9 Myths of Weight Loss

Brought to us by R. Morgan Griffin (WebMD)
Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD


Weight loss is a subject that seems to stir the emotions while suppressing reason.

People who are otherwise perfectly rational become convinced of the "miraculous" properties of a fat-blasting ointment hawked on a late-night infomercial. They latch onto a radical diet -- one that eliminates all foods beginning with certain letters of the alphabet, for instance -- and defend it to the death. They take the nutritional advice they got from a cousin, who heard it from a friend, who saw it in a paperback next to the gum rack at the supermarket, as gospel.

We're a country desperate for the "secret answer" to weight-loss success, and that desperation can make us gullible. We're informed -- or misinformed -- by articles and broadcasts about eye-catching scientific studies and "breakthroughs" that are often lacking in scientific context. And we're subjected to plenty of advertising from the diet industry, which can profit from our desperation and gullibility.

To help you tell how to sort fact from fiction, WebMD asked some experts on weight loss what they consider to be some of the most common myths about getting fit. Here's what they said:

1. The best way to lose weight is with a very strict diet.

"There's this idea that weight loss has to be a horrible struggle, and that the harder you have the struggle, the more effective the diet must be," says Randi Konikoff Beranbaum, RD, with the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. "You could tell a lot of people the most bizarre, outlandish diet and they would think that it has to work because it's so bizarre."

The reality is that severely restrictive diets tend to be scientifically unsound and because they're so strict, it's impossible to stay on. "Think about it," says Beranbaum. "Who can really stay on a cabbage soup diet? Or a diet that makes you regularly test your urine?"

And because it's so easy to fall off the wagon, you're more likely to feel like a failure afterwards. Then you might just repeat the cycle, thinking that you're at fault when, in fact, the ridiculous diet is the problem.

Lola O'Rourke, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, suggests a moderate approach. "You can and should include foods you like in your meal plan," she says. "There's this idea that you should deny your cravings, but it's better to enjoy a small amount of what you want than to ignore the desire, since that can lead to overeating."

2. My genes are to blame.

"Genetics plays a role in your weight," says Beranbaum, "but not as big a role as people think."

James O. Hill, Ph.D., agrees. Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, says that "while your genes have an impact on your weight, so does your behavior." He argues that genes don't determine your weight so much as your body's natural range of possible weights. "For example, you might be able to achieve any weight between 130 and 300 pounds," he says. So while you may never be able to get below 130 pounds no matter what you try, you still have a wide range of possible weights. Where you are within that range is determined by your lifestyle: how much you eat and how much you exercise.

3. Carbohydrates are the enemy!

This is one of the most contentious health topics in the media today, but experts who talked with WebMD said that proponents of protein diets are giving carbohydrates a bad rap.

"One misconception is that people still believe that carbohydrates are the main culprit," says O'Rourke. "It's just the calories that count." Carbohydrates provide needed energy in sources like whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, and are relatively low in calories.

Again, the experts recommend moderation. "Is adding protein to your diet a bad thing? Not at all," says Beranbaum. "But a dinner of steak with a side of pork rings isn't a good idea." Beranbaum argues that any extreme diet -- or food-elimination diet -- is probably not a sound approach to weight loss.

4. I don't eat much and I exercise plenty, but still can't lose weight.

According to the experts, you may be eating more than you know. "People tend to underestimate portion sizes," says O'Rourke, and we all tend to absent-mindedly eat without realizing it.

While many people do regain weight that they have lost, it's important to know that gaining it all back isn't a law of nature. You can lose weight and keep it off for the rest of your life.

"Many people do succeed in losing weight and keeping it off," Hill tells WebMD. Hill cofounded the National Weight Control Registry, a registry of over 4,000 people who have lost weight and maintained the loss for at least a year.

The statistics are encouraging. "These people have lost an average of 67 pounds and kept it off for an average of six years," says Hill.

How do they do it? Typically, members of the Registry exercise daily and eat a diet high in carbohydrates and low in fat.

(Side Note by Michelle Ishio - PPR resident fitness expert):
There is such a thing as gaining body fat because of under-eating. By under eating, you will start slowing down your metabolism. Eventually, even when you eat food that would have been appropriate for your body size and activity, you body will not metabolize it fast enough. To make a long story short, you body will turn the food it didn't metabolize fast enough into fat, in order to reserve it for energy fuel later since it thinks that food is scarce and your body will need it for survival later. (Side note by Michelle Ishio completed)

5. All I need to do to lose weight is eat less fat.


While experts generally agree that eating a low-fat diet is important for your health, it isn't enough. Many now believe that one reason people in the United States continued to gain weight in the 1990s, despite the introduction of countless low-fat products, is that we thought we could eat as much as we wanted of something as long as "low-fat" was on the label. But the fact is that low-fat versions of snacks often have the same number of calories as their traditional counterparts -- and sometimes more.

