Have you struggled to lose weight and become increasingly frustrated at continuously failing to reach your ideal body weight? You’re not alone. Losing weight is a challenge for many people. Genetics is a factor in some cases, but lifestyle is an issue too.
Here’s the good news. Research shows that even people who are strongly predisposed to being overweight or obese can maintain a normal weight through smart lifestyle habits.
Not to say losing weight and maintaining it is easy – it is not for the majority of people. Those ads that promise that you’ll lose 10 pounds in 10 days are selling a dream – and an unhealthy one at that. On the other hand, I’ve talked to many frustrated patients about their struggles to lose weight and some common weight loss myths and misconceptions almost always come out of these conversations.
These are things that most people get wrong about weight loss and weight control and it makes life even harder for them. Today, we want to clear up some false ideas and weight loss myths that you may subscribe to that will make it harder to lose weight and keep your weight down. Getting to your ideal body weight takes motivation, commitment, AND a change to how you’re doing things. Let’s dispel some of these myths about weight control.
Myth 1: It’s Harder to Lose Weight than It is to Maintain It
One thing I used to hear a lot goes something like this:
“If I can get my weight down to ___ pounds (insert number), it’ll be easy to maintain it. I just need to get there.”
Wrong. Maintaining a lower body weight is challenging. That’s why 85 to 90% of people who lose at least 10% of their body weight gain it back and sometimes more within a few years.
The reality is your body fights your attempt to lose and maintain a lower body weight. It all has to do with something called “set point.” The idea is we have a set point weight that your body likes you to be. When you lose weight and go significantly below that set point, your body responds in ways that make it easy to put that weight back on.
In essence, your body stymies your efforts to stay lean by boosting appetite hormones that increase cravings for food, usually the wrong ones, and by making you want to move less to conserve energy. You already need fewer calories after losing weight and your metabolism may have slowed as well if you restricted calories.
The combination of your body fighting you and the fact that you need fewer calories because you’re smaller puts you at a disadvantage. Slowly, but surely, the weight comes back on. I like to call it “weight creep” because it stealthily deposits back on your tummy or hips.
For your body, it’s mission accomplished since you’re back near your set point. For you, it’s another failed attempt at being at the weight you want to be. Here’s some good news. If you can maintain your new weight for at least a year, some studies suggest you can “reset” your set point so you no longer have to fight weight creep.
That’s why your greatest chance of maintaining your weight loss long-term is to prevent weight gain during the first year after losing it. That means continuing those healthy lifestyle changes and monitoring your weight closely.
Myth 2: You Don’t Need to Exercise
Oh, yeah? If only it were that easy!
It’s true that you can lose weight by changing your eating habits alone. In fact, nutritional changes are more effective for losing weight than exercise. Where exercise is indispensable is in MAINTAINING the weight you lost. One study showed that exercise is the BEST predictor of whether you’ll maintain a lower body weight or gain it all back.
Irrespective of the study, Dr. A and I have both seen people lose significant amounts of weight and gradually gain it all back. The one thing they all had in common is they didn’t exercise. On the plus side, we’ve talked to people who exercised and DID maintain their weight loss, so it can be done.
Here’s another caveat. You’re not just losing fat when you drop weight – you’re losing muscle too. Resistance training is important because it helps you hang on to lean muscle mass as you lose weight. Holding on to muscle is vital, especially if you’re over the age of 50 and already losing muscle mass at a faster pace. You don’t have to go to the gym and hang out in the weight room. A pair of resistance bands will do the job.
Myth 3: Dieting is the Best Way to Lose Weight
Dieting and drastic calorie consumption is the WORST way to lose weight. What happens when you cut your calories too aggressively is your body adapts by altering appetite hormones, thyroid hormone, and the stress hormone called cortisol.
All of this leads to an increase in appetite and a drop in metabolism.
There was recently a study and the participants were folks from the television show “The Biggest Loser”. As you know, they went on low-calorie diets to lose weight and some were successful. Unfortunately, most also gained it back over time.
Here’s the shocking part. When they measured their metabolic rates 6 YEARS later, their metabolisms were still depressed. In fact, they were burning 600 fewer calories per day than they should have been based on their age and body composition. This was AFTER they had started eating a sufficient number of calories.
Take-home message: Research supports the idea that you can damage your metabolism not just short-term but longer term as well. Better idea: Make small, sustainable changes to the quality of your diet, increase your physical activity, cut back on sugar, eat more vegetables, drink more water. When you make changes like these, you will slowly lose weight without damaging your metabolism.
