Rant alert! If I see another TV ad with a beautiful woman, eating a well-known brand of desserts and declaring, ‘Only 99 Calories!’ followed by a man falling-over, I will switch my TV off. Really! These ads, along with those promoting zero-calorie cola drinks are so misleading. And so clever. These adverts show radiantly, healthy attractive people eating and drinking the promoted product, which subliminally conveys that if we eat/drink them, we too can look like them. The evidence, however, shows that artificial sweeteners stimulate the appetite and low fat desserts are so quickly digested, that you will shortly be hungry again. In short, processed, low fat foods and zero calorie drinks may lead to weight gain and not the weight loss they elude to.
What other weight loss myths are persuasively sold to you when the evidence shows they don’t help you?
1st Myth: Counting calories leads to weight loss
Everyday we have an energy (calorie) requirement and so the theory is that if you reduce your calorie intake and/or increase your calories used through exercise, you will lose weight. But, and it is a BIG but, your body is far more complex. Your body digests food according to its nutritional content; and not its calorific value. So, food with the same number of calories but different nutritional content will not be treated in the same way. Some food will be digested and broken down into sugars (energy) very quickly. In contrast, food containing protein, fat and/or dietary fibre will take more time to digest and this will slow down the release sugar into the blood steam. Why is this important? If too much sugar floods into the blood stream, then it may spike your blood sugar levels, which will more than likely get converted into stored body fat. If, by contrast, food is broken down slowly because it takes the digestive system longer to break it down, then sugar is trickled into the blood stream, meaning the body can use it without having to convert it into stored body fat first. Processed foods, such as the ‘Only 99 Calories!’ dessert may have a low calorie content, but they are unlikely to help you lose weight because the body can process these foods very quickly. This can lead to new hunger pangs and may lead to your body storing body fat if good quality protein and good fats are not part of the meal or snack.
To get a sense for what I mean, compare these two snacks: a pack of crisps and a baked a sweet potato. Which would keep you fuller? The potato. If you were to add 25g of Feta cheese to the potato, they would now have the same number of calories, yet it will take your body much longer to digest the potato and cheese and nutritionally give your body far more than the crisps, which will be digested almost as quickly as you eat them.
If you currently choose foods based on their calorie content: please try to quit doing this. And if you are still counting calories daily—please don’t do that either. Why? Because it puts you into a diet mentality and you all know what happens when you go ‘off’ your diet. Instead, look at making changes for life—not in some draconian way—but by choosing wholesome, natural foods and limiting highly processed foods. This step alone is more likely to lead to long-term weight loss than going on a rigid calorie controlled diet for a short time and then regaining the weight when you stop counting calories.
If I still haven’t convinced you, look at the UK’s Government daily calorie recommendations. For women it is 2,000 calories and for men is 2,500—but who are these ‘average’ people? Your calorie requirement is dependent on your gender, age, height, lean muscle to body fat ratio, as well as your physical activity at work and in play. Calorie requirements are also influenced by your hormones and your genetic make-up. With all of these variables, the averages of 2,000 and 2,500 calories are just a rough guide. This number may be too many or too few for your unique body, which means working out what you would need to reduce it by, is also a guess.
2nd Myth: Fat makes you fat
In 1972, John Yudkin, a British Scientist, proved that sugar was more likely to increase weight gain than fat and he wrote about it in his book, ‘Pure White and Deadly’. The fat-makes-you-fat idea began in the USA, born out of a political situation at the end of the Vietnam War and influenced by powerful lobbying of the Sugar Industry. Until recently, John Yudkin was ignored by the medical profession and dismissed by the food industry. Click here for the full story about ‘low fat’ and sugar. It’s such a shame it has taken us this long to see how we were duped.
