“I do great with my healthy eating plan,” my patient Erika told me, “until a new season of Love Island comes out”.
We both had a good laugh about this line. But humor aside, Erika had identified something that really is important when it comes to weight loss: the impact of habits.
In her day-to-day life, Erika follows a great routine that involves exercise, self-care, and preparing fresh, healthy meals for herself.
But then, her favorite show comes out. And she picks up an old habit: binging on salt and vinegar chips in front of the TV, all night.
I’m not bringing this up to say that we should never indulge in a treat or that we have to be perfect all the time with our diets– not at all.
But when you add them all up, little habits like this one can make a big difference. So when my patients feel a little “stuck” on their weight loss journeys, I often recommend taking a look at habits.
In this article, I’ll share 10 of the most common habits that can interfere with weight loss, and how to break them.
Why your habits matter
Women’s health is about so much more than weight loss, but it’s rare that the topic doesn’t come up when I’m talking with women about their health goals.
So often, these women have been on the fad diet roller coaster for years (even decades).
They lament their lack of will power and tell me they’ll never be able to take the drastic measures they think are necessary to lose weight and feel great again.
I’m so happy to tell them that dramatic change isn’t necessary. In fact, changing your diet too much all at once isn’t even advised most of the time!
The weight plan programs that work best are those that have some flexibility and are individualized for each person’s unique circumstances.
Fad diets have an exceptionally low success rate, and that’s because the changes they require aren’t sustainable.
And if you come out of the program with the same bad habits you went in with, any weight lost will come right back. If you have a substantial amount of weight to lose, you may need to try something rigid for a short period of time to get the ball rolling.
But it still must work for you – one size never fits all.
For slow and steady weight loss, and to maintain weight once you’ve reached your goal, there are so many small things that can make a big difference. And you have so much control over these factors.
One of the biggest barriers is that many women don’t even realize they’re doing little things that can stall weight loss.
Changing habits takes time – many say 21 days, but I think it can take even longer. Tackling too many bad habits at the same time can lead to frustration – it’s simply too much to think about.
The whole point is that habits are things you don’t think about. You do them automatically. Breaking those patterns, then, can help shift habits in a positive direction.
10 Habits That Can Stall Weight Loss (and How to Break Them)
Below are ten habits that could be blocking weight loss. I suggest choosing the one you think would be easiest to change and starting there. If there are two or three you can group together, even better.
But remember that any change will get you one step further towards your weight loss goals – don’t discount the work you’re doing, no matter how small. One small change can lead to the next until all become habits you are happy to have!
1. Binge Watching (and snacking while you do)
One of the things I ask women about is what they do when their workday is done, dinner has been served, and they finally have some time to relax.
Often, they tell me they’re so exhausted that all they want to do is sit. Binge watching shows on streaming services is on the rise, and that means women are sedentary for far too long.
This is especially problematic if the work you do requires sitting at a desk for most of the day. Your body needs to move!
Watching an episode of your favorite show or lying on the couch scrolling through social media can be relaxing – but knowing when to stop is key. Some women have told me that they sit down to watch one half-hour program, and three hours later realize they haven’t moved at all!
Spending a lot of time on media can also promote unhealthy choices. How many times have you seen a character on a show eating cake and suddenly craved something sweet? Or watched someone pour a glass of wine and poured yourself a glass?
How to break the habit: Instead of heading for the couch the minute dinner is done, take a short walk around the block or find another activity that requires some movement like a dance party in the living room, playing in the yard with your children, stretching or yoga poses.
If you do choose to watch television, break up the time you sit by getting up between episodes or at each commercial break. Walk or jog in place, do jumping jacks, or walk up and down the stairs. You could also try putting your television near a treadmill or stationary bicycle and only watching while you move.
2. Eating while distracted
Our society has elevated multi-tasking to an art form, so much so that women can feel like they aren’t doing enough if they don’t have at least two things going at once. But when it comes to eating, it’s best to put everything else aside and focus on the food.