Myth 4: Controlling Hunger is the Key to Losing Weight
Yes, it’s important to control hunger and you can do that by eating more protein and fiber and less sugar and rapidly absorbed carbohydrates. But that’s not the whole story. Not all overeating is driven by hunger – some of it is motivated by emotional hunger, stress, or boredom. You come home from work after a hair-pulling day of stress and still have a long list of things to do at home. So, you treat yourself to a little comfort food.
You might even do this unconsciously without thinking about it. Emotional eating can sabotage your weight-loss efforts at every turn. We won’t go into detail here on the topic since we wrote an article on it a while back. Here’s a link. Suffice it to say that emotional eating is a problem you must address to successfully control your weight.
Myth 5: There’s a “Magic” Diet Out There That Will Help You Lose Weight”
The reason there are so many diets out there is people are always trying to sell you on a quick fix or easy solution. Those don’t exist. Sure, you can lose weight on a diet where you eat or drink only juice, tea, or soup, but you’ll gain it back once you stop. You also run the risk of slowing your metabolism and feeling terrible because you’re not getting the nutrients your body needs.
Is there a better approach?
- Stick to whole, unprocessed foods – more fruits and vegetables, less unhealthy snacks and junk.
- Drink more water and unsweetened coffee and tea and fewer sugar-sweetened drinks.
- Carry around a stainless steel container (not plastic) of water. You’re cutting your calories this way but doing so in a healthy manner.
- The Mediterranean diet is a diet built around unprocessed foods. We also advocate a style of eating that emphasizes plant-based foods, including plant-based sources of protein
If you need ideas, here’s a book that has lots of plant-based recipes that are high in nutrients and naturally low in calories.
Myth 6: You Don’t Need to Weigh Yourself Daily
We don’t advocate getting obsessed with numbers, but studies show you’re more likely to keep your weight controlled if you weigh EVERY day. Why? Because you can react quickly to small increases in weight before they become add up to bigger gains.
The best time to weigh is first thing in the morning, right after you get out of bed before eating and drinking anything. Based on your morning weight, you can modify your eating habits accordingly. This is a time-tested way to prevent weight gain.
Myth 7: It’s Only about Food and Exercise
Yes, food and exercise are important but the equation is incomplete without factoring in sleep and stress management. When you don’t get enough restful sleep, it increases the level of an appetite hormone called ghrelin. Ghrelin will give you one heck of a case of the munchies! Under the influence of ghrelin, you crave sugary, fatty foods and have problems satisfying your hunger.
Stress and inadequate sleep also increase the production of cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone” that makes you hungry AND causes breakdown of muscle tissue. So, stress and lack of sleep can stimulate hunger and negatively impacts your body composition. In other words, more fat and less muscle.
What does this mean? Weight control, and losing weight requires a holistic approach. You can’t isolate out a single element like eating fewer calories and mismanage the rest and still get the results you want.
In our opinion, there are five facets to weight control. They are:
- Eating an unprocessed diet
- Eating mindfully
- Getting adequate sleep
- Exercising, including resistance training
- Taking steps to control stress
Get one of them wrong and it has a domino effect on the others. For example, when you don’t get enough sleep, you eat more and you don’t want to exercise. Then you feel stressed out when you gain weight. See how that works?
Myth 8: You Can Do It on Your Own
Well, this is a partial myth. You might be the type of person who CAN lose weight without the support of anyone but having a strong support system helps. People are often more successful when they’re part of a group of people who are also experiencing the same struggles and challenges.
You don’t have to join Weight Watchers to get this kind of support. These days, you can join an online weight loss support group. It’s nice to have other people, besides family, you can share your triumphs and frustrations with.
At the very least, find someone or a few people who support your efforts and will cheer you along. It helps!
The Bottom Line
We hope we’ve crushed some weight loss myths you might have bought into. These are supported by research and backed by what we’ve seen in clinical practice. There is no “magic” or easy way to get lose weight and maintain that loss despite what people who are trying to sell you something say.
If that were the case, the number of people who are overweight or obese wouldn’t be approaching 60%, like it is.
Have you struggled with any of these problems or bought into these weight loss myths? We’d love to hear your story. 🙂
Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol. 2004 Dec;18(6):1009-29.
American Psychological Association. “How Social Support Can Help You Lose Weight”
Eurekalert.org. “Biggest Loser Study Reveals How Dieting Affects Long-Term Metabolism”
New York Times. “The Claim: Repeated Dieting Slows Your Metabolism”