10 Diet Myths Revisited

I haven’t been focusing on weight loss or diets at all recently, not because obesity has magically gone away.  Rather I think the whole subject is negative and counter-productive.  Better to think about eating a more healthful overall diet.  But while cleaning old blog posts off the site, I found one titled “10 diet Myths”, from January 2014, 4-1/2 years ago.  While January has the reputation as diet month, summer also inspires weight loss efforts, whether you’re trying to fit into a wedding dress or tux, or trying to lose the 5 pounds you gained on vacation or you realized you don’t look so wonderful in your bathing suit.  All of which scenarios can lead to crash dieting rather than the life-changing diets we associate with New Year’s resolutions.  Conclusion: it’s worth revisiting those 10 diet myths.  Which of these are still floating around in the collective weight loss consciousness?  Are there any new ones to add?  Here goes:

Diet Myth #1: You must cook all your food from scratch or you can’t possibly be on a diet.

Still around.  This is still one of the most defeatist ideas in weight control, perhaps even more so now since fewer people are cooking.  But fad diet books are still plumped up with dozens (or hundreds!) of recipes.  I’ve concluded that most of those recipes are just filler, to add pages to the book and make it look valuable.   And because the book has a value sheen, you feel obligated to try to cook these complicated fussy dishes in order to stick to the diet.  If you don’t lose weight, it’s your fault because you failed to spend enough time cooking.  I personally just don’t see the point of making dieting and healthy eating into a difficult chore.  Cooking is fine, but it can be simple and still be healthy.  A burger and a salad or some grilled fish and sautéed vegetables or a stir fry with tofu.  Or take advantage of the bounty of take-out options available now, from grocery stores to restaurants to gourmet food shops.

Diet Myth #2: You must follow a “diet”.

Still around. Fad diets sure look tempting, with their promises of miraculous quick success.  If they’re so effective and miraculous, why are so many people obese?

#2A: A newer twist on this is the popular gluten-free diet.  Gluten supposedly causes weight gain, or maybe prevents weight loss.  Whatever the reason, avoiding gluten is supposed to make you lose weight.

#2B: Cleanses or diet shakes are a good weight loss strategy.  Of course, the companies selling the products want you to believe that. And these types of products come with an attractive sciency sheen, pumped up with added vitamins or herbs or amino acids.  In fact these quick-fix products make weight loss look like a temporary treatment, with no follow up.  You go back to your obesity-promoting lifestyle and the weight comes back on, at which point maybe you shell out more money for a cleanse.  It’s a great business model.

Diet Myth #3: You don’t need to exercise to lose weight.

Still around. Not merely still around, but some weight loss programs actually brag that “you don’t need to exercise” because the program is so magically effective.  Exercise helps maintain muscle mass, improves mood, makes you feel better and improves numerous health risk factors even without losing weight.  Plus exercise burns off more calories.  So why would you not exercise?  However, there’s a tendency for dieters to overestimate their exercise and to eat back calories supposedly burned.  Fitness trackers and the digital displays on exercise equipment contribute to this problem.  And truthfully, exercise by itself does little to cause significant weight loss unless you are doing a spectacular amount of activity, going from say a sedentary couch potato to hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail or getting a job as a wildland firefighter.  Exercise needs to be part of a healthy weight loss plan; it’s not the whole plan.

Diet Myth #4: You need to gorge on high protein foods.

Still around.  In fact, this myth has expanded, thanks to the Paleo Diet, which is based on the (incorrect) idea that our cave-dwelling ancestors ate nothing but meat, and lots of it, while maintaining svelte muscular figures.  While high protein foods at meals — meats, eggs, dairy foods, tofu and fish — can help curb your appetite when eaten in moderate portions as part of a meal.  But there is nothing magical about gorging on giant portions of meat.  In fact, quite the opposite.  If your plate is covered with meat, there’s no room for filling and nutritious vegetables or fresh fruit or whole grains.

Diet Myth #5: You should eat low fat.

