Staying physically active is always a good idea. But, just like anything else, too much can be a bad thing. “I have clients come in and tell me that they’re exercising so much, but still can’t lose weight,” says Margaux Harari, MS, RDN, registered dietitian and sports nutritionist in New York City. Of course, when you exercise, your body needs more fuel in the tank. But over-exercising or doing too much endurance activity can skew hunger hormones, driving up your appetite beyond what’s needed. (Plus, there’s the mentality that you deserve to eat a big stack of pancakes after.) And, putting too much stress on your body via exercise can increase levels of cortisol, which tells your body to hold onto fat, says Harari. The best option, she says, is to focus on HIIT workouts (high intensity interval training), as these burn calories and increase muscle mass, but because they’re done for a short duration will keep your hunger under control.
Your body is programmed for it
It’s true: You are what you eat. Eat highly processed foods, and you’ll train your body to ask for them. For one, “the bacteria in your gut gets used to those foods and will crave them,” says Harari. That means you’ll be more likely to get stuck in a cycle of junk food, which, normally low in nutrition and high in sugar, salt and fat, are all too easy to overeat. What’s more, preliminary research on animals from The University of Sydney shows that a high-fat, high-sugar diet drives brain changes that increase impulsivity, making it difficult to hold back in the face of temptation.
You’re eating “diet” treats
Whether it’s sugar-free candy or “healthy” low-sugar ice cream, these foods beg you to overeat. “Because they contain fewer sugars and calories, they can make you feel entitled to consume way more than you otherwise would normally eat,” says Theresa Shank, RD, LDN, Philadelphia-based registered dietitian. For instance, you may eat an entire pint of low-calorie ice cream in one sitting. What’s more, after doing it a few days in a row, it becomes a conditioned behavior and you’ll crave it again the next night. A better option is to eat a controlled portion of the real thing occasionally, she says. For instance, scoop out one serving into a small bowl. And, enjoy it.
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You’re surrounded by food pushers
You know the type: your aunt who looks so insulted if you turn down a second serving. Your coworker who begs you to try whatever baked good she brought in that day. Your friend who wants to order dessert but insists you need to split it with her. These people are called food pushers, and obvious as it might seem, they can and often do cause you to eat things even when you actually don’t want them by playing to your guilt. No matter the situation, your best response is to say simply “no thank you, I’m not hungry,” says Shank. While people can implore you to “just treat yourself” if you tell them you’re trying to eat healthy, “no one can argue if you’re hungry or not,” she says.
You’re depriving yourself
In an effort to lose weight, you cut out grains and dairy—and are definitely staying away from sugar of any kind. Depriving yourself though dieting and eating too few calories sets you up to seriously overeat, and even binge. “You may lose weight in the beginning, but your body will fight back with hunger and cravings because it’s in survival mode,” says Harari. “Eating drastically fewer calories isn’t the best way to go about losing weight,” she adds. You’ll know it’s a dieting problem (and not a willpower one) if you’re following a fad diet, cutting out entire food groups (unless medically necessary) or restricting your favorite foods completely. Mindful eating—listening to your body and honoring your hunger cues—is key to building a healthy relationship with food that fuels your body and prevents deprivation.