I know a top 10 list is trendier, but unfortunately, due to the large amount of health misinformation out there, I could not narrow my list to just 10. Whether your goal is to lose weight, decrease your risk for chronic disease, or simply feel better and have more energy by improving your nutrition and fitness level, it can be a challenge to weed through all the advice we get through popular media and a variety of other sources. Making lifestyle changes is difficult enough for us all, so we don’t want to waste any efforts on changes that don’t support our health goals.
I hope that the following will help clarify some advice you have heard or read, and in turn help steer you on a path that will lead where you want to go.
Top 12 weight loss and health myths I hear as a Health Coach:
1) Eating late causes weight gain.
This is by far the most rampant health myth I hear on a near-daily basis. Some days it seems that nearly everyone I speak with has fallen victim to this myth, and from the way it has been perpetuated by popular media, I can understand why. Here is what you must understand when it comes to weight management: Consuming more calories than you burn off in a given time period will lead to weight gain. Conversely, burning more calories than you take in will lead to weight loss. Much of what we read tries to complicate the matter, but this principle is what weight loss all boils down to. Sleeping right after eating does not cause the calories to be stored as fat, but consuming too many calories throughout the entire day does. That said, if cutting back late-night snacking or eating dinner earlier helps you to cut back your overall calorie intake, then it will help with your weight loss goal.
2) I can target where I lose weight by doing exercises that target that body part.
Unfortunately, our bodies will take any fat burned through exercise from where it chooses. With enough dietary changes and exercises, eventually you can lose those love handles, but there is no exercise that can nudge your body into choosing that area first. Exercises that target specific body parts will either strengthen or improve the endurance of the muscles they target.
3) “Fat-free” means I won’t gain any fat from eating it.
Remember to always look at the entire picture. Often fat-free products are high in sugar (and therefore high in empty calories), and sugar-free products can be high in fat. Any calories we eat in excess of what we burn will be stored as fat in the body, no matter if they come from fat or another source.
4) Carbs are the enemy
Again, a diet too high in calories relative to the amount you burn each day leads to excess body fat, no matter the source of those calories.
The American Dietetic Association recommends adopting a balanced eating pattern (meaning it includes sources of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins). It is generally recommended that carbohydrates should make up 45-65% of the total calorie intake for a healthy adult. An extremely carbohydrate-restrictive plan such as the Atkins diet has less than 130 grams of carbohydrates per day throughout the initial phase and potentially the entire diet, which is the minimum amount of carbohydrates needed daily to provide glucose for proper brain function. Following this plan means eating fewer whole grains, fruits and vegetables, which reduces the amount of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber consumed. Additionally, it leads to eating more unhealthy saturated fat and cholesterol, which increases your risk for coronary heart disease.
5) I must exercise at least 30 minutes at a time to burn any fat.
Many people attempting to lose weight have been told that they must exercise a certain length of time to reach their “fat-burning zone”. Remember, the key is burning calories because any calories you don’t burn in excess of the number of calories you take in will end up as stored fat. And burning more calories than you take in will lead to losing fat. It does not matter what fuel source the burned calories come from – fat, carbohydrates, or protein.
6) I must exercise at certain times of the day to see results.
I have spoken with people working on weight loss who believe that they must exercise first thing in the morning before eating, and those who believe they should exercise in the evenings after eating most of their food for the day. Exercise is hard enough for most people to fit into their busy schedules without extra unnecessary restrictions being placed on when they should exercise!
This goes back to the first myth regarding avoiding eating at certain times of day. It does not matter what time you burn or consume your calories, or the length of time between consuming and burning calories. And you will burn the same number of calories walking three miles in the morning versus walking three miles in the evening, so just plan it when it works best for you.
7) If I add a few hours of exercise each week, I will lose the weight without having to make any changes in my eating habits.
I will often speak with someone who wants to lose ten pounds in the next two or three months, and their entire plan is to walk 30 minutes three or four times per week. I have to let them know that this plan will not lead them to their goal without adding dietary changes. This is a bubble I hate to burst, because I don’t want to undermine the many important benefits of a regular exercise routine and the role that it plays in weight loss. But it is very difficult to lose weight at your desired rate through exercise alone, and here’s why: a 150-pound adult burns about 100 calories by walking or running one mile. Since there are 3500 calories in a pound of fat, we can see that someone would need to walk or run about five miles per day every single day to burn one pound of fat per week. Most people I work with are not ready to add this much activity each day to their current routine. Combining the effects of added exercise and a reduced calorie intake is generally a much more realistic route to a healthy weight than focusing solely on one or the other.
8) Juice is much healthier than soda, so if I substitute juice for my sodas, I will lose weight.
This is another one I wish were true, but please don’t confuse “healthier” with “lower-calorie”. While it is true that juice provides many more nutrients than soda, due to the high natural sugar content of juice (even the “no sugar added” variety) the calorie level is about the same and sometimes even higher than soda. And remember, when it comes to weight loss, it’s all about the calories whether they are from a nutritious source or not.
9) Gluten is bad for me
The reason you are suddenly seeing more “gluten-free” products on the market is, due to an increased awareness in the medical community, more and more people are being diagnosed with a gluten intolerance called celiac disease. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. If you do not have an intolerance to gluten, there is no reason to avoid it. A gluten-free diet is not a route to weight loss or even better health for the general public.
10) Eating a diet high in sugar leads to diabetes.
While we certainly don’t want to encourage a diet high in sugar, it does not directly lead to diabetes. However, being overweight or obese is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes (the most common type of diabetes). Excessive calorie intake from any source – whether sugar or other carbohydrates, protein, fat, and/or alcohol – will lead to excessive amounts of stored body fat and pose a risk for type 2 diabetes. Hypothetically, a person could eat a diet relatively high in sugar, but lower in other sources of calories, maintain a healthy body weight and not be at increased risk for diabetes.
11) “All natural” or “organic” means it is healthy/low calorie. And the sister myth – Sea salt is much healthier than regular table salt.
As I like to remind people, lard is a natural substance. Some brands that make organic products do focus on healthier and lower-calorie options, but we cannot assume this is the case. The label “organic” simply refers to the way in which the food was produced, not to the nutrient value or health benefits of the food itself. Whether you buy organic foods or not should be a personal decision based on your review of research from reputable sources, but just know that eating organic or natural foods will not directly lead to weight loss. Additionally, advertising has led many to believe that sea salt is a healthy alternative to regular table salt that poses no health risks of its own, but the sodium content is actually about the same in sea salt versus table salt.
12) Reduced sodium/fat means low in sodium/fat
The Food and Drug Administration provides guidelines for food labeling, and a product may be labeled as “reduced sodium/fat/calorie” if it contains 25 percent less sodium/fat/calories than the regular product. Often, the “reduced sodium” label appears on products such as canned soup or soy sauce that are so high in sodium to begin with, even with a 25% reduction they are still very high in sodium.
Some of the best advice I can give you is to be discerning in the recommendations you take to heart, considering whether they are from reliable sources that back their claims with research from clinical studies. As a Health Coach, one of the most important duties I have is to make sure that all the changes the people I work with make in the name of health are steps in the right direction toward their goals. I hope that every step you take will be one closer to where you want to be.
Written by: Millie Perrigon, Health Coach, American College of Sports Medicine certified Health Fitness Specialist, B.S. Health Promotion
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