special shake, cut out carbs, or choke down tasteless food combinations, but we as a nation aren't losing weight—we're getting heavier. What are you to believe when fad diets and false claims are flying at you from every direction? It's no wonder we're so confused about what to eat and how to manage our weight.

We've all been exposed to various "diet rules" over the years and, accurate or not, many of us still live by them. It's time to debunk six of these outdated and unhelpful rules once and for all and give you some NEW guidelines that will actually help you reach your goals!

Old rule: Don’t eat after 7 p.m.
So what makes 7 (or 8 or 9) p.m. a magical cutoff time anyway? The original idea was that people should stop eating about 3 hours before bed, using 10 p.m. as an average bedtime. Although it is a good idea to stop eating a few hours before bed, the reasoning has nothing to do with weight gain; it’s basically an issue of digestion and personal comfort. Going to sleep on a full stomach may make sleeping uncomfortable, as the body is simultaneously shutting down to rest while still exerting energy to digest the food. This may lead to fitful sleep as well as gas and indigestion—but not weight gain. Your body is smart, but it doesn't know what time it is when you eat. It will metabolize calories eaten after 7 p.m. the same way as it does the calories you eat earlier in the day. They will NOT automatically be stored as fat.

New rule: Don’t mindlessly snack in the evening.
What does cause weight gain for many people is eating a large amount of unhealthy food at night. Not eating after 7 p.m. is a good rule if you tend to mindlessly munch on food all evening long, whether to soothe the day's stress or relieve boredom. Your total caloric intake for the day is what matters—not the time at which you eat your calories. You can eat at night without gaining weight, as long as you are eating mindfully to satisfy real hunger rather than stress or boredom and don't go over your calorie needs for the day when doing so.

Old rule: Always choose fat-free foods.
These days, nearly every full-fat food, from cookies to ice cream, has a fat-free counterpart. It's the first instinct of many people to simply eat these reduced fat foods to control their weight; however, this tactic could actually derail your good intentions. Why? Because most of the fat-free foods you can buy are things you shouldn't be eating anyway: empty-calorie junk food and heavily processed sweets, crackers and cookies. These items have been available for over a decade, but people aren't getting any thinner by eating them. Remember, dietary fat isn't the sole culprit that has made us overweight, excess calories are. Sure most of us could stand to cut back on our fat intake to a more reasonable level, but calories count when it comes to weight loss. All the reduced-fat foods in the world will not help you lose weight if you're making poor food choices or eating too many calories in general.

New rule: Include a moderate amount of heart-healthy fats in your weight loss plan.
Your body needs dietary fat for day-to-day organ protection, vitamin absorption, hormone production and more, so you won’t be doing yourself any favors by completely depriving yourself of this macronutrient. A sensible amount of fat can also aid in satiety, making you feel fuller longer. Try adding healthful fats such as nuts, avocado, or olive oil to your diet. Choose low-fat or fat-free products when it comes to dairy and meats to limit your intake of unhealthy fats and control calories, but leave the other fat-free foods on the supermarket shelf.

Old rule: You should burn every calorie you eat through exercise.
To lose weight, it's true that you need to burn more calories than you consume. But some people misinterpret this weight-loss equation, thinking they must burn off every calorie they eat—and then some—by exercising. Besides being inaccurate, this practice can be unsafe and lead to exhaustion, overuse injuries, and stalled weight-loss among other problems. Remember, your body is constantly burning calories throughout the day, even when you're not physically active. This is known as a basal metabolic rate (BMR), and it accounts for more than 1,200-1,500 calories per day (on average). Add to that all the calories you burn by moving, walking, standing, and yes, exercising, and you can see how easy it is to "burn more calories than you consume" without spending your life in the gym.

New rule: Move more and exercise moderately.
Try to achieve an active lifestyle by adding more physical activity to your days. Not all of this activity needs to be planned exercise (although you should exercise 3-6 times per week for 30-60 minutes per session to help burn additional calories and enhance your health). Small things that get you moving more—taking the stairs, walking to a co-worker's desk instead of emailing, or playing an active video game instead of watching TV—add to your daily calorie burn and help you lose weight. There is no need to resort to exercise extremes; you only need to burn about 200-600 calories per day (not thousands) through actual exercise, in combination with your SparkDiet guidelines, to safely lose weight.

