Thursday, November 02, 2006

Diet myths

Listed below are some common diet myths that people seem to regularly fall victim to.

Myth #1 – Eating fat makes you get fat. Cutting fat out of your diet is the end-all and be-all of dieting.

Wrong. Fat you eat doesn’t turn directly into body fat; it doesn’t work that way. You get fat by eating more calories form all sources than your body can use. Extremely low fat diets typically fail miserably, yet for some bizarre reason people kept pushing them for decades.

There is a grain of truth here; people do tend to overeat fats, and because fats have more calories ounce-for-ounce than carbohydrates or proteins, this leads to people eating more calories they can use, and thus to getting fat. But it does not follow that the appropriate solution is to purge all fats from your diet.

Some fats are generally unhealthy, like saturated fats and trans fats, because they tend to raise your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lower your HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Almost everyone should eat less of these. But some fats actually have beneficial properties, like monounsaturated fats and essential fatty acids. Consuming moderate amounts of the right kinds of fats is, in fact, extremely healthy.

Can you lose weight on a super-low-fat diet? Sure, it’s possible. But that doesn’t mean that it is a good long-term strategy, or even especially healthy for that matter. It certainly won’t produce more fat loss than a better balanced diet with the same amount of total calories, and it will be a lot harder to succeed at than a diet that makes more sense.

Myth #2 – Carbs are evil. Eating carbs makes you fat.

This is the more modern version of myth #1, brought on by low-carb fad diets getting lots of press. Carbs are not evil. This is an incredibly stupid idea. Carbohydrates are an important macronutrient. Trying to completely eliminate them from your diet is insane and pointless.

Like most things, there is a grain (ha!) of truth to carb-hating. People in the US do generally over-consume carbs. But more significantly, they often consume vastly too many simple sugars (most notably from soda, but also from candy and other man-made sweets). And the rest of their carbs come from nutritionally poor sources like white bread.

Can you lose lots of weight on a very low carb diet? the short term. When people who over-consume nutritionally empty carb sources (i.e., practically every fat person on Earth) suddenly cut all the carbs from their diet, they find it is virtually impossible to replace all those calories with non-carb sources. Low-carb diets also have other effects on the body that can contribute to weight loss. However, their track record of long-term weight loss is just as dismal as other arbitrarily restrictive diets.

The correct answer for most people regarding carbs is to quit eating completely worthless carbs (like the high fructose corn syrup in soda), and replace most of their other carbs with whole grain sources, which are simply much better nutritionally.

Myth #3 – Whole eggs are evil. They’ll make you fat/make your heart explode/eat you soul.

This is nonsense. A whole egg only has 70 calories and great nutritional value. And studies have shown that there is no correlation between eating whole eggs and heart disease, or any other negative effects for that matter. And the yolk has most of the nutritional value of the egg, so cutting it out is just dumb.

For those willing to spend more money, “Omega-3 eggs” (typically from hens fed a better vegetarian diet) are even better, with more vitamin E and Omega-3 fatty acids than regular eggs.

Myth #4 – Eating fruits is bad.

Where did this crap come from? Fruits have lots of nutrients and fiber and generally aren’t as calorie-dense as their sweetness suggests. Sure, they have some simple sugars, but so what? Simple sugars aren’t evil in modest amounts, they’re evil when you consume incredibly dense concentrations of them in soda and other man-made sweets. And sometimes some simple sugars are a great idea, like right after a workout. So eat a reasonable amount of fresh fruit and don’t worry.

Myth #5 – All deli meats are bad.

I have no idea where this myth came from, but it is nonsense. Read the nutrition label and make up your own mind. Some deli meats are extremely high in calories and saturated fat. Others, like turkey and chicken-based products, often have negligible saturated fat and tons of protein. Many of them are nothing more than a huge piece of chicken or turkey with some water and salt added. How is that going to be magically harmful? It isn’t, of course.

Myth #6 – A vegetarian diet will make you a skinny, pasty weakling.

Not necessarily. Provided you know the pitfalls of a vegetarian diet and work around them, you can be very well-off nutritionally, and get into shape just fine with exercise. Hell, there are vegan bodybuilders who are bigger than 99% of the meat eaters will ever be. Getting lots of good protein is easier if you aren’t a vegetarian, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done with just a moderate amount of thought & effort.

The problem is that many vegetarians are just as stupid about their food choices as non-vegetarians. Sure, they’re not eating lots of saturated fat from fatty meats. But they’re also ignoring all the other diet guidance that applies to everybody, and not exercising, and then wondering why they look like hell.

Note that I'm not an advocate of vegetarianism. But it can work if done smartly.

Myth #7 – Skipping meals is a good way to lose weight.

Actually, this is exactly backwards. Eating too many meals isn’t the problem; eating too few of them is. When you skip meals, you encourage overeating the next time you eat, because you’ll be extremely hungry, and you’ll think you can get away with overeating because you skipped your last meal. But the net effect of eating fewer meals is almost always that you take in too many calories in the long run. And very big time gaps between meals may also cause your metabolism to slow down, which is the exact opposite of what you want to happen if you are trying to lose weight.

It is much smarter to eat more meals that are smaller than fewer meals that are bigger. You’ll be less hungry throughout the day, and so less likely to overeat at any given meal, and you may gain a small metabolic benefit to boot.

Myth #8 – All red meat is bad.

Untrue. Red meats that are high in fat are bad, because the fats in red meat tend to be high in saturated fat, which should be avoided for the reasons noted earlier. But lean cuts of red meats are actually extremely healthy and nutritious. For those wiling or able to spend more money, grass-fed beef is even better because it is extremely lean and has more Omega-3 fatty acids.

Myth 9 – Nuts are bad for you.

Untrue. Nuts are extremely nutritious. The only thing to be careful of is that they are fairly high in calories for their small size. But if you don’t eat so many that your total calorie intake is too high, they are very good for you.

Myth # 10 – Drastic calorie reduction is a good way to lose weight fast.

Wrong. Many, maybe most, diet failures are based on to trying to lose too much too soon. Outright starvation is a poor weight loss strategy, because your body reacts by trying to conserve fat, break down muscles and burn fewer calories maintaining itself…the exact OPPOSITE of what you want to happen.

Sure, you’ll lose weight eventually…you can’t maintain weight without sufficient calories. But your odds of keeping it off hover around zero, and you’ll be losing muscle instead of fat. Finally, it is extremely unhealthy.

(Some obese people may be put on a medically-supervised very low calorie diet if they need to lose a lot of weight very fast to prevent severe health problems; that's not what I'm talking about here.)

Myth #11 – Genetics determine if you are fat or not.

It is true that your genetics can make it harder to lose fat or gain muscle or attain a certain appearance or level of athletic performance. I’m not going to be beating the latest Olympic sprinting record or pursuing a successful career as a supermodel anytime soon, for instance. And on some level, everyone is unique.

But for most people, this isn’t very meaningful, because they are so far from their genetically-determined fitness limits that it is absurd to even bring up genetics in this context. And the fundamental processes that make our bodies work are virtually identical for everyone. If you’re fat, you’re overeating, plain and simple; your body hasn’t found some magical way to defy the laws of physics.

The truth is that almost all “inherited fatness” is really “learned bad eating habits.” Fat people come from fat families because they learned to eat from their relatives…i.e., fat people.

So if you aren’t suffering from some full-blown disability, you are going to need to find another excuse. You may never look like a runway model or bodybuilder, but that has no bearing on if you can look and feel vastly better than you do now.