Kim is an RN and author of the book "360 Health: Your Guide to Cancer Prevention, Healing Foods, & Total Body Wellness."
13 Diet Myths
- Eat less, exercise more.
- You need to count calories.
- Carbohydrates make you gain weight.
- Low-fat is best.
- Diet foods and drinks are better for you.
- Saturated fat causes high cholesterol.
- Egg whites are healthier than yolks.
- Fasting helps you lose weight.
- The number on the scale tells all.
- Don't eat late at night.
- You shouldn't mix carbs with protein.
- Eating small, frequent meals boosts metabolism.
- Food sourcing doesn't matter.
Every year, it seems a new fad diet or nutrition "buzzword" trends. You read about things like paleo, keto, low-carb, or low-fat, and your head begins to spin. Which diet is best? Which information should you follow? Which way of eating would be most effective for you?
Without a doubt, each person's genetic composition and metabolism is different. So there is no "one size fits all" when it comes to weight loss. However, it is important to expose and debunk any myths so as not to fall prey to false understandings.
Let's explore the top 13 diet myths, and look at the truths surrounding each concept.
Myth #1: Eat Less, Exercise More
We've all heard it. If you simply cut calories and work out more, you'll see results. Right? Not necessarily.
It's true that creating a calorie deficit will cause your body to burn off glycogen stores and then body fat for energy. After all, calories are simply sources of energy for the body. So when we work out, we need to get energy from somewhere. And if calories aren't around, the body will create fuel from our sugar and fat stores, in that order.
However, this is only a short term fix. People who lose weight this way (think The Biggest Loser) often regain the weight quickly once they begin to eat normally again.
Working out, especially with intense exercise, requires as exorbitant amount of energy. We get that energy from the calories we consume. We can tap into stored energy (glycogen and fat) for a time, but exercise is a stressor which demands that our bodies continue to take in calories. After long and/or strenuous exercise, you probably note that you are quite hungry. This is the brain's role in metabolism and hunger signaling.
Our bodies also need rest and recovery just as much as exercise. We can easily injure ourselves if proper restoration and relaxation do not occur. In addition, overexercise increases the body's levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol causes inflammation, and it also often leads to sugar cravings and feelings of hunger. This is due to the fact that cortisol creates an insulin-resistant state in the body. Our cells literally scream out for sugar and energy, thus giving us the desire to eat.
Eat more nutrient-dense foods with plenty of fiber, protein, and healthy fats. Examples include leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, grass-fed beef, pastured chicken, olive oil, and coconut oil. These foods create satiety and nourish our bodies. Eating "real" foods will help stabilize blood sugars and reduce cravings which ultimately curbs how much food we're taking in naturally. Exercise 3-4 times a week, getting your heart-rate up but without over-taxing the body. Exercises like walking, yoga, and lifting weights are good options.
When your body is hungry, it wants nutrients not just calories.
Myth #2: You Need to Count Calories
Have you ever heard the phrase, "A calorie is a calorie?" Those who adhere to this motto believe that the source of the calorie doesn't matter. So that, essentially, if you ate 1,500 calories in potato chips, that would be the same as eating a 1,500 calorie meal consisting of grass-fed steak, sweet potatoes, dressed leafy greens, and fruit.
But guess what? In the body, these calories do NOT function in the same way.
Foods like potato chips, crackers, rice, and bread are very high in carbohydrates. These foods elevate blood sugars which subsequently elevate insulin levels. Our bodies use up sugars quickly and the excess sugars that are not used are stored as body fat. Our bodies process and metabolize fat and protein quite differently, and more nutrient-dense foods create satiety.
We will not become hungry again soon after finishing a protein, healthy fat, and nutrient-rich meal. But after eating refined and processed carbs, we may become hungry again rather quickly since insulin clears our blood sugars and makes us crave more. This can lead to quick weight gain. The type of food matters more than the calories.
Deprivation diets can lead to illness, weakness, and fatigue. Restricting calories may initially cause weight loss but will lead to problems and weight regain down the road. And in fact, it is possible to lose weight without cutting calories. When we are hungry, our bodies want nutrients, not just calories. Getting in adequate nutrients allows our bodies to relax and come into homeostasis which can result in dropping excess pounds.
Toss out the calorie counter. Each person requires a different amount of calories anyway depending on their genetic makeup and lifestyle. Instead, aim to eat nutrient-rich foods that create satiety but do not lead to sugar cravings. If you eat "real foods," calories are not an issue. Excess calories really only matter if they come from refined and processed foods because our bodies and brains don't know when to stop eating them. And don’t restrict yourself from eating any amount of nutrient-dense foods; give your body what it needs to function optimally.