Old rule: Skip meals to lose weight faster.
Many people believe that skipping meals like breakfast will help them eat fewer calories and therefore speed up weight loss. In theory, this idea seems to make sense, but skipping meals to save calories backfires more often than not. When you go several hours without food, you will be ravenous by the time your next meal comes along and this will make you more likely to throw your eating plans out the window and consume anything within reach. In addition to this, eating too infrequently may slow down your metabolism, sending your body into conservation (or "starvation") mode because it thinks calories are scarce.

New rule: Eat sensible portions at regular intervals throughout the day.
Try to keep your body's metabolism running as efficiently as possible by fueling it at regular intervals. Try eating small, balanced meals every 3 to 4 hours to properly nourish yourself and encourage weight loss, or at the very least, eat three meals (including breakfast) and a couple healthful snacks to curb hunger and keep your metabolic fire stoked.

Old rule: Eating low-carb is the way to win at weight loss.
Over the past several years, low-carb diet fads have given carbohydrates a bad rap, but this reputation is unfounded. Carbohydates are an important fuel source for your body and they are necessary for safe, steady weight loss, too. Your body needs carbohydrates to efficiently burn fat, so skimping on the carbs could actually hurt your weight loss efforts and be detrimental to your health.

New rule: Cut back on processed carbs and choose whole foods instead.
It is true that some carbs (whole grains, vegetables, legumes, etc) are better for you than others (white bread, sugary cereals, and sweets) are. Rather than omitting carbs from your diet plan, be more selective. Choose more whole grains and unprocessed foods like brown rice, quinoa, whole-grain bread, and oats and limit your intake of unhealthy carbs that sneak into your diet via processed foods, sweets, caloric beverages and refined flours.

Old rule: Give up eating all of your favorite fattening foods.
This is a common practice can backfire even on those with very high levels of willpower and motivation. It’s simply unrealistic to think that you can cut out all the foods that you love without ever rebelling. Chances are, if you keep yourself from eating your favorite “bad” foods all the time, you’ll eventually end up giving in and bingeing on those foods since you haven’t had them in so long. By categorizing foods into “good” and “bad” groups, you’re only setting yourself up to want what you can’t have. Good-for-you foods feel like punishment and "bad-for-you" foods are more alluring.

New rule: Eat anything you’d like within moderation.
Instead, of giving up certain foods and forcing yourself to eat others, don’t make any food off-limits. With moderation and portion control, you can still eat your favorites without straying from your goals. Try sprinkling a few chocolate chips on your oatmeal in the morning instead of eating an entire chocolate bar, or have one tablespoon of peanut butter with some celery instead of slathering layers of it on a sandwich. By allowing yourself these little treats, you’ll still be able to eat what you love, gradually decrease the intensity of your cravings, and avoid binges that could derail your weight loss efforts.


When it comes down to it, the new rules for weight loss are common sense—and easier to stick with. The bottom line is to ultimately listen to your body’s signals and honor your cravings in a sensible way while incorporating regular exercise, portion control and healthy eating habits into your lifestyle for the long term. Incorporate these new “rules” into your repertoire and you’ll be amazed at what a difference such small changes can make!

This article has been reviewed and approved by SparkPeople nutritionist, Tanya Jolliffe.

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Member Comments

  • KSHAFFER3064
    I was lactose intolerant until I started drinking raw milk. I do intermittent fasting, eating during an 8 hour window 11 am to 7 pm. I try to stay under 100 GM carbs and around 1500 calories. good fats, very little bread and pasta, grass fed meat ,free range eggs from my own chickens and organic whole foods as much as possible. I've lost 13 lbs in 2 months without "dieting".
  • Oh, yeah, moderation really works for us. Eating that one bite of chocolate will never lead me to eat the whole giant bar..... Why not just tell all of us lazy slobs to "just eat less and move more"? That works, right?
  • Not one size fits all. You sound like one diet platform fits all people. Sorry it does not. We are unique people with individual situations and conditions and we need to find what works for us and these issues, through trial and error.
    I wish we could find these articles here. Move forward into the new science and as well away from thinking in a box. Accepting even the extremes that are working for people with special conditions. Yes this is a place to start for anyone that knows nothing about healthy eating, but I believe most people when they come here, come here for help because they are in trouble weight and health wise. Don't get me wrong THIS PLACE IS VALUABLE and wonderful, but we s well need to look beyond just one plan. I thank you that you allow us here to do that and share freely as well.
    As well I would pay for a private form with no ads, it really is a pain to work around the zapping and tracking of our every move. Just to have the flow and lack of frustrations. $5.00 a month and not have to deal with all of the ads and stuff...you would make a fortune...or maybe you already do from the ads and tracking our every move?
  • These "new rules" are too general. Specifically the" Low carb is bad" idea. When i eat any high carb foods, even unprocessed ones, I get heavy fatigue because my body doesn't process them right.
    Maybe it would be wiser to encourage people to eat for their health, rather than your idea of what's good for them.
  • Why, on the G+ post of this article, are we getting a human interest story picture with a list of diet rules!?

