The less body fat you carry, the better your abs will show.
Start by performing triage on the six eating habits listed here. But don 't try to banish them all at once. "Target just one or two behaviours at first – ones that you can make the most difference by changing," says nutritionist Jennifer McDaniel.
The reason: recent studies show that we have only so much willpower. That's why trying to break several bad habits at once can be overwhelming. But if you follow the slow and steady approach, you'll increase your odds of sculpting a thinner, fitter physique – and keeping it for life.
Skipping Meals or Snacks
Not eating can mess with your body's ability to control your appetite. But it also destroys willpower, which is just as damaging. "Regulating yourself is a brain activity, and your brain runs on glucose," says Dr Kathleen Martin Ginis, professor of health and exercise psychology at McMaster University. If you skip breakfast or a healthy snack, your brain doesn't have the energy to say no to the inevitable food frenzy.
So skipping a feed helps turn us into gluttons at night. Your starving brain "just doesn't have the fuel it needs to keep you on track, monitoring your diet", says Ginis.
Break it: this one's easy. Spread your kilojoules out into three meals of about 200kJ each, and two snacks of 400-800kJ each, says Dr Liz Applegate, director of sports nutrition at the University of California at Davis. Most men who are trying to lose weight still need at least 7500-9000kJ a day, says Applegate. More important, change your mindset, she says. Think I'm going to start a new routine, not I'm going to restrict myself. Restriction leads to overeatin
Use the non-diet approach: you're not denying yourself food, you're just eating it more slowly. Savouring it. Allowing your body some time so you don't keep eating when you're full.
In an experiment published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 17 healthy men ate one-and-a-quarter cups of ice-cream. They either scarfed it in five minutes or took half an hour to savour it. According to study author Dr Alexander Kokkinos, levels of fullness-causing hormones (called PYY and GLP-1), which signal the brain to stop eating, were higher among the 30-minute men. In real life, the scarfers wouldn't feel as full and could be moving on to another course.
Break it: your body is trying to tell you something, so give it a chance. Slow down and enjoy your food, says Kokkinos. Put away the tablet and turn off the TV. Try this breathing trick from The Yoga Body Diet: inhale while counting slowly to five; exhale and count slowly to five; repeat 3-5 times before eating. A study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association shows that yoga increases mindful eating and results in less weight gain over time.
Pigging Out on Weekends
Weekend feasts can cause trouble beyond Sunday. In a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, researchers used rats to examine the effects of palmitic acid on leptin, a hormone that helps regulate appetite. Palmitic acid is found in saturated fat, an ingredient often featured in your favourite weekend grub.
"We found that within 3 days, the saturated fat blunts or blocks the ability of leptin to regulate food intake and body weight," says study author Dr Deborah Clegg, of the University of Texas. So a Friday to Sunday of burgers, chips and pizza may prime your brain to overeat on Monday.
Break it: you don't have to go cold turkey (though turkey on wholemeal is always smart). McDaniel suggests that your reward for a healthy week should be one cheat meal, not an entire weekend of them. After all, having an all-you-can-eat weekend is like eating poorly for nearly 30 per cent of your week. That means you'd be eating well just 70 per cent of the time. We call that a C-minus. Do you really want below-average results?
Gorging on Salty Snacks
Sodium is insidious – it causes us to eat unconsciously. It adds up fast: popcorn at the movies, chips at the footy, peanuts at the bar.
Break it: salt cravings go away after a couple of weeks on a reduced-salt diet, says Dr Thomas Moore, an associate provost at Boston University medical centre. Not many men can replace their favourite snacks with carrots or celery, but give them a try: the crunch may be what you crave. Otherwise, try small amounts of low-sodium chips and pretzels. As you're cooking a dish, skip the salt and, if you want, add just a dash at the table. "Salt added to the surface of a food item is far more noticeable than the same amount of salt cooked into a recipe," says Moore. A slow reduction of your salt habit pays off in fewer cravings, he says.
Alcohol, that is. Here's an exercise to start tonight: write down how much beer, wine and other drinks you consume in a week. You may surprise yourself. Calculate the kilojoules and expect another surprise. A reasonable-sounding two beers a night can mean more than 8000kJ a week – almost an extra day's worth. It can take more than two hours of running to burn that off . You call that a weight-loss plan? Besides the empty kilojoules, booze undermines your willpower, says Dr Dawn Jackson Blatner, from the American Dietetic Association. Which leads to impulse orders of, say, wedges and sour cream.
Break it: try quitting – for just a week. Check your weight and how your trousers fit. See if you can live on less. When you do drink, switch to lower-carb dry red wine (about four grams of carbohydrates compared with almost 13 in a regular beer) or low-carb beer.
Eating in Front of the TV, Then Dozing Off
It's a double whammy with a twist. You ingest kilojoules while burning none, and sabotage your secret weight-loss weapon: sleep. Research confirms that people who eat in front of the tube consume more kilojoules (nearly 1200 in one study) than those who don't, and that the more TV they watch, the less active they are. And University of Chicago researchers found that people who lost three hours of sleep ate about 800 more kilojoules the next day in snacks than those who slept 8.5 hours.
Break it: Dr Donald Hensrud, medical editor-in-chief of The Mayo Clinic Diet, says, "If you want to watch TV, be active at the same time or go work out and come back – then you can treat yourself with some TV." And make your DVR earn its keep so you can go to bed on a regular schedule. Sleep is a fine habit when done correctly.