Myth #3: Carbohydrates Make You Gain Weight
The problem with this myth is that not all carbohydrates are created equal. Carbohydrates give us energy and help fuel the brain quickly and effectively. They can be a healthy and necessary part of our diets.
But there really is a difference between "good carbs" and "bad carbs", or more aptly stated, carbs that fuel and carbs that create inflammation.
Carbohydrates that fuel are foods like fruits, vegetables, quinoa, and brown rice. These carbs contain more nutrients and fiber. Our bodies can use them as sources of energy, vitamins, and minerals. Plus the fiber they contain helps our digestive tracts and makes these carbs less likely to become body fat.
On the other hand, refined carbohydrates like crackers, white flour, cookies, and pasta quickly turn into blood sugar and are more likely to become stored as fat on our bodies.
Select carbs that are from natural sources like fruits and vegetables. Grains that are whole and have fiber like quinoa, millet, teff, or brown rice can also be healthy choices. Try to stay away from refined and processed carbs that have little fiber. Many doctors and nutritionists also recommend avoiding wheat and gluten-containing grains and products since these are considered inflammatory and have been associated with autoimmune conditions.
Myth #4: Low-fat is Best
In the 1980s, we were all taught to believe that eating low-fat was the key to weight loss, better blood markers, and lasting health. This could not have been farther from the truth. What resulted was an expanding waistline for many Americans.
The major problem with low-fat foods is that they are often sugar-laden. When fats are removed, often taste is diminished. Food manufacturers add back in sugar, thickeners, and other chemicals to improve taste quality and texture. These products may also contain higher levels of sodium which isn't good for blood pressure.
And don't worry, as we shall see below, fats are not always bad for you nor do they need to be avoided. Sugar is the larger, more worrisome culprit when it comes to obesity and potential disease states.
Be a label reader. Stay away from products that contain more than 10 grams of sugar per serving or more than 300-400 mg of sodium. Also, don't buy products specifically labeled "low-fat" as these will often be high in sugars.
Every reliable indicator of good health is worsened by a low-fat diet. Whereas diets high in fat have been shown [...] to lead to improved measures for heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes, and are better for weight loss. Moreover, it’s clear that the original case against saturated fats was based on faulty evidence and has, over the last decade, fallen apart.
— Nina Teicholz, The Big Fat Surprise: Why Meat, Butter, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet
Myth #5: Diet Foods and Drinks are Better For You
While foods labeled "diet" may contain less sugar than low-fat foods, they often contain chemicals and artificial sweeteners. Sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, and Ace-K have been associated with numerous deleterious side effects.
Contrary to popular understanding, these sweeteners are associated with weight gain. People often turn to diet foods to reduce calories and lose weight, but artificial sweeteners actually trick the brain. When someone ingests artificial sweeteners, the brain senses the sweetness as sugar and anticipates an influx of calories. Insulin is still released. This can actually create hunger since your body wants those calories. Insulin sends the body into fat-storage mode, and this can lead to weight gain. Artificial sweeteners are also associated with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
Try to avoid products that are labeled "diet" or that contain any of the artificial sweeteners listed above. Aim to eat naturally sweet foods like fruits or products made with natural sweeteners like stevia, honey, maple syrup, or coconut sugar. Remember to try to restrict sugar to no more than 10 grams per serving, and try to get no more than 25 grams per day.
Myth #6: Saturated Fat Causes High Cholesterol
The myth that saturated fat increases cholesterol and leads to heart disease has been debunked. This notion came in conjunction with the low-fat diet craze. More recent studies have shown that it is not fat that leads to heart disease but increased sugar intake.
Also, it appears saturated fats shift the LDL particles ("bad cholesterol") from small, dense to large and raise HDL ("good cholesterol"). So, while cholesterol may become higher, it is the good cholesterol that is elevated. If anything, this decreases the risk of heart disease.
You'll want to avoid trans fats and hydrogenated oils, but healthy forms of saturated fat are fine to consume. These include coconut oil, grass-fed beef, and grass-fed dairy. Also aim to reduce sugar intake to keep cholesterol levels in check.
Myth #7: Egg Whites are Healthier than Yolks
This myth falls in line with the notion that exogenous cholesterol elevates our body's cholesterol. Egg yolks contain around 185 mg of cholesterol in each egg. However, a study published in the journal Nutrients found that daily whole egg consumption raised LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol but shifted particles to the less detrimental kind, and HDL (high-density lipoprotein) or "good" cholesterol was also raised. Total cholesterol elevation matters less than the type of lipoprotein that is elevated. Cholesterol in our bodies is necessary for cellular functioning and brain health, but it's important to have the correct kind.
