Is Your Diet a Crime?

No. But trying hard to lose weight and still failing can make you feel like a victim. Let our crack team solve the mystery of your lifeless scales.

Before you seal your fridge shut with crime-scene tape, engage in a little investigative work.

The WH police have found seven clues – including dirty spoons in the sink, an overflowing recycling bin, a grimy snooze button – that could reveal what’s really sabotaging your diet. We uncover the sneaky perpetrators in your own home – and suggest how to put them on permanent lockdown.

The case of the ten thousand spoons

You’ve been cooking at home like Donna Hay on crack to cut back on kilojoules, but passing up restaurant meals still hasn’t helped melt away the kilos. Where’s the problem? Could be in your sink. Next time you wash the dishes, do a quick inventory. Are your plates and bowls as big as serving platters? See lots of knives and spoons?

SEND IT TO THE LAB Those Incredible Hulk-sized cups, bowls and plates? Researchers tell us they just encourage bigger portions. As for the knives and spoons, they often go hand in hand with spready and creamy: mayo, peanut butter, ice-cream or spoonfuls of – yum – Milo. It takes a fork to dig into healthier stuff like crunchy salads, steamed fresh vegetables and chewy lean meats, explains nutritionist Jennifer Vimbor.

SOLVED Scale down your dishes and silverware – look for plates no more than 25cm in diameter (a little bigger than your hand with fingers outspread) and limit yourself to teaspoons and dessert forks. “Using smaller utensils forces you to take smaller bites, making the meal last longer and giving you time to feel full,” says dietitian Amy Baertschi.

If you don’t want to replace all of Mum’s china, get creative: swap a mega soup bowl for a mug, a ramekin, or anything less than 12cm in diameter. For an even quicker fix, try this: wrap a rubber band around the handle of each spoon and knife as a reminder to reflect on what you’re about to shovel in.

A study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity showed that merely weighing the pros and cons of your meal or snack before you chow down is strongly linked to weight-loss success. If you’re lapping up dessert instead of steel-cut oats, proceed with caution (and use a baby spoon).

The case of the slimy crisper

There’s something rotten in your kitchen and, if you sniff your way to the fridge, you’ll discover what: lots of unidentifiable, withered green corpses in the crisper drawer

SEND IT TO THE LAB A drawer full of slimy, mouldy broccoli and carrots means you haven’t been following one of the golden rules of weight loss – eat your vegies. Just in case you still don’t believe it: a 2008 study in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease showed that women who ate five daily servings of produce were more likely to lose weight and keep it off than those who didn’t.

SOLVED Make it easier to live up to your own good intentions by being realistic when you shop. “Even though you might want to buy a bunch of interesting new vegies to kick off a diet, they can be so overwhelming that you don’t eat any,” says sports nutritionist Lisa Dorfman.

“Stick to one new vegetable at a time and buy others you like and know you’ll eat.”

A good way to sample new fare is to find a produce delivery service, which will drop off an assortment to your doorstep for about $30 per delivery.

To keep produce from going to waste, get in the habit of prepping it as soon as it enters your kitchen. “Biscuits are a lot easier to grab, so remove the roadblocks to healthy eating,” Dorfman says. “Wash, dry thoroughly and cut fruit and vegies, and store them in plain sight. Make them scream your name when you open that fridge door.”

If you’re just a serial celery slayer, keep produce on ice. Frozen spinach is nearly as good for you as the fresh stuff and has a longer shelf life. “It’s already cut and clean,” Dorfman says. Defrost in the microwave and add it to scrambled eggs with 30g of low-fat cheese for a super-quick, super-yum, low-kilojoule breakfast.

The case of the telltale hangover

There’s a bar stool with your name on it, you know every track from A to Z on your local’s jukebox and there are photos on Facebook of you doing things you can’t recall.

SEND IT TO THE LAB Happy hour is tough on your waistline. Besides all the extra kilojoules in a drink (about 200 for a Cosmo), when the nachos show up, your defenses will be way down.

“Because alcohol is technically a toxin, your body will likely process it before any other source of energy,” says psychobiologist Jason Kajdasz. “An average drink has between 12 and 14g of alcohol. That’s 350 to 400kJ the body must burn through before metabolising anything else you’ve consumed.” Which means you may not be burning the fat in those Doritos. Gulp.

SOLVED To ditch a beer gut, Kajdasz recommends limiting after-work drinks to one day a week. A few tricks to help you stay on track: before heading out for a last-minute happy hour, tell yourself you can go only if you hit the gym first; if spending an hour on the cross trainer doesn’t make you lose your urge, having to shower and primp again might.

Plan your bar-hop so you can eat lower-kilojoule foods that day and have a healthy snack (like vegies and hummus) beforehand to help yourself resist the greasy bar food. When you do raise a glass, fill it with white wine (only 355 to 525kJ per glass) or a low-kilojoule beer, like Pure Blonde (447kJ per 355ml bottle).

The case of the grimy snooze button

Your alarm clock’s fingerprint-covered snooze button and generally battered appearance point to a meagre sleep schedule.

SEND IT TO THE LAB Fat cells have their own accounting system, and a sleep deficit can screw up your bottom line as much as a Kit Kat Chunky surplus. A 2008 study in the journal Sleep showed that people who got less than seven hours of shut-eye a night gained 88 per cent more weight over six years than those who got more Zs.

