Every year, about 50% of Americans try to shed a few pounds, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Not all of them will be successful. Some probably aren’t really committed to weight loss, but others are exercising, trying to eat healthier foods, and cooking more at home. If you’re doing all the right things to shed pounds, and your spare tire still won’t disappear, one these 15 cooking mistakes could be sabotaging your efforts to lose weight.
1. The good fat trap
Studies have shown an ultra low-fat diet isn’t necessarily healthy and definitely not a cure-all. Now that the health-conscious have started eating fats again, we’ve seen the rise of “good fats” and “healthy fats.” This has made olive oil, avocado, nuts, and the like become staples in the healthy diet. Although it’s certainly true these fats are full of nutrients and a much better alternative to lard and butter, it’s easy to forget they’re still packed with calories. Regardless of how full of nutrients an avocado is, a whole avocado still clocks in at 322 calories. It can be easy to intuit “good” or “healthy” as “OK to eat.” But because gaining and losing weight is a game of calories in versus calories out, it’s still important to practice moderation.
2. Not measuring your fats
Just like it’s important to stay vigilant about using fats, it’s important to carefully measure how much you’re using. When you’re sautéing vegetables, for example, it’s easy just to pour in some oil. After all, oil helps conduct heat and flavor, and it keeps your food from sticking to your pan. If you’re not careful, though, you could be packing a lot of calories into your otherwise healthy vegetables. One tablespoon of olive oil contains 120 calories. Accidentally glugging in a couple will bring your meal up to 240 calories before you add any other ingredients. This can affect your healthy salads, too. Because even lower-fat salad dressing is mostly oil, using too much can seriously rack up the caloric value of your raw greens.
When it comes to cooking with oil, Health suggests lightly steaming your vegetables or protein to help prevent sticking.
3. Snacking while you cook
Although it’s about as natural as whistling while you work, snacking while you cook could be ruining your diet. An ounce of cheese isn’t very much at all, but a nibble or two can really add up. That 1 ounce of cheddar cheese you’re putting in dinner can quickly become 1½ ounces, taking your cheese-borne calories from 113 to 170. Tasting can be crucial to developing a good meal, but if your hunger is making you snack, use the opportunity to rehydrate and sip water instead.
4. Being a slave to the recipe
Recipes are there to help you navigate cooking. Following the recipe to the letter, though, can both lead down some dangerous paths and restrict your dietary options. Learning to substitute ingredients for lower-calorie or healthier ingredients can open up a new world of healthy cooking. Use Greek yogurt in place of heavy cream, mayonnaise, and sour cream for extra protein in fewer calories. Substitute eggs in baked goods with flax or chia seeds. Mayo Clinic has a good starter guide to substitutions in cooking and baking that’s worth a look.
5. Estimating portion sizes
If you’re dieting, you probably know portion size is one of the most important aspects to trimming your waistline. Proteins should look like a deck of cards, and a portion of cooked rice should be about the volume of a tennis ball. Studies have shown we’re really bad at estimating portion sizes. To stay on your game with portion size, it might actually be worth buying — and using — a kitchen scale or actually measuring out your ingredients.
6. Letting leftovers sit around
Just like you’re told the best way to handle a restaurant meal is to immediately pack up half of it, putting away extra servings of dinner can keep you from overeating. Packing up and storing extra dinner right away can put enough distance between you and mindless overeating to keep it from happening. Just be careful putting hot food into your refrigerator. Raising the temperature of your fridge for too long can be a food safety hazard. To cool hot food more quickly, the FDA suggests packing in smaller containers.
7. Going crazy with the condiments
Condiments add some much-needed flavor to your healthy meals, but choosing the wrong ones or overdoing it on the sauces can sabotage all your good efforts. And full-fat mayonnaise is hardly the only condiment, sauce, or marinade that could be derailing your diet. Ketchup, barbecue sauce, ranch dressing, and even light salad dressings and high-sodium soy sauce can be diet destroyers.
Fortunately, you can finds alternatives to these tasty concoctions. Mustard is usually a healthier choice than mayo (which has lots of fat) and ketchup (which is loaded with sugar), dietitian Tanya Zuckerbrot wrote in an article for Fox News. A faux-mayo made with protein-rich Greek yogurt, lemon, mustard, and pepper can be a better choice than the real deal.
8. Relying too much on packaged foods
Everyone loves a shortcut, but relying too much on packaged foods when you’re making dinner could be hurting your waistline. Convenient processed foods are often high in fat, sugar, and salt, which spells doom for your diet.
A study published in the Journal of the World Public Health and Nutrition Association singled out ultra-processed foods as a possible cause of obesity, Shape reported. Those ultra-processed foods include popular quick dinner fixes, such as frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, ready-made sauces, and instant soups. Overall, they make up 60% of the average American’s diet, a separate study found.
