Diet Myths


Sometimes it’s the things we believe are helping us that really hurt us the most.  Sometimes, such things work exactly opposite how me might intuitively think.

Those two sentences could sum up how I thought my body worked when I was getting fatter and how I believe it works now.  What I thought I was doing to keep from gaining weight, may have caused me to gain weight.

Myth List:

  1. Exercising allow you to eat whatever you want
  2. Don’t eat after 7 pm
  3. You have to give up all the good stuff when you’re on a diet
  4. We are genetically programmed to be a certain weight
  5. Eating less than 1,200 calories a day slows metabolism and makes it impossible to lose weight

Got a myth that I haven’t covered?  Or, do you believe in something that you think may be a missing.  Let me know about it.  I’ll give you my thoughts and I might post it here.


Myth #1: Exercising allows you eat whatever you want

The Truth: Exercise burns a finite number of calories and not nearly as much as many people want to believe.  While exercise can be an important part of an overall weight control regimen, it’s not the only piece and it’s not even the most important piece.

THE key to weight loss is to balance your calorie intake against your calorie burn.

THE key to weight loss is to balance your calorie intake against your calorie burn.

Before I figured this out, I exercised and gained weight.  I feared that I wouldn’t be able to stop that trend.  There was a part of me that knew it couldn’t be true that exercise alone wasn’t the cure.  But, another part of me wanted it to be true so that I wouldn’t have to change my eating habits.

Once I opened myself to the truth, weight control became easy.

  • To lose weight, you have to eat fewer calories than you burn.
  • To maintain weight, you need to balance your calorie intake and your calorie burn.

That seems simple, right?  But, it’s amazing how many people don’t get it.  They believe that exercise will solve everything.  The problem is that they start an exercise program and don’t think about their calorie intake.  The activity makes their body hungrier so they eat more calories, which cancels out the additional calories burned in exercise.  And, it’s easy to cancel out exercise.

In a typical half hour cardio workout of moderate activity you may burn 200 to 250 calories, which is the equivalent a few bites of food, maybe one cookie or a half a piece of supreme pizza.  How often do you hear this voice in your head: “Oh, I exercised today, it’s okay to eat that extra (insert food name here).”

Trust me, I still hear it.

And, so buying into the myth that exercise was all I needed hurt me.  The more I exercised, the more I ate and the fatter I got.

Dean Karzai is an ultra-marathoner.  He runs A LOT!  When he’s training he runs 30 miles a day and he often runs for 50 or 100 miles at a time.  You’d think he’d need to eat a lot.  And he does…when he’s running.  I once read about how he’ll have a pizza delivered to him while he’s running and he’ll eat the whole thing.

But, the importance of calorie control dawned on me when I read about how he has to watch carefully to slowdown his eating when he lowers his running or else he’ll quickly add pounds.  WOW!  You’d think a guy who runs that much could eat anything he wants whenever he wants, wouldn’t you?  If he can’t, then neither can people like you and I. Working out for 30 minutes a day isn’t a license to eat like a pig, no matter how desperately we wish it were.

Myth #2: Don’t eat after 7 pm

Other common variants of this myth:

  • Eating a smaller lunch to “save calories” for a bigger dinner
  • Skipping breakfast to control your weight
  • Skipping an afternoon snack to have a bigger dinner
  • Waiting until you’re hungry to eat

The Truth: Any variant of this myth could 1) slow your metabolsim and 2) make your body more stubborn about giving up pounds, which is a double whammy to your waistline.

This bit of truth is probably the most counter to how we would naturally believe things would work.

Bob Greene, Oprah’s long-time personal trainer and fellow weight-loss author, advises not to eat in the evening.  His rationale sounds good:  It gives your body a chance to burn the fat and gives you the discipline to let it.

I disagree.  I, and other weight loss advisers, believe that going for more than 5 or 6 waking hours without eating can slow your metabolism by 10-15% and cause your body to go into a conservation mode where it scraps to hold onto any spare calorie rather than letting it pass through your system.   This is one source of the “stubborn pounds” – those pounds that just don’t seem to want to come off.

I learned this from the author of the Zone diet, Dr. Barry Sears.  Another Oprah health personality, Dr. Oz, also concurs in his book, You: On a Diet as well as the author of the South Beach diet.

Being a guy that likes scientific evidence, I looked for scientific studies that prove this notion, but couldn’t find any.  If you know of one, let me know.

But, I can let you know my personal experiences.

Experience 1: I started losing weight at exactly the same time that I started eating five times a day, including a late afternoon snack and a bedtime snack.  I continued eating five times a day all the way through the 5 or 6 months in which I was shedding pounds.  I stopped eating the bedtime snack when I reached the weight were I wanted to stay.

Experiences 2, 3, 4 and counting: Several times since I’ve lost weight I’ve picked up 3-4 pounds that end up being stubborn.  Those pounds have disappeared everytime I started eating a bedtime snack again.

