Dieting Myths

Have you ever heard a weight loss plan like this?

Start eating clean. Avoid gluten, salt, and sugar. Use cinnamon and apple cider vinegar. Detox with natural antioxidants. Make sure you eat fat-burning pineapple every day. Eat only organic food. Make sure most of your diet comes from good calories, from whole foods and not processed foods. Avoid everything white. Walk at least three times per week. Consider using a probiotic to maximize your gut health. Take a detox supplement.

The world is full of weight loss advice similar to this plus/minus thousands of other little flourishes. It seems really complicated (and expensive) to eat healthy and do all the things necessary to lose weight. How about this weight loss plan:

Eat 1,000 calories per day or less.

Which one do you think works? Which one do you think is designed to sell you something?

Diet in general, and weight loss in particular, is the subject of an almost endless amount of myths and misinformation. Very few randomized, placebo-controlled trials have been conducted. Anecdote is king. As more and more diet advice becomes available (Dr. Oz has 100 tips for you on his absurd website), America keeps getting more and more obese. That’s because almost all of the advice is bunk, designed to make something simple into something very complex and in so doing make a lot of money off of overweight people.

Let’s look at a few of the more common and harmful weight loss myths and simplify this seemingly complex subject.

Myth #1: Losing weight is hard.

It isn’t hard at all, but it does require motivation and discipline to change your lifestyle. It also requires patience. Constantly repeating the mantra that losing weight is hard has the tendency to discourage people and this myth is perpetuated by an industry that wants to sell you the “help” you need, whether in the form of a book, a program, a miracle pill, or some other gimmick. Losing weight is easy if you do just a couple of simple things and make them habits. There is no magic, no secret trick, no supplement, no pill, and no shortcut. You won’t lose weight by excluding one thing (like fat) or adding one thing (like Plexus). There is no mystery and there is no magic: eat fewer calories (less than 1,000 per day if you’re trying to lose weight) and do more (real cardio, not just walking).

Myth #2: Keeping lost weight off is even harder.

No! If you are losing weight the right way, then it will certainly be easier to keep it off than to lose it in the first place. This is just common sense. But if you are relying upon some gimmick for quick success and you haven’t changed your lifestyle and diet, then you will rebound with a vengeance. Or, if you have just lost water weight, then eventually you will rehydrate. But if you lose real fat by applying real science, you will find it is easy to maintain. If you are overweight, you didn’t get that way in a couple of months; you got that way by years of eating a little bit more every day than you needed. You must learn to eat less each day, consistently.

Myth #3: Don’t skip breakfast.

If you are trying to limit caloric intake to really shed some pounds, then you won’t have many opportunities throughout the day to eat. Only eating 800 calories per day requires making some sacrifices. Breakfast is the easiest meal of the day to skip, and if you eat 300 calories at lunch and 500 calories at dinner, then you will do well. If skipping a meal makes you overeat at the next meal, then that can be a problem. But if you are disciplined, the easiest way to cut calories is to cut out a meal, and the easiest meal to cut out is breakfast. If you must eat something in the morning, limit it to 100 or 150 calories. If you use up a third or half of your calorie allotment in the morning, you are definitely going to be more prone to snack over the next 16 hours. Randomized trials have failed to show that skipping breakfast is a bad thing. Most of this advice comes from the huge breakfast industry (cereals, orange juice, etc.) but most traditional breakfast items are very high calorie. If you are dieting, skip it. If you are maintaining weight, eat less than 200 calories at breakfast.

Myth #4: If you lose weight too quickly, you’ll rebound with more weight gain (compared to a slow loss).

This popular myth has no scientific basis at all in well-conducted trials. One of the biggest reasons for failure (or giving up anyway) is when results come too slowly to notice. If you can lose a half a pound per day (and you can!) then do it. Getting the immediate feedback on the scales, wearing looser fitting clothes, and receiving compliments and encouragement from friends, will make you keep going long enough to develop new habits and attitudes.

Myth #5: Don’t set unrealistic goals.

Let’s say you need to lose 150 lbs to get down to your ideal body weight: then 150 lbs should be your goal. There is no advantage to setting smaller goals. Studies have failed to show that people who set bigger goals are less likely to lose weight than people who do not; in fact, the opposite may be true. Be honest about how much weight you need to lose and tackle the problem. If you are 150 lbs overweight, don’t have the false belief that losing 20 lbs is a significant accomplishment; it is not. It is a sign that you are on the right pathway and doing the right things, but be realistic about what you actually need to do to be healthy and do it.

