We’re not suggesting “The Situation” as a role model. But there is one hard-body lesson you can take from MTV’s Jersey Shore loudmouth: The less body fat you carry, the better your abs will show.
Start by performing triage on the six eating habits listed here. But don’t try to banish them all at once. “Target just one or two behaviors at first—ones that you can make the most difference by changing,” says Jennifer McDaniel, R.D., of St. Louis University.
The reason: Recent studies show that we have only so much willpower. That’s why trying to break several bad habits at once can be overwhelming. But if you follow the slow and steady approach, you’ll increase your odds of sculpting a thinner, fitter physique—and keeping it for life.
Skipping Meals or Snacks
Not eating can mess with your body’s ability to control your appetite. But it also destroys willpower, which is just as damaging. “Regulating yourself is a brain activity, and your brain runs on glucose,” says Martin Ginis. If you skip breakfast or a healthy snack, your brain doesn’t have the energy to say no to the inevitable chowfest.
So skipping a feed helps turn us into gluttons at night. Your starving brain “just doesn’t have the fuel it needs to keep you on track, monitoring your diet.”
Break it: This one’s easy. Spread your calories out into three meals of about 500 calories each, and two snacks of 100 to 200 calories each, says Liz Applegate, Ph.D., director of sports nutrition at the University of California at Davis. Most men who are trying to lose weight still need at least 1,800 to 2,200 calories a day, says Applegate. More important, change your mindset, she says. Think I’m going to start a new routine, not I’m going to restrict myself. Restriction leads to overeating.
Use the nondiet approach: You’re not denying yourself food, you’re just eating it more slowly. Savoring it. Allowing your body some time so you don’t keep eating when you’re full.
In an experiment published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 17 healthy men ate 11/4 cups of ice cream. They either scarfed it in 5 minutes or took half an hour to savor it. According to study author Alexander Kokkinos, M.D., Ph.D., levels of fullness-causing hormones (called PYY and GLP-1), which signal the brain to stop eating, were higher among the 30-minute men. In real life, the scarfers wouldn’t feel as full and could be moving on to another course.
Break it: Your body is trying to tell you something, so give it a chance. Slow down and enjoy your food, says Dr. Kokkinos. Put away the newspaper and turn off the TV. Try this breathing trick from The Yoga Body Diet: Inhale while counting slowly to five; exhale and count slowly to five; repeat three to five times before eating. A study in a 2009 issue of Journal of the American Dietetic Association shows that yoga increases mindful eating and results in less weight gain over time.
Pigging Out on Weekends
Weekend feasts can cause trouble beyond Sunday. In a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, researchers used rats to examine the effects of palmitic acid on leptin, a hormone that helps regulate appetite. Palmitic acid is found in saturated fat, an ingredient often featured in your favorite weekend grub.
“We found that within 3 days, the saturated fat blunts or blocks the ability of leptin to regulate food intake and body weight,” says study author Deborah Clegg, Ph.D., of the University of Texas Southwestern medical center. So a Friday to Sunday of burgers, fries, and wings may prime your brain to overeat on Monday.
Break it: You don’t have to go cold turkey (though turkey on whole wheat is always smart). McDaniel suggests that your reward for a healthy week should be one cheat meal, not an entire weekend of them. After all, having an all-you-can-eat weekend is like eating poorly for nearly 30 percent of your week. That means you’d be eating well just 70 percent of the time. We call that a C minus. Do you really want below-average results?
Gorging on Salty Snacks
Sodium is insidious—it causes us to eat unconsciously. It adds up fast: popcorn at the movies, chips during the game, peanuts at the bar.
Break it: Salt cravings go away after a couple of weeks on a reduced-salt diet, says Thomas Moore, M.D., an associate provost at Boston University medical center. Not many men can replace their favorite snacks with carrots or celery, but give them a try: The crunch may be what you crave. Otherwise, try small amounts of low-sodium chips and pretzels. As you’re cooking a dish, skip the salt and, if you want, add just a dash at the table. “Salt added to the surface of a food item is far more noticeable than the same amount of salt cooked into a recipe,” says Dr. Moore. A slow reduction of your salt habit pays off in fewer cravings, he says.
Alcohol, that is. Here’s an exercise to start tonight: Write down how much beer, wine, and other drinks you consume in a week. (Use that cocktail napkin.) You may surprise yourself. Calculate the calories and expect another surprise. A reasonable-sounding two beers a night can mean more than 2,000 calories a week—almost an extra day’s worth. It can take more than 2 hours of running to burn that off . You call that a weight-loss plan? Besides the empty calories, booze undermines your willpower, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Which leads to impulse orders of, say, Buffalo wings.
Break it: Try quitting—for just a week. Check your weight and how your pants fit. See if you can live on less. When you do drink, switch to lower-carb dry red wine (about 4 grams of carbohydrates compared with almost 13 in a regular beer) or low-carb beer.
Eating in Front of the TV, Then Dozing Off
It’s a double whammy with a twist. You ingest calories while burning none, and sabotage your secret weight-loss weapon: sleep. Research confirms that people who eat in front of the tube consume more calories (nearly 300, in one study) than those who don’t, and that the more TV they watch, the less active they are. And University of Chicago researchers found that people who lost 3 hours of sleep ate about 200 more calories the next day in snacks than those who slept 81/2 hours.
Break it: Donald Hensrud, M.D., medical editor-in-chief of The Mayo Clinic Diet, says, “If you want to watch TV, be active at the same time or go work out and come back—then you can treat yourself with some TV.” And make your DVR earn its keep so you can go to bed on a regular schedule. Sleep is a fine habit when done correctly.