When food manufacturers remove fat from food, it does 2 things: the form and structure is lost and the flavour is diminished. So after removing the fat, food manufacturers replace it with starch and gums (lower in calories than fat, but more quickly converted into sugars) to replace the structure and then add more sugar or artificial sweeteners to replace the lost flavour. So a food that once contained fat now has an excess of sugar. Which is better for you? This is hard to answer, as where possible, I recommend keeping processed foods to a minimum. However, generally speaking, the less processed version with fat, is going to keep you feeling fuller for longer, will be digested more slowly and so, my choice would be this over a ‘Low Fat’ version.
All fats have a high calorific value, however good fats—as found in nuts, seeds and oily fish—are essential for good health as they help lower bad cholesterol and soften the membranes of cells which makes it easier for the body to lose weight. You don’t need large quantities of good fat in your diet; but do include small amounts.
3rd Myth: I just need more willpower to lose weight
We all know what it’s to be suddenly filled with a mad craving for chocolate, crisps, ice-cream, or biscuits (or whatever your thing is) and if we give-in, we put it down to a lack of will-power. And of course, it’s made all the worse because we usually feel guilty, embarrassed and ashamed that we gave-in. Yet the way our willpower actually works is somewhat complex.
Our willpower is our self-control mechanism regulated by the part of our brain involved with conscious thought. After a good night’s sleep, when we are refreshed, well-nourished, relaxed, and feeling good then the area of our brain that controls willpower has the energy it needs to stay in alignment with our values—including what to eat. However, during the day, our energy levels in this area of the brain begin to deplete. So when we become tired, stressed, or are physically hungry, then the ability to exert will power, will not be strong. The answer is to begin to look at what diminishes our willpower. See my full length article for tips and advice how to strengthen your willpower.
4th Myth: If I exercise, I can eat whatever I like.
Exercise is an important part of a healthy life-style, so if you have recently begun exercising or if you exercise regularly—this is great. Exercise promotes a sense of well-being and helps to increase your lean-muscle mass which burns up more calories than body fat. However, if your diet is full of sugary, starchy, highly processed/refined foods or if your portion sizes are larger than needed, then your weight-loss will be limited and may possibly plateau. In terms of how the body converts stored body fat to energy, it is more determined by the food you eat than exercise. So please don’t give up your exercise, but now begin to nutritionally balance your diet.
5th Myth: If I skip a meal, I will lose weight
For a few people whose body type is identified as predominantly as ‘Kapha’ in the science of Ayurveda (click here to do the quiz), this might work if the meal skipped is the evening meal. However, if your body type is predominantly Pitta or Vata and/or if the meal skipped is either breakfast or lunch, then this is likely to backfire. Why? The body needs the vast majority of its nutrients and energy early in the day. If you skip breakfast your basal metabolic rate (the rate at which you burn up calories just to live) will be slower than if you had eaten it. If you skip lunch, you are likely to eat far more in the evening, possibly eating more in total than if you had had lunch, because your hunger levels will be high and willpower lower. Eating late in the evening, will lead to your digestive system working at a time when it is supposed to be resting and so this results in an ineffective digestive system which is more prone to store body fat than if you had eaten the majority of your food earlier on in the day.
6th Myth: Zero calorie drinks won’t effect my weight
Having read this far, I’m guessing you are ahead of me, but it is worth reiterating that just because it has zero calories it doesn’t mean it has no impact on your body. Drinks sweetened with artificial sweeteners initially trick the brain into thinking it is receiving glucose (sugar)—but when it realises that no glucose is coming its way, then cravings for real sugar begin and in this way, artificially sweetened drinks often stimulate the appetite. Fizzy drinks with sugar can produce a sugar high too—so neither option is particularly good. Probably the best option for fizzy drinks, is those that use only fruit juice and carbonated water (such as the Feel Good drinks), but they too are sugary, even if the sugar has come more naturally from fruit. So, with fizzy drinks, the best option is to limit them to treats.
Which foods help me the most with weight loss?
Natural, whole, fresh foods are generally better suited to your digestive system than commercially processed foods—especially and paradoxically those labelled ‘diet’ or ‘low fat’. I know excluding all processed foods would be almost impossible—I too enjoy their convenience–but everyone can begin to include more natural, whole foods into their diet to help with both weight loss and better health.