Myth #6: Don’t weigh yourself every day.

This is completely absurd advice. Randomized data indicates that weighing yourself every day leads to greater weight loss than weighing at less frequent intervals. If you are losing weight every day (get a scale that reads out fractions of pounds), then you will be motivated to keep doing what you are doing. You will be able to appreciate the results from your work. On the other hand, if you happen to not lose (or even gain) over a particular day, that will serve as motivation to work harder and consider what went wrong (poor dietary choices, lack of exercise, etc.). Weigh yourself every day, naked, in the morning, after you empty your bladder. Become addicted to seeing that number go down every day.

Myth #7: Don’t eat too close to bedtime.

Tons of diets recommend not eating after 6 pm or some other specific time, implying that evening calories are worse than daytime calories. This is completely false. Again, randomized trials have failed to support this assertion. If you are deeply cutting calories, you need to space out your meals. Skipping breakfast, eating lunch, and then eating dinner at about 7 or even 8 o’clock in the evening (after exercising) is about the only good way to eat 800 calories or so per day and still feel energetic. If you eat a full dinner at 5 pm and then snack during primetime television for three hours each night, then, yes, you are probably going to be obese – but the reason is that you are consuming an extra 1,000 calories in the evening. Remember, it’s all about total energy intake and total energy expenditure, balanced out over the entire day. Your metabolism is sometimes higher and sometimes lower, but it all averages out over time.

Myth #8: Eat more fruits and veggies to lose weight.

This myth is part of the general (and generally harmful) idea that eating “healthier” is associated with weight loss. It is not. A “healthy diet” is not something that can be scientifically defined. Eating less is associated with weight loss. But eating fruits and vegetables does have a role, just not the role that many people seem to believe. The most popular version of the myth is that adding vegetables to your diet somehow blunts calorie intake (from fiber blocking carbs). This is nonsense. If you eat your regular diet and then you add fruits and vegetables to it, you will become even more obese. However, if you substitute broccoli in place of the macaroni and cheese as a side dish, you will lose weight, because the broccoli has 50 calories and the mac and cheese has 310. So, eating more vegetables is really about substituting high calorie choices (typically carbs) with lower calorie choices (typically vegetables).

Not all substitutions make sense: orange juice, for example, has more calories per ounce than does Coca-Cola, yet a lot of people who would never give their kids a Coke thinking nothing of giving them OJ. If you are dieting, you will feel fuller if you substitute calorie-scarce foods for calorie-dense foods, but it is the total calories that matter. The truth is, the nutrient and mineral content that is valuable in fruits is also present in vegetables, and usually to a higher degree, yet vegetables have significantly fewer calories. Fruits play almost no role in dieting to lose weight and many dieters harm themselves by replacing one sweet (candy) with another (fruit), particularly with fruit juices. A Slim-N-Trim Strawberry Smoothie from Smoothie King has 380 calories! Don’t let the marketing hype make you think this is healthy.

Myth #9: Drinking more water is a key to weight loss.

This one comes in a variety of forms. Many talk about “flushing” the fat out, or “detoxing,” or just using water to feel more full. But, once again, science doesn’t support that drinking additional water leads to weight loss. Fat doesn’t need to be “flushed” out; it is exhaled as CO2 (yes, losing weight is harmful for the environment). There is no evidence that drinking excess water makes losing weight any easier.

Myth #10: Fat makes you fat.

This is one of the most prevalent and most damaging myths of all. This popular belief preys on simple ignorance of biochemistry. “Fatphobia” started in the 1970s without any scientific basis, and the food industry quickly responded and began to fundamentally change the constituents of their products. Just about everything these days is available as “Reduced Fat,” “Fat Free,” or the like. In order to reduce the fat content of many products, manufacturers had to add back carbs, and specifically simple sugars, to make the food still taste good. The net effect of this was no reduction of calories in the product (and in some cases there was actually increased calories). Yet, consumers viewed the products as “healthy” and felt less guilt about eating more of it. Fatphobia has largely led to the current obesity epidemic. A regular Oreo cookie has 45 calories. A reduced fat Oreo cookie has 50. So if you eat 3 of either, you will gain more weight with the reduced fat Oreo; but you are likely to eat a couple extra reduced fat Oreos because, well, it’s reduced fat (and fat plays a big part in satiety).

