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Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., L.D. Headshot

4 Deadly Habits That Pack on the Pounds

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Here's the basic, bare-bones physiology of body weight: Consume more calories than you expend and you'll gain weight. Take in fewer calories than you expend and you'll lose weight. Now I know you've all heard about studies that indicate that "a calorie is truly not just a calorie -- it depends on what you're eating, not just how much you're eating." What about all the evidence that weight loss is a complex phenomenon that we still have not figured out? And so begins the conversation. Should I count calories? Carbs? Should I avoid eating after 7 p.m.? And the best question -- who should I listen to for my weight-loss advice?

With so many options out there for weight loss, and so many experts to dish it out, it's easy to see why the "right or wrong way" can get lost in the weight-loss storm. What if I told you that avoiding a few simple habits could be the first step to help you shed pounds? What if I told you that you could put down the weight-loss book and just start standing more? Could it be that easy? If you look around at cultures and areas of the world that are more likely to keep excess weight off -- the answer is yes.

You Love Your Chair

While most of us know that heart disease and cancer are major killers in the U.S., many of us don't know that there is something we do every day that is just as harmful to our health -- sitting. According to several studies, it's putting us in the grave earlier. Prolonged sitting (I'm talking to you, guy who spends most of your day behind the desk) puts us at risk for heart disease, cancer and diabetes. If you think that hitting the gym will offset this risk, think again. A 2012 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that even women who had a regular exercise routine suffered the same risks from sitting all day, despite their daily exercise. I sit at a desk more than I like, and once I hit 35, I realized that my sitting was affecting my health. I spent $99 and got a podium that I now use several times a day in my office. I simply put my computer on the podium and get off the chair. Other, more expensive options are out there, such as treadmill desks. For now, get a podium or schedule 10 minute walking breaks the way you would schedule other meetings throughout the day. Bottom line -- be vertical as much as possible and you'll keep weight and disease risk down.

You're Not Eating Enough

I find that I get a lot of weird looks when I talk about food, usually from people that don't want to hear that an apple is better than apple pie. The strangest looks I get are those that come after I've told someone that is struggling to lose weight that he or she needs to eat more, not less. Let's go back and imagine we are all cavemen running around in the forest to illustrate what I'm talking about. You're a caveman; you share the same genetic code as those that came before you and after you (us). You haven't found an animal to kill in a while and the berries you're finding in the forest are poisonous -- so you've cut the total amount of food you're taking in considerably. Your body, in an effort to keep you alive, does two things -- lowers your metabolism so that you need less to survive, while holding onto every last calorie you put into it. Now let's fast-forward a bit to present day. Food is available 24 hours a day -- and a lot of it is cheap. You know that, but your brain does not. You might as well be running in the cold forest looking for a deer to kill and a few leaves to nibble on. Starving doesn't work; you'll only end up piling on all the pounds you lost when you finally start eating normally again. So, to increase the chances for success, start with a healthy breakfast that's jam-packed with fiber and protein and continue through the day with small yet frequent meals to give your body the fuel it needs to keep the metabolism fire lit! This will avoid that endless cycle of starving, losing 10 pounds, going back to a "normal" diet and gaining 20. Stop starving -- and eat.

Most of Your Meals Come From Some Type of Menu

If your goal is to lose weight and maintain that weight loss, then you really need to cut down on your meals away from home. A 2012 study in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that, in addition to keeping a food journal and not skipping meals, forgoing eating out for lunch was a key factor in terms of successful weight loss. In fact, the study found that women who went out at lunch at least once a week lost about five pounds less than women who ate lunch out less frequently. In addition to watching your weight, let's not forget watching our heart health as well. If you think that an "innocent" fast-food meal here and there won't matter -- I'm here to tell you, it will! A recent study in the journal Circulation found that consuming just one fast-food meal a week was associated with a 20 percent increase in the chance of dying from heart disease when compared to those who did not consume fast food. Just one meal a week. Another study found that just one junk-food meal damaged arteries. Bottom line: If you're trying to drop a jeans size (and live longer, too), make sure 90 percent of your meals are coming from your home.

Your Emotions Dictate Your Diet

Why do we choose certain foods when we are sad, depressed, or anxious? It's because they provide temporary comfort and lead us to eating to nourish our emotions, but not necessarily our bodies. Food becomes the drug and we use it to calm down, feel happier or even bring on sleep. This comfort may come from a memory from childhood (Mom's mac and cheese, for example) but there is evidence that a chemical component occurs, which causes us to crave and reach for certain foods over others. It has a lot to do with neurotransmitters (endogenous chemicals that relay, amplify, and modulate signals between a neuron and another cell) and how food affects them.

Let's face it -- no one is white-knuckling the steering wheel after a stressful day at work thinking, "I can't wait to get my hands on some spinach." Oh no, it goes more like this: stressful day of work + fight with spouse + screaming kids = four pieces of pizza followed by a bowl of chocolate ice cream. So the question is, why the pizza and not the spinach? Why do we choose certain foods when we are sad, depressed, tired, or anxious? It's usually because the chosen food is giving us a temporary boost in mood. We feel good after eating it -- but the effect is short-lived and soon, we are looking for more to get our fix back. And so the cycle continues. Potato chips, milk chocolate, white bread with butter, etc. -- you know what you're grabbing. Food becomes the drug and the drug is rarely a healthy one or one that is taken in small amounts. While this comfort may come from a memory from childhood (Mom's mac and cheese, for example), there is evidence that a chemical component in our brain may be the true culprit as to why we crave certain foods over others during times of stress. It may all come down to chemicals called neurotransmitters. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, neurotransmitters are chemicals in our brain that affect our moods and emotional responses; and according to research, these neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine) can be affected by food.

A study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that individuals with high amounts of cortisol (a hormone released in response to stress) were more likely to consume junk food than individuals with lower cortisol levels. Another study published in the journal Appetite found that negative mood was associated with increased subjective appetite -- meaning, we are not only eating the wrong foods, we are eating too much of them. In time, we end up consuming too many calories, salt, fat and sugar and find that we've gained weight. Next time you're searching for a food that will make you feel good, stop before you put anything in your mouth, ask yourself what you're really feeding and then choose wisely. Spinach and lentils, omega-3-rich foods, whole grains, lean protein including whey protein, and black tea consumption have all been associated with increasing our "feel-good" neurotransmitters. In moderation, these foods may help us get the fix, without the extra weight and guilt.

Losing weight in today's world is hard enough. Increase your chances by decreasing these unhealthy behaviors!

For more by Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, click here.

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