These seemingly harmless habits are holding you back and keeping you from shedding that unwanted belly fat for good. Habit: It's that thing that we do when we're not paying attention to what we're doing. But what if you could change your habits so that you could start losing fat automatically — without ever having to think about it? New research says that you can — and it's easier than you think. We develop habits because they save us time and energy (you don't have to think about whether to make coffee in the morning, you just do it), and because they give us a sense of comfort and reward. But neurons in the brain actually judge the rewards and costs of habits, which means they might be easier to change than you think, according to new research at MIT. Breaking a bad habit may be as simple as upping the penalty: Set aside money to buy yourself something special, then subtract from your little nest egg every time you break down and sneak a midnight snack. Eventually, your brain will decide that the cost isn't worth the benefit, the research suggests. 1 You're not sleeping enough. According to Wake Forest researchers, dieters who sleep five hours or less put on 2½ times more belly fat, while those who sleep more than eight hours pack on only slightly less than that. Shoot for an average of six to seven hours of sleep per night—the optimal amount for weight control. 2 You're drinking diet sodas. It's a logical assumption: Switching from a sugar-based soda to a non-sugar-based soda should help your health. While calorically speaking that might be true, diet sodas contain their own dangers and side effects. In a shocking study, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center monitored 475 adults for 10 years and found that the participants who drank diet soda saw a 70 percent increase in waist circumference compared with those who didn't drink any soda. So much for the idea that diet soda helps you get rid of belly fat! That's not all: The participants who drank more than two diet sodas a day suffered a 500 percent waist expansion. Yikes! The same researchers conducted a separate study on mice that indicates it might be the aspartame that causes the weight gain. Aspartame raises blood glucose levels to a point where the liver cannot handle it all, so the excess glucose is converted into fat. Eat This, Not That! Fix: Drink black tea instead, for a caffeine buzz without the weight gain. 3 You eat mostly with big groups. When we eat with other people, we consume, on average, 44 percent more food than we do when dining alone. Research published in the journal Nutrition found that a meal eaten with one other person was 33 percent larger than a meal savored alone. It gets scarier from there. Third-wheeling with two friends? You're looking at a 47 percent bigger meal. Dining with four, six, or 8+ friends was associated with meal increases of 69, 70, and 96 percent, respectively. Though part of this has to do with the amount of time we spend at the table when dining with company, another study from the journal Appetite found people who spent longer eating because they were simultaneously reading didn't eat significantly more, meaning time isn't the only factor at play here. Eat This, Not That! Fix: You can still hang out with your friends. Just vary the activity once in a while, and include short runs or walk-and-talks. You'll save money and calories that are inflating your belly. 4 You follow a restrictive diet. If you've just hopped on the Paleo or low-carb bandwagon, proceed with caution! "Often diets that cut out entire food groups do not allow for the balance and moderation we need to follow a healthy, lifelong eating plan," warns Zanini. "Plus, dieters who follow these plans may be prone to potentially dangerous nutritional deficiencies. Or they may simply get bored with their restricted plan and end up overeating down the road," warns Zanini. Eat This, Not That! Fix: You don't have to go too hard too fast. If you've finally reached a weight loss plateau and haven't lost any more belly fat, consider taking a break from your diet. According to a recent study published in the International Journal of Obesity, dieters who took a two-week break from their low-calorie meal plan lost more weight than those who dieted consistently. 5 You eat off large plates. One Cornell study found that when given an option, a whopping 98.6 percent of obese individuals opt for larger plates. Translation: More food, more calories, and more belly fat. Eat This, Not That! Fix: Keep your portions in check by choosing smaller serving dishes. If need be, you can always go back for seconds. 6 You scroll through social media in bed. Keeping your cell phone around and your TV on is only going to keep you up later and cause you to mindlessly eat while you stare at your screen. A study by Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that the light emitted from tech gadgets actually suppress melatonin production in the brain. This is the main sleep hormone for your body, so when you don't have enough of it being produced you can suffer sleep complications. Plus, A study in Pediatric Obesity found students with access to one electronic device in their bedrooms were 1.47 times as likely to be overweight as those with no device in the bedroom. That increased to 2.57 times for kids with three devices. Eat This, Not That! Fix: Turn your bedroom into a no-technology zone and opt to read a book while in bed if you'd like to wind down before hitting the hay. 7 You don't eat mindfully. Be mindful about eating mindfully. The practice has ancient Buddhist roots. It is, in fact, a form of secular meditation, asking us to experience food more intensely, paying close attention to the sensation and purpose of each bite. Mindful eating is not a diet—and it doesn't ask you to eat less—but the approach is gaining traction as a successful weight-loss mechanism. In fact, recent studies have shown that mindful eaters respond less to emotional stress, consume significantly fewer calories, and, perhaps most importantly, have an easier time maintaining a healthy BMI compared with those who are unaware, according to a PLOS One study. Eat This, Not That! Fix: To eat more mindfully to keep belly fat off your frame, chew slowly. Tune in to the texture, the smell, and the complexity of flavors. Keep chewing. Swallow. Take a sip of water. And for a few moments, resist the urge to take another bite. Continue this way throughout the course of a meal, and you'll experience the pleasures and frustrations of mindful eating. 