8 Things You Always Wanted to Know about Dieting

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 you eat so you 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 becomes 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.) 

2.  Is there one food that you 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 you do all 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 you still lose weight if you allow yourself 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, it 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 you 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 to stay well-hydrated by drinking at least eight 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.

6. You haven't lost weight in a few weeks, even though you're following your plan. What are you 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 you can take to help 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 you ose 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. 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 benefits. Strength training has been shown to strengthen bones, protect joints and preserve metabolism-boosting muscle mass that can be lost when dieting. 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.