We evolved to walk, which is why it feels so good. This simplest mode of locomotion offers a boatload of benefits, like slaying stress, saving your heart, boosting energy, and increasing inner peace. Aristotle, Dickens, and Beethoven all credited long walks as the inspiration for their best ideas.
There’s one more bonus to regular walking: burning calories. However, your diet can undermine any weight loss benefits. “Walking for an hour at a brisk pace burns around 500 calories,” says Heather Bainbridge, RD, nutrition care coordinator at Temple Health Bariatric at Temple University Hospital and Jeanes Hospital. “But it only takes 30 seconds to eat 500 calories.”
No one can outwalk a bad diet, so avoid these six common diet mistakes to make the most of your jaunts.
1. You ignore fat.
The way diet experts have demonized fat, it’s tough to believe you may not be eating enough of it. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is ignoring good fats,” says Alyson Brown, a nutritional therapy practitioner in the San Francisco Bay Area and founder of Wooden Spoon Nutrition. “Butter from grass-fed cows, avocados, coconut oil, and omega-3s from fish, nuts, and seeds provide healthy fats that are longer-burning fuel than the carbs in grains and starches.”
Adding healthy fats is simple, she says. Just throw an avocado into a salad, or eat a piece of fruit with almond butter for a satisfying snack. When we ignore fats, we start hungering for fast fuel sources, leading to cravings for carbs. “Also, walkers will appreciate that fats are the precursors to anti-inflammatory hormones,” says Brown. “That can help protect your feet, knees, hips, and joints.”
2. You rely on energy bars.
When you’re trying to lose weight, your snacks should be satisfying and low calorie, usually around 100 to 200 calories, says Bainbridge. When you walk for less than 90 minutes, you probably don’t need a snack as much as you need to stay hydrated. Going longer than that? Tote along a piece of fruit, some nuts, or a low-fat cheese stick. “You want to make sure you’re snacking on real, whole foods that are satisfying and slow burning,” says Bainbridge. “It’s easy to eat too many calories when you eat a granola or energy bar. Plus, they’re usually filled with sugars that will leave you hungry.” (Get a flat belly in just 10 minutes a day with our reader-tested exercise plan!)
3. You choose rewards unwisely.
Starting in childhood, we learn to use food as a reward. Cupcakes, candy, and cookies were used to celebrate achievements. As you start to walk and to drop pounds, it’s important to reset your expectations. “When you start to walk, don’t think, I’ll walk for an hour and then reward myself at the pastry shop. Instead, walk to a magazine shop, or walk to enjoy your favorite songs or podcast, or to enjoy the scent of an Estée Lauder sunscreen that you bought as an indulgence,” says Bainbridge. “It’s very important to find motivation to walk that isn’t a high-calorie treat.”
4. You’re confused about hunger.
Burning more calories than you consume can make you cranky and irritable—there’s no way around it. But be wary, says Bainbridge: “Sometimes that’s head hunger, not true hunger.” In other words, you may try to soothe your irritation with some doughnuts. She recommends focusing on fibrous foods and lean proteins like veggies, fruits, chicken, low-fat cheese, hummus, and low-fat, low-sugar yogurt. Bainbridge says these foods help you fill up on fewer calories so you can maintain your calorie cutting, better manage hunger, and continue to enjoy your walks.
5. You don’t drink enough.
Staying hydrated is one of the keys to weight loss and healthy living. “When you’re not hydrated properly, you have less energy and the body confuses hunger with thirst,” says Brown. Water is especially helpful when walking because it lubricates joints and cools you as your body temperature climbs. “Water is the highway for transporting nutrients,” says Brown. “Without enough water, nutrients aren’t going where they need to go. That’s when you start to feel hungry, even though you’re not.” She recommends drinking pure water, but if you need more taste or some electrolytes, try adding cucumber slices, mint, or lemon to your water. (Here are 25 slimming sassy water recipes to try.) Or try coconut water or sparkling water. “Just avoid hydrating with a sugary sports drink,” says Bainbridge.
6. Your fridge and pantry have it in for you.
Log the recommended 10,000 steps—about the equivalent of 5 miles—and you’ll be feeling pretty good about yourself. But that good feeling can turn sour if you double down on dessert or feel like you deserve a treat. “Frequently, people start to walk and they feel good, so they think it’s OK to have wine and cheese in the evening and some ice cream after dinner,” says Bainbridge. “That’s why it’s so important to fill your food environment with only healthy options.” Willpower is weakest late in the day. If you haven’t eliminated junk and high-calorie foods from your home, you’ll reach for them and sabotage any gains you made walking.