Eating at your desk, in the car as you drive, while reading a book, or while watching tv can lead to overeating since you aren’t focused on what you’re putting in your mouth. This is especially true if you’re eating straight from the package.
How to break the habit: Set aside time to eat (and only eat). This can help you notice the flavor, smells, and texture of your food and allow you to truly savor the experience of eating. Remember to chew your food. You’ll also be able to notice when you begin to feel full so you can stop before you become uncomfortably so.
3. Skipping or rushing through meals
Unless you are consciously eating in an intermittent fasting pattern, skipping meals isn’t a great idea. When you skip a meal because you lack the time in the morning or haven’t planned ahead for lunch you run the risk of getting so hungry that you can’t stop eating once you begin.
Skipping meals can also let your blood sugar drop too low, which can have an impact on hormonal balance and make weight loss harder. Your body needs fuel to keep it going. Just make sure it’s high-quality fuel, not pastries or fast food.
Eating too quickly can also cause problems. If you aren’t chewing your food properly digestion becomes more difficult for your body. It also takes time for your body to recognize that you’ve had enough – eating too fast typically leads to eating too much!
How to break the habit: To avoid skipping meals, keep some quick and easy options on hand. If you don’t have time to cook breakfast, try overnight oats or a protein shake. If you find yourself eating too quickly, try setting your fork down between bites to encourage thorough chewing.
4. Not eating at home
While eating in a restaurant can be a great social event, it’s usually best if the bulk of your meals are eaten at home (or, in the case of lunch during a workday, brought from home). When faced with a menu full of options, it’s easy to go off track.
Portion sizes at restaurants are often far too large as well, so you may end up eating a lot more than you should. While there are certainly healthy options at most restaurants, temptation can win out over health.
How to break the habit: If you do eat out, I suggest looking at the menu before you go and making your choice before you arrive. Then don’t even pick up the menu while you’re there – just let the server know what you’ve chosen. Don’t be afraid to ask for healthy substitutions, such as a side of steamed vegetables instead of fries.
Spend some time on the weekend meal planning and doing prep work to avoid eating out on impulse. Having a variety of fresh chopped vegetables ready to go makes a simple stir fry a delicious – and healthy – option.
5. Grazing – especially in the evening
Snacking can lead to the impulse to open the cupboards or fridge any time you’re in the kitchen. It may not seem like much when you grab a handful of nuts or a cheese stick, but if you do so twenty times a day those calories really add up!
Often, you aren’t even hungry when you’re grazing – it’s just something you’re used to doing when you walk by.
Snacking in the evening is an even bigger problem since it can disrupt digestion and make sleep difficult. Your body doesn’t burn calories as efficiently in the evening, especially if you’re sedentary.
How to break the habit: I suggest making dinner your last food of the day and giving yourself at least two hours before bed. Try brushing your teeth right after you finish dinner to send your brain the signal that you’re done eating for the day.
One of the best ways to avoid mindless snacking is to simply not buy anything you’re tempted to graze on.
If you need snacks throughout the day to keep blood sugar stable, set a specific time for these and pre package portions to keep them reasonable. Be sure to include protein and healthy fat and avoid snacks that are nothing but filler, like chips or cookies.
Another good way to break the snacking habit is to keep a food journal. There’s something about looking at how many calories you consumed without even realizing it that helps you make a different choice the next time.
And anytime a craving for a snack hits, drink a glass of water first. That often is all it takes to realize you don’t need to eat anything after all.
Related article: 5 Healthy Eating Habits & How to Look Beyond the Food You Consume
6. Reaching for high calorie beverages
There’s only one beverage your body needs: water. Anything else is just calories that your body must process – and often these are empty calories.
A protein shake as a meal every now and then is fine. It’s the in-between meal beverages like coffee with cream and sugar, soda, fruit juice, or energy drinks that can be a real issue.
