The Intelligent & Relentless Pursuit of Muscle™

10 Mistakes Women Make With Diets

06/24/14
Mistakes

Here's what you need to know...

•  TV weight loss plans and "pretend" health foods keep women in the dark about sustainable healthy eating habits. It's time they take control of their own diets.

•  Most women diet by using methods that slow their metabolisms. Instead they need to train and eat to support muscle retention and growth. Muscle and metabolism are intimately connected.

•  Women sometimes go to extremes with carbs and dietary fats, often avoiding one like the plague while overcompensating with the other. Athletic women need the right kinds of both, and more than anything they need quality protein.

•  Women often attach much more meaning to food choices than men. They need to realize this, then lighten up on the self-judgment to take back control of their eating habits.

Tis' the season for dumb diets, detoxes, and quick fixes. Here are ten common mistakes women make with their diets. If you know someone who can relate, now's your chance to guide them back to sanity.

1. Adopting a Diet Program Advertised on TV

"Lose five pounds your first week!" To any female aching to lose fat, these TV gimmicks sound tempting. You can even have pizza and pancakes and cake! You just eat your prepackaged meals or point allotment of foods and the pounds come off. No critical thinking required. Too bad these plans have about a 97% failure rate over the long term.

Why the dismal results? Well, the low calorie approach these diets must take in order to guarantee fast results makes women rebound in weight once the diet is over. Sustaining a very low calorie diet is a surefire way to lose muscle mass, slow their metabolism, and experience caloric compensation once their appetites catch up and they've run out of microwavable pasta bowls. And since these diets are aimed mostly at women who don't train with weights, they not only gain the fat back, they gain a few bonus pounds too thanks to the loss of that metabolically active weight we call "muscle."

Sure, any female who's allotted a point system or given a micromanaged selection of TV dinners will succeed, but only as long as she's paying up and being spoon-fed. Once she starts thinking for herself in the kitchen, those same vices she wrestled with before become problematic again. The celebrity spokespersons for these programs – who never seem to stay thin despite being paid to diet – are evidence of this.

These TV plans wouldn't continue to profit if women learned how to address the behaviors that made them gain weight in the first place. They certainly wouldn't continue to profit if their clients became autonomous healthy eaters, built a bit more muscle, and stoked the metabolic furnace. That would mean losing them as repeat customers. Programs with point systems or premeasured foods keep women in the dark about permanent change, and by setting them up for weight fluctuations and long term failure, they increase the odds that former customers will come right back whenever they want a quick fix in weight loss.

Finally, most of these plans are nutritionally antiquated, still warning against those "evil" saturated fats while including some very questionable ingredients like corn syrup in their "approved" foods or frozen meals.

Solution

Women will have greater long-term success if they invest some time making sure their own nutritious meals are ready to go and easy to assemble. They'll need to accept some responsibility, put in some footwork, educate themselves about nutrition, and stop being dependent on diet plans that D-list celebrities can't even stick to.

2. Ignoring the Obvious

Oz

Females will often look for an obscure missing component in their diet rather than zeroing in on the glaring behaviors causing the real problem. Many would rather find out what Dr. Oz's secret fat loss formula is than put a stop to obvious bad food choices. Nah, can't be margarita night, sodas, or ice cream! Must be a deficiency in Amazonian koo-koo berry juice!

It's easier for some women to rationalize what they're eating because they'd rather believe there's some way around it that'll help them reach their goals. Boozy weekends that make them uninhibited around unhealthy food; constant grazing on sweets between meals; liquid-dessert coffee drinks; and even too many semi-healthy snacks made of dried fruit and nut butter – these are all examples of blunders women overlook while searching for the secret to instant weight loss. Most of the time women do have an idea of what their vices are, but without someone saying, "stop eating that" they'll keep the junk in their diets and scale back on the portion sizes. For some reason, petite-sized servings of crappy food make women think they'll achieve a petite-sized body.