The reason: too little pillow time makes your metabolism idle, leaving you sapped of energy and more likely to pay a visit to the vending machine for a sugar hit. Lingering in bed could also mean you’re skipping morning workouts because of laziness.

SOLVED Even if getting six to eight hours a night is impossible, snub the snooze. According to Dorfman, dragging yourself out of bed at a consistent time and crawling through the day is better than always trying to sneak in extra snoozes or guzzling Red Bull – both short-lived fixes that can kick off a vicious cycle of energy highs and lows.

Instead, when you need to reboot, drag yourself to the gym. “Exercise can start to reset your clock,” says Althea Hondrogen, a personal trainer. “Activity increases oxygen in the blood and circulation, which makes you feel more awake and alert.”

With a morning workout, you’ll have the energy to get through the day, you should be able to avoid a vending machine run, and you’ll be off the fitness hook at the end – meaning you can hit the sheets earlier. If you’re a habitual snooze abuser, try policing yourself this way: for each time you push the back-to-Neverland button, make your bedtime the next night 10 minutes earlier.

The case of the usual suspects

You’re a private investigator’s dream: easy to tail. Your daily routine never changes, your meals don’t vary by so much as a green bean, and your shopping list is so predictable you might as well laminate it.

SEND IT TO THE LAB When your body receives and uses the same amount of fuel every day, your weight loss stalls. “As you lose weight, your resting metabolic rate goes down in proportion to the kilos dropped,” Baertschi says. “So following the exact menu and exercise that helped you get to where you are will ultimately cause you to plateau.” Odds are, if you eat the same foods day after day, you’re missing out on essential nutrients that variety brings to your diet.

In her book The Food & Mood Cookbook, Elizabeth Somer explains the trail that leads inexorably from missing nutrients to biscuit cravings. According to one study, a deficiency of folate or magnesium (found in green, leafy vegies and beans – both sorely lacking in the average woman’s diet) can lead to depression, which causes the body to release stress hormones.

The result: moodiness and carb cravings. “Food fatigue spells diet disaster,” Baertschi says. “If you have oats every single day, you’re bound to rebel by binging on other tastes and textures – usually fattening ones. Little tweaks every day can stop a big derailment later.”

SOLVED When you’re cracking down on kilojoules, making every one count becomes even more important. Research shows that filling up on nutrient-dense foods will keep you from dipping into the snack bowl. Start with small changes, like swapping refined grains (white bread, pasta, white rice) for whole grains. Then try to have one new food at every meal – for instance, trade chicken for tuna or tofu – until you’ve revamped your old menu. Venture into the ethnic or vegetarian supermarket aisles or sign up for a cooking class to discover how to use new ingredients.

The case of the stuffed recycling bin

You find yourself having to empty your full-to-the-brim recycling bin almost every other day.

SEND IT TO THE LAB An overflowing bin indicates that much of what you’re consuming comes in boxes and cans – meaning it’s not fresh, whole food. “One of the biggest signs of unhealthy eating habits is an unused kitchen,” Baertschi says. “It means we’re resorting to convenience foods loaded with fat, salt and other preservatives. Get back to cooking and you’ll have more control over what goes in your mouth.”

SOLVED Frozen, low-kilojoule entrees may not be as innocent as you think. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that we eat up to 550 more kilojoules when the main dish is advertised as healthy. The “healthy” label made study participants underestimate the kilojoule total of the whole meal – and that “light” dinner was interpreted as a free pass for a jumbo mud cake for dessert.

To take your weight loss off ice, spend a month gradually erasing processed, packaged fare from your freezer and cupboard. (If you must have an emergency no-time-to-cook backup meal, make sure it has fewer than 4g of fat per 420kJ and a sodium level south of 800mg.) Each week, spend more time shopping the perimeter of your supermarket – that’s where you’ll find the produce, fresh lean meats and low-fat dairy – and less in the centre aisles, where the packaged stuff lurks.

Fresh foods are also a better source of fibre, which staves off hunger pangs. And according to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, getting less than the recommended 20 to 25g a day of fibre increases your risk of being overweight by up to 80 per cent.

The case of the trashed front seat

You car looks as if vandals broke into it so criminally high are the mounds of wrappers, cans and drive-through receipts blanketing your floor mats.

SEND IT TO THE LAB A messy car means you’re spending a lot of time behind the wheel – and you’re using your dashboard as a buffet table. A 2007 study in the American Journal of Health Studies found that drivers whose commutes exceed 15 minutes each way are 64 per cent more likely to be overweight. And in a 2005 study in The Journal of Science and Healing, eating fast food and multi-tasking while dining were two of the seven behaviours linked to being overweight.

SOLVED Fast-food joints are everywhere: there are more than 1000 Maccas and Hungry Jack’s joints in Australia – tempting when you’re not really hungry. “Getting a snack before you get in the car is the best option,” Baertschi says.

Grab a banana or a reduced-fat cheese and cracker pack to munch on. Also, stash an assortment of healthy snacks in your glove box as a backup; Baertschi recommends snacks that are about 600kJ with about 5g of protein and 4g of fibre – non-perishables like Mother Earth Fruit Topped Muesli Bars, lunch-box packets of almonds, or dried apricots.

If you must eat a meal en route, download GI and Calorie Counter software to your mobile to keep track of your daily intake. And stay out of the drive-through – standing at the counter will give you time to study the menu and choose the lesser of two evils, like a shake from the kids’ menu over a Bigfoot-sized monstrosity.