17 Weight Loss “Tricks” That Don’t Actually Work—and What to Do Instead
If you're serious about losing weight and keeping it off long term, stop messing around with trendy diets, severe calorie restrictions, cleanses, and more.
How to lose weight
Losing weight, and keeping it off, have nothing to do with quick tricks. In fact, when nutritionists want to lose five pounds, they eat more mindfully and avoid crash diets. So don’t give the following “weight loss tricks” any attention, and learn from nutrition experts what to do instead.
Going on a cleanse
The worst diet advice nutritionists have ever heard: Go on a cleanse. These “detox” diets purport to rid your body of harmful toxins and help with weight loss—but they don’t, and they can be harmful, according to the National Institutes of Health. “The weight lost completing a cleanse or detox is not sustained in the long run—temporary solutions equal temporary results,” says NYC-based registered dietitian Tanya Zuckerbrot, bestselling author of The F-Factor Diet and creator of F-Factor. “Immediately after finishing a cleanse, people go back to their regular eating habits and inevitably gain their weight back.” Cleanses can lack important nutrients like protein and fiber, she says, which can leave you exhausted and hungry. Plus, “juice cleanses have more sugar than several bowls of sweetened cereal,” Zuckerbrot says. Your kidneys and liver naturally detox your body, so cleanses aren’t necessary.
Yes, you can eat carbs and be healthy. “The problem with cutting out carbohydrates for weight loss is that they are necessary to fuel our body’s daily activities,” Zuckerbrot says. Without them, we feel weak, tired, and cranky, which can lead to feelings of deprivation and trigger excessive eating. “The solution to eating the carbohydrates your body needs without gaining weight is to increase consumption of high-fiber carbohydrates, which slows digestion and prevents blood sugar spikes,” she says. Aim for 35 to 38 grams of fiber per day of healthy carbs including whole grains and fruits.
Eliminating gluten is one of the biggest myths about weight loss. While people with celiac disease, an autoimmune condition, can’t eat gluten without seriously damaging their intestines (and general health), some people avoid gluten (a type of protein found in wheat, barley, and other grains) as a weight loss strategy.
“Going gluten free might work for a little while, but your whole GI tract will change as a result,” says registered dietitian Shayna Komar, a licensed and registered dietitian at Piedmont Healthcare. “So, if you go back and add gluten into your diet again, you may find you’ve actually developed a gluten sensitivity.”
Many gluten-free products are filled with sugar and other unhealthy fillers. Plus, 2017 research in the journal Celiac suggests that going gluten-free means you’ll miss out on the cardiovascular health benefits whole grains provide.
Cutting out fat
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, fat is a necessary nutrient for your health—but all fat isn’t created equal. “Cutting out unhealthy, saturated fats certainly is a good way to lose weight, but I do not recommend cutting out all fat from your diet,” Komar says. “Stick to a diet inclusive of healthy fats like nuts, fish, and extra virgin olive oil as appropriate in small amounts.”
Healthy fats are a useful part of a weight-loss plan because they give you energy and keep you full. Research from Harvard published in 2015 in The Lancet found that low-fat diets aren’t effective; plus, “low fat” products are often full of sugar.
Wearing a fitness tracker
Activity trackers don’t help you get fit or lose weight, according to a 2016 report in JAMA. There’s nothing magical about simply strapping one onto your wrist—you have to set goals and then actually follow them in order for them to be effective, as a 2017 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found. “Many activity trackers provide a link between logging what you eat versus how many calories you burn each day,” says Jennifer Kuca Hopper, MS, fitness director at Piedmont Healthcare. “You can even utilize their healthy guide to how many calories you should consume and expend to reach your goal in a reasonable amount of time.”
Although it has many health benefits and helps build muscle, exercise isn’t exactly the key to weight loss. A 2016 report in Current Biology that the more physically active you are doesn’t necessarily equate to more weight lost because of the way your metabolism adjusts, causing you to plateau.
Plus, exercise is only helpful if paired with a healthy diet. “I love the quote, ‘Abs start in the kitchen,'” Hopper says. Ask yourself: “Are you eating more to compensate for the calorie expenditure during exercise?”
Trying a quick fix
Fad diets that promise drastic weight loss quickly are not healthy and won’t help you keep weight off, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “You can lose weight in the beginning when you follow a fad diet but it is mostly water weight and muscle weight,” Komar says. “When you put it back on, it comes back as fat weight and you tend to gain more weight, which creates a yo-yo cycle.”
It takes 21 days to form a new habit, she says, which is why most people can’t sustain a plan and look for quick solutions. Instead, “I recommend changing your lifestyle slowly—start with small changes to create new habits,” Komar says. (Here are some little diet changes you can make to lose weight instead.)
Eating the same bland food
Being bored by “healthy” food is a sure-fire way to get off-track. Zuckerbrot says the key is finding a balance between structure and flexibility. “For example, eggs for breakfast every day can be prepared a number of ways—poached, scrambled, hard-boiled—and with different veggies,” she says.
For her F-Factor plan, the rules include protein and fiber at every meal, but “each day, you can choose different fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins to keep from feeling deprived,” Zuckerbrot says. In addition, “spices and herbs can flavor dishes without added calories.”
Dieting may actually cause you to gain weight if you’re too hungry. “No diet will be effective long-term if it leaves the dieter hungry and unsatisfied,” Zuckerbrot says. “This will only lead to feelings of deprivation, which in turn may cause emotional eating in addition to physical hunger.”
And when you finally eat, your body will tell you to pig out to overcompensate for being starved. On the other hand, “studies have shown that feelings of fullness are associated with decreased calorie intake and weight loss,” Zuckerbrot says.