Interestingly, it is increasedsugar consumption that has been more concretely tied to elevated LDL cholesterol (and the detrimental particle size) as well as coronary heart disease.
Most of the health benefits of eggs are also found in the yolks. Yolks are rich in choline, a B vitamin known to be beneficial for memory and muscles. Choline is also important for cell membrane health and has anti-inflammatory properties. Egg yolks contain lutein and zeaxanthin (which are beneficial for eyesight), fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), and omega-3 fats.
Also, the egg whites are often the culprit of food sensitivities as they contain the bulk of the proteins to which a person may react. So, yolks seem to be more nutrient-dense and actually less harmful in general than the whites.
If you have no sensitivities or allergies to eggs, they can be a healthy part of your diet. Eat the entire egg as the yolks provide abundant nutrients. You need not worry about the cholesterol in eggs. If you have high cholesterol, aim to limit processed carbohydrates and sugars to help decrease LDL cholesterol.
When you try to 'diet' by going for long periods of time without eating or by eating way too few calories, your brain senses the starvation and sends an SOS signal through your body to store fat because famine is on its way.
— Dr. Michael Roizen, YOU: On A Diet
Myth #8: Fasting Helps You Lose Weight
Fasting obviously creates a calorie-deficit which can lead to quick weight loss, but the weight will automatically return once you begin to eat again. Those who suffer from eating disorders like anorexia do lose weight, but it is not a sustainable way of life. The body begins to shut down. Fasting for days or lengthy periods of time causes the body's metabolic rate to slow. That means you burn fewer calories, so returning to a normal diet after fasting will cause any weight you lost to return. In addition, muscle tissue is consumed by the body for energy, not just fat. This further creates a depleted state.
Intermittent fasting (IF), on the other hand, can be a more sustainable practice. In fact, researchers believe it may be the key to longevity and reduced inflammation.
With IF, a person eats during a reduced window of time, but calories are not restricted. For example, one might finish eating for the day around 8:00 PM and not eat again until 10:00 AM the next day. This would amount to a 14-hour fast and a 10-hour feeding window.
During the times when a person is intermittently fasting, the body can work on cellular regeneration since it is not focused on digestion. Weight loss may occur as a natural result of this eating pattern.
There is no reason to fast, and, in fact, it can be detrimental to the body and to weight loss. Intermittent fasting during a condensed time window is safer and more sustainable and can be implemented regularly if one chooses.
Myth #9: The Number on the Scale Tells All
Have you ever heard the term "skinny fat"? It means that a person has a higher body fat to lean muscle mass ratio. Interestingly, that person may appear to be quite thin on the outside, but it's what's on the inside that matters.
Someone who is skinny fat may have a "normal" weight and BMI but could be at risk for things like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis. This is because visceral fat is toxic to the body and creates a state of inflammation.
As you've probably heard, muscle weighs more than fat. When a person is exercising, lifting weights, and getting proper protein in their diet, their muscle mass increases. This may cause the number on the scale to rise, but it doesn't mean that they are getting fat. In fact, when muscle mass outweighs fat mass, a person is at a much lower risk of developing disease.
Exercise and implement weight training to increase muscle mass. Incorporate more protein into your diet and less refined and processed carbohydrates. If you're interested in learning your body fat percentage, you can purchase some inexpensive skinfold calipers. But don't worry about the number on the scale.
Myth #10: Don't Eat Late at Night
Believers in this myth feel that when you eat late in the evening, your body doesn't digest the food well, and that leads to weight gain. The reality is that the type of food you eat matters more.
There is truth from the standpoint that eating before bed can lead to heartburn if you have reflux. Also, sometimes people mindlessly eat while watching TV or scrolling the internet, so it's important to be aware of what you're consuming. However, in general, the hours in which you eat do not matter.
Sometimes a bedtime snack can actually be beneficial. It can help stabilize blood sugars and allow the fat-burning hormone glucagon to do its job. This snack may also help you sleep better since low blood sugar will not wake you up. If you're not getting adequate sleep, you are more likely to pack on the pounds since this increases cortisol and sugar cravings.
As we saw earlier, intermittent fasting is a good strategy for assisting with weight loss and giving the body a break from food. If you like to eat at night, you could have a later breakfast so as to draw out the fasting window a bit longer. If you're having trouble sleeping, you might also consider a bedtime snack. Eating late at night isn't necessary, of course, but if it helps you, there's no need to avoid it.
