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A women reading a book and pondering

Five ways you’re self-sabotaging and ruining your diet

29 Nov 2022


Problem: Thinking you’re doing more exercise than you actually are

It’s very common for us to believe we’re burning off more calories than we really are. Researchers have found that people tend to think they’re both exercising harder and more often than in reality. It’s also easy to overestimate the amount of calories that exercising burns off. Half an hour of aerobics, for instance, will use 195 calories – which is the equivalent of just an apple and banana or a plain bagel.

Solve it:

Try an activity tracker to keep a more accurate tally of the number of calories you’re burning. To lose around a pound of weight a week, you need to be burning 500 calories more than your usual amount of exercise.

Problem: Relying on an over-simplified diet plan

The simplicity of a diet plan with a ‘hook’ (for instance, low Gi or low-carb) can be very attractive. If just cutting carbs can get you to your target weight, that’s a plan we’d follow! But if you’re replacing carbs with more protein (which is equally calorific) or fat (which has twice as many calories per gram as carbs), then you’re unlikely to lose weight.

The only way to drop pounds is to burn more fuel (through exercise) than you’re taking on. A review of Atkins Diet studies suggested that weight loss was due more to fewer calories consumed rather than physiological changes from removing carbs.

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Solve it:

Keep a strict eye on the number of calories you’re consuming rather than focusing on the food type. Moderately active women aged 19-50 should be consuming around 1,500 calories a day in order to lose a pound of weight a week.

Problem: Eating more sugar than you realise

Molasses, fructose, honey, maple syrup, maltose, corn sugar… These are all types of sugar and, when it comes to calories, they are pretty much equal. Ready-prepared foods and lower-fat variants often contain extra sugar to boost taste, so are rarely as healthy as you might expect.

Solve it:

Study ingredients labels, avoiding any foods where sugar is at the start of the list of ingredients, or where there are several different types of sugar in the same product.

Handpicked Content: 8 easy ways to cut down on sugars and sweeteners for a healthy lifestyle

Problem: Drinking too much alcohol

Next time you’re meeting friends for a drink, remember that a glass of wine can contain the same calories as four cookies, and a pint of lager is often the calorific equivalent of a slice of pizza. Gram for gram, alcohol contains more calories than carbs or protein – and almost as much as pure fat.

Solve it:

Try to arrange a different activity – that doesn’t involve food or alcohol – when you’re meeting friends. If you are drinking, make clever choices – a single vodka and diet tonic, for instance, contains 54 calories. And alternate alcohol with diet drinks or sparkling water.

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Problem: Eating out

Even if you try to order sensibly when you’re out for dinner, it’s difficult to know exactly what’s in your meal. Many dishes are loaded with butter, oil and cheese to make them tasty and luxurious – so you can be consuming far more calories than you realise.

In a restaurant you’re not in control of your portion size, so you’re likely to be served more than you’d eat at home. Yet you may be being short-changed on nutrients: a review of studies on dining out found that restaurant meals are associated with eating more calories (with a higher proportion coming from fat), yet fewer vitamins and minerals.

Solve it:

Try to restrict yourself to normal portion sizes. As a handy guide, your meat or fish should be about the size of a pack of cards, with your carbs the size of your fist. Push the excess to the side of your plate before you start so you can keep track of how much you’re eating.


This article has been adapted from longer features appearing in Healthy, the Holland & Barrett magazine. Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.

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