Solution

Women need to take an honest look at their eating. A food journal can help. What are they eating, when are they eating it, and how does it makes them feel? Are they snacking, almost unconsciously, throughout the day? Are they eating their kids' leftovers? What seemingly innocent snacks are actually trigger foods that lead to overeating an hour later? How many calories are actually in that frappuccino? A food log will clue them in. As a bonus, a journal will teach them that eating larger portions of healthy foods always works better in the long run than portion-controlling junk. No koo-koo berry juice required.

3. Eating Fake Health Food

bars

When health conscious women hear that they need more protein or fiber, many will go to the store and load up on fortified packaged foods. More often than not, these fake health foods are appetite-inducing sugar bombs. What many women don't realize is that sugar is listed under a ton of different names and they all do about the same thing in the body, even earthy sounding ones like coconut crystals and organic agave nectar syrup. Likewise, fat free, sugar free, high fiber, organic, and gluten-free foods can still make you fat.

And because these products appear healthy, they're easier to rationalize eating in excess. I've worked with clients who've found it difficult to have just one bowl of Kashi Go Lean cereal or just one Fiber One bar. Why? Because these things generally make people crave more instead of satisfying their appetite. They're insubstantial, and they don't serve a purpose other than giving the consumer the impression that they're being good dieters by trading Snickers for soy-filled treats.

Ensure, Boost, Slim Fast, Carnation Instant Breakfast, Special-K protein shakes and protein cereal, Kashi cereals and cookies, Kind Bars, Fiber One "protein" bars: These are the most insidious forms of junk food because they masquerade as nutritious.

Solution

Women looking for protein at the grocery store need to stick with meat and eggs, and then get their fiber from Mother Nature. Then if they want to supplement with protein or workout nutrition, they'd be wise to get it from a place that doesn't also sell motor oil and toothpaste.

4. Obsessing Over Fat Loss and Not Eating for Hypertrophy

workout

Some women always seem to be "on a diet." Which is strange because these same women always seem to be a little overweight. If she's been on six diets in two years, shouldn't she be lean by now?

Here's the problem: Most women who continually make fat loss a priority don't realize that they'd become more efficient at burning fat if they simply had more muscle. Eating to weigh less will make women smaller, which will require them to eat less in order to stay smaller. Muscle is lost, metabolism is sluggish, calories have to be lowered again and again, and the downward spiral eventually spirals out of control. Soon, these women proclaim that "dieting doesn't work!" and begin to identify as fat girls with "bad genetics." If a female has been on six diets in two years, shouldn't she be lean by now?

Unless they're dangerously overweight, most women would do better by trading the smallness and fat loss game for muscle growth and permanent leanness. Continually chasing fat loss in unproductive ways will eat away at their muscle more than women know. If they made hypertrophy a greater priority than fat loss, the fat loss would eventually happen – slowly at first, but steadily, healthfully, and permanently.

Sure, most fat loss strategies work at first. But then the body adapts, plateaus, and regresses as muscle is catabolized. This is bad news, especially in the midst of lots of strenuous exercise because a loss of muscle just leads to a skinny-fat body and a handicapped metabolism. So the best way for women to not adapt to fat loss strategies is to make their bodies more efficient at burning fat – then if they must use a diet, it will only take a small and temporary tweak to get back on track. Women who are perpetually playing the fat loss game are either doing it wrong or they're emaciated.

Solution

How can women get to a place where they don't need to diet? By building more muscle and eating as though they want more muscle on their bodies. This doesn't mean eating crap; this means fueling up for workouts in order to work harder, pump nutrients into muscle cells, and feel muscles working.

Then when they get to the gym, they'll need to actually try to build muscle. How? By lifting weights that are heavy enough to challenge them and by seeking the muscle ache and tightness that indicate work is being done. It's a lot different than just going through the motions with pink dumbbells while running on the fumes of their 100 calorie breakfast. It requires focus and an actual desire to build.

