Does it ever feel like you are bombarded with conflicting messages of “eat this, not that”? With tales of “superfoods” and “clean eating”? Well, I’m about to dispel the rumors.
1. Myth: Kale is healthy, ice cream is unhealthy.
Truth: there is no such thing as a “healthy” food. Let me say that again: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A “HEALTHY” FOOD. Spinach is not healthy. Açaí is not healthy. Brownies are not unhealthy. There are eating and lifestyle choices that are “healthier”—that have health benefits such as assisting in weight loss or maintenance, providing micronutrients, or decreasing your risk of heart disease according to studies. But there is no one perfect food that can meet all of your nutritional needs, decrease morbidity and mortality, and make or keep you thin.
2. Myth: Gluten-free is the way to be.
Truth: unless you have celiac disease, you have no reason to avoid gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and thereby in products that come from wheat, such as anything made with flour. People with celiac disease have an autoimmune reaction to gluten that causes damage to the small intestine and leads to symptoms and signs such as diarrhea, weight loss, and anemia. People with celiac disease who continue to eat gluten can have a variety of complications including increased risk of intestinal cancers. However, there is no evidence that gluten is bad for people without celiac disease. Still, living gluten-free has become the latest trend. “But these cookies are gluten free, so they’re ‘healthy’, right?” Wrong. Gluten free cookies are still cookies. I love cookies, but I see them as a special treat to be eaten in limited quantities. If you read the nutrition label on most gluten-free alternative foods (eg. crackers), they have just as many calories, carbohydrates, and sugars as the wheat-based alternative.
3. Myth: Carbohydrates are evil.
Truth: actually, they are molecules made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen that can be broken down for energy. They are neither good nor evil. They are our primary source of energy. American dietary guidelines recommend that carbohydrates make up 45-65% of your diet. Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram. Protein also provides 4 calories per gram and fat provides 9. Nowadays there are a ton of diets that promote decreasing your carbohydrate intake (Atkins, South Beach, Zone, Dukan, and ketogenic, to name a few). Some people lose a lot of weight on those diets, but a lot of people also gain all the weight back once they start eating carbohydrates again. The reason why they lose weight is because proteins and fats, the other energy molecules, are more satiating than carbohydrates and often a lot less fun to eat. If you eat less overall, you end up consuming fewer calories than you burned that day, creating a negative net energy balance which leads to weight loss. There is nothing intrinsically “bad” about carbohydrates. They are just yummy, so it is easy to overeat them.
Of note, it is true that there are healthier choices among the carbohydrates. Limiting sugar and increasing fiber intake are the way to go. Reading nutrition labels is key. Added sugar is likely one of the primary contributors to the obesity and diabetes epidemic. There is a such thing as too much sugar, and most of us probably consume too much.
4. Myth: I barely eat but I still gain weight.
Truth: if you are not losing weight, you are not creating a net negative energy balance. It is that simple.
I hear this type of statement from patients and people I know all the time, and I empathize with them, because weight loss is really hard. You may not be eating pie all day, but, if you are not losing weight, what you are eating meets or exceed your calorie needs. You must eat less if your goal is to lose weight. You have to push against your instincts, and it can feel terrible. Losing weight is not easy, and it is not fun. There are factors that can make weight loss even more challenging, such as energy needs with age, increased hunger with certain medications, and sedentary lifestyle due to medical issues. There is no quick, easy, and painless way to lose weight. Don’t fall for any diet plan that tells you there is. But for those who are overweight (BMI>25) or obese (BMI>30), especially with comorbidities like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, it is worth it. For those at a healthy weight (BMI 19-25), weight maintenance is the best preventative medicine.
5. Myth: So I should only worry about calories, then.
Truth: I am not advocating only paying attention to calories. The first reason is that an 1800 calorie diet of cookies and ice cream every day will leave you starved of essential micronutrients and overloaded with sugar. I will talk more about micronutrients (essential vitamins and minerals found in foods that your body needs for its vital functions) in a future post. There are also other aspects to look at, such as limiting saturated fat and sodium intake for cardiovascular health.
Next, you will probably still be hungry so you’ll eat that 700 calorie burger later.
Furthermore, it can be very difficult to calculate your exact energy needs. Our bodies may process some foods differently than others and therefore the calorie estimates on foods may be somewhat inaccurate. It is also difficult to calculate exactly how many calories your body is burning. Most who attempt usually overestimate what they need and underestimate what they take in. For this reason, and also for stress levels, I am not a fan of counting calories. However, if there were an all-knowing observer who could accurately measure the calories you consume versus the calories you burn, your net calories would correlate to the weight you lose or gain (3500 calories = 1 lb).
6. Myth: The-latest-diet-craze is going to work for me.
Truth: any diet that accomplishes net negative energy balance will help you lose weight. Adopting a lifestyle that helps you maintain a healthy way is the key, and you have to find what works for you. If low carb floats your boat, more power to you. However, discuss it with your doctor and consider meeting with a nutritionist as low-carb or high-protein diets are not for everyone (eg. Those with end stage renal disease). The same support and advice applies to Weight Watchers or any other diet philosophies out there. There is no one right answer. Find what works for you. The answer for some is in a diet book and for others it is a series of eating rules they have adopted throughout their lives.
7. Myth: If I could just exercise more I would lose weight.
Truth: exercise is awesome and has many health benefits, including supporting weight maintenance, decreasing risk of osteoporosis, and decreasing resting blood pressure for people with hypertension. However, if you just exercise more but do not mind your diet, you will end up eating more to make up for those extra calories burned. Your body has evolved to keep you from starving, so it has sneaky ways of getting you to eat more, sometimes without you even realizing. I say this in a whispered voice, but you can actually lose weight by diet alone; however, it is smarter and healthier to also exercise regularly in order to aid weight loss and to reap the muscle, bone, cardiovascular, and mental health benefits.
8. Myth: I’m going to gain 10 lbs on Christmas!
Truth: as mentioned above, one lb is equal to a net energy balance of 3500 calories. It is virtually impossible to consume 35,000 calories in one day. It is, however, possible and feasible to eat whatever you want at one meal and still maintain a net even or net negative energy balance over the week. The issue is that many people overeat every day from Thanksgiving until January 1st, and they end up gaining weight. It is often a relatively small gain, such as 2 lbs, but then they do not lose it, and they just keep gaining those 2 lbs every year. Think about what 2 lbs every year does over 30 years. My tip for the holidays is to enjoy and savor your special meals, but to keep all of your other meals just-the-essentials. And if you gain weight in December, lose it in January, and keep it off throughout the year.
The bottom line is, maintaining or achieving a healthy weight and meeting your nutritional needs is all about balance and moderation. There are no healthy foods, only healthier choices.