I’m sure you’ve heard of many nutrition diets, fads, and solutions. They can sound convincing, both with so much conflicting information, it can be confusing at the least. Unfortunately, many simply don’t work and are based on misinformation or outright lies.
I can’t possibly compete with the marketing budgets that can pump the airwaves and TV screens with “solutions” that scientifically appeal to your emotions that trigger a purchase. But I can reveal the truth about what works and what doesn’t. So from amidst the roars of the misinformed and deceitful shucksters, I’ll squeak out some nutrition truth that hopefully will help you and those you care about. Here is my list of the top 10 Nutrition Lies:
1. Low Fat = Healthy
There is no debate on this: we need fat in our diets. That is why there is a class of nutrients called “essential fatty acids”. The Omega 3s are a well-known example. From heart health to pain management to even fat loss, the benefits of fat in your diet are firmly established and mostly attributed to the anti-inflammatory effect of omega 3s. The risks of fat in our diet have been exaggerated or found to be untrue. I’ve written about this and the research in the past. Here’s the gist of it: 2 recent meta-analysis found no connections between saturated fat, stroke, or CAD(Siri-Tarino , 2010, Annals of Int Medicine 2009)
It is not uncommon for food companies to slap the label “low fat” usually accompanied by some symbol of health to promote the allusion that this means healthy. If your yogurt says “low fat”, but is loaded with sugar, do you really think that is healthy? Of course not. I won’t be surprised if we see “low fat” next to a picture of a heart slapped on a package of Pez one day.
2. Fat Blockers Work
I wrote about this back in 2008, and I’m sad to say I still run into people fooled by this. Here’s an excerpt:
“The recently hyped fat blockers just blow my mind. I’m referring to Orlistat, also know as prescription form Xenocal and non-prescription strength Alli (which I refer to as Axis). The idea is to impede the body’s absorption of fat. That would make sense if fat loss had anything to do with the absorption of fat in your diet, which it doesn’t.
Regardless, what is most interesting is the fact that manufacturers proudly site the #1 research study that reports a 7-12 pound weight loss (not fat loss) by subjects using Alli over 4 months, which really isn’t too impressive, especially if you consider the restrictions, like regulating your diet to 3 meals of less than 15% fat. Oh, and the side effects, like loose and oily stools, uncontrollable oily discharge, the interference with the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, K and E, and the association of pre-cancerous polyps demonstrated in 2 studies on mice given Orlistat (the FDA didn’t think it was important to have studies on humans to follow-up on this issue). All for the price of $260! What a deal!
Funny, but Alli came out as the non-prescription form because Xenocal prescriptions were doing so poorly. So if it doesn’t work well, and Doctor’s don’t trust it (in spite of all the goodies the reps dole out), bringing it direct to the general with a huge marketing campaign is a good idea?”
So no – they don’t work. They are harmful.
3. You must eat small, frequent meals
May people will say that eating small, frequent meals makes them feel less hungry and keeps them from over eating. Others will say that eating small frequent meals makes them think about food all day, and stresses them out because they can’t possibly live their life and prepare/eat 5-6 meals a day. But the latter flies in the face of conventional nutrition dogma: you MUST eat 5-6 meals a day! So what does the evidence say?
A review on the topic in ’97 (Bellisle, eta al. British Journal of Nutrition. 1997) found that when calorie intake was equal, there was no difference in weight loss for those who consumed frequent meals compared to those who consumed 3 or fewer meals.
A more research study (Holmstrup, M. et al, Europ. Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism 2012) compared people eating identical diets, except one group ate 6 times, the other ate 3 times a day. The group that ate 6 times a day had 30% higher glucose (ie blood sugar) readings compared to the lower frequency group! So much for eating frequently to control blood sugar. Interesting side note: when they increase protein in the diet, glucose readings lessened – another reason why higher protein is better than high carbs for blood sugar control (or – another reason to ignore most nutritionists and the food pyramid).