You absolutely need to stay hydrated, but drinks full of sugar won’t help in that department. And all those extra calories won’t advance you towards your weight loss goals.
How to break the habit: Set a goal for daily water consumption and keep a water bottle nearby to help you reach this goal. For variety, add a slice of citrus fruit, cucumber, or berries to your water. Naturally flavored seltzer or herbal tea are other great options.
Alcohol is best avoided if you want to lose weight. It’s full of sugar, has no nutritional value, and can often prompt you to eat more than you otherwise would.
7. Eating to cope with big feelings
I’m sure you’ve heard of both stress eating and emotional eating, but have you ever tracked how often you do either? Too many women have been conditioned to hide their feelings or push them away. This can lead to many unhealthy coping mechanisms, including overeating.
And the foods we seek for comfort aren’t usually fresh vegetables. The problem with filling the “empty” feelings with food is that the relief doesn’t last. Sure, you may feel good briefly, but the unprocessed emotions are still there, and it can become a nasty cycle.
It’s not just uncomfortable emotions that lead us to food, either. How many times have you gone out to celebrate a success and ended up eating and drinking much more than you intended?
How to break the habit: When strong emotions come up and you’re tempted to reach for food for comfort, PAUSE, and try taking action instead. This may be exercise (dancing is one of my favorite stress relievers), calling a friend, writing in a journal, cleaning the house – anything that moves you out of the kitchen and away from the impulse to eat.
8. Skimping on sleep
Sleep is so important for critical processes in your body that you should do everything you can to be sure you are getting an adequate amount.
For adults, this is typically 6 to 8 hours per night (and I’m a big advocate of shooting for the high end of that range). Lack of sleep can alter hormone levels and increase appetite. It can also lead to poor decision making as your cognitive functioning declines.
How to break the habit: It’s best to set a healthy bedtime routine and follow it every night. Yes, even on weekends! Set up a comfortable sleep environment, leave electronics outside the bedroom, and avoid overscheduling your evenings so you have time to wind down and relax before bed.
9. Piling your plate too full
A serving of spaghetti is two ounces. Most boxes contain seven servings, so if you’re preparing half a box just for yourself, you are eating more than three servings at once!
Measuring food obsessively isn’t necessary but knowing what a true serving looks like is important. Half of your plate should be filled with vegetables, most of which you can eat in any quantity you want without worrying. Remember that food sensitivities can also cause strong food cravings as well.
How to break the habit: To control portions, try eating from smaller plates or bowls. Knowing how many servings a recipe makes is also important. If you’re cooking for two, but the recipe serves four, plate your meals in the kitchen and pack the leftovers away immediately.
10. Considering dessert a required course at dinner
Dessert is often a habit left over from childhood, when the end reward for cleaning your plate (another habit you can let go of) was a sweet treat.
My friend Jennie realized she’d been eating dessert her whole life without even thinking about it when her five-year-old son had a meltdown because there were no “treats” in the house for the first time ever.
He’d finished all his dinner, and he felt robbed! In that moment, she realized that not only had she developed this bad habit, she was perpetuating it for another generation. It was time to stop!
How to break the habit: While an occasional dessert is fine, when you’re in the habit of ending a meal with something sweet, it’s easy to get carried away. Most people don’t eat a spoonful of ice cream or even just one cookie. Try a mint or piece of gum instead – that might be enough to send your brain the signal that you’re satisfied
Little changes can yield big results
Women often get stuck in “all or nothing” thinking. I always remind my patients that progress, not perfection, is the goal. When we make just one better choice, we’re moving in the right direction. The idea is to rethink the way you’ve always done things and consider another option.
When it comes to weight loss, yo-yo dieting is not the answer. Moving towards better habits every day is far more effective than eliminating whole food groups for short periods of time. Start with one small change, and before you know it, you’ll be seeing (and feeling) results!