It’s beneficial to mix carbs, protein and fat in the same meal or snack because you’ll get a wide range of nutrients, avoid insulin spikes, and the protein and fat will help with satiety.
— Lindsey Pine, RDN, Tasty Balance Nutrition
Myth #11: You Shouldn't Mix Carbs with Protein
The notion that combining carbs with proteins is detrimental stems from a diet developed in the 1920s by William Hay called the Hay Diet. Hay's suggestion was that certain food combinations produce an unhealthy overly acidic combination in the body, causing problems like heartburn, gas, kidney disorders, and even cardiac issues.
However, later research showed that the pancreas secretes digestive enzymes simultaneously regardless of whether the food eaten is carbohydrates or protein. In fact, it is now known that our stomach is acid-based and our intestines are alkaline-based, meaning that both proteins and carbohydrates can be digested at the same time. Our body is able to regulate its own pH level no matter the food ingested.
Feel free to combine any food groups. Eating a meal that contains carbohydrates and protein leads to satiety and avoids blood sugar imbalances.
Myth #12: Eating Small, Frequent Meals Boosts Metabolism
Many people believe that eating small meals more frequently keeps your metabolism revved, prevents hunger, and controls blood sugar. We do expend some energy digesting our food, however, to say that metabolism increases from eating this way is erroneous.
Astudy from the journal Obesity found three larger meals a day are actually superior to six small meals a day for appetite control. In this study, three high-protein meals led to greater fullness and appetite control when compared to six meals. More frequent eating just made participants hungrier. There is no metabolic gain from eating more often, and in fact, it could just result in hunger and cravings.
Aim to eat three larger meals a day that combine protein, healthy fats, vegetables, and non-processed carbohydrates. This will keep hunger in check. Having more muscle mass is an effective way to speed metabolism. So focus on lifting weights, eating protein, and sleeping well.
Myth #13: Food Sourcing Doesn't Matter
We've already looked at why "real" foods are superior to processed and packaged foods. But it's also crucial to pay attention to the sourcing of your food.
Let's look at animal products. The health of the animals we consume directly relates to our health as humans. If an animal is given antibiotics and/or exogenous hormones, we are ingesting those as well. Likewise, if cows, for example, are fed grains instead of grass (which is what their bodies are meant to digest), they can become ill. In addition, their meat contains less omega-3s and healthy fats than their grass-fed counterparts.
The same goes for fruits and vegetables. Conventional produce contains an abundance of pesticides. Like antibiotics and hormones, pesticides can be stored in our body fat which can lead to disease and a toxic-burden in our bodies.
Believe it or not, pesticides can also lead to weight gain. Studies show that at least ten pesticides can reduce thyroid function which can cause people to pack on the pounds. In addition, some studies link the use of antibiotics with weight gain, suggesting that wiping out healthy, gut bacteria isn’t good for the waistline.
When possible, opt for grass-fed beef, organic and pastured chicken and eggs, organic dairy, and wild-caught fish. Also try to avoid fruits and vegetables that are on the "Dirty Dozen" list and are higher in pesticides.
In the truth-based tips above, you'll notice a consistent theme. Eating real, whole, quality foods and shying away from processed foods is critical to blood sugar stabilization, satiety, and overall health. Exercising enough but not excessively will also sustain muscle mass, assist in weight loss, and ward off the ill effects of a sedentary lifestyle. We don't need to complicate our lives with dietary rules. We just need to nourish our bodies and not stress so much.
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"How to Tell If You're Skinny Fat (And What to Do If You Are)," 20 July 2018, In Body, https://inbodyusa.com/blogs/inbodyblog/35425601-how-to-tell-if-youre-skinny-fat-and-what-to-do-if-you-are/.
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Leidy, HJ et al. "The Influence of Higher Protein Intake and Greater Eating Frequency on Appetite Control in Overweight and Obese Men," September 2010, Obesity, http://bysha.pe/ctuz5#https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20339363.
Friedrich, Cathe. "Does Exposure to Pesticides Contribute to Obesity and Weight Gain?" https://cathe.com/does-exposure-to-pesticides-contribute-to-obesity-and-weight-gain/.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
wetzel on October 22, 2018:
I need to save this info, HOW?
Kim Maravich (author) from Pennsylvania on October 17, 2018:
Thank you for reading Dora! I always appreciate your insights! xoxo
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 16, 2018:
Thanks for exposing the myths and revealing the truths. Your conclusion is heartening.