7 Biggest Myths of Weight Loss, Debunked (Including the Myth that You Have To Go Hungry!)
This is a guest post by Alexander Heyne of Modern Health Monk.
“You’re going to be hungry all the time.”
“It’s going to take two hours of exercise per day.”
“You’re going to have to avoid all the foods you like and eat a bland, boring diet.”
“Just do ab exercises every day and you’ll get a flatter stomach.”
How many of these diet myths have you heard? For many people, the diet industry is one of the scariest things in existence. Why?
There’s so much misinformation, it’s dominated by scammy products, there are scammy gurus, there are new diets out every month, and there’s always a new study contradicting an old one.
And it totally makes sense to be afraid and to be unsure who to trust. But it becomes a problem when you end up wanting to get healthy, and you can’t separate the fact from fiction, and end up wasting your time doing ineffective exercises or eating the wrong foods.
My hope here is to dispel some of the biggest myths that people may not be so aware of, in the hope that it will give you the inspiration to take charge of your health and change it for the better.
Myth 1: I’m Going to be Hungry All the Time
Many people are inherently afraid of dieting because they often associate diets with Victoria’s Secret-thin models, imagining them eating just a few crackers or a small salad a day.
Well, there’s some good news!
Dramatically reducing the calories you eat is one of the worst ways to lose weight long-term. Vast majority of studies done have showed that people who dramatically reduce calories fail, and often regain the weight. The amount of calories you reduce is directly correlated with your likelihood of failure.
It make sense though! Who can maintain a diet of near-constant hunger? No one!
There’s another thing though. Not all foods are created equally based on their ability to keep you full.
Certain foods don’t elicit the “I’m full!” response like others do.
The worst culprits? Junk food, foods with high sugar content, some carbohydrates, and other refined foods and flours.
Have you ever tried eating eggs for breakfast, versus eating oatmeal?
I used to eat oatmeal every day while I was in college, and I used to hate how I would be stuffed, and then an hour later, starving again.
The days when I was testing or was going to stay out of the house for a long time, I’d eat eggs. Hours later, I was still full.
But how is that possible, isn’t 150 calories of eggs and 150 calories of oatmeal the same?
Calorie-wise they are.
But how they affect your body hormonally, they aren’t.
And the science confirms this – in an experiment done to see how different foods make us subjectively feel full, protein came out on top. Not surprising!
This is the long way of me saying that if you eat the wrong foods, even in high amounts, you might not feel full.
But eating the right foods in even small amounts can help you stay full.
My friend who recently lost 66 pounds ate 5 meals per day and still managed to lose that weight. Think quality, not just quantity.
The truth: Dramatically reducing calories is linked to very low diet adherence (not surprising). Focusing on eating the proper foods naturally leads the body to eat less, and stay full, longer. This happens because the proper foods (like lean protein sources, fats, and veggies) keep the body full, while the wrong foods (refined foods, junk food, etc.) don’t.
Myth 2: It’s Just a Matter of Calories In Versus Calories Out
“All I have to do to lose weight is eat fewer calories every day and I will slowly start to lose weight.”
Is it really a simple mathematical equation?
This is one of the longest, most persistent myths in the entire health and wellness industry.
The thinking goes something like this: all you need to do is eat 500 fewer calories a day, and theoretically you should lose a pound a week.
But when this was actually tested in people, the results were not so pretty and clean cut. The math didn’t work out in reality.
For example, one study suggested that a person walking 1 mile per day (and thus burning 100 calories), will lose more than 50 lbs over a period of 5 years – but when tested it came out to around 10 pounds.
A later study (one of the longest, most inclusive studies ever) went into detail breaking down how certain foods were associated with long-term weight gain or weight-loss
A researcher commented:
“This study shows that conventional wisdom — to eat everything in moderation, eat fewer calories and avoid fatty foods — isn’t the best approach,” Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the study, said in an interview. “What you eat makes quite a difference. Just counting calories won’t matter much unless you look at the kinds of calories you’re eating.”
- French fries (+3.4 pounds)
- Potato chips (+1.7 pounds)
- Sugar-sweetened drinks (+1 pound)
- Processed meats (+0.95 pounds)
- Refined grains (+0.39 pounds)
- Yogurt (-0.82 pounds)
- Nuts (-0.57 pounds)
- Fruits (-0.49 pounds)
- Whole grains (-0.37 pounds)
- Vegetables (-0.22 pounds)
- Natural fatty foods & peanut butter (no figure given)
Myth 3: Diet is The Secret Ingredient to Weight Loss
A few years back, I became curious as to how there possibly could be a new diet every month.
How on earth can there be 100+ diets? Why is it that people can try out all these new diets and none of them work long-term? Is the diet really the determining factor then?
It got me thinking about how the diet obviously is not the secret to success.
If the diets keep failing, how could it be the secret ingredient?
My uncle showed up at Christmas one year 50 pounds lighter. The following year he showed up 50 pounds heavier (back to his normal weight).
This is pretty typical for most dieters unfortunately. Lack of adherence. Even if there was a “best diet in the world” what good would it be if you can’t stick to it?
