6 seemingly harmless habits that pack on the pounds

By Connie Capone
Published July 16, 2020

Key Takeaways

  • Cutting out six small behaviors can improve the odds of reaching a healthy weight, according to various research studies.

  • Drinking diet sodas, eating off larger plates, using smart devices in bed, and even sleeping in a warm room can sabotage weight-loss efforts.

  • Fad diets are tempting, but they typically don’t support long-term weight loss. Small changes of habit can add up to bigger results.

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you know that the path to a better BMI is rife with surprise twists and turns, unexpected hurdles, and mysteries that might lead you astray.

From conflicting nutritional advice to fad diets that come and go, trying to reach your goal weight can feel like a losing game. Whether you're trying to shed pounds yourself, or advising an overweight patient, consider these six small behaviors that can sabotage weight loss goals.

Drinking diet soda

Soft-drinks made with artificial sweeteners, like aspartame and saccharin, may help you feel like you’re dodging a sugary bullet, but evidence suggest these beloved beverages have health repercussions. In one study published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine,[] diet soda was found to increase cravings for sugary foods.

Another study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society,[] showed that diet soda intake was associated with a wider waist. Investigators measured the weight, waist circumference, and diet soda intake of more than 700 people in San Antonio, TX, for nearly a decade.

They found that those who drank diet soda had significantly larger waist circumferences than those who didn’t, even after adjusting for demographics, physical activity, and diabetes diagnoses.

Eating with others

How you eat is closely linked to whom you eat with, according to a review published in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences.[] Our dining habits tend to mirror those of the people with whom we share meals, because conforming to group norms is adaptive and psychologically rewarding. The study authors describe this phenomenon, called the social-facilitation of eating.

"If we eat with someone who is eating a large amount, then we are likely to model what they eat and consume more than we would eat if we were dining alone."

Study authors, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences

"We are also likely to eat a large amount if we eat it in a group rather than eating alone,” the authors added.

Continuous dieting

It may seem counterintuitive, but endless dieting can be detrimental to your weight-loss goals. A Nature study suggests that taking periodic breaks from your diet may result in more efficient weight loss.[] During a period of energy restriction (dieting), your body’s resting energy expenditure greatly is reduced, which can result in weight los plateaus. To combat this, researchers recommend an intermittent approach, consisting of 2-week calorie restriction cycles interspersed with maintenance periods of the same length.

Eating off a large plate

For better portion control, use a smaller dish, experts say. In a Stanford study[] that observed 85 nutritionists at an ice-cream social, all subject randomly received bowls of different sizes. Participants with larger bowls ate 31% more ice cream on average than those with smaller bowls. Furthermore, participants with larger spoons served themselves 14.5% more ice cream than those with smaller spoons, regardless of bowl size. A related study published in Obesity[] investigated the eating behavior of 213 patrons at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

When selecting plates from the buffet line, patrons with estimated higher BMIs were more likely to select larger plates than patrons with estimated lower BMIs.

In addition, low-BMI patrons left more food on their plates than either medium- or high-BMI patrons.  

Using smart devices in bed

Using technology like phones, tablets, laptops, and TVs before bed affects your health in a host of negative ways. The blue light emitted by the screens on your gadgets suppresses the production of melatonin—the hormone that controls your sleep and wake cycle—making it difficult to fall and stay asleep.[]

But what does that have to do with your weight? Sleep loss is a proven risk factor for obesity in both children and adults worldwide.[]

Sleep loss can alter appetite-regulating hormones and increase the likelihood of a higher caloric intake.

A province-wide survey[]of students in Alberta, Canada, found that an additional hour of sleep nightly decreased a student’s odds of being overweight or obese by 28% and 30%, respectively. Likewise, children with electronic devices in their bedrooms were far more likely to be overweight.

Sleeping in a warm room

Warm and cozy homes are not ideal environments for weight loss, according to a review published in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism.[]

Researchers found that regular exposure to mildly cold air can help people lose weight, because energy expenditure increases when our bodies work to control temperature.

Additionally, exposure to colder temperatures causes a type of fat known as brown adipose tissue (BAT) to activate, which burns calories rather than sending them to storage.

What this means for you

There’s no uniform approach to weight loss—the best method is the one that’s most sustainable for you—but it’s important to mind your habits and consider how they might be helping or hurting your weight-loss goals. With consistency, patience, and a commitment to better habits, small adjustments can make a big difference.

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