Nutrition Articles

8 Things You Always Wanted to Know about Dieting

Common Diet Questions Answered

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Your best friend has the "secret" to guaranteed weight loss. So does the star of your favorite TV show. Your doctor advised you to just "eat less and exercise more." Your neighbor thinks all you have to do is give up bread. No wonder you're feeling confused! Here we tackle eight common diet questions and sort out the truth once and for all.

1.  How many calories should I eat so I don't go into "starvation mode?"
The amount of calories you need to eat to prevent your metabolism from slowing down (what people refer to as "starvation mode") will differ from person to person, depending on how much weight you need to lose and your genetics.  Most women shouldn't eat less than 1,200 calories a day (1,500 for men) simply because it's becomes really difficult to get adequate nutrition (fats, carbs, proteins, vitamins and minerals) to maintain health at such lower calorie levels. In general, to lose weight at a healthy rate that won't harm your body (or sap your energy levels), you should aim for no more than 1-2 pounds of weight-loss per week. (A pound of fat is roughly equal to 3,500 calories, so you'll need to cut or burn 500-1000 calories per day.) SparkPeople.com makes all of this simple by giving you a personalized daily calorie range (plus food and fitness trackers, meal plans and more) to reach your goal weight. So register for your free online account or download our mobile app today.

2.  Is there one food that I should absolutely avoid to lose weight?
The simple answer is no. "Remember that no single food causes weight gain," explains Registered Dietitian Becky Hand. "Weight management is based on total calorie intake—not the total restriction of certain foods, ingredients or food groups. All foods can fit into a healthy eating plan." Avoiding particular foods completely may cause you to crave them more, which could lead to binge eating for some people. For example, instead of banning chocolate from your life, you'll need to find a way to enjoy it in moderation, especially since you are likely to encounter the temptation of this food even if you don't keep it at home. The easiest way to do this is to find small portions that are individually packaged to prevent you from "reaching into the economy-sized bag" for more. Or, just get into the habit of putting anything you're going to eat on a plate and putting the rest of the package away to reduce the temptation to have "seconds." However, the biggest concern with cutting out whole food groups (think grains or dairy) is that you run the risk of eliminating essential nutrients from your diet that could actually make it more difficult for you to lose weight. While eliminating "non-essential" foods like soda, sugar, sweets and the like can help you lose weight and enhance your health, people lose and maintain weight loss and improve their health simply by cutting back on these foods rather than eliminating them entirely.

3. Should I do all my cardio in the "fat-burning zone" to lose more weight?
While it's true that exercising at a low intensity (in the "fat-burning zone") will burn a higher percentage of calories from stored fat than  glucose in your blood, exercising at a moderate or high intensity level will burn more overall calories including more total stored fat. When it comes to weight loss, calories burned (not the actual source of those calories) matters most, so work harder for better results (if your fitness level allows it). Interval training is another great option for maximizing calorie burn.

4. Can I still lose weight if I allow myself a "cheat-day" once a week
Maybe. There is no scientific evidence one way or the other that "cheat days" help or hurt weight-loss efforts. You have to decide for yourself the best way to incorporate your favorite foods into a healthy eating plan. If it motivates you to save a certain number of calories from your recommended range during the week to splurge on the weekend, you probably won't hurt your progress. The other option is to incorporate small portions of high-calorie foods into your eating plan on a regular basis. Learning to eat everything in moderation and not to "fear" or ban certain foods will help you maintain healthy habits over the long term.
 
5. Do I have to be hungry all the time to lose weight?
Absolutely not! If you feel hungry all the time, you will be less likely to stick to a healthy eating plan for very long. When you start reducing your calories, you could feel hungrier for a little while (7-10 days) until you get used to your new diet plan. To combat this, the trick is to choose foods that will make you feel full longer, which also tend to be the healthiest foods to eat in general (double bonus!). Filling foods include fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, beans and lentils, and whole grains, as a few examples. Also make sure you stay well hydrated by drinking at least 8 cups of plain water a day. It's easy to mistake the symptoms of thirst for hunger. Finally, if hunger is derailing your eating plan, you might want to experiment with eating several small meals a day (here's how).

6. I haven't lost weight in a few weeks even though I'm following my plan. What am I doing wrong?
Maybe nothing. Weight-loss stalls or plateaus are a totally normal part of any weight-reduction plan and should be expected from time to time. It's possible that you're building muscle, which makes it look like you're not losing weight even though you're losing inches. It might be time to change things up because your body has gotten used your current exercise plan. Or you may be off-track with your eating plan.   The first solution is to double check that you're actually sticking to your eating plan. Are you tracking everything you eat and drink (weighing or measuring food versus just eyeballing and estimating it)? Step two is to make sure you're giving your body enough time to recover from hard workouts. Rest is an important part of any fitness plan and working too hard can actually damage your muscles and cause you to get weaker instead of stronger. And the third step, is to add variety to your workouts. It's easy to do the same things over and over again, but your body will quickly adapt unless you present it with new challenges on a regular basis.

7. Are there supplements I can take to help me increase fat burning?
Probably not. There are plenty of supplements that claim to boost fat-loss but most of them have not been thoroughly studied or proven effective (let alone safe). And the few that have been tested, like ephedra, have been shown to be dangerous (causing high blood pressure, stroke and heart problems). There is one FDA-approved fat blocker that's marketed in its over-the counter form as Alli. This drug (orlistat) is generally considered to be safe but also can come with some unwelcome side effects.