A study done initially to compare four fad diets found that, rather than the diet being the determining factor in weight loss, adherence to the diet was the most important factor.
Think about that. Adherence.
What is adherence? It’s basically the system you set up for your own success. The system you set up is vastly more important than the question “I’m so confused – which diet is the best!?”
The reason why all diets fail is because people ask, “which diet is the best” rather than,”how can I best ingrain these new habits that will ensure success down the line?“
I encourage people to avoid the “more effort, more time, more discipline, more willpower” approach, and encourage a more sustainable, long-term habit change like Celes talks about in her 21 day habit trials.
Saying that “diets don’t matter” would not be accurate, and I don’t want to sound sneaky, but just the mental shift from thinking of something as a diet, to thinking of it as a long-term lifestyle involving habit change, goes a long way towards seeing results.
A diet implies that it’s something short term, and it often comes with a lot of mental baggage and emotional discomfort.
The truth: For long-term, sustained weight loss, focus more on changing habits rather than choosing which fad diet to pick next. Research has supported the idea (that many of you already know) that learning how to make a “diet” into a lasting lifestyle change is the most important factor in long-term success.
Myth 4: It’s Going to Take a Lot of Time And Effort to Succeed
I think that many people feel that getting healthy takes so much time because they are resistant rather than truly believing it takes hours and hours a day.
My CPR instructor who lost over 100 pounds in a year shifted from eating McDonald’s and fast food every meal, to changing just 1 meal a day to “real food” like healthy meats, vegetables, and brown rice.
He just changed one meal at the start.
No exercise. No massive life change. No countless hours counting calories. 100 pounds lost in a year.
To illustrate another big win with a small lifestyle change, depending on where you are now, you can can accomplish consistent weight loss just by removing all liquid calories from your diet.
The typical American I know drinks a glass of orange juice in the morning, a soda throughout the day, and then a Starbucks coffee or other juice/calorie drink sometime later in the afternoon.
How much extra is this adding to their diet?
A glass of Tropicana orange juice is 110 calories.
A typical 16 oz soda sold in offices, schools, and public vending machines has around 200 calories.
And a typical Starbucks drink (in this case, a Vanilla Frappucino) has 250 calories.
That’s an extra 500+ calories a day of sugar.
Just by shifting to drinking water (and not altering your entire lifestyle dramatically) you’ve just cultivated a new habit that will result in weight loss without changing your entire lifestyle. You can lose dozens of pounds in a year just by changing your drinking habits and not shaking up your life too much.
The vast majority of your success (whether you want to slim down, or are a young guy trying to look like someone in “300”) will come from the food you eat.
Although it doesn’t take much time, it takes a lot of patience, practice, habit-changing, and training to switch to a new lifestyle.
The truth: For changing your body and improving your health, the biggest personal win you can make is changing your diet. It will account for the majority of your success (and takes the least time, but the most re-training). Once you have ingrained good eating habits or the weight loss is slowing down, then you can add in exercise for maximal effect.
Myth 5: I Have to Spend Hours a Day in a Gym To Lose Weight
Hollywood, celebrity gossip magazines, and bad infomercials are unfortunately where most people’s “diet wisdom” come from.
The three worst places to find real, trustworthy advice.
When I informally survey people about dieting and weight loss (or young guys interested in muscle building) they inevitably tell me “You have to go to the gym 7 days a week, for two hours a day.”
Really? Where did you hear that?
The problem with taking advice from people is that we often take advice from people who have achieved the result we want, even if they don’t know how they did it or did it through unhealthy (or unethical) means.
Let me give an example. My younger sister has two friends that are models – they are your typical tall, skinny girls who you’d think exercise and eat a perfect diet.
Unfortunately, they love fast food, don’t exercise at all, and in general, would be terrible people to get health advice from. They eat what they want, when they want, because they have the genetics for it and they are still young.
Meanwhile, some 20-something girl sees a picture of them in a magazine, assumes they starve themselves, and she acquires an eating disorder trying desperately to look like these girls. I see this happening all the time because of what people assume the truth is.
Back to the question: How many hours will you actually need to spend in a gym?
For many people – you won’t need to exercise at all at the start and you will lose weight.
Isn’t exercise good for you? Yes!
Won’t exercise help you lose weight quicker? Yes!
Doesn’t exercise have a whole host of other benefits? Yes!
But remember the key rule: what you eat and drink will account for the majority of your success.
Beyond just improving what you eat, dramatic, jaw-dropping results can happen in just 3-4 hours a week of gym time, maximum, and I’m not talking about boring treadmill time.
A family friend of mine (a female in her mid 50’s) lost 40 pounds and started fitting into her 25 year old daughter’s jeans by eating properly and doing 4, 45 minute workouts in the gym a week.
I’ve heard stories like this dozens of times – and my own workout time per week is very similar.
I lift weights on average 3-4 times a week, for about an hour each time, and I maintain a “six pack” all year round. I still drink wine every night at dinner, I still go out and have a couple beers with friends on the weekend, I still eat food that tastes good.
My point isn’t to brag, but to offer a dose of reality — it doesn’t take 10+ hours a week in a gym to see amazing results.
What you eat accounts for most of your success. And being smart with your time in the gym goes a long way.
