The 8 Worst Fat Loss Mistakes (Avoid These Whatever You Do)

Starting a fat loss journey can be both exhilarating and daunting. There is just no way around it. Fat loss is hard. And with a plethora of information available, getting lost in a maze of conflicting advice is easy to do.

But fear not. I’ve distilled my wisdom and coaching experience into a comprehensive guide to help you avoid the most detrimental fat loss mistakes.

From misconceptions about nutrition to flawed cardio and sleep routines, this article covers the eight worst fat loss mistakes you must avoid. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy.

1: Always Being On A Fat Loss Diet

Let’s start with a huge mistake a lot of people make. I call these people “chronic dieters.” You know the type. Every time you talk to them, they are in a fat loss phase. It could be Thanksgiving weekend, but they are “preparing for summer.”

The key to fat loss is not always trying to lose weight. In fact, you should be trying to maintain or even gain weight most of the year. Your fitness needs to have some seasonality to it. Time spent in caloric maintenance or even a surplus offers a few benefits.

The most significant benefit is mental. Remember what I said: fat loss is hard. To lose fat, you need to be in a caloric deficit, meaning you need to eat fewer calories than your body requires to stay at the same weight. A calorie-restricted diet requires strict adherence to your nutrition plan, leaving little room for many of your favorite foods. But the thing is, you don’t need to eat like that year-round.

You should eat enough calories to enjoy your food most of the year. At maintenance or a slight surplus, you can go out to eat a couple of times a week, enjoy a treat here or there, and even have some alcohol if you choose. Take advantage of this because it requires strict discipline when it comes to losing fat. You don’t get any bonus points for being stricter than your goals require.

The other huge benefit is in training performance. Eating more calories creates an optimal environment for building muscle. It allows you to train harder and consistently beat the logbook. Getting stronger over time is the best way to ensure you are building muscle. Constantly dieting is the best way to ensure you stay looking the same.

2: Crash Dieting

I have to confess. I misled you in the beginning. As hard as weight loss is, something is much more challenging.

The truth is, people are pretty good at weight loss. The real problem is keeping it off. It’s common for individuals to lose the same five pounds year after year. Research shows that long-term maintenance of lost weight is the primary challenge.¹

Figure 1: Hall, K. D., & Kahan, S. (2018)

There are many reasons why this happens, but one of the most common is crash dieting. Crash dieting is an extreme calorie restriction aimed at achieving rapid weight loss quickly. It works well in the short term, but the problem is that it’s not sustainable.

A great example is elimination-style diets – Carnivore, Keto, etc. When you are on the diet, it works. But how long can you go without eating carbs? Eventually, you will have to add them back in.

My goal when losing weight is to eat the least restrictive diet possible while still dropping 1-2 pounds weekly. This strategy has two benefits. It allows me to stick to the diet long enough to reach my goal, and once I reach my goal, I can easily transition to a diet to maintain my progress.

Be patient. Slow and steady wins the race.

3: Not Paying Enough Attention to Food Quality

I’m sure you have heard that weight loss is all about calories in versus calories out. It’s 100 percent true. This means that as long as you are in a calorie deficit, you can lose fat by eating anything you want, including ice cream, pop-tarts, and other high-calorie foods. It’s the backbone principle behind If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) style dieting.

In the early 2010s, I was on the front lines of social media, educating the public on the benefits of IIFYM. I thought it was the key to solving the obesity epidemic.

Unfortunately, people took it too far. Instead of seeing it as a way to have ONE SERVING of a special treat on a fat-loss diet, they turned it into the nutritional equivalent of Tetris. IIFYM diets became a game to see how much “unhealthy” food you can eat while losing weight.

Yes, IIFYM diets work, but eating mostly unprocessed, nutrient-dense, whole foods is the best way to lose fat. One reason is food volume. When dieting, food is a precious commodity. Overeating fun food on a fat-loss diet uses up most of your calories.

For example, what sounds like a better use of 200 calories? A large green salad with a bowl of leafy green vegetables, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, grilled chicken, and light dressing. Or one Pop-Tart pastry?

Look, I love Pop-Tarts, and I recognize this is not a fair comparison, but it’s just to demonstrate my point. Whole foods fill you up more, which is crucial when dieting because it’s not cravings that will get you; it’s hunger.

Another reason to emphasize food quality is research shows processed foods are easier to overeat, even when matched for calories, sugar, fat, fiber, and macronutrients.²


Figure 2: Hall, K. D et al., (2019)

Food palatability refers to the sensory experience of food, including its taste, smell, texture, and appearance, which influences an individual’s enjoyment and desire to eat it. Processed foods have a high food palatability rating. Like the Lays Potato Chip slogan, “betcha can’t eat just one.”

