THE BLOG
01/23/2014 02:37 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

5 Common Diet Mistakes to Avoid

It's the new year, and we are still in January, so I know many of you are continuing to work towards your resolutions. I'd like to help you get off on the right foot by telling you about five common diet mistakes that can be a huge barrier to weight loss and should thus be avoided. These diet mistakes are ones that I have learned in the last 15 years of experience as a registered dietitian and after helping more than 2,500 people meet their weight goals. So don't set yourself up for failure. As I always say: Stop dieting. Start living!

1. Not Paying Attention to Stress
In our focus on calories in/calories out, we've tended not to notice the connection of stress to weight gain and the link between stress hormones like cortisol and fat retention. The reality of modern life is that it is going to be pressured and hurried. That's simply the reality for most of us. But within that framework, we can make choices that will minimize stress, beat back cortisol and other stress hormones, and help maintain a healthy weight. Therefore, breathe to lose weight.

Breathing is great for stress reduction. This may seem obvious -- after all, you have to breathe no matter what, right? But few of us breathe deeply or consciously. Think about it -- when was the last time you took a long, slow, deep breath, and equally slowly let it out again? Deep breaths of that kind take you out of your immersion in momentary stress, they oxygenate your brain and tissues, and they help to reduce stress hormones.

2. Fighting Hunger To Lose Weight
Our bodies secrete a hormone called ghrelin, which controls our hunger and drives our appetite. If we do not understand, monitor, and control our ghrelin, we can forget about losing weight. Ghrelin is one of our bodily survival tactics -- a hormone secreted in the stomach to ensure that we eat. And once ghrelin is released, we are powerless to avoid eating.

Science tells us that the best way to control ghrelin is to eat small, balanced meals about every three hours or so. That's because ghrelin will spike after about 3-4 hours of fasting, so eating with regularity helps keep this eating trigger at bay. Ghrelin will also spike if we're deprived of carbs, so it's important to give our bodies and brains the carb fuel they need. When we skip meals or avoid carbs, we're inviting ghrelin to spike, which increases and makes us feel emotionally hungry.

To be successful in your weight loss efforts I recommend embracing your hunger by eating. This will control your ghrelin and give you the fuel you need. My book Eating Free has taken scientific research and ghrelin control into consideration, where I explain carbohydrates and protein will help you keep ghrelin down. Carbohydrates lower ghrelin best, and protein keeps ghrelin at bay. In summary, eat breakfast within an hour of waking, do not skip meals, and try to combine carbohydrates (good ones like sweet potatoes, oatmeal, beans, quinoa, fruits) and protein at least in every main meal.

3. Healthy Eating Does Not Equal Weight Loss
Just because a food is healthy doesn't mean you can eat a mountain of it. Switching from white rice to quinoa, eating nuts instead of chips, using olive oil instead of processed mayo --- these are all healthy changes but they aren't low-calorie substitutions. Remember, it is all about portions! No matter how heart healthy, low-fat, gluten-free, low-carb, organic that food may be.

4. Exercising to Lose Weight
Let me start by saying that while exercise is good, I've seen people exercising for the wrong reasons too many times. Exercise can make it difficult to lose weight. Physiologically, when exercise is extreme and you're dieting, you can shut down your metabolism. People often have the perception that, "I just ran, I deserve this muffin." You may have burnt 300 calories, but then ate 500 calories, netting you an extra 200 calories for the day. Lastly, for females, ghrelin increases when losing weight, so if they're exercising a lot, it will be very difficult to control hunger and appetite. People need to divorce the idea that you can exercise to eat. Rather, what I tell my clients is that exercise is for the mind, body and soul. I recommend for weight loss the equation where 80 percent of dieting time and energy should be focused on nutrition and self-care (sleep and de-stress) and 20 percent on exercise.

5. Stop Eating After 7 P.M.
There's nothing wrong with eating later in the evening, as long as it's not the only meal of the day. The problem related to eating late is all about the quantity and quality of the food consumed -- not the hour at which it is eaten. If you eat after 7 p.m., you won't suffer any negative consequences. The issue for most busy Americans is that food is not regularly consumed throughout the day, so dinner becomes the main meal. Hectic schedules, stress and a lack of planning all contribute to common reasons some do not eat over the course of a day. When dinner becomes one's main source of energy, it's easy to over-consume as the body is often starved by that time.

I recommend following the 70 percent rule, which means you should consume 70 percent of your calories before dinner time, leaving 30 percent of your calories for your evening meal. This 30 percent can be eaten at any time of the evening, as long as you allow 90 minutes to digest it before you go to sleep so you can sleep comfortably. So if you are a busy professional that cannot eat before 7 p.m., do not worry; you will not turn into a "pumpkin" by eating after this time.

Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice, MV Nutrition, award winning nutrition and weight loss center in San Francisco. He is the founder and creator of Eating Free, an international weight management and wellness program, co-founder of Eat Mentor and author of Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Embrace Your Hunger, and Keep Weight Off for Good and his latest book Peruvian Power Foods: 18 Superfoods, 101 Recipes, and Anti-Aging Secrets from the Amazon to the Andes.

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