"Journaling is one of the indicators of people who are successful in losing weight."

Experts generally recommend a moderately low-fat diet, since fat has its advantages. "While fat is the most concentrated source of calories, it also helps make us feel satiated," says O'Rourke. "If you limit your fat too much, you may feel perpetually hungry and consume more calories in the form of low-fat foods than you would have if you had a little more fat in the first place."

6. I can't eat out if I'm trying to lose weight.

Not so, says WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Dietitian Elaine Magee. "When it comes to eating out and staying on our healthy eating track, it all comes down to choices, choices, choices. We choose which restaurant or fast food chain we go to. We choose which menu items to order. We choose what condiments and sauces and how much are added to our food items. And we choose whether we eat until we are 'stuffed' or comfortable."

Experts like Magee recommend smart, well-considered choices: Choose restaurants or fast foods outlets that are known for healthful eating options Be sure to choose some of the lighter menu options Eat reasonable serving sizes (not those super sized portions many restaurants serve -- take half home in a doggy bag!) Use lower calorie condiments like mustard, ketchup, and reduced fat salad dressing instead of mayonnaise, tartar sauce, and high calorie salad dressing.

7. I can lose weight by skipping meals.

Theoretically, cutting out a meal each day would reduce the number of calories you're eating. But that's only in theory. "By skipping meals, you're likely to just get really hungry and eat more at the next meal," says O'Rourke. Often, you'll eat more calories in a day than you would have if you had just eaten breakfast or lunch.

(Side Note by Michelle Ishio - PPR resident fitness expert):
There is such a thing as gaining body fat because of under-eating. By under eating, you will start slowing down your metabolism. Eventually, even when you eat food that would have been appropriate for your body size and activity, you body will not metabolize it fast enough. To make a long story short, you body will turn the food it didn't metabolize fast enough into fat, in order to reserve it for energy fuel later since it thinks that food is scarce and your body will need it for survival later. (Side note by Michelle Ishio completed)

8. It's possible to spot-reduce my body's "problem areas."

While you can, of course, tone the muscles in any part of the body that you exercise, you can't control how your body distributes fat. "Weight loss is pretty much an overall body thing," says Beranbaum. "There isn't a way to cause the loss of fat in one specific area."

For instance, no matter how diligently you do crunches, (or wear your electric muscle-stimulation belt), you can't make fat disappear from your abdomen specifically. Instead, the weight loss from exercise will occur throughout your body.

9. It's possible to lose weight without exercising or changing my diet!

Whether it's a pill, a cream, or a piece of chintzy electronics, anything that is purported to have miraculous powers of weight loss is almost certainly bogus. "People want a panacea," says Beranbaum, "but there isn't one."

Hill agrees. "Losing weight and keeping it off is hard," he says. "The people who are successful have to work at it and will likely have to continue working at it for the rest of their lives. The quick, easy fixes do not work."

(Side Note by Michelle Ishio - PPR resident fitness expert):
Losing the weight is hard, but maintaining it is much easier...as long as you lost the weight with lifestyle changes, not a fad diet of some sort.

As long as you stick with the realistic long term do-able exercise and nutritional plan that helped you lose the weight that you already have lost, then once the weight is gone, there will be no reason for you to gain it back; as well, eventually when you reach your "goal shape", then any time you exercise, (since you are trying to maintain "weight" as opposed to still losing "weight"), you will get to "eat" those calories burned and treat yourself to some nice treats. (Side note by Michelle Ishio completed)

According to our experts, the truth -- as boring as it may be -- is simple. The only way to lose weight is to modify your diet, and to exercise so that you burn more calories than you eat. It's not as easy as smearing on an ointment or clipping on an electric stimulation belt. But at least it works.

The only way to really know what you're eating, O'Rourke says, is to keep a food journal noting exactly what, how much, and why you're eating. "Awareness is the first step to change," she tells WebMD, "and journaling is one of the indicators of people who are successful in losing weight."

Beranbaum says some of her patients are puzzled by their inability to lose weight since they're exercising every day. "It always turns out that they're eating as many calories as they're burning," she says. "It doesn't take much."

 

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