When you love talking to people about health and nutrition as much as I do, there are certain conversations you inevitably end up having more than once.
Sometimes, these conversations are harmless and well meaning enough, but other times they make you want pull your eyeballs out with a rusty spoon.
These normally revolve around generic advice touted by fitness professionals, based on old broscience that has no scientific backing. This is not to say that some of these don’t work, it’s just that they’re unnecessary and can even be harmful, possibly creating unhealthy habits or unfounded stress.
Below are a list of the main myths that really grind my gears and the truth behind them, based on the latest research:
Myth 1 – You need to eat 5/6/7 times a day, every 2-3 hours to “stoke your metabolism” and protect your hard-earned muscle.
Aside from being a complete misunderstanding of how the human body works, there is no actual evidence to show that eating smaller and often has any benefit.
Multiple studies have shown that as long as you hit your total caloric goal and macronutrient targets for the day, meal frequency has no impact on fat loss or metabolism. In fact, your metabolism actually increases when you eat larger meals.
As for satiety, this comes down to personal preference. Some people can diet better when having smaller meals more frequently, whereas some people prefer having fewer, but larger meals.
So the next time someone tells you that you absolutely MUST eat every 2-3 hours, you can rest assured that they are still living in the dark ages when it comes to their nutritional knowledge.
Myth 2 – You can only absorb 30g of protein per sitting.
The origins of this myth are thought to have come from supplement companies trying to sell more protein powders. The thinking is that by telling people they could only absorb this much protein per sitting, people would have to eat every few hours to reach their required protein intake for the day (see Myth 1 above). Because this is inconvenient for most people to get through meals, they would be forced to rely on protein shakes.
Truth is that your body can digest as much protein as you can throw at it (as long as that food finds its way into your mouth, obviously).
Myth 3 – Just cut out carbs and you’ll loose weight
Not strictly true. Cutting out carbs helps some people because it forces them to eat more vegetables, and so they end up eating less. It also helps that fat and protein tend to be more satisfying (steak and eggs anyone?), so even though fat has more calories per gram people end up eating less calories overall.
In fact, studies show that all things equal, when someone is trying to lose weight there is no difference between a low-carb high-fat diet and a regular carb low-fat diet. The only thing that matters is total calories and personal preference.
Myth 4 – But my mate Jenny/Bob/Jim/Sandra stopped eating carbs/sugar/fruit/meat/fat/carbs after 6pm and lost loads of weight.
Well then the net result was that they burned more calories than they consumed. That is all.
Myth 5 – You shouldn’t eat carbs after 6pm otherwise you gain fat
Nope. There is even evidence to suggest that eating carbs before you hit the hay is a good thing. This is because doing so releases tryptophan and seretonin, which leads to a quicker onset of and more restful sleep.
Again, this is one that does work for some people, not because of the action itself but by the net result. By giving themselves a cut off, a definitive thing they’re not allowed to do, it makes it easier for them to adhere to. Therefore they end up eating less than if they allowed themselves to snack or eat another meal later on.
Myth 6 – Intermittent Fasting is a magical way of being able to eat what you want and stay lean
I love Intermittent Fasting.
For me, it was the missing link when it came to getting lean a sustainable and enjoyable process. Being able to eat large, satisfying meals when dieting down to single-digit body fat is anyone’s dream. There is also a lot of evidence to suggest that fasting can be very good for the body, essentially giving it the break it needs to repair itself.
However, it is not a magic fix. The laws of thermodynamics still apply. What limiting your eating to 8 hours does is, quite simply, make it more difficult to overeat. Especially if your food choices are good quality, nutrient dense and high in fibre.
It is still possible to overeat and put on fat if (again) you ingest more calories than you expend. This is especially true for people with large appetites, who may use it as an excuse for free-reign over the buffet table if they don’t understand the underlying factors at play.
Myth 7 – Sweeteners and flavoured things ‘trick’ the body into storing fat or trick your brain into wanting to eat more
The evidence is mixed on this one. Some research shows that ingesting artificial sweeteners can lead to an increase in appetite and therefore greater caloric intake, whereas other research shows that there is no difference.
But what about spiking insulin? Well, on this the evidence is clearer. There is no legitimate evidence to show that artificial sweeteners cause insulin spikes to any significant degree.
For me, this one is down to the individual. If you are tracking your calories and can therefore consistently keep under your daily intake for the day (assuming you’re trying to lose weight) then the occasional diet beverage or flavoured supplement won’t hurt.
However, if you find yourself constantly craving sugary things and using flavourings to satisfy that need, then I’d say it points to a deeper problem and you may want to cut down (although I would generally suggest someone cut down on diet drinks anyway).
Myth 8 – Just eat ‘good calories’ and not ‘bad calories’ and you’ll lose weight
As much as it pains me to say this (again), when all else is equal a calorie is a calorie. It’s what those calories do to you that matters from a sustainability point of view.
Yes, theoretically you could lose weight on pizza and ice cream, but you’re going to feel like crap. You would also end up loosing muscle mass and therefore just look like a smaller version of your out-of-shape self. You’d also probably end up feeling hungry constantly, making it more difficult to sustain in the long-run.
On the flip side, having the belief that just eating calories you deem as ‘good’ will get you in shape can end up biting you on the tuchus. Thinking this way can make people think that calories don’t matter and therefore result in overeating (I’m looking at you smoothie lovers).
As you can see, most of these myths tend to revolve around fat loss. This is because it’s the goal most people want to achieve.
Because of this, it’s also the most profitable subject to write about and way of marketing a product. The estimated value of the global weight-loss industry is £220 Billion. Magazines wouldn’t really sell if all they had to say was: “eat less than you use” and skinny teas wouldn’t really sell if they stated: “doesn’t actually make you lose body fat, you’ll just pee more”, would they?
See, we as humans have a wonderful ability to overcomplicate things that are actually quite simple. We tend to think that there must just be that one special thing we’re missing, that one technique we haven’t tried which is stopping us from reaching our goals.
In reality, if we’re honest with ourselves, the reason we’re not where we want to be is probably because we’re just not executing the basics (that give us the majority of results) consistently enough.