By Susan Moores, R.D.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/1/2006 2:38:02 PM ET 2006-12-01T19:38:02

When it comes to dieting, perception isn't always reality.

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In a recent study, thousands of people who were asked about their eating and exercise habits said they doing just what the doctor ordered — eating healthfully and exercising vigorously. But there was a big difference between what the participants said about their diets and what the scales showed.

Many were clueless about their calorie consumption, with overweight and obese people underestimating by as many as 400 calories a day, the study found.

But with so many of us trying to do the right thing, how can two-thirds of Americans be overweight and nearly one-third be obese?

“Many people believe they’re on track, but when I sit down with clients and take a closer look, we usually find areas for significant change,” says Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian and food coach in Tampa, Fla.

Even the most well-intentioned dieters often sabotage their efforts. Here are five of the most common mistakes and how you can make smarter choices:

Eating too many healthy foods
Healthy eating is not the same as weight-loss eating. “Weight loss is about being calorie and portion conscious," says Dawn Blatner, a diet counselor at Northwestern Memorial Wellness Institute in Chicago and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Many of my clients choose healthful foods, but eat too much of them."

Pay attention to nutrition, but "calories are king," she says. Blatner has her clients do a “7-day calorie conscious challenge.” For one week clients weigh and measure foods, logging what they eat and how much. They determine the number of calories using food packages or Web sites. 

Within seven days, people learn how many calories are in foods, even healthy ones, and what recommended portions look like. If this strategy becomes too laborious, Blatner has her clients use frozen entrees, but allows them to add on extra veggies. “It helps people retrain their eye to what are considered real portions.”

If it's not a plate, it doesn't count
Think 25 calories a mouthful. Assume that's what every bite you take is worth, says Elizabeth Somers, a registered dietitian in Salem, Ore.

“So many people do well during mealtime, but forget about the extra food they’ve had along the way — the handful of nuts before dinner, the taste-testing of cookie dough, the food left on their kid’s plate," says Somers, who wrote “10 Habits That Mess Up a Woman’s Diet.” "Every bite adds up.”

Four bites a day is 100 extra calories. In a month’s time, that’s nearly a pound of extra weight. 

To avoid the mindless munchies, Somers recommends rules. “Promise yourself you’ll eat only at specific times; try chewing gum while making meals or cleaning up; or, have a bowl of veggies to graze on when the urge to nibble comes along.”

Skipping meals to cut calories
Not a good idea, says Milton Stokes, a nutrition counselor in the Bronx, New York. “Breakfast skipping is the most common. When I look at what my clients have had for the day, they have compensated for those missed calories by overeating later on.”  Stokes gets his clients to buy into eating breakfast every morning. “It doesn’t have to be traditional breakfast foods, simply eating a few healthful foods that sound good to you works.” According to Stokes, breakfast skippers tend to eat more toward the end of the day and into the night — sometimes grazing right up until bedtime. “When they get up the next morning, they’re not hungry.”

Taking the weekends off
Dieting is a 24/7 commitment, says Roberta Anding, a clinical and sports nutritionist in Houston. She has seen plenty of clients follow their diet precisely Monday through Friday, but believe their hard work earns them a weekend reprieve.

Anding makes sure she talks often and at length about a lifetime commitment to better health habits. “Every day is as important as the other. Weight management isn’t about sacrifice and guilt. People need to be able to include their favorite foods in their eating plan — we just work together to get them to fit it in healthfully.”

Liquid calories go in and out
Approximately 20 percent of the calories we consume in a day come from what we drink. Recent research suggests these calories do little to satisfy hunger. Just one sugary soda a day can pack on 15 pounds in a year, experts say.

Liquid calories may simply add to the bottom line. Orlando nutritionist Tara Gidus, a registered dietitian, counsels her weight-conscious clients to drink primarily low- and no-calorie beverages. When it comes to drinks that contain calories, she talks portion size and trade-offs. “Most people decide a 500-calorie cup of coffee isn’t worth it when they see the amount of food it replaces.” 

Susan Moores, R.D., is a nutrition consultant and spokesperson for The American Dietetic Association

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