Studies show, however, that diets that contain a normal amount of fat are actually less associated with obesity. If you attempt to eat 1200 calories of a normal diet compared to 1200 calories of a fat-free diet, you will lose more weight with the regular diet. This is probably because fat encourages satiety and it is easier to comply with the diet but it is also because people falsely believe that fat-free foods are okay to eat in excess (just like diabetics believe that sugar-free foods are free game).

Myth #11: Carbs make you fat.

As people have become savvy to the fact that fat is not bad, the new culprit has become carbs – the ingredient that replaced fat. Specifically, simple sugars, particularly processed sugars, are viewed as pure evil. This, too, is a myth. A calorie from corn syrup is no more likely to make you fat than a calorie from broccoli. Still, it is much more difficult to over-eat broccoli than it is to over-eat Reese’s Cups. Consider: 100 grams of Reese’s Cups has 515 calories and tastes absolutely amazing (seriously, it is the best food ever made) while 100 grams of broccoli has just 34 calories. So the Reese’s Cups are 15 times as calorically-dense as broccoli. If you are cutting calories and trying to feel full, you’ll have a much better chance with the broccoli. That doesn’t mean that carbs are bad, but be smart about the calorie content.

Myth #12: You need more protein if you are building muscle.

This is absolutely not true. Be careful telling that to gym rats who often spend insane amount of money on protein shakes and supplements, or who eat raw eggs by the dozen. No supplement that is safe to take will help you build muscle. You will need lots of calories to build muscle, and in this way exercising can help you burn more calories to lose weight, but your muscles don’t care where those calories come from (sorry, GNC).

Myth #13: Not all calories are equal.

This myth is the over-arching falsity that lead to the “fat is bad” or “carbs are bad” myths. Biochemically, a calorie is a calorie. Your body takes a calorie of energy and does whatever it needs to with it. Your body will make muscle protein from fat, fat from carbs, or energy from protein, depending on what is needed and what is available to it. At the same time, it is true that your body takes different amount of time to break down foods into energy. For example, if you eat nothing but simple sugars, you will have an insulin-spike and your body will store those sugars as fat for later use. If you eat a mix of simple sugars, complex carbs, fats, and proteins, you will get a more steady availability of energy over several hours and lower spikes of pro-fat-storage insulin. Still, even if you did just eat nothing but simple sugars that are stored as fat, your body will break down that fat and produce energy later. The net effect will be the same. The problem, though, is that you will be hungry later and you will be more likely to eat more. So eating a well-balanced diet (not restrictive) will be the best bet to curb hunger. But if you have a lot of discipline and self-control, just eat seven Reese’s Cups per day and you will lose weight just fine.

Many will agree that a calorie is a calorie in terms of weight loss, but not overall health. The argument is that 100 calories from fruits and vegetables are superior to 100 calories from a milkshake because with those 100 calories from F&V you get lots of nutrients. That’s true in a strict sense. But the need for all of those mineral, vitamins, and nutrients, is taken way too far. Many people who believe themselves to be particularly healthy spend a lot of money on vitamins and supplements, yet there is no scientific evidence that those vitamins or supplements lead to extra-health. Remember, the vitamin and supplement industry is more evil than even Big Pharma and is predatory and exploitive.

For example, just because kale is super-rich in magnesium doesn’t mean you need it. You need only about 300-400 mg of magnesium per day. That’s easy to get in almost any American diet.  More of a good thing isn’t necessarily a good thing (it usually isn’t). Just because a food contains antioxidants doesn’t mean that those antioxidants have any biological impact on your body. Think about the outcomes that really matter and look for studies that measure those outcomes.

There are two extremes to the calorie-is-a-calorie narrative. At one extreme, many people believe that calories from “healthy foods” are less harmful so they eat more of them, leading to obesity. At the other extreme, for those who recognize that all calories are equal, they use this an excuse to eat excessive amount of nutrient poor food. Both extremes are wrong. You should neither eat 1,000 calories per day of vegetables nor 1,000 calories per day of Coca-Cola. But as far as weight loss is concerned, if you truly ate just 1,000 calories of either, you would lose the same amount of weight.

Even this point many agree with but still beg to disagree because, they point out, the person who loses weight “eating a healthy diet” will have less disease (heart disease, metabolic disease, etc.) than the person who loses weight eating a less “healthy” diet. But, alas, there is not a shred of scientific evidence that supports this idea. Virtually all of the benefit of lifestyle change for chronic diseases comes from weighing less and exercising. There just aren’t superfoods or other special healing nutrients in “healthy” food that gives it some great, magical superiority. I, of course, am not telling you to drink 1,000 calories of Coke per day and call it a diet, but if you do, at least take a multivitamin.

