Weight Loss Myths and Truths

Weight reduction is more complex than adding exercise and eliminating dietary fat. Confusion abounds among athletes, exercisers, and obesity researchers themselves about the best way to lose body fat. The one-diet-fits-all approach to losing weight is not appropriate; different people have different histories. Some overweight people are genetically heavy; others are genetically lean. Some are men; others are women. Some are recently overfat; others have been fighting the battle of the bulge for years. Some have taken comfort in food since childhood; others have recently turned to food to smother tough emotions.

Despite these factors that contribute to the complexities of weight loss, people are forever searching for a simple method to shed excess body fat. This section addresses some of the weight-reduction myths and misconceptions among athletes and fitness exercisers alike.

Myth: Carbohydrate is fattening.

Truth: No! As I explained in chapter 6, excess calories are fattening. Calories come from carbohydrate (4 calories per gram), protein (4 calories per gram), alcohol (7 calories per gram), and fat (9 calories per gram). Excess calories from fat are the main dietary demons. Your body can easily store excess dietary fat as body fat, whereas you are more likely to burn off excess calories of carbohydrate. Butter, margarine, oil, mayonnaise, salad dressing, and grease are obvious sources of fat. Fat is also hidden in meats, cheeses, peanut butter, nuts, and other protein foods. Although some forms of fat are healthier than others, all fat is equally fattening.

Excess calories from alcohol also quickly add up and can easily inflate your body fat stores, as can the calories from the high-fat munchies that commonly accompany alcohol. But calories from carbohydrate are excellent for muscle fuel. Your body preferentially burns them for energy rather than stores them as fat.

Myth: High-protein, low-carbohydrate diets are the best choice if you want to lose weight. Truth: If you want to lose weight, your best bet is to eat smaller portions at dinner and create a calorie deficit for the day. The fundamental type of calories eaten, either protein or carbohydrate, seems to have less importance. In one eight-week study, subjects who ate 1,600 calories of either a high-protein diet (30 percent protein, 40 percent carbohydrate) or a high-carbohydrate diet (15 percent protein, 55 percent carbohydrate) lost the same amount of weight (Luscombe et al. 2002). In another study comparing diets with varying amounts of carbohydrate, protein, and fat, the subjects lost similar amounts of weight. The bottom line is that all calories count!

A high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet seemingly works because of several factors:

  1. Dieters lose water weight. Carbohydrate holds water in the muscles. For each ounce of carbohydrate you store as gly-cogen, your body simultaneously stores 3 ounces of water. When you deplete carbohydrate during exercise, your body releases the water. You experience a significant loss of weight that's mostly water, not fat.
  2. People eliminate many calories when they eliminate carbohydrate. For example, you might eliminate not only the baked potato (200 calories) but also two pats of butter (100 calories) on top of the potato, and this creates a calorie deficit.
  3. Because it lingers longer in the stomach, protein (and fat) tends to be more satiating than carbohydrate. Having highprotein (and high-fat) eggs and bacon for breakfast stays with you longer than does a high-carbohydrate bagel with jam. By curbing hunger, you have fewer urges to eat and can more easily cut calories.

The overwhelming reason that high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets do not work is that dieters fail to stay on them for a long time. They may lose weight, only to regain it. The trick to losing weight is to learn how to manage the food supply so that you won't regain the weight. Remember: You should never start a food program that you do not want to maintain for the rest of your life.

Myth: If you eat fat, you will get fat.

Truth: If you eat excess calories, you will get fat. Weight control relies on a calorie budget, not only on a fat-gram budget. Fat loss occurs when you burn off more calories than you eat. If you require 2,400 calories per day to maintain your weight but eat only 2,000 calories, you will lose body fat. The kind of calories you eat may be of less consequence. If you choose to spend 300 of your 2,000 calories on high-fat peanut butter instead of fat-free bagels, you can still lose body fat. Fatty foods that fit into your calorie budget are not inherently fattening (Alford, Blankenship, and Hagen 1990; McManus et al. 2001). Look at your friends. I'll bet you know several people who eat fat but are not. You can appropriately eat 25 to 30 percent of your calories from (primarily healthful) fat.

Some people eat large portions of fat-free foods thinking that fat free means calorie free. Bad idea! Excess calories, regardless of the source, will ultimately be stored as fat (Hill et al. 1992). Diet ers who eat only fat-free foods fool only themselves. Sharon, a personal trainer, reported that she'd been known to eat a whole box of fat-free pretzels for a snack. Paul, a bodybuilder, routinely polished off a half gallon of fat-free frozen yogurt. And Nancy, a swimmer, used to eat at least six fat-free bagels per day. No wonder they all complained that they hadn't lost weight even though they avoided foods containing fat. They were eating too many calories.

The advice to lose body fat by eating no fat tends to work best for overweight people who eliminate fatty foods and lose weight because they eat fewer calories. For example, instead of having 700 calories of bacon, eggs, and buttered toast for breakfast, Elliott switched to 400 calories of cereal and banana as part of a conscious effort to lose 50 pounds (23 kg). He successfully dropped weight because of the continued calorie deficit.

In contrast, when already lean people eat a low-fat diet, they commonly feel driven to eat more calories of carbohydrate to compensate for the reduction in fat calories. Weight reduction becomes increasingly hard if you strive to be lighter than nature designed (Leibel, Rosenbaum, and Hirsch 1995). Paula, who wanted to lose 3 pounds (1.4 kg) but was already at her set-point weight, reported that she craved bread, pretzels, and other low-fat foods. I recommended that Paula include some fat in her diet so that she could eat a wider variety of food and enjoy better dietary balance (her extremely low-fat diet was lacking in protein, iron, and zinc), feel more satisfied (foods with fat provide a pleasant feeling of fullness), and be more at peace with food.