Finally, the recent position statement by the International society of Sports Nutrition on the issue of meal frequency reflects a review of the evidence on this topic. Amongst the conclusions: Increased meal frequency does not cause favorable body composition changes, increase meal frequency does not increase calorie burn or metabolic rate, and increased meal frequency does not improve glucose metabolism.
To summarize, some may do well with increased meal frequency to control hunger. However, eating 5-6 meals a day is not mandatory, and in some cases it may be detrimental. This is what I talk about to my clients about nutritional balance. We get hung up on this dogma that really screws with complying to the proven issues – and we lose focus on the big picture. We need to balance preferences and convenience with proven science. In this case, preferences and conveniences play a huge part, and science allows us to dismiss dogma that gets in our way.
Isn’t it nice to know that you don’t need to set your planner to alert you when it’s time to eat?
4. Cholesterol in food is bad for you.
Cholesterol in your diet is not clearly linked to cholesterol in your blood stream. This has been illustrated in many studies about eggs and shrimp consumption.
5. Eating after 7pm causes weight gain
This is another myth for which there is no evidence to support. This was specifically studied (Cameron 2006) and the researchers concluded that, given equal calorie consumption, there is no difference in weight gain amongst those who consumed 65% of their calories after 7pm compared those who eat their calories more evenly distributed before 7pm.
I suppose this myth comes from the association between eating bad food in the evening. Some studies have shown that people over eat bad foods while watching TV. And many people settle in on the couch to watch TV in the evening. Based on this logic, making the conclusion that eating after 7pm causes weight game would be like saying going out after 9pm causes crime because that’s when most crimes occur!
The better solution is to restrict yourself from eating in front of the TV. Dr. Brian Wansik from Cornell has written some amazing research on this “mindless” eating pattern.
If you are like me and 90% of those who are busy, eating after 7pm is a must. So don’t fret and harbor the anxiety that you are screwing up your health. There’s better issues to spend your brain power on.
6. A calorie is a calorie
This is what many programs like Weight Watchers are based on. They are trying to shy away from it recently, but it is pretty inconvenient seeing that the whole point system is based on it.
The main reasons that it matters not only about how many calories you eat but the quality is based on thermodynamics, glucose control, general health, performance, and appetite control.
It is easy to understand that getting your calories from vegetables instead of Oreos will deliver more vital nutrients, control blood sugar, and help with your daily performance, so I won’t write much on that.
The other big issues are appetite and thermodynamics.
Simply put, higher protein diets suppress hunger, and higher refined carbohydrate foods stimulate hunger. There’s more research than I can state that supports this. Good luck keeping your calories low eating your sugar filled vitamin muffins and 200 calorie health cookies for lunch. It might work for a bit, but not for long.
The issue of thermodynamics is quite simple. Essentially, your body burns calories converting what you eat into a usable form of energy. There’s a lot of chemical reactions to break that chicken breast into tiny molecules that can be transported through your bloodstream to body tissues. That costs energy, which is the thermic effect of food.
The more proteins, vegetables, and fruits you eat, the higher your thermic effect of food. 5-20% of your daily caloric expenditure can be accounted by the thermic effect of food. That is a big range.
7. Cleansers/ shakes cause fat loss
This is another way some try to get you to buy stuff and take your attention away from what matters for fat loss. There is no magic cleanser or shake. People who lose weight with these products do so because they are consuming less calories. That’s it. End of story.
Consuming a shake only diet isn’t a good long-term strategy for obvious reasons. And here again we are avoiding the big issue: how to eat properly for the long term. Turning to shakes avoids this issue and sets people up for failure when they inevitably have to come across this obstacle.
And no, they don’t cleanse toxins. We have something called a liver that can do that just fine. Getting rid of bad food helps too, and that is the “magic” of the cleanse.
Yes, shakes can be very convenient, and for that reason we use them in our client’s nutrition plans. In fact, I have a smoothie or shake every day. As long as they are quality options, they are fine to use. Just don’t let them distract you from the fact that quality calories and proper habits are the only magic for fat loss.