It's true that it's tougher to gain muscle and lose body fat at the same time, but what women can do is build muscle so that their bodies eventually become better at burning fat even when they're not necessarily trying to. And if she brings up the old myth about "getting too big" with weight training, just have her read this.

5. Having Emotional Hang-Ups and Judgment

Bench Press

Newsflash: Women are, well, different. Anatomy and underwear selection aside, women and men think very differently about food.

If a male overindulges he'll say "whoops" and move on. But when a female overindulges, her identity and self-worth go into the toilet until she's able to punish herself and deeply regret what she did. Then her out-of-whack instincts will tell her to compensate for those dietary missteps with further dietary restriction or excess cardio, leading to overindulgence again. Females often find themselves in a constant ebb and flow of overeating and hyper-restriction. If they just moved on in the first place and stopped the self-judgment they'd be able to find stability.

Women attach too much meaning to food. During times when they're eating less, they're happier with themselves and more confident. When they're eating more they generally don't feel good about themselves. And there's usually a reason why they're overeating: Food is their go-to tool for taking the edge off stress, anxiety, sadness, frustration, or any other emotion.

Solution

If women stopped attaching their self-worth to their eating habits and dealt with emotions in productive ways other than "comfort food", they'd be more inclined to eat appropriately. A long walk will clear the head better than a row of cookies. A good bonk in the sack is more stress relieving than a pint of ice cream. And going back to number 4, overindulgence wouldn't be such a big deal if they sought hypertrophy instead of fat loss. Hypertrophy is about growth, not restriction, and that change in thinking frees women from the constant cycle of trying to eat like a supermodel and falling off the wagon.

6. Overeating at Night

Females who eat like birds all morning, especially those who may have worked out fasted, often cap off their nights with a couple thousand extra calories because they're making up for what they didn't get earlier in the day. Their bodies are screaming for nutrition. And those hours of lacking nutrition can lead to elevated cortisol for lengthy periods of time.

This combo of high cortisol, exhaustion from an insufficiently fueled day, and any other incidental emotions become a ticking time bomb for a pig-out. No person, male or female, wants to think about food prep when they're famished. And even fewer will want to commit to a specific allotment of macros or calories when their stomach feels like it's eating itself.

Solution

If women ate substantially during earlier meals and fueled up appropriately for workouts they wouldn't struggle so much with nighttime cravings and second helpings of dinner or dessert.

7. Not Eating Enough Protein

Most females, even the health-conscious types, have no idea they're not getting enough protein. Sure, they've probably heard that a gram per pound of body weight is a decent rule of thumb for lifters, but unless they've intentionally tracked their macros, they won't realize what that number looks like on their plate. And unless they're supplementing with protein, that intake is going to seem like a whole lot of meat.

If fat loss is their goal, then even more protein than the standard gram per pound of body weight would be beneficial. Why? Because protein satiates, preserves muscle, helps build muscle, and during digestion it's more calorically expensive than carbs or fat. Protein has a higher thermic effect than the other two macronutrients. But women would rather pick at kid-sized portions of meat so that they can save room for cookies and chocolate-covered crap later on. (This is called dietary displacement.)

They don't realize that extra protein doesn't just stave off hunger, it also prevents muscle atrophy. Ladies who are trying to lose fat by eating fewer total calories and doing extra workouts are at an even greater risk of catabolizing muscle, which is the one thing that'll make their bodies more efficient at burning fat.

Solution

Women need to calculate their protein needs and track their intake for a while to make sure they're getting enough. If they're struggling with body fat, a higher protein approach might have a major impact on their appetites and waistlines.

8. Going to Extremes with Dietary Fat

In recent years, most health conscious women have been getting over their fear of dietary fat. We've become avocado lovers, grass-fed beef and butter eaters, coconut oil connoisseurs, and heavy-cream-with-coffee drinkers. But in an effort to show disdain for fat-phobia many have let the pendulum swing too far.

