It’s an all-too-common scenario: Your clients boast they are eating well and exercising regularly, but they’re frustrated that the scale and pant size won’t budge.

What gives? Chances are that—without even knowing it— they are falling prey to one or more surprising acts of food sabotage. While it’s a watermelon-sized “duh” that a daily Krispy Kreme habit isn’t good middle management, a lot of less obvious pitfalls can easily sneak into a diet and cause calorie overload. Read on to identify these stealth dietary missteps and to learn easy strategies for steering clear of them.

Weekend Weakness

Many people see the weekend as a time to cheat on their diets, but those who let their guard down too much by splurging on cake and pizza could torpedo their overall eating plan. A 2014 study in the journal Obesity found that people who ate 30% more food than they needed over a 2-day period experienced more cravings and hunger on subsequent days than those who took in a quantity of calories closer to their daily energy requirements (Apolzan et al. 2014). The people who stuffed themselves also reported a worse mood and took fewer steps per day—one measure of daily activity. So a weekend of gluttony could set someone up for overeating and underexercising during the week, which can hinder weight loss efforts and spiral into unwanted weight gain.

Plan of attack. Counsel clients on the importance of healthy eating all week long. For many people, a small amount of dietary cheating throughout the week can help to squash the urge to binge come the days starting with S. Those who tend to suffer from weekend diet breakdowns should be encouraged to try eating small amounts of “cheat” foods like chocolate and cookies during the week in portions that won’t put them greatly over their daily caloric needs. During weekends, as on weekdays, meal planning is of utmost importance as a strategy for dodging poor meal choices.

The Organic Halo

A recent study by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab shows that we often automatically view chips or cookies labeled “organic” as the smarter choice (Lee et al. 2013). Participants at a shopping mall were asked to evaluate sets of yogurts, cookies and potato chips for nutrition and taste; shoppers were told the items were either organic or nonorganic, even though all items tested were organic and identical.

The researchers found that the “organic” label greatly influenced people’s perceptions of the foods. Participants said organic items were lower in calories, lower in fat, more nutritious and more flavorful than items portrayed as nonorganic. This organic health-halo effect could lead shoppers to overeat items like candies, cookies and sugary yogurts, believing they are lower in calories, fat and sugar simply because they sport an organic label.

Plan of attack. Whether ingredients are organic or not, reading labels remains a must to ensure that people choose wisely at the supermarket and consume appropriate portions. The study found that people who regularly read food labels are less susceptible to the organic health-halo effect.

Burning the Midnight Oil

Being asleep at the shopping cart can lead to poor food choices that keep the scale from budging. Swedish researchers determined that we’re more likely to purchase higher-calorie food if grocery shopping with tired eyes (Chapman et al. 2013). When healthy subjects spun their wheels in a mock grocery store while sleep deprived, they purchased an average of 1,319 more calories’ worth of food than when they hit the supermarket well rested! One possible reason why we’re more likely to succumb to temptation when shopping without adequate shut-eye is that a poor night’s sleep can cause an uptick in ghrelin, an appetite-stoking hormone.

Plan of attack. To help clients fill their grocery carts with healthier, lower-calorie fare, encourage them to obtain a better night’s rest. Urge them to make a habit of hitting the pillow 8 or more hours before the alarm will go off. It’s important that they set themselves up for turning in early, which may mean performing some tasks earlier in the evening (e.g., responding to emails or assembling next-day lunches). Clients should take steps to remedy bright street lights and other intrusions that can hinder deep sleep.

Pill Poppers

It may sound counterintuitive, but popping supplements can lead to overeating. A 2014 study in the journal Appetite discovered that when subjects took a pill marketed as a weight loss supplement, they consumed an average of 29% more snacks and sugary drinks in a later taste test than those who popped an identical pill but were told it was a placebo (Chang & Chiou 2014). The authors surmised that supplements could make people feel overoptimistic about their weight loss pursuits, weakening dietary control.

Plan of attack. Whether clients are consuming green-coffee-bean extract or a seemingly innocuous multivitamin, they need to be reminded that supplements are simply an addition to a well-balanced, calorie-controlled diet. No amount of raspberry ketones will make up for lousy eating.

Optical Illusions

Desserts are the downfall of many a well-intentioned dieter, especially if that slice of cheesecake or bowl of ice cream is topped with something healthy. In a 2014 Journal of Consumer 8.5”w xPsychology study, a healthy topping added to an unhealthy food base was shown to decrease the perceived calorie content of the dish and result in increased consumption (Jiang & Lei 2014). Studying participants estimated that a bowl of ice cream adorned with fruit had 125 fewer calories than the same amount of plain ice cream. Also people ate more pastry if it was topped with berries than when the pastries were presented sans fruit. Adding a healthy item to a decadent dessert can dampen feeling of dietary guilt and lead to overconsumption.

Plan of attack. Advise clients not to let their guard down if a dessert comes with a scattering of sliced strawberries or chopped nuts. Suggest they ask themselves what an appropriate portion of the dessert would be if it didn’t come with seemingly nutritious toppings. Or have clients hunt for recipes for more nutrient-dense dessert options like fruit salad or chocolate avocado pudding. Jiang and Lei found that subjects were less likely to underestimate the calorie content of a dessert with a healthy base, regardless of whether the topping was healthy or unhealthy.

