In this article we take a look at some common nutritional myths that arise when individuals are looking to lose body-fat. The paradox of the field of nutrition is that everyone wants quick, simple solutions but it’s not a black-and-white topic, so blanket statements and cookie-cutter diets often fall short of their claims.
While there are certainly some generalizations we can derive from research and literature, nutrition is still highly specific to every individual’s needs and goals, and thus the optimal diet for one person may not be optimal for another.
With that in mind, let’s put some of these myths under the microscope and decipher facts from fiction.
1. Myth: Eating fat makes you fat
A. Reality: Boy wouldn’t this idea render the Atkin’s diet mindless (well, that diet sort of is anyway, but I digress). I shouldn’t need to elaborate too much here since it throws basic physiology out the window.
Eating fatty acids (e.g. triglycerides) is essential to human survival as they play a critical role in a variety of cellular processes and energy production. Ultimately, fats are oxidized to acetyl-CoA to enter the Krebs cycle, much like the fate of carbohydrates (however, when energy demands are met, acetyl-CoA may be used for synthesis of fatty acids and subsequent storage).
2. Myth: You must eat every 2-3 hours to “keep your metabolism burning”
A. Reality: Ah, and now the great meal frequency debate rears its ugly head. Well, there isn’t much of a debate anymore since this theory has been contradicted in a plethora of research studies. (1)
Many fitness “gurus” and nutritionist seem to believe that if you are eating more frequently, you will inherently boost your energy expenditure due to the thermic effect of food (TEF) constantly “revving your metabolism” throughout the day. The reality is when energy intake is kept constant, the net thermic effect at the end of the day is the same independent of meal frequency. (1)
Think of it like this, if someone gives you an entire pizza to eat throughout the day, at your discretion, you can either: A) Eat a slice or two at multiple times and slightly increase your energy expenditure (due to the TEF) each time or B) Eat half the pizza at two different times and experience a larger increase in energy expenditure (again, from the TEF) at those two respective feedings.
More simply, if the TEF of eating the entire pizza is 200 calories, then eating 1/5th of the pizza at a time would yield a TEF of 40 calories per feeding, while eating ½ the pizza would yield a TEF of 100 calories per feeding. You still reach the same output in either scenario.
3. Myth: Eating carbohydrates at night will make you fat
A. Reality: This fallacy seems to be derived from the presumption that carbs elicit an insulin response (which is a storage hormone), and since we’re generally sedentary at night (or sleeping) then the carbs you eat are subject to being stored as fat. For starters, your body metabolizes carbohydrates (and any other nutrient for that matter) the same way no matter what time of day it is.
Just because its 7PM and you eat some carbs doesn’t mean that some imaginary, nocturnal glycolytic pathway randomly activates and tells your body to store all carbs as fat tissue. Granted, there are certain biorhythms in regards to hormone secretion, it’s yet to be elucidated in controlled studies that eating later at night results in worse body composition.
In fact, a year-long study of rhesus monkeys (which are genetically close to humans) showed that “…monkeys who ate most of their food at night were no more likely to gain weight than monkeys who rarely ate at night.” (2)
4. Myth: You need a “cheat day” periodically
A. Reality: Metabolic rate will inevitably drop as you lose weight, but to take an entire day and gorge on “junk” food just spells disaster for many individuals. Don’t confuse “cheat” days with planned “re-feed” days, whereby calories are raised strategically to boost metabolism.
A cheat day refers to someone throwing their macronutrient/calorie goal out the window and eating foods they normally consider “dirty” or “off limits” (even though the ideas of clean and dirty foods are subject to debate). Don’t ruin your weight-loss progress by being arrogant and binging on fast food. Instead, consider incorporating days where you knowingly raise calories (and especially carbohydrates) within reason to keep your metabolism and mind happy.
If you can control yourself and work some foods you’re craving into your macronutrient goals, there’s nothing wrong with that (and I would actually encourage it).