8. Effective diets must be rigid
Rigid diets are not always the best option, just like rigid plans. They must flex and adapt to the ever changing circumstances. There is a balance between being flexible and compromising principles. To summarize this in a blog is impossible, that’s why we have clients! But it is something you can learn how to do. Let me give you some examples of a flexible meal plan strategy:
Plan for alcohol. Not everyone is willing to give it up, and if it isn’t a problem for you it can be consumed in moderation and not harm you. So make an alcohol budget (i.e. no more than 4 drinks a week)
Plan for a free meal. Decided when you are going to go off your typical diet plan, like going out to dinner on Friday evening, you’re going to have some ciabatta bread at your favorite Italian restaurant.
Plan for maintenance phase: Your mother in law is moving in, and your busy season for work is keeping you at the office 70 hours a week this month. Time to go one maintenance phase. Up your calories from your fat loss phase and the goal will be to not gain weight (you will need to assess every week though). Pick a maintenance phase deadline, then get right back after it.
There are thousands more examples, but just be aware that the balance between sticking to the principles and being adaptable is key. It make take time to learn how to do this, that is why having a coach is critical for most.
9. Eating a healthy will ruin your (social) life!
I’m not making a joke here. Lots of people think that eating well is a choice between having a fun life with their friends vs having their clothes fit a little better and making their vital signs look better. With this line of thinking, it’s pretty easy to default to the “I’ll take having fun with my friends” choice.
This mentality is problematic because it is simply untrue. But it is certainly understandable. Many nutrition folks tend to project their extreme view of nutrition upon everyone, giving you the notion that if you don’t think eating lettuce and mustard roll ups while hanging in watching Super-size me on Saturday night is the “funnest thing ever”, then you don’t get what eating healthy is all about.
This mentality is a huge problem. I know how fun eating pizza, beer, and wings is with the guys at a bar watching the game is, or knocking back a bottle of wine with some friends over a fancy dinner can be. Solutions that work, not just for the short term, but the long term must take these scenarios into account. Having fun needs to be prioritized, and nutrition planning needs to work with this, not ignore it.
There are thousands of ways we deal with this with our clients and ourselves. To get an idea how to do this, think about nutrition like finance. When you are in debt or saving for money, you need to plan your weekend fun a little differently. For example, if you are planning on watching the playoff game at the bar with your buddies next weekend and are on a fat loss program, be sure to be laser focused on your diet for the next 2 weeks (save up), fill up on healthy food before you leave to go to the bar to avoid over eating (make a deposit), and set some rules for yourself, like you have to have 3 glasses of water before you have any beer, you make a bet with your buddy that you won’t eat more than 8 wings, or schedule a workout early the next am you’ll be less likely to overindulge (planning/budgeting).
There’s no reason why eating well should negatively affect your social life if you do it right. Of course, there are a lot of variables to consider here, like addiction issues (see below) or toxic relationships (friends/family members trying to sabotage your fitness goals)
10. Everything in moderation works well
I have seen this logic fall flat on its face too many times to count.
The fact is that some people are simply addicted to food. For many, having a little sugar is like an alcoholic having a little whiskey. This is a bad strategy for many people. It might go against the nice platitudes that fill pages in the popular magazines, but it’s the truth.
For sugar addicts, we find that taking a three week hiatus, including sugar substitutes, has a high rate of success. The 3 weeks are hard, but most feel so much better that they continue to stay with the no sugar approach.
Trans fat is another example. The stuff has clearly been linked to just about every negative effect on the human body.
Hopefully this gives you some clarity about what to do to make changes to your nutrition that will improve your health. Please be sure to share this with your friends and family. There are so many people who are confused by these myths to such a degree that they don’t know what to do and simply give up. Don’t let that happen. I believe that being informed is the best solution to paralysis by analysis. That’s why I write these blogs.