Bad Starts

Appetizers can seem rather harmless, but what we choose to start a meal with can make a big impact in the battle of bulge. British researchers found that diners who began their meal with a 100-calorie salad consumed 21% fewer calories over their entire meal than diners who started by noshing on 100 calories’ worth of garlic bread (Buckland, Finlayson & Hetherington 2013). It’s thought that eating appetizers not considered healthy (think jalapeño poppers or the breadbasket full of white bread) can lead people to temporarily lose sight of their weight loss goals, causing overconsumption of the second course. On the flipside, an appetizer associated with healthy eating can boost satiety and remind us to put the brakes on overeating.

Plan of attack. It’s always a good idea to be wary of premeal nibbles, as they can deliver unnecessary calories and stymie weight loss efforts. One option is to choose a low-calorie appetizer such as a small salad, piece of fruit or broth-based soup, as studies show that these items can reduce subsequent calorie intake.Case in point: A University of Iowa study reported that soup consumers were more likely to be svelte, possibly because of the lower overall energy density and better quality of their diets (Zhu & Hollis 2014).

Hyperdrive Eating

Scarfers beware: Inhaling your food may give you a Buddha belly. An investigation in the journal Appetite showed that subjects who chewed each bite of their lunch sandwich for 30 seconds ate significantly fewer candies 2 hours after the meal than those who consumed their sandwich at a faster clip (Higgs & Jones 2013). Taking the time to chew food at more of a snail’s pace can help people remember a meal for longer, and that may lead to eating less. Eating slowly at the dinner table also allows the brain more time to register fullness, so people are more likely to push away second helpings of meatloaf.

Plan of attack. In today’s hurry-up lifestyle, it’s all too easy to get in the habit of shoveling in meals and snacks. But this research demonstrates that a diet plan should include slowing down to enjoy foods at a more leisurely pace. To stick it to hunger, encourage clients to put down their utensils after each bite and thoroughly chew their food. Using chopsticks is another way for Western eaters to slow the pace. Meals should also be consumed free of distractions such as television or YouTube. British researchers found that mindful eating can play a big role in appetite control (Higgs & Donohoe 2011).

Diet Saboteur: Eating Like an Athlete

The advertisements claim that sports drinks, sugary gels and the ever-expanding array of energy bars can bolster performance, which encourages many gym-goers to take the bait. But if people are already obtaining the calories they need—and this is often the case for people not losing weight—excess calories from sport foods can easily end up as extra wiggle in the middle. The same goes for post-exercise protein shakes that are then followed up by a meal. Even trendy coconut water can deliver unnecessary sugar calories.

Plan of attack. Evaluate the volume and intensity of exercise to determine if there could be a benefit from the added energy boost of gels or bars. For typical exercise sessions lasting an hour or less, water should suffice, followed by a whole-food snack or meal. It’s only when clients are active for an hour or more at high intensity that they should consider a form of supplemental energy like an electrolyte sports drink. Athletes involved in daily, high-intensity workouts can turn to bars and protein drinks for the extra calories and nutrients they need to meet training demands, but the typical gym-goer who works up a sweat a few times a week should be encouraged to stick with nonengineered whole foods; these will do a better job at controlling both calorie intake and appetite.


Apolzan, J.W., et al. 2014. Short-term overeating results in incomplete energy intake compensation regardless of energy density or macronutrient composition. Obesity, 22 (1), 119-30.

Buckland, N.J., Finlayson, G., & Hetherington, M.M. 2013. Slimming starters. Intake of a diet-congruent food reduces meal intake in active dieters. Appetite, 71, 430-37.

Chang, Y.Y., & Chiou, W.B. 2014. Taking weight-loss supplements may elicit liberation from dietary control. A laboratory experiment. Appetite, 72, 8-12.

Chapman, C.D., et al. 2013. Acute sleep deprivation increases food purchasing in men. Obesity, 21 (12), E555-60.

Higgs, S., & Donohoe, J.E. 2011. Focusing on food during lunch enhances lunch memory and decreases later snack intake. Appetite, 57 (1), 202-206.

Higgs, S., & Jones, A. 2013. Prolonged chewing at lunch decreases later snack intake. Appetite, 62, 91-95.

Jiang, Y., & Lei, J. 2014. The effect of food toppings on calorie estimation and consumption. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24 (1), 63-69.

Lee, J.W-C., et al. 2013. You taste what you see: Do organic labels bias taste perceptions? Food Quality and Preference, 29 (1), 33-39.

Zhu, Y., & Hollis, J.H. 2014. Soup consumption is associated with a lower dietary energy density and a better diet quality in US adults. British Journal of Nutrition, 111 (8), 1474-80.

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, is a James Beard Award–winning food journalist, dietitian and author of the cookbook Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sport + Adventure (VeloPress 2016). He has written for dozens of magazines, including Runner’s World, Men’s Health, Shape, Men’s Fitness and Muscle and Fitness.

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