The truth: Having to spend hours a day in a gym in order to see results is not true. Your diet will account for the majority of your success, so it should be treated as the most important factor to change. Beyond changing your diet, putting in as little as 1.5 hours a week, up to 3-4 hours a week, will result in obvious, noticeable changes.
Myth 6: I Can Just Eat the Same Diet, Work Out, And “Burn It Off” to Lose Weight
I had several roommates in college that were avid bikers, who would regularly go for six hour bike rides on Saturday mornings – they were pretty hardcore!
But they ate lots of junk food, lots of meal replacement shakes, and had this whacky idea of “The X factor.”
Their belief was that you could just exercise off anything that you ate — and I see many people today carry on the belief that they can somehow eat the same junk foods, but just exercise it off.
Unfortunately, if these people actually ever tested this they would quickly learn just how hard it is to change your body composition without altering your diet.
In fact, a study done over 30 weeks (7 months) showed that people who exercised without changing their diet saw only very minor changes in weight (about 6 pounds).
As a personal trainer myself, I’ve often talked with other trainers who complain about the same thing: The fact that they can only train the client in the gym, but the client must change their own diet outside of the gym.
A person can literally exercise week after week, and see little to no improvements over months and months. It happens all the time.
It is a much easier big-win to instead focus on diet, which accounts for the majority of your success.
Find someone who has lost a massive amount of weight by just exercising alone and not changing their diet. I bet you can’t find many.
Now find someone who has lots a massive amount of weight just by eating the right foods, without exercise. You’ll see many of them.
The reason why is obvious: just trying to burn off a cookie from exercise is super hard!
Let’s say you accidentally indulged in eating 5 Oreos. A totally realistic sugar snack. That’s 275 calories.
Now let’s say you want to burn that off from exercise, so you decide to go over to the gym and you look at various equipment and how many minutes of exercise it would take to “burn that off.”
Here’s what it looks like (stats via Calorielab):
- Treadmill (Somewhat hard effort): 153 calories in 15 minutes of exercise
- Stair stepper (hard effort): 156 calories in 15 minutes of exercise
- Elliptical (hard effort): 160 calories in 15 minutes of exercise
Okay, so we have an average figure of around 150 calories, for 15 minutes of relatively tough exercise.
But we ate 275 calories, right?
So we’d need to spend 30 minutes (of intense exercise) just to burn off 5 Oreos.
Now imagine if your overall diet was unhealthy. Imagine trying to burn off 500 or 1,000 calories of the wrong stuff?
You’re looking at hours of grueling exercise a day; it’s just impossible to try and exercise-away excess calories.
There is also the “internal” aspect of eating the wrong foods — beyond just the calories, there are artificial dyes, preservatives and chemicals that affect your body in ways you can’t see and lead to disease later down the road.
The truth: In small amounts, you can technically “exercise off” the excess calories from overeating or eating junk food, but in large amounts this is virtually impossible. Trying to burn off 5 Oreos would take half an hour of intense exercise. It also does not take into account the other negative health effects of dyes, preservatives and chemicals.
Myth 7: To Get a Six Pack or Lose Belly Fat, Just Work My Abs A Lot
Let’s start with the obvious: it’s flat out false. Abdominal muscles begin to show around 10-14% bodyfat – and it doesn’t matter how many ab exercises you do unless you lower your body fat levels.
And you don’t (can’t) lower bodyfat levels on your abs from just doing abdominal exercises, you do it through overall health and fitness.
So, #1. Abdominal muscles are all about overall body fat levels. (In order to also support this claim, I have had a visible six pack for over 10 years, and I never did a single crunch until recently – I just maintained a healthy diet and regularly exercised).
Next, there’s the belief that “I can just exercise my abs and my abs will show. Or I can exercise my arms and they’ll lose arm fat.”
This is called “spot reduction” and it doesn’t exist.
The way to reduce arm flab or belly fat is to lower overall body fat levels. When you begin to lose weight and lose body fat, you will lose it throughout your body based on genetics and other factors, and once you reach the critical threshold (10-14%), abdominal muscles will begin to show
I don’t know how this myth became so prevalent, although I can speculate that smart marketers have led you to believe that their ridiculous “ab wheel” or “ab roller” will give you the abs you desire, while promising to let you keep the same diet.
Obviously, they don’t work. Hopefully I just saved you $100 :).
The truth: It’s well-known (among trainers and professionals) that you won’t get abdominal muscles or less belly fat by doing crunches. You get abs from eating right and exercising, which lowers overall body fat levels. This should be good news, because I don’t know anyone who actually likes doing thousands of crunches!
Read: How to Get a Six Pack (2-part series)
What Beliefs Are Holding You Back?
For many people, just shedding light on some weight loss myths is tremendously empowering because attaining better health suddenly feels realistic and possible.
What kind of limiting beliefs have been preventing you from getting started? Or, if you’ve already started, what kind of beliefs are still holding you back?
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About the Author: Alexander runs Modern Health Monk, a site that shows people how to reverse health problems caused by 21st century life. Check out his free weight-loss crash course, or recent article on fixing neck and shoulder pain for office workers.