8 Secret Food Habits That Wreck Your Diet

From munching on candy all day to turning a blind eye to decadent desserts, many people are in denial about what they're really eating. Dietitians reveal some of the surprising food habits they've discovered

January 11, 2011
Woman eating in front of the fridge
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Healthy eaters, you may be in denial. Fact is, most people aren't aware of the scary truth behind their eating habits until they see it in their own handwriting, says Bethany Thayer, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and manager of Wellness Programs & Strategies at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. Tracking what you eat can make you more accountable, but are you ready for what you'll discover? Here, dietitians share some of the most perplexing eating practices they've uncovered once their clients took a hard look at what was really going in their mouths.

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Fried chicken
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You Have Off Days (All the Time)

Don't get us wrong--diet-derailing circumstances do arise. Unfortunately, dietitians are finding that off days, and the excuses we make for them, have become the norm. "Whenever I'm talking to someone about their diet, the first thing out of their mouth is that the last 24 hours were not normal," says Thayer. Once clients start keeping a food diary they realize that their abnormal day is actually part of their typical eating pattern, says Thayer.

Quick Fix Record every morsel you munch to reveal whether those crazy-day pizza dinners are cropping up more frequently than you think.

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You Don’t Count Calories That Aren’t On a Plate

Mobile calories matter. "We have clients who always have to eat while walking or commuting, but they don't consider that it counts as a snack or meal," says Tammy Lakatos Shames, RD, of the Nutrition Twins. Another problematic habit: eating while deciding what to actually have for a meal. "They'll polish off a bag of chips while standing in front of the pantry looking for something else," says Lakatos Shames. "If someone is standing up while eating, they think food doesn't count."

Quick Fix Eat food only if it's on a plate, even small snacks like chips or candy. You might feel a little silly, but it will help you keep track of your portion sizes.

Adult eating candy
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You Eat Like a Rebellious Kid

Keeping salty and sugary treats under lock and key won't stop you or your kids from treating the world like one big candy shop. "Some people's parents told them you can't eat this food or, we don't keep that in the house," says Lyssie Lakatos, RD, of the Nutrition Twins. "So now--even though they're adults who, like their parents, made a smart decision to keep only healthy foods at home--they get out of the house and go crazy. They have a little-kid mentality that they need to eat everything they can that's been labeled bad just because they're not allowed to have it."

Quick Fix Plan small splurges to avoid binging when goodies are suddenly available to you.

Eating like a kid does have benefits too. Here's why!

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You Overdo It on Heart-Healthy Foods

Although foods rich in heart-healthy fats like avocado and nuts are good for you, people tend to eat way too much of them. "It's confusing because you hear that something is beneficial so you assume you should be able to eat a lot of it," says Thayer. What's more, they're also relatively high in calories. Fats contain 9 calories per gram, compared with protein and carbohydrates, which pack just 4 calories per gram. So calories add up fast in foods rich in fats--even healthy fats.

Quick Fix Know proper portions. Stick with half an avocado (161 calories) or 23 almonds (164 calories).

Need more tips on navigating the Nutrition Facts panel? Find out your nutrition IQ and learn how to make healthier choices.

Teddy Grahams
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You Treat Nutrition Like a Jigsaw Puzzle

Yes, Teddy Grahams do pack 10 percent of your daily-recommended intake (DRI) of calcium into every serving. But no, that doesn't mean you should eat four handfuls--nearly 500 calories later, you won't know what hit you. Some people strive to meet DRIs by piecing together processed foods with manufacturer claims that tout their nutritional benefits. A serving of vegetables from a salty can of soup and 25 percent of your daily fiber in cookies does not a well-balanced diet make. "Sure, you'll get to 100 percent of each nutrient eventually--but not before you wind up totally overeating," says Lakatos Shames.

Quick Fix Stick with fresh produce, whole grains, and lean protein for a well-rounded diet.

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You Have a “Healthy” Lunch

Even your best intentions can set you up for a slipup later in the day. A healthy but unbalanced lunch, for example, can make that lethargic 2 o'clock feeling even worse. "Clients will order a salad for lunch with a little nonfat dressing, and then have intense sugar cravings late in the afternoon because their meal was missing carbohydrates," says Lakatos. "It's a healthy but unsatisfying lunch. Their stomach feels full but their brain craves sugar for energy." When clients mention that they eat a lot of sweets in the afternoon, it almost always can be traced back to what they had for lunch, says Lakatos.

Quick Fix Build a healthy and filling salad that includes leafy greens, your favorite veggies, and a lean source of protein like beans, grilled chicken, or tofu. Include a small portion of carbohydrates by adding a small whole wheat roll on the side or tossing berries, sliced apples, or sections from a whole tangerine into the salad.

Read more tips on tossing the perfect salad.

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You’re Obsessed with Organic

An organic label doesn't necessarily double as a stamp of approval for weight loss--it refers to how the food was grown or raised and not how healthy it is. "Frozen meals can be organic but that doesn't mean they're not also full of artery-clogging fat," says Lakatos. "Some people will choose an unhealthy organic meal over a nonorganic chicken breast and vegetables, and in the process they sabotage their weight loss." Researchers at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab encountered similar misconceptions about organic products when study participants predicted a cookie labeled as organic contained 40 percent fewer calories than the same cookie without a label. (And when people perceive a food as healthy they tend to reward themselves by eating more.)

Quick Fix When choosing a frozen meal aim for one with less than 350 calories. Round out the meal with your own vegetables to add fiber and help you feel fuller. Keep sodium to less than 480 mg per meal and try for less than 10 g of fat--with no more than 2 g of saturated fat.

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You’re Up for a Midnight Meal

Waking up, eating, then going back to sleep doesn't make those extra calories part of a dream. "When people think about what they've eaten over the past few days, they tend to forget about that walk to the refrigerator at 2 or 3 in the morning," says Angela Ginn, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. And it's not just for a glass of water. "They're really making something. They're making sandwiches. They're having leftovers. They're grabbing a whole sleeve of cookies."

Quick Fix Ginn tells her clients that the kitchen closes at 10 o'clock, and once you've gone to sleep--that's it.

When you are awake for normal eating hours, try these healthy foods everyone should eat.

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