Avoiding treats altogether
Indulging in a small treat while eating an otherwise healthy diet can actually aid weight loss, according to a study in the journal Steroids. If all indulgences are off-limits, you’re only going to feel more deprived and crave them more.
“It is important not to deprive yourself of ‘treat’ foods because if you do, then you will overeat when you eat them again,” Komar says. “I recommend eating mindfully when you indulge. Sit down and actually chew the food. Enjoy the flavors.”
But be sure to only treat yourself in moderation. (Here are some other weight loss rules the pros don’t even follow.)
Snacking on protein or energy bars
So many of these bars, marketed as “healthy,” contain lots of fillers and unhealthy ingredients. “They are easy to eat, but it is healthier and more satisfying to eat whole nutritious foods than a protein or energy bar,” Hopper says.
The bars themselves are often high in calories—plus, “because it is just a bar, we are not fully satisfied so we tend to intake more calories with another meal,” she says. Make sure to read labels to know what and how much you’re really ingesting. Or, try the best healthy snacks to help you lose weight instead.
Always ordering salad
“Just because a meal is vegetable-based doesn’t always mean it is nutritious or low-calorie,” says registered dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. “A salad that’s packed full of shredded cheese, croutons, and creamy dressing can contain more calories and saturated fat than a burger!”
That’s part of the reason why McDonald’s salads might not be as healthy as they seem. Research on fast-food menus in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found their nutritional content hasn’t changed much over a 14-year period, even with the addition of more salads and other “healthier” options. Plus, if you think what you’re eating is healthy, you may be less concerned with portion control, and can end up eating more than you think.
Focusing on cutting calories
Cutting calories won’t help you lose weight, according to nutrition experts. A healthy eating plan works only with the right mix of nutrients and without limiting calorie intake too drastically.
“Calorie restriction can often backfire, especially if you aren’t careful about where the calories come from,” Palinski-Wade says. “A focus on calories alone can lead to you eating a meal plan low in nutrients that does not satisfy you.”
Plus, cutting calories too low can cause your body to lose muscle tissue, which slows your metabolism, making it easier to gain weight back. Instead, she advises focusing instead on foods rich in fiber, lean protein, plant-based fats, and whole grains. “These foods will fill you up with fewer calories while still providing you with the nutrients you need,” she says. (These are the weight-loss facts everyone gets wrong.)
Trying to fill up on water
One of the faulty weight loss tips you might have heard is that drinking a glass of water before a meal tricks your stomach into thinking it’s full. Water is important with your meal because it helps you pass fiber more easily, but it can’t actually replace food.
However, taking the edge off hunger with water could help you listen to your body’s cues to avoid overeating. “Drinking water before a meal may help to fill your stomach a bit, allowing you to eat more slowly and feel full sooner—but this only works if you are in the practice of eating mindfully,” Palinski-Wade says. “That involves listening to your body’s hunger and satiety cues, and stopping when you are satisfied.”
Guzzling sports drinks
Staying hydrated does have other benefits for weight loss, Zuckerbrot says. “Being dehydrated can also mimic feelings of hunger,” she says.”To get rid of hunger symptoms, some may grab a candy bar when all we really needed was to hydrate with zero-calorie water.”
Water is perfectly fine for quenching thirst, no trendy sports drinks needed. “Drink water, not sports drinks, which contain empty calories much like the energy bars,” Hopper says. A study in BMC Public Health found that drinking water reduces the amount of caloric beverages you drink.
Eating too much after a workout
You probably want to reward yourself with workout recovery food, but doing so could undo all your hard work, and you’ll ask yourself, “Why am I not losing weight?” In a Cornell study published in Marketing Letters, those who were told they were on an “exercise walk” ate more chocolate afterward than those who thought they were on a “scenic walk.” Instead of setting up this exercise-reward cycle, “anticipate your post-workout hunger by having a small snack about 30 minutes before training, or prepare a healthy post-workout snack to see you through until you are ready to sit down to your next meal,” Hopper says.
As with cutting calories, skipping meals just doesn’t work for weight loss. “Skipping meals cuts calories at that meal, but research shows this leads to a higher intake of calories throughout the remainder of the day,” Palinski-Wade says. “If you want to lose weight, you need to make behavior changes you can stick with if you want to keep the weight off.”
Instead of looking for an easy out, make healthy eating a lifestyle that’s sustainable in the long term. Don’t miss the 50 things doctors wish you knew about weight loss.
- National Institutes of Health: "Detoxes” and “Cleanses”: What You Need To Know"
- Tanya Zuckerbrot MS, RD, bestselling author of The F-Factor Diet and creator of F-Factor
- Shayna Komar, RD, a licensed and registered dietitian at Piedmont Healthcare
- Celiac: "Long term gluten consumption in adults without celiac disease and risk of coronary heart disease: a prospective cohort study"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Choose Healthy Fats"
- The Lancet: "Effect of low-fat diet interventions versus other diet interventions on long-term weight change in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis"
- JAMA: "Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss"
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "Self-regulated use of a wearable activity sensor is not associated with improvements in physical activity, cardiometabolic risk or subjective health status"
- Jennifer Kuca Hopper, MS, fitness director at Piedmont Healthcare
- Current Biology: "Constrained Total Energy Expenditure and Metabolic Adaptation to Physical Activity in Adult Humans"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Staying Away from Fad Diets"
- Steroids: "'Dessert with breakfast diet' helps avoid weight regain by reducing cravings"
- Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies
- American Journal of Preventative Medicine: "Energy Content of U.S. Fast-Food Restaurant Offerings"
- BMC Public Health: "Plain water consumption is associated with lower intake of caloric beverage: cross-sectional study in Mexican adults with low socioeconomic status"
- Marketing Letters: "Is it fun or exercise? The framing of physical activity biases subsequent snacking"