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Separating Weight Loss Myth from Fact

Updated on October 4, 2009
exercise and diet are huge factors in sustainable weight loss
exercise and diet are huge factors in sustainable weight loss

Weight loss is not easy, physiologically our bodies adapted to store fat in times of excess, in a proactive attempt to handle times of shortage. Early humans were hunter gatherers and did not always have steady sources of food coming in, and as a result our bodies adapted, learning to store extra energy in the form of fat for a rainy day. In times of famine, this metabolic thriftyness helped us survive, but in modern times our bodies do not often go without, and we have access to more food and resources than we could ever utilize. Convenience foods are heavily processed and readily available, we eat on the run, and in the rush of day to day activities, what we eat is often an after-thought. We live in a time of excess, huge portion sizes, and ever expanding waist-lines, coupled with a largely sedentary lifestyle, it's no wonder that we're struggling to keep ourselves healthy. There is hope though, amid the tons of conflicting information, and promises of quick-fixes and magic pills. Having accurate information, and a realistic approach, to weight loss and fitness can help sort the myth from fact. I have worked in gyms and fitness centers, rabidly consuming information, and have witnessed the absolutely crazy things people do, and try, to manage their weight and have discovered what approaches consistently work, and which are not so viable solutions in the long term.

Myth #1 Carbohydrates are evil and make us fat.

Carb-hating is rampant, widespread, and totally unfounded. Carbohydrates are our bodies preferred source of energy and are necessary for brain function. The kind of carbohydrates we eat, however, are important. Heavily processed carbs are nutritional dirt-bags, they show up to your parties and drink all your beer, never bring anything to share, and are real downers. All the good things about whole grains are removed in processing and then are replaced or "fortified" post-production. That's a lot of work for something that doesn't bring a whole lot to the table. Whole grains are where it's at. They provide vitamins and minerals our bodies need, and are a great source of fiber which many of us do not get nearly enough of. Whole grains don't cause crazy fluctuations in blood sugar and they keep you satisfied. Carbs are our friends.

Myth #2 Dietary fats should be avoided and Fat-free options are always better.

Fat-free foods are typically heavily processed and often contain additives to make up for the lack of flavor and texture that fat can provide. Often fat-free products contain more sugar and sodium than their full-fat counterparts, and it's important to remember that fat-free does not mean calorie free. Some dietary fat is crucial to adequate nutrition and it's imporant to select the right kinds of fat. Monounsaturated fats are nutritional all-stars and protect our hearts. Fantastic sources are plant oils (except for tropical oils like coconut) nuts, and seeds. Fat is a calorically dense macronutrient (9 calories per gram) so it's important to watch portion sizes. Saturated fats are definitely ones to be kept in check, as diets high in saturated fat are associated with heart disease. Consider switching to low-fat dairy products and choosing lean cuts of meat to reduce saturated fat consumption. Trans-fats are absolutely the worst and should be completely avoided. They stabilize processed foods and increase shelf-life to the point that many products would exist post-apocolypse. They're super bad because they are totally foreign to our bodies and we have no way to process them so they just sort of hang out forever sticking to arteries and causing general mayhem, they raise LDL (the bad cholesterol) and lower HDL (the good cholesterol). Steer clear of anything listing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients, as they contain trans fats, and remember that any food with less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving is allowed to be labeled trans fat free.

Myth #3 Dieting is necessary to lose weight.

Eating a healthy, well-balanced, minimally processed diet is different than eating cabage soup four times a day, or putting whole food groups on a banned list. Here's the thing about diets, often they focus more on things that are off limits (read a sense of deprivation) and can be highly restrictive in nature. Food is a part of our lives and shouldn't become a boogeyman. It gets dangerous lumping foods in categories such as good and bad, or okay and forbidden. Human nature sneaks in and eventually we can't stop thinking about anything but the foods we're not allowed to have. This sets us up for unhealthy relationships with food and can lead to binge eating and yo-yo dieting. Moderate approaches are far more sustainable than restrictive crash diets, which ultimately leave you in worse shape than you started, when you inevitably return to eating "normal" foods. Making small dietary changes is ultimately the way to go. Little fixes such as swapping high fat for low fat dairy,trading sweetened beverages for tea, water, or seltzer water, and switching to whole grains, are small and sustainable changes that offer big results. Our day to day diets are important, but the concept of dieting is lame, mean, and sets us up for failure.