8 You're distracted while eating. "We eat for many reasons, but the main prompt for mindful eating is physical hunger," says registered dietitian nutritionist Leslie Schilling, MA, RDN. "It's hard to be present if you're eating at your desk, cyber-loafing, or watching television. When your mind is focusing on something besides your food, you don't realize things like 'Was the food actually good?' and 'Am I getting full?' This often leads to 'do-over eating,' which isn't so mindful. Eat with purpose and presence!" This distracted eating also leads to consuming more calories that turn straight to belly fat. Eat This, Not That! Fix: A University of Vermont study found that overweight participants who reduced their TV time by just 50 percent burned an additional 119 calories a day on average. "Minimize distractions as often as possible," says Schilling. In other words, that episode of Game of Thrones can be watched after dinner. 9 You're not using all your senses while eating. The warm smell of cinnamon, the charred stripes on a grilled chicken breast, the crunch of an apple … Experts say paying attention to the sensory details of food is a simple way to start eating mindfully—and start dropping pounds. In fact, a study in the journal Flavour found that participants who took time to appreciate the aroma of a meal ate significantly less of a dish that smelled strongly than a mildly scented one. A second study found that people served a monochromatic plate of food—like fettuccine Alfredo on a white plate—ate 22 percent more than those served a more visually appealing meal that provided more color and contrast. Texture also comes into play. Researchers in Florida found that people tend to eat more of soft, smooth foods, which tend to be higher in fat, than hard, crisp ones. In one study, participants consumed more soft brownie bits than hard brownie bits until they were asked to focus on calorie content. Eat This, Not That! Fix: Just being mindful of how things like aroma, mouthfeel, and food presentation can influence how much we eat can help increase the satisfaction we get from a meal and also prevent overeating. 10 You eat too quickly. If your body has one major flaw, this is it: It takes 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that it's had enough. A study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that slow eaters took in 66 fewer calories per meal, but compared to their fast-eating peers, they felt like they had eaten more. What's 66 calories, you ask? If you can do that at every meal, you'll lose more than 20 pounds a year! Eat This, Not That! Fix: Put your fork down between every bite to slow your pace and keep yourself from overstuffing. It's been proven: one PLOS One study found that people who focused on taking "small bites" of food consumed about 30 percent less soup for their meal than those who didn't make the conscious decision. A second study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that simply slowing down had similar results. People who focused on doubling the number of times they chewed before swallowing ate 15 percent less food and 112 fewer calories over the course of a meal. So pump the brakes, and slow down to slim down. 11 You haven't been drinking enough water. Adequate water intake is essential for all your body's functions, and the more you drink, the better your chances of staving off belly fat. In one Virginia Tech study, dieting participants who were instructed to drink two cups of water before each meal lost 30 percent more weight than their thirsty peers. And you can magnify the effect by adding ice. German researchers found that six cups of cold water a day could prompt a metabolic boost that incinerates 50 daily calories. That's enough to shed five pounds a year! Eat This, Not That! Fix: You read the study results! Drink at least a glass of water before you sit down to each meal to decrease your calorie consumption. 12 You eat when you're emotional. A Journal of the American Dietetic Association study found that emotional eaters—those who admitted eating in response to emotional stress—were 13 times more likely to be overweight or obese. If you feel the urge to eat in response to stress, try chewing a piece of gum, chugging a glass of water, or taking a walk around the block. Create an automatic response that doesn't involve food, and you'll prevent yourself from overloading on calories. Eat This, Not That! Fix: "Eat mindfully with intention and attention," says Michelle May, MD, founder of Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Programs. "Eat with the intention of feeling better when you're finished eating than you did when you started, and eat with your full attention on the food and your body for optimal enjoyment and satisfaction." 