5 mistakes beginning dieters make

This week, my friends Lou Schuler and Eric Cressey wrote short articles that are important reads.

Eric’s 5 Mistakes beginning lifters make is an important read for anyone who’s new to lifting weights but wants to keep it up for years to come. Stay healthy, please.

Lou’s article, 4 Ways to Burn More Fat, is a great read for those more experienced lifters who need to change things up in the weight room to lose body fat. Hint, when you’re strong and fit, you gotta get creative.

In the spirit of short lists, I give you my own, which is focused on YOUR goal of shedding fat and getting fit. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of people work VERY hard but make little progress. There are a few very common mistakes made that can mean the difference between dieting success and catastrophic failure, but I’ve picked just my top five.

Read on…


1. Believing the number on the cardio machine

Did you know that a 200lbs dude burns about 200 calories per hour just standing there? If you treadmill for 30 minutes, and the machine says 200 calories, you only burned 100 calories more than just standing around.

Did you know that most cardio machines were calibrated using large, heavy, sports dudes, not small, sedentary desk jockeys? Athletic, strong people burn more calories when the move. Are you an athletic strong person? No, then the number on the cardio screen is not right.

Cardio and other exercise is highly recommended, but don’t use those numbers to justify how much you can eat. You can’t outrun a bad diet, and it’s hard to out diet too little exercise. They go hand in hand, but don’t make them dependent on one another. Have a diet plan, and have an exercise plan, and don’t change one based on what you’re doing in the other.

What does this mean?

What to do?

Eat according to plan, and never eat more because ‘you earned’ it on the treadmill. It simply doesn’t work.


2. The cheat day

Most people over estimate how awesome they are doing on their diets. True, it might be awesome compared to ‘before,’ but it just might not be awesome enough to survive a cheat day.

While I’m not a huge fan of counting calories, I have to admit that they count.


Your maintenance calories: 2000 (the amount you need to eat for virtually nothing to happen)

Calories you think you are eating: 1400 (because you’re frickin’ hungry all the time, so “OMG I’m starving!”)

Calories you are actually eating: 1800 (this is only 200 calorie less than your maintenance. At about 3400 calories per pound, it will take about 17 days to lose one pound. Probably.)

Enter the weekly cheat day…

A burger with a bun, fries, cheesecake. What else? Popcorn? Beer? Another dessert?


Let’s assume that your cheat day adds only an extra 1000 calories to your day. You just wiped out five days of dieting, with one fell, delicious, gut busting swoop. The cheat day is already counted out, so there’s just one day left to save the whole diet. Can it? Hardly.

Remember that 3400 calorie number? With only 200 calories per week, it might take 17 WEEKS to lose that same pound.

17 weeks! I don’t know about you, but if takes me four months to lose one pound, I’ve already given up. You simply can’t notice a quarter pound of fat lost in one month, and you’ll assume your diet has failed. …and it has, because of the cheat day.

Instead of a cheat day

…have a cheat meal. …and, instead of a cheat meal, have a free meal. …and instead of a huge binge of a free meal, have a reasonable sized ‘normal’ meal or dessert, enjoy it, then get back to your plan to lose weight.

I don’t care for the term ‘cheat’ when it comes to cards, women, or dieting. With cards and women, you’re hurting someone else. With your diet, you’re hurting your progress, and yourself.

Slim and healthy people don’t cheat when they have dessert; they naturally have it worked into their system, and that’s what you need to learn, too. Have a fre(er) meal. Have a dessert. Plan for it, because when it’s part of your plan, it’s not cheating.


3. Relying on cardio

We’ve all seen ‘that guy’ at the gym. He’s running or walking on the treadmill with big, heavy clomping feet. He was here last month, too. Same clomp. Last year? Same clomp. Nothing much is changing. Nothing will.

When you run, you get good at running, and  your body adapts to it. Pretty soon, you’re efficient enough to burn fewer calories, hungry enough to eat even a little bit more, and your body stops adapting (no more weight loss).

hamster surprised wheel exercise cardio

Instead of just cardio, put some resistance training into your plan. Weights, kettlebells, bands, cable machines, pushups/pullups, and other bodyweight exercises are all good forms of resistance training.

Resistance training burns calories now and later – after you lift weights, your body needs to recover, and that process takes energy. Fancy books call it EPOC, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, but the important thing is that it burns calories now because of the exercise you did yesterday. EPOC only happens with resistance training and high intensity exercise (like hill sprints), not ‘cardio.’

Resistance training tells your body what to burn – If you use your muscle to get stronger, your body adapts. …by building and strengthening muscle and bone. When it’s time to lose weight, your body will also listen to its own signals, pulling needed energy from fat cells, rather than the very muscle cells it’s trying to grow. You lose fat, and not all your valuable muscle and bone (you know, all the stuff that you want to keep to stay healthy and fit into old age).

Again, why resistance training?

  • Burn calories when you workout
  • Burn calories after you work out
  • Burn more fat
  • Strengthen bone
  • Build more muscle

If you’ve read Man on Top or 25 Minutes to Fit, you have a good resistance plan at your fingertips, but if not, check out the Kickstart Plan in Lose Weight Today which is resistance training from day one! That’s how important I think this stuff is. Lose Weight Today is free in PDFKobo, iBooks, Barnes & Nobles Nook, and 99 cents on Amazon (they won’t let me go free, there).


4. Not logging food

Logging food is just writing down everything you eat, when you eat it. Don’t worry about weighing and measuring; I’m just talking about writing it down.

Logging your food is an important part of food awareness. Most people are where they are because they are either unaware of what and how much they are eating OR are kidding themselves.

Logging your food brings awareness. You have to realize what you’re putting into your body when you are writing it down.

journal example short


When you log your food, you make a conscious decision to go ‘off plan’ when you eat something that runs counter to your goals.

Many people find success from logging food alone, even without consciously changing their diet. For those who need to take the next step, the log gives us choices, lessons, and opportunities when it’s time to get that diet going strong!


5. Believing the marketing

Healthy, low fat, whole grain, natural, omega-3, paleo, vegan, organic. These are just some of the terms that marketers throw on the front of boxes and bags, menus, and advertisements. Over the years, they’ve tried to convince you that healthy foods mean weight loss, but it’s not true.

  • Red Vines are fat free, but we know candy is empty calories and not good for us, fat free or not.
  • Sprite claims to be natural, but read the ingredient label and tell me what tree that stuff comes from.
  • I’ve seen sugar filled yogurt claim to be a good source of omega-3s, despite only having .5g of fat in the whole carton.
  • Vegan cookies are still cookies.
  • Paleo muffins are still just muffins.

Instead of reading the labels and ingredients, make sure at least 90% of your diet is label free. Meat, eggs, poultry, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds don’t need labels, and should be the focus of a healthy, fat loss diet.

For information on eating more real food, check out our 30 Days of Real Food program, which was the inspiration for our book, The Real Food Reset.


The list is endless

I’m sure if I think hard enough, I can come up with even more rookie mistakes (like thinking situps do something good), but I want to focus on the most common things that actually stand in the way of your success.

Galya and I gently guide and advise people every day, helping them reach their goals, and I think we’ve heard it all; If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. You know how to reach me; in the comments, on facebook, twitter, or email.




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2 thoughts on “5 mistakes beginning dieters make

  1. Alice

    This is a terrific article! You are right on the money with all 5 points. I really like how you explain the pitfall of the Cheat Day. And I just ran into an overweight crossfit/paleo woman on a hike who was eating handfuls of “paleo” granola oozing with coconut oil. Probably 200 calories per handful, on a hike where I burned about as many calories as I would have by doing housework for the day.


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