If you’re watching your weight, cutting down on overly processed foods in favor of unprocessed or less-processed ingredients is a smart move. That doesn’t have to mean giving up convenience altogether. “I recommend eating less ultra-processed food and replacing it with fresh food and some slightly processed (not ultra-processed) items,” registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom said in the Washington Post. Frozen vegetables, pasta, canned tuna, cheeses, and canned beans all fall into those two categories.
9. Cooking your veggies wrong
Everyone knows vegetables are part of a healthy diet, and you’re probably trying to add more of them to your plate. But if you’re not cooking them right, you might not be doing as much good as you thought. How you prepare your veggies affects how much of their nutrients are retained. Although cooking won’t necessarily destroy all the good stuff in your vegetables (some, such as carrots, are better for you when cooked), the cooking method you use can make a difference. A Chinese study found steaming rather than stir-frying was better for broccoli, while other research discovered baking was better than boiling for potatoes.
Getting the full complement of nutrients your body needs can help you lose weight, noted Eat This, Not That. But there’s another way that poorly prepared veggies could contribute to weight gain. A pile of bland and mushy broccoli just isn’t very appetizing. If the healthy food on your plate doesn’t taste very good, you might end up eating more servings of less-nutritious food or snacking later because you didn’t fill up at dinner.
10. Getting extra-cheesy
Americans ate a whopping 34 pounds of cheese per person in 2015, according to data from the USDA. All that cheddar, Swiss, and gouda might be delicious, but it’s also high in calories and fat, which means it could be contributing to weight gain. Yes, it contains some protein, dietitian Cynthia Sass wrote in Health, but that’s not a good excuse to cover your entire meal with a layer of gooey mozzarella.
Going completely cheese-free might be a challenge, but you don’t need to cut out this dairy product entirely if you’re trying to lose weight. Instead, cut back. Reduce the amount of cheese you use in recipes, and “think of it as a condiment, and use it sparingly,” Sass suggested.
11. Forgetting to spice it up
Butter, oil, cheese, fatty dressings, and sugary marinades might make your meal taste great — but at the expense of your health. Your weight-loss diet doesn’t have to be bland. Spices and seasonings add flavor to nutritious dishes without extra calories.
Plus, making more use of the jars in your spice rack can have other health benefits besides making a low-calorie, low-fat meal taste great. Some can even give your weight-loss goals a little extra boost, including turmeric, cinnamon, cayenne, ginger, and cumin, Prevention reported.
12. Skimping on the fiber
Want to do just one thing to lose weight? Eat more fiber. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found people who were told to eat a high-fiber diet (at least 30 grams per day) lost just as much weight as those who followed the American Heart Association’s more comprehensive dietary recommendations, which instruct you to eat more fruits, vegetables, and lean protein and cut back on salt, sugar, and fat. The results suggest the single dietary change could have big positive results, not just in weight loss but also in cholesterol levels and blood pressure, Time reported.
The problem is most Americans aren’t getting anywhere near the recommended about of fiber. Most of us only get about 16 grams per day. To lose weight faster, try cooking more of your meals with these eight high-fiber foods.
13. Not using your roasting pan
You know it’s usually better to roast or bake your food than to fry it. But if you’re using the wrong pan, some extra calories could be sneaking into your meal.
Plopping your meat in a baking dish, and throwing it in the oven means it’s just going to stew in its own fat, nutritionist Rania Batayneh told Women’s Health. For a healthier dish, put your chicken or steak on a roasting rack, so the fat drips down into the pan, not onto your plate.
14. Not cooking enough
People who cooked a lot of their meals at home consumed fewer calories and less fat and sugar than those who ate out more frequently or relied on takeout, according to a study published in Public Health Nutrition.
Home-cooked meals might be good for you, but most Americans aren’t eating them very often. In 2014, only 60% of meals served at home were actually prepared there, according to the Washington Post. And people are spending significantly less time cooking than they did in the 1960s. A lack of time is one big reason for the shrinking time spent in front of the stove. If a busy work schedule is your excuse for hitting the drive-thru or grabbing a prepared meal at the grocery store, check out these speedy cooking tips, which will help you prepare a home-cooked meal even when time is at a premium.
15. Serving your meal family-style
OK, so this one isn’t technically a cooking mistake, but how you serve your food could play a role in how easy it is for you to lose weight. Plating your meal away from the dinner table could discourage you from helping yourself to seconds, Erin Palinski-Wade, the author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies, told Prevention.
“By keeping food within eyesight as you are eating, you may find yourself reaching for a second helping even if you really aren’t hungry. Place the food on the kitchen counter or stove, portion out a serving on your plate and then sit down at the table and eat. This way, if you want additional servings, you’ll have to get up, which helps you to be more mindful of what you are eating,” she explained.
Alli Neal also contributed to this article.