So, what’s the bottom line? In a fat-loss phase, stick to lean proteins, complex carbs, fruits, veggies, and natural fats while limiting treats.

4: Not Tracking Calorie and Macronutrient Intake

As important as food quality is, you still need to know how much you eat. An abundance of calories is an abundance regardless of where they come from. Even healthy foods can lead to weight gain or prevent weight loss if you eat too much.

If you are unfamiliar with what I mean by tracking, it involves recording and monitoring everything you eat and drink throughout the day, typically using an app or website, to gain insight into your dietary habits, calorie intake, nutrient consumption, and eating patterns.

With tracking comes weighing and measuring. Yes, it’s tedious, but it’s valuable. Estimating how many calories you eat in a day is tough. Research shows that even registered dietitians struggle with this. One study found that dietitians underestimate calorie intake by over 200.³ However, that was still better than the general public, who overestimated their intake by over 400 calories.

When you start tracking, you realize little things you probably never considered. Like how small a tablespoon of peanut butter actually is. Or what a serving of cereal looks like. Another thing that becomes apparent is mindless snacking. Most of us don’t even realize how many little things we eat outside our main meals each day that add up.

I want to point out that you don’t need to track diligently every single day. Tracking is more of an accountability tool. When you start a new diet, weigh, measure, and track closely for a few days. Then, once you get the hang of it, you can stray a bit from weighing and measuring everything you put in your mouth. Keep track of your progress, and as long as you keep losing weight, you can keep estimating your intake. However, if your weight starts to stagnate, track again for a couple of days to ensure you eat what you think you are before making any calorie adjustments.

5: Being Too Sedentary

Most of us live a sedentary lifestyle. We drive to work, sit all day at a desk, drive home, and sit on the couch for the rest of the night. For the fitness folks, throw in a workout somewhere. Still, how many steps is that?

In over a decade of coaching people, being too sedentary is one of the most common fat loss mistakes I see. The easiest way to make the fat loss process easier is to become more active in your day-to-day life. And, no, cardio alone is not enough to make up for a sedentary lifestyle.

You may be surprised that cardio is less effective at fat loss than many think. Research consistently shows that aerobic exercise results in less weight loss than expected, sometimes up to half as much.

Figure 3: BROSKEY, NICHOLAS T. et al. (2021)

Now, before you throw away your running shoes, let me put things in context. The diet should always be the primary driver of fat loss. It’s more predictable and reliable. Plus, cutting out 500 calories is way easier than trying to burn 500 calories. Cardio should be the icing on the cake.

But why does cardio burn fewer calories than expected? There are many factors, but the most significant is what researchers call “behavioral adaptations.” In other words, when you start doing cardio, you move around less in your daily life.

Here is an example. Let’s say you currently take an average of 6,000 steps a day. Then, you decide to do 30 minutes of fast walking on a treadmill first thing in the morning every day. If you walk really fast (4 miles per hour), you can do two miles in 30 minutes. Since there are about 2,000 steps per mile, this will add 4,000 steps to your day.

However, instead of walking 10,000 steps (6,000 daily life + 4,000 from cardio), you subconsciously start taking fewer steps throughout the day to compensate for the added cardio. This compensation cuts into the 6,000 steps you began with.

The best way to prevent that is to start tracking your daily steps. Instead of just adding minutes of cardio, aim for a set amount of daily steps. I recommend shooting for at least 8-10k steps a day. Anecdotally, I’ve found most people struggle with fat loss when their step count is lower than that.

6: Not Tracking Progress

Many people make the simple mistake of not keeping track of their weight loss progress. What you see in the mirror daily is not always accurate. You are too emotionally connected. Plus, the day-to-day changes are so small that they are nearly impossible to notice.

I recommend tracking your progress in three ways: body weight, circumference measures, and update pictures.

1. Bodyweight

Tracking your body weight is the best concrete measure of progress. Does it tell us everything? No, of course not. But to lose fat, you need to lose weight. Weigh yourself at least three times per week and average the results. Daily fluctuations are normal. Pay attention to week-to-week changes, not day-to-day changes.

2. Circumference measurements

Measuring the circumference of key areas such as the waist, hips, and thighs can provide insights into changes in body composition, even if weight remains stable. Do circumference measurements every four weeks or so.

3. Progress Pictures

Lastly, taking progress pictures offers a visual representation of your progress, allowing you to see changes in body shape, muscle definition, and overall appearance. Remember, what you see in the mirror is not always reality. Take pictures starting on day one and at least once every week for the duration of the fat loss phase. After about six weeks, compare your current look to your starting picture. If things are going well, that should significantly boost motivation.

