Published on September 18th, 2013 | by Matthew Lovitt1
The Science Diet: Debunking Common Weight Loss Myths and Presumptions
I’m a huge data nerd and get no greater joy than scouring the incredibly diverse and the extremely intricate world of scientific journals. In every available moment, I cozy up in my finest pair of sweatpants and house slippers and sip on some freshly squeezed wheat grass to methodically peruse mountains of research in order to identify any new and groundbreaking information. I use this information to educate others on the value of nutrition, or, more often than not, serve as fodder for a comical Tweet, status update or blog post to illicit smiles and good humor from my friends.
Unfortunately, the task of scientific discovery is not without it’s occupational hazards. I often come across research that fallaciously draws conclusions based on data that was collected with a less-than-ideal degree of scientific objectivity, or data that is riddled with conflicts of interest that may interfere with a study’s ability to serve health and public policy. Fortunately for us, I recently stumbled upon a study that attempts to address these concerns and goes to great lengths to help differentiate our dietary beliefs from the science that either confirms or refutes them. In observance of a recent article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, I thought it would be fun to review a few common weight loss and diet myths and presumptions that are repeated ad nauseum with little empirical proof.
But, before we begin, lets take a moment to define the myths from the presumption we are about to discuss. For our purposes and that of the NEJM study, myths can be defined as, “beliefs held to be true despite substantial refuting evidence,” while presumptions can be considered, “beliefs held to be true for which evidence does not yet confirm or disprove.” Basically, myths are unfounded and presumptions are unproven.
Now, the fun stuff! Here are a few of my favorite scientifically unverified diet and weight loss myths and presumption.
- Small changes in energy intake or expenditure will produce large, long-term weight change. Apparently, skipping a few healthy calories here and there or walking an extra few minutes each morning has not been proven to make a significant impact on weight.
- Setting realistic weight loss goals can motivate dieters. Previously it was thought that dieters may be discouraged when striving for large weight losses. But actually, some studies suggest that more ambitious goals actually produce greater results.
- Slow and steady (weight loss) wins the race. In reality, very low-calorie diets (less than 800 calories/day) and low-calorie diets (between 800 and 1,200 cals/day) produce similar losses in weight after a year of dieting.
- Regularly eating breakfast protects against weight gain and obesity. To my consternation, the results on multiple studies are conflicting about the merits of breakfast and no clear consensus has been reached on its value in weight loss.
- Early childhood is the period in which developing healthy eating and lifestyle habits have the greatest influence throughout life. Unfortunately, the science tells us that our genes have a greater impact on BMI tracked over one’s life.
- More fruits and vegetables equal greater weight loss or less weight gain. In reality, the impact of fruits and vegetables on weight are scientifically insignificant in the absence of widespread lifestyle modification.
While the practical implications of the science surrounding diet and weight loss may come as a shock, it is important for us to remember the context in which these conclusions have been made. The above myths and presumptions and the proof, or lack there of, contradicting them are being presented through the lens of weight loss, not health and wellness. Although there is no significant evidence confirming the conventional weight loss wisdom to which many of us adhere, it does not mean that they are unable to improve overall health. Apples and bananas are most certainly more healthy than fun-sized Snickers and Almond Joy, which contain similar calorie counts.
Further, the aforementioned myths and presumptions, which we studied independent of one another, typically do not occur in isolation as those seeking improvements in health and reductions in weight often integrate multiple lifestyle modifications to help them reach their goals faster. To me this means that decreases in energy intake and increases in expenditure, in tandem with a healthy breakfast and the consumption of copious amounts of fruits and vegetables are lifestyle habits that when adopted in unison will most definitely have long term benefits in our individual health and wellness.
In My Opinion…
Improving health and reducing weight through diet and exercise needs to be approached with a holistic mindset that fully considers an individual’s unique needs, nutritional and otherwise, so that a mindful, multifaceted approach can be developed to improve the probability of success.
Recognizing the lack of proof behind some of the most widely accepted dietary principles is a little disheartening. But, taking the time to understand what this means to me in my practice will allow me to refine and improve my message to better acknowledge the limitations of scientific inquiry as it applies to holistic health and wellness.
Diet, health and wellness are not mutually exclusive and those wishing to improve health or lose weight must remember that there is no such thing as a “magic bullet” when it comes to our wellbeing. It is of absolute importance that we recognize and acknowledge our unique physical, emotional and spiritual needs and develop a lifestyle plan that will allow us to maximize health and our ability to participate in life. Every day is a gift and every action we take with this belief in mind will add tremendous value to our health and wellness.
Red apple image from Shutterstock