Myth #4 Quick fixes, fasts, and supplements are viable solutions.

There is an adage that goes something along the lines of nothing is worth having that doesn't come from a little hard work, and that is very true about weight loss and a healthy lifestyle. There are no magic pills or supplements to lead to healthy weight loss. Sorry. Slow and steady wins. We are inundated with advertisements for products which promise rapid weight loss with little effort. The scary thing about such supplements is that they are completely unregulated by the FDA and as a result, have not been proven safe or effective. Supplements are also expensive, and it is a shockingly lucrative industry preying upon the unrealistic expectations of consumers. Fasts are a whole different issue, and get widespread publicity from gossip mags based upon the celebrities who swear by their results. Fasts are creepy. Shunning food for a week or two in favor of bizarre concoctions and beverages can be quite dangerous when not under medical supervision and are no way to promote lasting weight loss. Our bodies have natural systems for filtering out toxins and drinking lemon juice with maple syrup and cayenne pepper isn't going to help our organs work any more efficiently long-term. Often after the completion of a fast, weight returns immediately and can leave you worse off than when you started and probably a little light-headed.

Myth #5 Weight loss requires hours of time at the gym and therefore in inherently expensive.

This one couldn't be farther from the truth. Walking at a moderate pace (as if you're running late for an important appointment) is a great way to get started and can increase cardiovascular fitness, throw some hills in, and you've got a great calorie-blasting workout for people of all fitness levels. One of the best inexpensive investments you can make are fitness videos which are fun and great for busting fitness ruts. If you're a Comcast customer there are tons of videos On Demand to watch free of charge, many require very little equipment, and are a great way to squeeze in a workout in the privacy of your home. If you incorporate interval training into your workouts you can maximize your calorie-burning in very short periods of time and get impressive results. It's a lot more to rewarding to get a really solid half an hour cardio session (pushing it really hard for a minute and then recovering) than it is to slog away for hours on a treadmill and to ultimately see little change. Weight loss isn't easy, but with a reasonable investment of time and a little dedication results are possible and will happen.  Click here for additional inexpensive exercise ideas.

Myth #6 My metabolism sucks and I'm doomed.

To some extent our genetics do play a huge role in how our bodies metabolize and store energy, but there are a handful of small tweaks we can make to boost our metabolic rate and keep our bodies rocking out and working on our side. Eating well-balanced meals every four hours keeps hunger at bay, energy levels high, and metabolisms humming. When we skip meals our bodies freak out and assume the worst. They go into metabolic-lockdown and slow way, way down because they're not sure when our next meal will happen. Metabolisms can be kind of like Chicken Little they're very quick to jump to an "Oh my God! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" type response when faced with potential energy shortages. To lose weight you have to eat enough food from the most nutritious sources possible. If you reduce your daily caloric intake too drastically, your body goes into super energy conservation mode, and you won't have the energy to put toward your workouts. That's a lose-lose situation and we're not talking about weight loss. Eat breakfast. This is one of the biggest determiners of metabolic dysfunction and obesity. Don't skip meals to get ahead, it will ultimately sabotage your efforts.

Weight loss isn't rocket science. To lose weight you have to consistently use more energy than you consume. It's a simple concept that gets muddled by lots of bad information and alluring promises of quick fixes. We have issues with food because we have lots of emotional attachments to it that are often counter-productive to our goals. Food is used to comfort and console, to celebrate, to mourn, to medicate, and to feed not just our bodies. We get in trouble when we use any substance to fill emotional holes and food is no exception. Life is more than one's lifestyle and the two don't have to be mutually exclusive. Shoot to eat wholesome minimally processed food, fresh fruits and vegetables, reduced fat dairy, and lean proteins the majority of the time. Get some exercise, and make that time count. Choose activities that you enjoy and have fun. Enjoy the foods you love in moderation. Life is too short not to eat a cookie from time to time. Moderation is hard and true success lies in finding balance, and if you stack the deck in your favor, you'll be surprised how quickly things go your way.


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