7: Lack of Sleep

This one might be the easiest to correct out of all the mistakes on the list. All you have to do is sleep more. That said, this is the fat loss mistake I make the most often.

A lack of sleep impacts fat loss in two ways. It zaps your energy and increases your hunger. In a fat loss phase, the two things you don’t want to be is tired and hungry.

The crazy thing is that research shows even one night of poor sleep can increase feelings of hunger. In the study, there was a notable difference in hunger between the subjects who got 7 hours of sleep and those who only got 4.5 hours. However, the most significant difference came when the subjects pulled an all-nighter and were under total sleep deprivation.

Figure 4: Schmid, S. M., et al. (2008)

Another study in 2018 showed that one hour of sleep restriction five nights a week changed the proportion of fat loss subjects achieved on a calorie-restricted diet.

In the study, all subjects lost a similar amount of weight. However, people under sleep restriction lost less fat, meaning that the lack of sleep caused them to lose more lean mass.

What mechanism caused this? The researchers didn’t say conclusively. If I had to speculate, it would come back to energy and hunger. Chances are the subjects in the sleep-restricted group felt tired and exercised less, causing more muscle loss.

Evidence suggests sleep deprivation causes you to want higher-calorie foods in addition to increasing hunger. The subjects may have opted for comfort foods over lean protein.


Figure 5: Greer, S. M., Goldstein, A. N., & Walker, M. P. (2013)

Sleeping more might be the easiest way to improve the effectiveness of your fat-loss diet. I recommend at least 7 hours of sleep per night.

For other benefits of sleep check out our article dedicated to what quality sleep can do for your performance.

8: Inconsistency

Last but not least, inconsistency. Anyone can diet for a few days or even a few weeks. However, what separates the people who see the best results from everyone else is their consistency.

Progress takes time. To see progress, you need to hang tough and stick it out. Many people diet strictly Monday through Friday but let loose on the weekends. The weekends will prevent you from making progress.

The problem is that sticking to the plan for five days in a row takes a lot of discipline. Even if you let loose on the weekend, it still feels like you are dieting – dieting without progress.

The biggest excuse for weekend mishaps is events. Look, things always come up. There will always be a “reason” to break your diet if you want one.

So, how do you become more consistent? Goal setting. You need an objective goal that is specific and measurable to work toward. Just saying you want to lose fat is not enough. It’s too subjective. Decide how much weight you need to lose, and put a date on the calendar to achieve it. Keep in mind that losing between 1 and 2 pounds per week is good progress.

The extra layer of accountability forces you to find a way to make the diet work. Now, when it’s your second cousin’s best friend’s graduation, you have the extra motivation to skip the cake.

Conclusion

Navigating the path to fat loss success requires discipline, patience, and informed decision-making. By avoiding the eight worst fat loss mistakes outlined in this article, you have the knowledge and awareness to succeed. Now, all that’s left for you to do is get after it.

What do you think of the list? Did I miss any critical mistakes? If so, let me know in the comments.

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References:

  1. Hall, K. D., & Kahan, S. (2018). Maintenance of Lost Weight and Long-Term Management of Obesity. The Medical clinics of North America, 102(1), 183–197. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mcna.2017.08.012
  2. Hall, K. D et al., (2019). Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell metabolism, 30(1), 67–77.e3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008
  3. Champagne, C. M., et al., (2002). Energy intake and energy expenditure: a controlled study comparing dietitians and non-dietitians. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 102(10), 1428–1432. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0002-8223(02)90316-0
  4. BROSKEY, NICHOLAS T. et al., Effect of Aerobic Exercise-induced Weight Loss on the Components of Daily Energy Expenditure. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 53(10):p 2164-2172, October 2021. | DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002689
  5. Schmid, S. M., Hallschmid, M., Jauch-Chara, K., Born, J., & Schultes, B. (2008). A single night of sleep deprivation increases ghrelin levels and feelings of hunger in normal-weight healthy men. Journal of sleep research, 17(3), 331–334. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2869.2008.00662.x
  6. Wang, X., Sparks, J. R., Bowyer, K. P., & Youngstedt, S. D. (2018). Influence of sleep restriction on weight loss outcomes associated with caloric restriction. Sleep, 41(5), 10.1093/sleep/zsy027. https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsy027
  7. Greer, S. M., Goldstein, A. N., & Walker, M. P. (2013). The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nature communications, 4, 2259. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms3259

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