Myth #14: Fasting slows weight loss.

This myth also comes in many forms. Many believe that you need to prime the pump or stoke the fire, so to speak, to burn fat, and that you have to eat to do this; therefore, don’t skip meals (like breakfast) and don’t do severe caloric restriction. Once again, these ideas are completely unscientific. The myth lead to advice like eating a big breakfast or eating several small meals throughout the day or carb-loading before a workout. But the science says that total calories per 24 hour period, whether taken as one meal or ten, lead to the same metabolic rates around the times of those meals, and the rates are proportional. The cumulative benefit of increased metabolism is the same and simply a function of the total number of calories consumed, regardless of when they are consumed.

Myth #15: Multiple, small meals helps to control hunger.

This myth is related to the last one and is the other common reason given for advice to eat multiple, small meals throughout the day. Most studies show that people feel fuller when they eat less meals per day, and if the meals have higher protein content (as compared to carbs) then the satiety will last longer. So two meals per day for losing weight is probably best for most people.

Myth #16: Skipping meal will put your body in starvation mode.

This is another way of repeating the fasting slows weight loss myth. There is no scientific evidence of slowed metabolic rate among fasting individuals until they have gone more than 60 hours without eating; so skipping a meal will not lower your metabolic rate.

Myth #17: Taking (insert name here) will help burn fat.

No. Just no, no, no. Yes, there are hundreds of supplements and over-the-counter products for sale that are advertised as fat-blockers, fat-burners, metabolism-boosters, craving-fighters, detoxes, etc., and exactly zero of them help you lose weight. Don’t waste your money. Most people don’t understand how we burn fat, but it is simple: when your body needs energy, if there isn’t any available from what you have recently eaten, then it will metabolize fat and eventually break down triglycerides in the form of CO2 that you exhale along with a small fraction of water. You breathe the fat out. How much energy you need is a function of your metabolic rate, which is determined by what you do. It is the world’s simplest formula: eat fewer calories and increase your metabolic rate.

Myth #18: Eating organic, GMO-free foods will speed weight loss.

 Of course not. No study has ever shown a nutritional difference (and certainly not a weight-loss difference) in organic, GMO-free foods and normal foods. Again, a lot of people want to convince you that the key to losing weight is “eating healthy,” whatever that means, and they want to sell you some pretty expensive stuff in the process. This is related to the next myth.

Myth #19: Obesity is common because it’s too expensive to eat healthy.

The exact opposite is true. Obesity is common because food companies and restaurants all want to sell more food, and the easiest way to do that is to sell more of it to the same number of people. The average fit American should eat about 1800 calories per day, but the food industry wants to sell those Americans about 4000 calories per day, and they do. Clever marketing, confusing messages about what is healthy, easy-availability, bigger portion sizes, and really good food all lead to more food sales and more obesity. Even better is to charge more for those 4000 calories by making them special: “clean foods,” gluten-free, grass-fed, whole foods, organic, GMO-free, reduced fat, reduced carb, whole ingredients, etc. The result is still obesity.

If you want to lose weight, you will do so by cutting the 3000-4000 calories per day you have been eating (what made you obese in the first place) down to 1000 calories or less per day. This will have the effect of cutting your food bill, not raising it. Think about who profits from the myth that “eating healthy” is expensive: the food industry. You don’t need kale, gluten-free food, blueberries, salmon, quinoa, goji berries, acai, mangosteens, kefir, walnuts, bok choy, steel-cut oats, avocados, organic apple cider vinegar, olive oil, or any other nonsense. You need to eat less.

You don’t even need to join a gym or a weight loss program. You don’t need videos or self-help books. You need to get up off the couch and go outside and accelerate your heart rate somehow and you need to eat less.

By the way, vegetables (a good source of low calorie food) aren’t expensive. You don’t need to buy all of your veggies at the farmer’s market (if you can afford to support your local farmers please do, but those vegetables aren’t any healthier than frozen vegetables). A 26 oz bag of frozen vegetables from Walmart is $1.98. There’s 510 calories of nutrient rich vegetables in that bag. You would have to eat four delicious but less nutritious Twinkies to get the same calories and those will cost you $5.18 at Walmart. So, the truth is, it costs you more to eat badly.

Myth #20: Diet drinks (artificial sweeteners) make you fat.