8. Can I lose weight without exercising?
Technically, any weight loss plan that creates a calorie deficit (through diet alone, through exercise alone, or via a combination of the two) will lead to weight loss. But there are many reasons to add exercise to the mix as well. If your new eating plan is really about getting healthy, staying healthy and aging gracefully, then exercise will be an important component of your new lifestyle. Aerobic exercise, like running and walking, has been shown to decrease cholesterol and blood pressure, help prevent or manage the symptoms of depression and improve sleep to name a few. While strength training has been shown to strengthen bones, preserve metabolism-boosting muscle mass that can be lost when dieting and protect joints from injury. In addition, exercising allows you to eat a little more—and still lose weight—and may also speed up your rate of weight loss thanks to the added calorie burn. If you feel overwhelmed by trying to make too many lifestyle changes at once, it's fine to start by focusing on what you're eating. As you get used to your eating plan and it becomes second nature, you can start adding exercise into your daily routine, until that, too, is just a part of your new life.
 
Have more questions about dieting? You can get answers from SparkPeople members and experts by posting on the Diet and Nutrition message board. In fact, a study by the University Texas Medical School at Houston, which analyzed posts on a variety of weight-loss websites, showed that you're most likely to get helpful advice on high-traffic forums like SparkPeople's. No more wondering—get answers to your questions today!

This article has been reviewed and approved by Becky Hand, Licensed and Registered Dietitian.

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Member Comments

  • CVS.com still list Alli for sale. However, I was never comfortable with the possible "side effects" that came with it.
  • Good article, great refresher, thanks!
  • ETHELMERZ
    I know three people, women, who died from Ephedra, so don't lie, comment person!! You are a fool taking supplements!!
  • Ephedra was not dangerous. I personally knew of no one who had suffered any side effects from it. We just considered it bad because the TV and FDA told us so. Goodness knows those two have NEVER lied. It was taken away from American consumers because it was a supplement that actually worked AND was without danger.
  • The first question in the front page teaser asks Does chewing gum burn calories. No where in the article does it give the answer. Deceptive?
  • JULESLYNNE6179
    I love the article. Gave me some ideas.
  • To my knowledge Alli has been off the market for quite some time.
  • Lots of information. Thanks.
  • BRITTANY781
    O.k. the whole thing about NOT cutting out sugar is bull. What about people who are so addicted to sugar that they sit there and eat enough sugar at one sitting to kill an elephant? Are they supposed to try to have a little every day anyway? Is that possible when they are so addicted to sugar that when they do it, they do it uncontrollably like a drug? Are they aware that sugar is an addictive substance, and therefore isn't an option for those of us who have developed a total addiction because if we do even a little, we get the taste for it and then want more? And by more I mean A LOT MORE! Don't encourage sugar consumption! We have a big enough problem with addictions and obesity in this country as it is!
  • EX-SKINNY60
    There are about a BAZILLION things that can effect your diet, but armed with the good sound nutrition advice in this article you can learn to make the right choices for YOU! A little Spark People light comes on in my head every time I reach for an "illegal" (LOL!!!) snack. If I CHOOSE to consume that snack, then I better make up for it some way, that day or the next. Spark people is all about BALANCE and INFORMATION for the INDIVIDUAL. "It takes all kinds to make a world" is an old saying that I feel Spark People articles address, and knowing YOURSELF will help you choose what is right for you!
  • The credentials of the author do not include any medical certifications and I disagree heartily with the "calories in/calories out" method for losing weight simply because it doesn't work for everyone - as CATLUVR06 also mentions. Consuming 500 calories less but eating processed (junk) food or foods that cause isulin spikes in an individual (this includes whole grains) and topping that off with diet sodas or artificial sweetners to "save" calories, is an extremely unhealthy way to lose weight.
    Sugar is the enemy in all it's forms - even fruit if you eat too much of it. Vegetables, good fats and proteins (grass-fed lean animal proteins if you're not vegetarian) are what should constitute a healthy diet.
    I wish Spark People did more to dispel the myth that success only comes with a calorie deficit and that you are free to consume all food groups - it's simply not good advice.
  • Great article! I agree with everything, especially number 1. I've often told my friends who insist on very low calorie diets that they are just "shooting themselves in the foot"
  • Thanks for sharing
  • AMIWEROM
    I have read ALL comments, but I still maintain that a HEALTHY diet AND daily exercises, it does not matter how long you do the exercises for, are the best ways to lose weight. I have lost 7kg in 7 weeks and I feel SO GREAT, I want to just continue with my new lifestyle! Cutting out TOTALLY on pastries, sodas, processed foods and juices and CHOCOLATES, has TOTALLY helped me.

About The Author

Megan Patrick Megan Patrick
Megan Lane Patrick has been a professional writer and editor for the past 16 years, and was a chronic dieter for at least 30. A combination of weight-loss surgery, mindful eating and daily exercise finally allowed her to maintain a weight loss of more than 100 pounds. When she's not lifting weights at the gym, you can find her walking shelter dogs as a volunteer for the SPCA.