5. Myth: Fruit is bad because of its sugar content
A. Reality: Could be purely a coincidence, but nevertheless the obesity epidemic going on in the United States is concurrent with our propensity to under-eat fruits and vegetables; roughly 1/3 of adults are obese and 1/3 adults eat the recommended amount of fruit every day. (3) Sure, extrapolations aren’t always perfect, but I’d surmise there is definitely correlation between these two findings.
Despite the simple sugars (generally fructose) found in many fruits, they are actually relatively slow-digesting carbohydrates so they don’t spike insulin levels. Moreover, fruit is full of micronutrients (i.e. vitamins/minerals/antioxidants) and is generally highly satiating, so you are likely to eat less than if you were to eat an equivocal amount of calories from other carbohydrate sources.
Many fruits, such as berries and apples, also contain a good amount of fiber which is another nutrient many people lack in their diet. Do not fear fruits, their benefits are numerous and they shouldn’t be omitted just because they have a few grams of sugar.
6. Myth: Fiber doesn’t count in your calorie intake (i.e. it’s a “free” food)
A. Reality: Contrary to popular belief, dietary fibers should count in your macronutrient and calorie intakes as they are fermented by intestinal flora to short-chain fatty acids and energy. Granted, the exact amount of calories in fibers can vary, they still do contain energy like other carbohydrates.
Also keep in mind that the notion of “net carbs” you may see on fiber-laden food products is merely a reflection of the amount of carbohydrates that directly impact blood glucose levels (thus fiber is not included in this value).
7. Myth: Weight/fat loss is a simple equation of calories in vs. calories out
A. Reality: If fat loss was as black and white as a thermodynamic equation, physicists would be the forerunners in the field of dieticians. Fat loss can be influenced by a plethora of variables specific to the individual, and that’s what makes cookie-cutter diets impractical. The composition of one’s diet macronutrient-wise is arguably the most important factor when trying to lose fat.
For example, someone eating 2000 calories mostly composed of carbohydrates and fats (with inadequate protein) would likely see lesser improvements in body composition compared to an individual eating a more balanced 2000-calorie diet. Furthermore, other factors such as endocrine/metabolic functioning and genetics certainly can alter the process of fat loss. These are all things that take time and experience to optimize each individuals fat-loss efforts.
8. Myth: You can’t eat too much protein
A. Reality: Bodybuilders and other physique competitors often seem to believe they should be on an amino acid IV drip, especially when cutting weight. Due to protein inherently acting to maintain, repair and build muscle tissue, it is certainly advisable to eat an adequate amount (especially for athletes and active individuals), but this does not indicate that protein can’t be overeaten much like carbohydrates and fats. Proteins can potentially be converted to fatty acids via transamination or indirectly after gluconeogenesis.
It appears that much more than 2g of protein per pound of bodyweight is about the utmost any bodybuilder or athlete could need (per day), but a more reasonable goal for the majority of active individuals would be 1-1.5g per pound of bodyweight. The good thing about protein is that it is generally highly satiating, making it hard to take in superfluous amounts.
So just because you’re cutting and don’t want to lose your hard-earned muscle, don’t expect much from eating a ton of protein except for some acrid-smelling, gaseous effusions coming out your backside (AKA “protein farts”).
Obviously this is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully these relatively pertinent myths will no longer plague your fat loss efforts. Sound off in the comments below if you think of any other common myths that infest the nutrition and fitness fields.
1. Verboeket-Van de Venne, W. P., & Westerterp, K. R. (1991). Influence of the feeding frequency on nutrient utilization in man: consequences for energy metabolism. European journal of clinical nutrition, 45(3), 161-169.
2. Oregon Health & Science University (2006, February 2). Scientists Dispel Late-Night Eating/Weight Gain Myth. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 23, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/02/060202080832.html
3. CDC Newsroom Press Release September 29, 2009. (n.d.). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved June 24, 2013, from http://www.cdc.gov/media/pressrel/2009/r