No. Nothing that is zero-calories make you fat. These claims are based on the weakest types of evidence from chemophobic researchers, but no good study has shown that diet drinks make you gain weight compared to water. If you drink three regular sodas per day (about 450 calories) and you can replace those with three zero-calorie sodas per day (about zero calories), good for you! If you can replace them with water, you’ll save some money as long as you are drinking from the tap. But the diet drinks themselves are not harmful. They also don’t suck the calcium out of your bones (due to the phosphorus), they don’t dehydrate you, or any other conspiracy-theory junk you’ve heard. These things are simply not supported by science. They don’t spike your blood sugar (I’m diabetic – trust me) through some perverse hormonal dysregulation. This hormonal dysregulation theory is part of a false narrative that different diets somehow change the hormones in a way that either make you produce fat or not (similar to the not all calories are equal junk); but there is no basic science that supports these widely talked up ideas and they also violate the basic laws of thermodynamics.

Also, diet drinks don’t increase your risk of stroke or dementia. Yes, I’ve read the headlines too and I also read the paper, where the authors are careful to point out that they are not implying any causation. Remember, CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION. Sorry to yell but it is frustrating how fake news and pseudoscience gets its start. Every other post on Facebook this week has been about diet sodas causing strokes and dementia. CAUSING. Obviously, people who drink diet sodas are more likely to be obese or have cardiovascular risk factors; that’s why they are drinking diet sodas.

Diet drinks might actually help weight loss by satiating your sweet tooth and giving you a caffeine boost which has been shown to increase your baseline metabolic rate by a few percent for up to three hours. But they are not some evil menace. Are cola companies in general greedy, corporatist pigs who have single-handedly ruined American health? Well, maybe. There is no doubt that the excess calories consumed in liquids have contributed to the obesity epidemic and it seems wrong to pay more for water than for gasoline. But don’t let your hatred of those things alter your perception of artificial sweeteners. Remember, Coke and Pepsi are also the biggest distributors of bottled water; they don’t care what you drink. The profit margins are actually higher for the bottled water than for the colas.

Myth #21: Exercising is the key to weight loss.

No. It is a key, but exercise just doesn’t burn as many calories as you might think. The main key is just caloric reduction. Still, exercise can increase the calories expended, and not just while you’re exercising but for many hours thereafter. It can also curb appetite, improve sleep quality, and boost your overall energy, all of which are going to help you lose weight. You need to exercise (and do it every day while losing weight), but don’t use exercise as an excuse to not eat less than you currently are.

Related to this myth is the idea that you need to either carb load before a workout or you need to eat immediately after one. No! Remember, an hour of running expends the caloric equivalent of a muffin. If you eat before or after your workout (a protein bar, a shake, a smoothie, whatever), you’ll probably consume more calories than you spent, meaning you’ll actually gain weight. These myths, as usual, are perpetuated by the companies who sell food products (like energy bars) to gym-goers.

Calorie restriction is the key to losing weight, not exercising (but exercising is a helpful addition).

Myth #22: Cut out salt if you’re trying to lose weight.

This advice, which I found commonly on the Internet, once again has no basis in science. A lot of advice like this is related to the general idea that certain things, like salt, sugar, or fat, are either all bad or all good. This monolithic thinking appeals to people who are looking for a quick-fix or the “secret” to everything. Salt has been demonized for decades for a variety of reasons, but modern research has failed to confirm that most of the salt-phobia is warranted. Salt does have an impact on the blood pressure of about 25% of Americans, and following salt dietary guidelines for these folks can be an important part of reducing the risk of hypertension, stroke, and heart disease. Salt intake means next to nothing for the rest of us. But salt intake is not related to weight loss, unless the reason you eat extra salt is because you eat 4000 calories worth of potato chips every day.

 

There are many more myths that could be discussed, but hopefully you get the idea. There is no shortcut and no substitute for what you have to do. Don’t eat anything without knowing how many calories are in it and make sure you are eating the right portion size. Don’t waste your time looking at anything else on the label: just calories.

You probably read several things that I called a myth that you still believe to be true. That’s okay. You might like this piece I wrote about fact-checkers. Here is a starting point for many of these general myths if you are looking for some more data. But remember: if you disagree with something I have said, make sure you search for evidence that you are wrong, not that I am wrong. That’s how science works. If you are still convinced otherwise, email me.

Oh, and I just lost 23 lbs in 40 days with one simple trick: I ate less.