If you starve yourself, physics will eventually win out.  Aneroxics and starving people in third world countries around  prove that out.  But, if you’re eating enough calories to get by, but eating them all in two meals a day, you aren’t doing yourself any favors.

Myth #3: You have to give up the food you love when you’re on a diet

The Truth: Giving up the food you love is a psychological shock and will likely end with a gut busting death spiral-inducing binge and unrelated to weight loss.

You should continue eating the stuff you love, but learn to eat it in moderation and in better proportions.

You have to learn how to enjoy smaller portions of the stuff you like.  For example, I love ice cream.  Whenever I went to the local frozen dessert place I’d order the medium or large size.  Once I realized calorie control was the answer to weight loss, I began ordering the smallest size and focused on slowing down and enjoying each bite.  It worked.  I felt just as satisfied afterward, really.  In addition, I didn’t have the guilt-inducing gut busting feeling afterward like I did when I ate the larger sizes.

Do you like potato chips or fries?  Try cutting back to a few chips or fries and supplementing the reduction with an added fruit.  McDonald’s and Subway are selling packaged “fresh” fruit now and it’s good stuff.

Do you drink large amounts of soda?    Try Crystal Light, tea or water instead.  Soda – the real stuff and diet – can both do damage to waistline and other parts of your body such as your teeth and bones.

Suggestions for cutting back, but not eliminating the good stuff:

  • Allow yourself to enjoy certain pleasures once or twice a week.  I did this with ice cream.  Instead of keeping a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer at home and nibbling a little bit each night, I cut back to one treat at the local ice cream place once a week.  I found a week was doable length of time and it gave me something to look forward to.
  • Cut your portion sizes and focus on savoring each bite, rather than hurrying up to eat what’s in your mouth so you can put the next bite in.  As I already mentioned, I started ordering the smallest size ice cream available when I went for weekly treat.  I cut fry portions by splitting an order of fries with someone else, or replacing half of a fry order with something like baked beans, a small salad or vegetable.
  • Experiment to find good stuff that is good for you.  I found that I love certain types of pears and apples and consider those treats now too.  I also enjoy a cup of fresh ground black coffee – no calories.

Myth #4: We are genetically programmed to be a certain weight and there’s nothing we can do about it

The Truth: How much you weigh has everything to do with how many calories you eat and drink relative to how many calories you burn.   You have control over that.

The appeal, and danger, of this myth is that it makes us think weight is beyond our control.

I almost let this one put me into a feeding coma where I would have continued to grow larger while cutting myself off from the truth.  If it’s already ordained in my genes, why fight it?

But, once I made the connection between how many calories I took in and how many calories I burned, this myth fell by the wayside.

This myth is easy to believe because weight does seem to be a family trait.  But, this has nothing to do with genes and everything to do with eating habits and beliefs around food and weight that are passed from generation to generation. and cause members of the same family to look as if their weight was a genetic trait.  But, just start asking them about their eating habits and beliefs around food and you’ll find that’s the common thread.

Sometimes those beliefs are ever so subtle, but they’re there.  Maybe it’s a belief that you need to eat until you’re beyond full, because a great, great grandparent once had some dire years and taught his family to be thankful for bountiful food.  Or perhaps, it’s the notion that you pay your respect to the family matriarch eating copious amounts of her food.  Sometimes it’s even beliefs like skipping breakfast or eating a tiny lunch that gets passed down.

Myth #5: Eating less than 1,200 calories a day slows metabolism and makes it impossible to lose weight

My belief:  In the short-term, say over about a week or so, I believe there is some truth to this.  When you dramatically cut your calorie intake, I believe your body responds by lowering your metabolism which makes it harder to lose weight.

But, eventually, physics wins out.  Even at a lower metabolism, your body likely needs a minimum of 1,200 – 1,400 calories to “keep the lights on” or pump your heart, expand and contract your lungs, maintain your body temperature, etc.  If you’re move around you likely need more.

If you aren’t getting this energy in your diet, you’ll get it from your fat and muscles.  Anorexics are the real world evidence of this.

That being said, I do not recommend an ultra low calorie diet.  I don’t think it’s necessary and I think you are asking for physical and psychological trouble.  For example, ultra low calorie diets might cause issues with thyroids, hormone balances and who knows what else.  Psychologically, it can become addictive and lead to anorexia.

I’m a believer in eating the rough amount of calories that your body is designed to take in.  If you want to weigh around 150 pounds, eating 1,500 (no significant physical activity) to 1,700 (moderate activity) will get you there eventually.  If you want to get there faster, I recommend doing it through exercise rather than fewer calories.

More myths to come…


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Another Diet Myth « A Few Bites a Day
    Sep 30, 2009 @ 19:42:55

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