Fading away.  This popular idea from the late 20th century is falling out of favor.  Healthy vegetable-sourced fats are now in favor, and even saturated fats from meat and dairy are being promoted as healthful (or at least as not bad).  Unfortunately the health halo of low fat persists.  Food companies still pump out low fat versions of normal food, and people still buy them, thinking that somehow this is what diet food is all about.  The actual diet research shows that people put on low fat diets end up cheating or abandoning the diet altogether.  No one can stick to this diet; therefore it doesn’t work.

Diet Myth #6: Diet supplements help you lose weight.

Still around.  Diet and weight loss “supplements” have continued to proliferate.  Some contain potentially dangerous undeclared ingredients, including traces of prescription drugs or herbs.  Some are just silly.  Think about it this way: if any of these supplements actually led to weight loss, why is there still an obesity epidemic?   There is no miracle over-the-counter diet supplement component known to have any significant effect on appetite, calorie burning, fat burning or anything else related to weight control.   Prescription diet drugs can help some people with appetite control and weight loss, but not everyone benefits, and the weight loss benefits are very modest.

Diet Myth #7:  Weight loss diets have to include artificially sweetened or low fat processed food products.

Now a mainstream concept.  Low calorie sweeteners — whether artificial or so-called “natural” — are now so ubiquitous that they’ve moved beyond diet foods into the food supply.  Some dieters may choose them as lower calorie alternatives to real food, but many non-dieters choose them as a strategy for cutting back on sugar, the current diet bogeyman.

Diet Myth #8: Calorie counting is necessary.

Still around, reinforced by the ease of using food tracking apps.  Calorie counting for weight loss isn’t necessary, but it does help some people stay on track.  It’s not necessary, but it can be helpful.  If you like calorie counting and feel it helps you stay on track, that’s great.  Using a food tracking app will help your efforts.  But if you resent the whole idea, don’t bother.  Portion control isn’t rocket science — just cut back on how much food you consume.

Diet Myth #9: Daily weighing is necessary.

A partial myth that’s still around.  As with calorie counting, this is about personal preference.  Some people find that daily, or weekly, weighing is motivational.  It helps them stay on task about weight control and hopefully gives them a feeling of success.  But other people anguish about every minor day-to-day fluctuation in weight and feel defeated if the number goes up without explanation.  And for some people, constant weighing reinforces an eating disorder.  If you feel that the number on the scale makes or breaks your day, it may be time to back off on weighing.

Diet Myth #10: Once you lose weight, you are “cured” of obesity.

Still around.  Still False.  This might be one of the more insidious myths about diets and weight out there.  People who believe this are people who inevitably regain weight and then some, because they just drift right back to their same old obesity-producing food habits.  There is no cure for weight gain.  It’s about lifelong management with a moderate diet, based on portion control and an active lifestyle.  Losing weight quickly on a fad diet and then returning to your old poor food habits is guaranteed to put the weight back on.  Fad diets teach you nothing whatsoever about lifelong healthy eating.  They just train you to expect unrealistic miracles.  When you regain all the weight after a fad diet, you blame yourself.  In fact, you should blame the fad diet, which led you on with false promises and taught you nothing about healthy eating.

New Diet Myth #11: Giving up certain food components guarantees weight loss.

This myth is fueled by gluten-phobia, but has expanded to include all manner of unrelated food components like sugar, high fructose corn syrup, carbohydrates, salt, GMOs, dairy foods and even bananas.

New Diet Myth #12: Exercise is all you need.

As I note above, exercise alone has not been shown to be an effective weight loss strategy, except in extreme circumstances.  A moderate healthy diet has to be part of the plan. I think the exercise thing is driven in part by fitness trackers and digital exercise machines that claim to show you how many calories you’ve burned with your elliptical or treadmill workout.  Don’t believe any of it.  The calculations are notoriously inaccurate.  Even worse, people get the idea that they can go home and “eat back” those calories they just burned and somehow still lose weight.  Exercise is essential. It makes you feel good, it builds muscle, it burns a few extra calories.  All part of weight management, just not all of it.

So, 10 diet myths revisited and at least 8 of them are still affecting dieting behavior, in addition to two new myths.  All of which hopefully inspires you to stick to a lifestyle that combines daily physical activity with a healthful mostly plant-based diet, with healthy fats and few added sugars.  A winning and myth-free strategy for weight management.

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