Her fat-free food plan created guilt feelings whenever she succumbed to eating a food with fat. For example, she declined a piece of birthday cake because it contained fat. She said that she would have felt too guilty if she had eaten some. I reminded Paula that other people enjoyed the cake and didn't get fat from eating it. Clearly, she was confusing appropriate eating with her desire to be in control. This desire to control fat had little to do with weight and more to do with rigidity and misinformation.

Myth: Food eaten after 8:00 p.m. readily turns into body fat while you sleep.

Truth: If you are hungry at night, you should honor hunger and eat, particularly if you have calories left in your calorie budget for the day. Many active people, because of their hectic work or training schedules, enjoy most of their calories at night. Other people, however, undereat by day only to blow their diets at night. They eat more than what their bodies require and consume excess calories.

The verdict is unclear as to whether night eating is inherently fattening. One survey of 1,800 women found no connection between weight and big evening meals (Kant, Ballard-Barbash, and Schatzkin 1995). But the night eaters did consume more fat, protein, and alcohol and less carbohydrate, vitamin C, vitamin B6, and folic acid, indicative of a fast-food diet with too few fruits and vegetables. At night, people tend to eat fewer carrots and more cookies.

Gymnasts and runners who eat skimpily during the day tend to have more body fat than those who keep themselves better fueled. By minimizing the time they are in calorie deficit, they are less likely to conserve energy (Deutz et al. 2000). The bottom line for dieters is that you should fuel appropriately during the day and then eat less at night. You'll not only have more energy for training but also prevent yourself from becoming too hungry and overeating. Remember that when you get too hungry, you may no longer have the energy to care about how much you eat. You simply want to eat. That drive to eat is physiological and has little to do with willpower.

Myth: Exercise kills your appetite.

Truth: Exercise may temporarily kill your appetite, but hunger will catch up with you within one to two hours. Temperature control regulates appetite to some extent. Therefore, if you feel hot after a hard workout, you may experience a temporary drop in appetite. But if you are chilled, such as after swimming, you may feel ravenous.

The effect of exercise on appetite varies according to gender. Regularly exercising male rats tend to lose their appetite and drop weight, whereas female rats get a bigger appetite, eat more, and maintain weight (Staten 1991). Human studies suggest that exercise makes food more attractive to women (Pomerleau et al. 2004).

Postexercise appetite also varies according to body fatness. Studies of obese women who added moderate exercise to their sedentary lifestyles indicate they did not eat more, and hence they lost weight. Diet and exercise studies with men suggest that the fatter they were, the more weight they lost (in comparison with their thinner peers) because their meals didn't compensate for the calories burned during exercise (Westerterp et al. 1992).

Myth: The more you exercise, the more weight you'll lose.

Truth: Often, the more you exercise, the hungrier you get and the more you eat. For example, you may spend an hour on the stair stepper burning off 500 calories and then devour 12 Oreos (600 calories) in less than six minutes. After a hard workout, your body is hungry. Your soul may also be hungry for a reward. You now deserve a treat for having survived the workout, right? The effects of exercise on weight loss are complex and unclear. Nature seems to replenish fat stores of lean athletes efficiently to prevent them from wasting away. Lean female athletes, in particular, struggle harder than do males to lose body fat and maintain an even leaner physique. This makes sense in terms of evolution. Nature wants women to be able to reproduce; men are supposed to be lean hunters. I tell my female clients to exercise to train and improve performance and to count calories to create a calorie deficit.

Myth: If you train for an Ironman Triathlon, your body fat will melt away.

Truth: Wishful thinking. I commonly hear marathoners, triathletes, and other highly competitive endurance athletes complain, "For all the exercise I do, I should be pencil thin." They fail to lose fat because they put all of their energy into exercising then tend to be sedentary the rest of the day as they recover from their tough workouts. A study of male endurance athletes who reported a seemingly low calorie intake found they did less spontaneous activity than their peers in the nonexercise parts of their day (Thompson et al. 1995). You need to eat according to your whole day's activity level, not according to how hard you trained that day.

Alternatively, athletes who complain they eat like a bird but fail to lose body fat may simply be underreporting their food intake. A survey of female marathoners indicates that fatter runners underreport their food intake more so than their leaner peers (Edwards et al. 1993). Remember, the calories you mindlessly eat while talking on the phone or eating on the run count just as much as calories from a meal.

Myth: The fatter a person is, the fewer calories he or she should eat.

Truth: This is plain wrong. Just as 18-wheel trucks need more fuel than do compact cars, large bodies need more calories than do smaller bodies. Contrary to popular belief, obese people rarely have slow metabolisms. Rather, they require significant amounts of food. A 250-pound (113 kg) person may need 3,000 to 4,000 calories per day to maintain weight. An appropriate reducing plan would be 2,400 to 3,200 calories. That's far more than the 800 to 1,000 calories offered by many quick weight-loss programs (that fail in the long run).

My obese clients repeatedly report that they don't have time for breakfast and commonly work through lunch. The fact is they choose to skip those meals. They believe they don't deserve to eat. They eat meagerly during the day, then succumb to excessive amounts of food at night. Of course, obese people do deserve to eat. As one of my obese clients said, "Nancy, you are the only person who has ever told me it's OK to eat."

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