A recent survey of U.S. adults showed that one of the most common resolutions, you guessed it, is weight loss.
Achieving and sustaining weight loss is a challenging goal, evidenced by a weight loss market now worth a record $72 billion. But, along with a constant rotation of dieting fads confusing the public, there’s also a number of pervasive myths about weight loss that should have been dispelled a long time ago.
Myth 1: A calorie is a calorie
Calories are not created equal. The idea that calories are the most important part of dieting and the sources of these calories don’t matter is simply wrong. While a fun-size candy bar and a whole orange may have an equal number of calories, these foods aren't treated equally in the body. Different foods go through different biochemical pathways and send different signals to the body.
Human trials have found the consumption of ultra-processed foods are associated with increased inflammation and weight gain compared to the same number of calories consumed from minimally processed foods such as whole grains, vegetables, healthy fats, legumes, nuts and fruits.
Processed foods appear to decrease satiety cues, alter the microbiome, increase meal eating rates and volumes, and dysregulate blood sugars and hormones. These effects not only lead to greater weight gain, but increased risks of metabolic syndrome, gut disorders and chronic diseases. In contrast, Blue Zone populations that have a low meat intake and an abundance of high fiber, minimally processed foods have far less chronic disease, obesity, and tend to live decades longer disease-free.
Current data does show mild improvements in quality of the standard American diet, but at the same time shows no significant increases in whole fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts.
Until we ditch the processed foods, we may never outrun obesity and disease.
Myth 2: Cutting or burning 3500 calories yields in 1 pound of fat loss
Don’t get duped or discouraged by the “3,500 calorie rule” myth. While this simplified formula may have merit in a science lab, it doesn’t quite hold up to the complex nature of human biochemistry. For those on a diet, weight loss is often far less than expected even when there is rigorous adherence to a strict calorie and exercise program. We have been trained to believe that the cutting or burning of a certain number of calories each day should yield consistent, predictable weight loss--- or that a 500 calorie deficit per day should equate to losing 1 pound of fat per week. But all dieters know weight loss is not linear and weight loss can begin to decline or cease after dieting a short time.
One problem with the 3500 calorie rule is that it assumes that everyone responds to the same calorie cut with equal weight loss. Research proves this false. Numerous factors enhance or hinder weight loss including gender, age, activity level, body composition, diet components, stress exposures and responses, sleep duration, hormones, dieting history and individual biological variations.
The other problem is as we lose weight our body needs fewer calories. If we continue to eat the same amount that helped us lose those first few pounds, our weight loss will naturally slow. As weight loss is achieved—by even one or two pounds-- our calories and/or exercise routine need to be adjusted (regularly, slowly and strategically) to match the lower metabolic need in order to continue to achieve and sustain weight loss.
Until we understand how the body works and have realistic expectations and strategies, we may continually become discouraged and give up.
Myth 3: Weight loss requires incessant counting and tracking
Tracking food intakes and physical activity can be an effective weight loss strategy that helps us identify strengths and obstacles and keeps us focused and accountable to our daily habits. It is a revered and effective tool, but when overdone, it can also backfire. Logging each food and drink we consume and keeping track of our steps or exercise minutes day in and day out can become exhausting, obsessive and associated with negative feelings of deprivation, restriction and obligation as opposed to positive feelings related to health and wellness. Meticulously reading nutritional fact labels, measuring and weighing portions and calculating every last calorie consumed and burned turns food and movement into numbers. It’s not surprising that diminishing these healthy lifestyle habits down to a single denominator of “calories” or “numbers” robs us of joy, balance, flexibility and sustainability.
Several studies, not surprisingly, found exercise decreases hunger and increases overall calories burned. Yet interestingly, study participants who were asked to eat the same number of calories as they burned from exercise tended to eat significantly more calories during the meal than the control cohort who were simply told to eat as much as they wanted. Mentally focusing on “allowable” amounts to eat versus the physiological processing of satiety may result in higher calorie consumptions. Similarly, frequent exercisers who complain that the scale never moves also tend to obsess over calories and counterintuitively eat more-- often as cheat meals or rewards for their efforts. It seems by degrading exercise and eating down to indicators such as numbers on the scale or calories we force our physiology to butt heads with our psychology—with psychology winning most of the time.
In contrast, other studies showed those who followed a simple prescription for healthy eating — or maximizing vegetable intake, focusing on whole foods, and cutting back on processed foods, refined flours, trans fats and added sugar — for one year resulted in a significant amount of weight loss. Similar studies looking at exercise prescriptions also showed increased weight loss, better health outcomes and more importantly enhanced participant satisfaction without the need for tracking.
Until we innately lead active lives and eat wholesome foods intuitively, our sabotaging “dieting” mindset may win.
Gardner CD, et al. (2018). Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion: The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA, 319(7),667–679. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.0245.
Hall, K. D., et al. (2019). Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell metabolism, 30(1), 67–77. e3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008
Thomas, D. M., Gonzalez, M. C., Pereira, A. Z., Redman, L. M., & Heymsfield, S. B. (2014). Time to correctly predict the amount of weight loss with dieting. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 114(6), 857–861.
These materials are provided to you by Blythedale Children’s Hospital and Kohl’s
Eat Well, Be Well Nutrition Outreach Program.
For more tips and information, please visit Eat Well, Be Well.
Blythedale Children's Hospital, through the generosity of Kohl’s Department Stores, is proud to offer Blythedale and Kohl's Eat Well, Be Well, an innovative outreach program designed to bring health and nutrition education to schools throughout Westchester and Putnam counties. Through this program, Blythedale staff members teach healthy eating habits to children by providing curricula, training and educational tools to school districts throughout the area. The program provides general nutrition guidelines to students, parents and school faculty. Blythedale Children's Hospital offers experts in nutrition and health-education to speak with local parenting groups, PTAs and school personnel.
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