No doubt, the saying "fat makes you fat" is outdated. We know there's more to gaining weight than that. But a lot of women are learning that nuts and full-fat cheeses actually do add up, and those who think their thighs are immune just because they're not spiking their insulin with "processed carbs" are misguided. There is a point at which too much dietary fat will make a person look like they're eating too much dietary fat.

On the other end of the spectrum are the health conscious women who still have an aversion of fat. Even though the 90's taught us that you can stay fat on a fat-free diet, some women still fear butter and egg yolks (but it's saturated!). Many don't realize that without fat and dietary cholesterol, the body will struggle to make the hormones necessary for a naturally fired up metabolism and sex life.

A traditional bodybuilding diet that appears clean and pristine with plenty of vegetables, lean protein, and oats can still be inadequate without some cholesterol-containing animal fat. And our hormones thrive when we get enough of it. These hormones can increase the amount of muscle women are able to build, the energy they're able to expend, and the amount of playtime women want to have in the bedroom. Females need to know that a fat-free diet doesn't automatically lead to a fat-free body.

Solution

Women need a variety of fats, including some saturated fat, and would benefit from prioritizing omega-3 fatty acids, which are the most beneficial for decreasing inflammation and promoting fat loss. But females also need to realize that cravings for copious amounts of fat are a red flag that they're getting inadequate amounts of one of the other macronutrients, like carbs.

9. Going to Extremes with Carbs

belly

There's no doubt that our sedentary population would benefit from dropping the dinner rolls, cereals, and aforementioned obvious junk, but countless low carb eaters who had success at first have hit major plateaus.

The problem with low carb plans is that many weight-training females eventually get fatter while sticking to them. Athletic ladies who eschew starches tend to have an insatiable appetite for fat. Because their need for carbs isn't being met, they seek satiation from (excessive) fat-filled, calorie-dense foods. These high fat foods, healthy as they may be, aren't as effective as carbs at doing all the things their weight-trained bodies require.

Athletic women often don't understand the capacity a muscular body has available to store glycogen. Many carb-depleted athletic females walk around with flat muscles and assume that they're "carb intolerant" because when they eat carbs the scale goes up. But the reality is that when weight-trained women eat carbs they're just restoring glycogen to their flattened out muscles, and in turn they're making those muscles fuller and more effective at doing work.

The more muscle a body has, the greater its capacity for storing carbs as glycogen. And when women deplete their muscle glycogen, they're not actually burning fat, even though their bodies will appear smaller. They're just draining their muscles of usable energy and water. Muscular women can make the scale spike or plummet in a matter of days with carb manipulation. This doesn't mean they're gaining or losing fat.

Solution

Athletic females who want a lean and powerful body should make room in their diets for carbs, especially around their workouts. It'll make them more effective in the gym and better at building muscle. Sedentary women with little muscle would do well to rein carbs in.

10. Eating Sweets to be Sweet

A lot of women get stuck eating stuff they don't really want because they haven't mastered the art of saying "no thanks." Females are often more sensitive to the feelings of others, so in an effort to be polite they'll take food they don't want, even if doing so doesn't help them get any closer to their goals.

Solution

This one's not so cut-and-dry. The solution is different depending on the female's situation and the people shoving pastries in her face. If it's not a homemade thing that someone slaved over, then she'll need to be assertive and keep her peers from dragging her eating habits down with theirs. A female trying to change her eating patterns for good will need to get her friends and coworkers used to hearing her say "I don't eat that stuff." But if the food that's being offered is indeed something someone near and dear baked, she's got a few options. She can say "thank you" and set it aside until she figures out what to do with it; she can say "thank you" and delight her loved one by indulging; or she can say "thank you" and lie about having a piece later on. This one's a tough call. What do you think?

Did I miss any? Let's discuss in the comments below!

06/24/14