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Sneaky Weight Loss Villains


Stop these stealth slim-down saboteurs from ruining your diet


By Brittany Doohan


It’s cookies! It’s French fries! No, it’s lack of exercise! When it comes to staying trim, we all have our vices. Aside from the occasional set back (hey, nobody is perfect!), if it seems like you’re doing everything right and the scale is still not budging, there may be something else to blame. Many hidden habits — from lack of sleep to stress to sneaky sugar — may be the real kryptonite to your diet. Here are four sneaky weight loss villains to watch out for — and a superhero plan of attack to beat them.


Weight Loss Villain #1: The Sleep Thief

As you push off your bedtime to watch the end of Batman Returns, this villain creeps up on you with not one, but four modes of attack. According to Michael Breus, PhD, board-certified sleep specialist and author of the bestselling book, The Sleep Doctors Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep, sleep deprivation sabotages your weight loss efforts in four key ways:

  • First, it raises your cortisol level, which increases your appetite. When you consistently skimp on sleep, your cortisol level (known as the “stress hormone”) spikes the next evening. The elevated cortisol not only drives you to want to eat, but it may also disrupt your sleep cycle all over again. 

  • Next, your food choices change. With that cortisol boost, your brain will want to calm itself with serotonin, nature’s mood regulator and appetite suppressor, says Breus. The easiest way to get that quick serotonin fix is to ingest carbohydrate-heavy, high-fat comfort foods, he says.

  • Then it slows down your metabolism. “When you’re sleep deprived, your brain says, ‘I must be up for some reason,’ so it slows your metabolism on purpose to reserve energy,” says Breus.

  • Lastly, it messes with your appetite hormones, including ghrelin, the “time to eat” hormone, and leptin, the “put down the fork” hormone. When you’re sleep-deprived, your body makes about 15% more ghrelin and 16% less leptin, which cues your brain to eat more.

If your sleep system has been out of whack, don’t worry, you can bounce back. “If you aim to get the right amount of sleep for you, everything will settle back to normal in about 48 to 72 hours,” says Breus.


Weight Loss Villain #2: Stealth Sugar

You’ve cut down on cookies, cakes and candy, because you know that sweets are bad for weight loss. But, despite your best efforts, carbohydrates are still sneaking their way into your diet — in places you might not expect. “The food industry puts sugar in food that isn’t sweet — like pasta sauce, salad dressing, crackers and potato chips — because sugar stimulates the appetite and people will eat more of it,” says David L. Katz, MD, MPH, director at Yale University Prevention Research Center.

The added sugar in these foods may not be as high as candy or soda (because people don’t generally want a sweet potato chip), but a small amount is just enough to get you hooked. “As soon as you eat a carb, you crave a carb,” says Mima Geere, MD, associate medical director and product manager at JumpstartMD, a medical weight loss and weight management clinic. That’s because when you eat something that spikes your blood sugar, you crave more when it crashes, she says.

The good news is that you can swap all of these products for ones that don’t contain added sugar. When shopping, read the nutrition label and pay attention to the ingredient list. Recently, the FDA proposed to have “Added Sugars” included on the nutrition label. Until that change happens, avoid foods that show these names for added sugar.

Lowering your sugar intake will not only help with better health and weight control, but after a while you’ll learn to prefer less sweet foods, like fruits and vegetables, says Katz.


Weight Loss Villain #3: The Booze Muse

Next time you’re sipping on that glass of champagne, consider this: Alcohol packs high calories with little nutritional value. (Just one 5-ounce glass of wine contains 125 calories and a single 1.5-ounce shot of vodka contains 100 calories.) Along with the empty calories, this diet villain has another trick up its sleeve — it alters your decision-making. “Alcohol lowers your inhibitions, so however inclined you might be to eat in a thoughtful restrained manner, you’re much less likely to choose wisely,” said Katz.

This doesn’t mean you need to eliminate alcohol altogether. “In general I would recommend having alcoholic beverages with food, so that the food in your stomach slows the absorption of the alcohol, and it affects the central nervous system less,” said Katz. That way, you’ll be able to make smart food decisions before the alcohol impairs your judgment.


Weight Loss Villain #4: The Stress Storm

Stress is inevitable. But on those days when it hits you hardest, cravings for French fries, cinnamon rolls and pizza become even more difficult to resist. “People eat to medicate stress,” says Katz. “They want to chew and they crave starchy, sugary comfort foods.”

But that’s not the worst part. Chronic levels of stress elevate cortisol, and cortisol dampens the effects of insulin, causing your body to produce more of insulin to maintain balanced blood sugar. The combination of high cortisol and high insulin puts you at risk for metabolic syndrome, a condition characterized by excess belly fat, abnormal cholesterol levels, and increased blood sugar and blood pressure levels.

In other words, it becomes a toxic spiral: Stress contributes to insulin resistance, which contributes to abdominal fat, which can then make stress even worse, said Katz.

To combat the stress storm, identify the sources of stress in your life and find ways to manage them. In addition, Geere recommends yoga or meditation. “[They] reduce your overall stress levels and calm the elevated hormones in your body that are causing you to hold onto the weight.”


Published on January 5, 2015. Updated on December 14, 2015.


Brittany Doohan is a health and lifestyle writer and editor living in San Francisco. 

Reviewed by Shira Goldenholz, MD, MPH on April 1, 2015.
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