13 You always take the elevator. Your office is on the fifth floor. You always take the elevator. Big mistake! Using the stairs burns twice as many calories. Still not convinced you should change your ways? A 150-pound person could lose about six pounds per year just by climbing up two flights of stairs every day, according to the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center. Bump that up to six, and you could drop 18 pounds without ever hitting the gym. Eat This, Not That! Fix: Not only should you be ditching the elevator upon your arrival, but find another excuse to take the stairs. Use the bathroom one floor below or the microwave that's down two. It may be tough at first, but sooner or later you'll see results and it'll be well worth it. 14 You sleep too much. Unfortunately, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. While skimping on sleep is associated with weight gain, researchers at Wake Forest found that those who sleep more than eight hours a night packed on more belly fat, the dangerous kind that's associated with heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Eat This, Not That! Fix: Shoot for an average of six to seven hours of sleep per night—the optimal amount for weight control. 15 Your food is always on display. Our homes are filled with hidden eating traps, and simply being aware of something as simple as the size of a bowl can influence how much you eat. For example, a study conducted at Google's New York office found that placing M&Ms in opaque containers as opposed to glass ones and giving healthier snacks more prominent shelf space curbed candy consumption by 3.1 million calories in just seven weeks. So what does that mean for your weight? The lesson here is clear: Clear junk food off your countertops to start losing weight and to make better choices. Eat This, Not That! Fix: Bottom line: It's easier to change your environment than to change your mind. Employ simple strategies like removing junk food from your line of sight to keep belly fat off your frame. 16 You hit up the add-ins station after ordering your coffee. If your coffee tastes like ice cream, you're doing it wrong. Adding packet upon packet of sugar will ultimately cause your blood sugar to spike and crash—which makes you crave unhealthy food—and can ultimately lead to weight gain. And it's not just sugar you have to be worried about if you're looking to save calories. According to a 2017 study published in the journal Public Health, researchers found that nearly 70 percent of coffee consumers drink coffee with caloric add-ins (including sugar and creamers); out of those people, close to 16 percent of their daily caloric intake came from sipping on their coffee concoction. That 16 percent translates to an additional 70 calories a day more than non-coffee drinkers. Eat This, Not That! Fix: Try using other flavor boosters to make up for the sweet stuff, such as cinnamon or cocoa powder, both of which are often available at your local coffee shop. And if you crave that sweetness, go for the less processed stuff. Stevia, which is now available at Starbucks (just ask if it isn't out) was proven to help minimize spikes in blood glucose and insulin, according to a study in the journal Appetite. 17 You eat dinner late. Eating late in the evening is a great way to go up a couple of pant sizes. Research published in Obesity Society shows that eating dinner earlier in the day can help with weight loss because you have more time to burn off the calories. Remember that the next time you're hankering for a slice of pizza late night. Eat This, Not That! Fix: Stick to a consistent dinner time and schedule it for early in the evening. If you happen to have a late dinner, consider going for a walk afterwards to get your metabolism going. 18 You're always bored. According to a study published by Frontiers in Psychology, people have the tendency to eat when they're bored. Eat This, Not That! Fix: Before you pick up that afternoon snack, ask yourself if you're really hungry or just eating because you don't have anything else to do. Try reading a book, meditating, or writing in a journal to keep your mind (and your stomach) preoccupied. 19 Your bedroom is too warm. Adjusting the temperature in your room is a simple fix to a smaller pants size. According to research published in Cell Press, regular exposure to mild cold can actually boost weight loss. The researchers noted that a Japanese study found that participants who stayed in colder temperatures (around 62 degrees) for six weeks saw a significant decrease in body fat. Eat This, Not That! Fix: Make sure to turn your thermostat down and take off any extra blankets when the weather starts to get warm. Because your body temperature naturally falls when you begin to fall asleep, the colder room will help you sleep soundly and keep belly fat off your frame. 20 You buy white bread. Ask any diet expert what they think about fiber, and they'll likely explain that it's an imperative part of any weight-loss goal. So, if you tend to skimp on the nutrient by purchasing white bread products, it could explain why you've been packing on the pounds. Refined wheat flours, such as white bread, pizza, pasta, and bagels, have been stripped of their slow-digesting fiber, which means your body can break down what you just consumed very quickly. And the faster your body digests these foods, the faster your blood sugar levels rise, which leads to spikes in your insulin levels and ends with fat accumulation. According to multiple studies published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, those who consume the most refined grains have the most amount of belly fat and largest mean BMI and waist circumference, whereas those who eat the most high-fiber, whole grain foods have the lowest amounts of belly fat. Eat This, Not That! Fix: We know change is hard, but making the switch to whole grain is well worth it. Find fiber in all of your foods. Adding berries such as raspberries and blueberries to your morning oats is a smart move. These fruits carry over 6 grams of the belly-filling stuff per cup. Not to mention, they're low in sugar and filled with flavor. "