    Mistakes like this are committed all the time by the SparkPeople poster on that platform, and it makes me ashamed to reshare articles with my friends because of it, as it makes it seem that SparkPeople is an unprofessional "throw it on the wall and see what sticks" organization. Could the Social Media liaison for SparkPeople *please* start quality reviewing the content for us before posting it.?
  • JULIA_211
    For me, as a struggling binge eater, the evening cut-off time has nothing to do with fear of gaining or indigestion, it's more a personal reminder to stop eating mindlessly before bedtime, plus I like the feeling of an empty stomach in the mornings.
  • This article is one of the reasons I need SparkPeople the most. I knew these myths many years ago and truly believed in living a balanced life (in all things). I also believed that if I listened to my body - it would tell me what it needed - then I started to listen to the myths. Just thinking about the "don't eat after 7PM". I was lactose intolerent as a child and when I stayed at Grandma's she always would have a bedtime snack, small piece of fruit or celery with peanut butter - great nights sleep were guaranteed. At home it was ice cream - I was always up roaming the house alone as a child. I have problems sleeping most of my adult life and have tried for numerous years to follow the rules like don't eat after 7pm. Recently I have been having a snack about hour before going to sleep. And guess what I have had a solid night's sleep everynight for 10 days -but 1.
  • I'm pleased to see the advice about not eating after 7pm is dismissed by SP. I have sleep problems, but contrary to advice have found that when I sometimes eat a bowl of cereal or a banana not long before going to bed I have a better night's sleep. I don't do this every night, just when I've had a string of nights with bad dreams and wakefulness.
  • I just eat smaller portion, drink plenty of water , exercise, 5 fruits and 5 veggies. It works for me.
  • So much silliness still around about what to eat & when. Since Whole Grains are the second oldest food group known to man, Meat was first, how can anyone say we can't eat them?? Whole grains led to Civilization. Anyway, I get the meaning of the article - MODERATION & PORTION CONTROL people - you can eat anything you like & lose weight if you use moderation & portion control. And complex carbohydrates - whole grains, veggies & fruits as close to original as possible are VERY important to a healthy body!!
  • SPARKLEMEUP2
    This is so true--I went from 276 to 165 by deleating all carbs from my diet--except a few crackers with meals--then of course I went back to 195--where I'm starting over again now..including the carbs I should have never taken from my diet--I did binge-big time..live and learn.
  • Reading all these comments reminds me what is wrong with "dieting" in the first place. There is SO much contradictory stuff out there it could drive a person mad! Carbs are good, no carbs are bad. Fat is good, fat is bad. Only get your fat from animals, only from plants. There is NO winning. Its no wonder people just give up and keep doing what they've always been doing.

    I have to agree with the people who say moderation in all things. And it just so happens to be what my religion believes. If we truly followed this one thing, we'd all be a lot happier. Not too little food, not too much. You can have your favorite food-just moderate yourself. Exercise? Same thing there. Do a moderate amount-dont just sit on the couch thinking about doing it and don't kill yourself by doing three hours a day.

    Okay, Im through ranting......
  • http://scdlifesty
    le.com/2012/0
    3/the-gluten-
    free-lie-why-
    most-celiacs-
    are-slowly-dying/
    Interesting article about the danger behind Gluten Free Dieting
  • I cant wait tell the no gluten fad is out of our society. One of the biggest myths around. Yes there are people who should not eat Gluten, those with an intolerance. BUT gluten DOESNOT make you gain weight. WHOLE GRAIN foods are very good for you and everything is good in moderation. Cut out the white flour, white pasta and white rice and switch to whole grains and you will see a difference.
  • We don't need grains in our diet, that is outdated information pushed on us by Big Food. Becky Hand is behind the times; how many times do people have to remind SP of that?


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