Fifty-three percent of Americans want to lose weight according to a recent Gallup poll. While that number is down from the previous decade, it’s still over half of the population, which is a significant number. And there’s no small amount of resources available for potential dieters; in fact, Americans spend $20 billion on weight loss products every year, and 85 percent of those consumers are women.
With such a huge market, it’s important to be careful with how you approach weight loss should you decide to actively pursue it. There are potentially dangerous options out there, so being vigilant is of paramount importance. There’s a lot of advice out there, and not all of it is good. Here are some of the things that everyone gets wrong about weight loss.
You can Flush the Fat
Body cleanses or so-called detoxes are widely advertised and available at grocery stores and health food shops. But are these effective? Christen Cupples Cooper, Ed.D., RDN, director of Nutrition Programs at Pace University in Pleasantville, NY, told me that they aren’t, and can actually be bad for you. “There are many remedies for ‘belly fat,’ called anything from ‘fat flushes’ to ‘body cleanses.’ These products are usually costly and amount to nothing more than a glorified laxative.”
She continued, “If you ‘cleanse’ your body of one of the heaviest substances in it — water — of course the scale will appear to register pounds lost.” He told me that he often reminds people that the body has ways of detoxifying itself without help. “In fact,” he says, “such cleanses can be harmful for some people. But in order to truly lose pounds in fat, it is necessary to take in fewer calories than the body burns. This is best done over time, cutting 250 to 500 calories a day and adding in exercise to assist with calorie burn.”
Ignore your Hunger
People often assume that in order to lose weight, you’ll have to go hungry. But Registered Dietitian Kelly Puryear, MA, RDN/LDN, CSCS, told me this is a common mistake: “Oftentimes dieters will avoid eating when they are physically hungry because they are trying to limit their calories or they will eat when they are not hungry because the diet they are on mandates that they ‘eat every two-to-three hours.” And that’s not an effective strategy.
She says that “the issue with ignoring your own hunger cues and not practicing intuitive eating is that you are trying to override your body’s natural homeostasis and interfering with normal hormone regulation. When you interrupt normal hormone balance, you cause a vicious cycle of increased fat-storing hormones and inflammation and decreased metabolism. As you can see, this vicious cycle only further prevents weight loss and will leave you feeling very sluggish and frustrated with your weight loss efforts!”
So it’s important to listen to your body and eat when you feel physically hungry. “When you do not eat enough calories in hopes to promote weight loss, your body actually goes into starvation mode and will do everything in its power to conserve energy,” says Puryear. She further notes that the result of this is the deregulation of your body’s natural processes, meaning you store more fat and burn less energy when you’re starved, which in turn leads to weight gain. “This ultimately lowers your metabolism and promotes fat storage, further preventing weight loss,” she told me.
Count your Calories
While it’s widely believed that losing weight is as simple as burning more calories than you eat, this isn’t always the case. ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist and a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor Gillian Hood, MS, ACSM, tells me that, “Each person absorbs and processes calories and specific nutrients differently. A 2015 study in Israel proved that not everyone will have a blood sugar crash when eating ice cream, and they looked at other factors in the body related to processing food. Some of us absorb and take in more of the calories in one given food than another person will.” So according to Hood, it’s important to keep your body’s unique functions in mind, going beyond calorie counting.
There’s a good reason wrought calorie counting won’t work anyway: science. Certified health coach Holly Lowery tells me, “What most people don’t know is that trying to control our cravings and calories usually creates weight gain rather than the desired weight loss. This is due to weight-cycling and is best explained by the Set-Point Theory; a theory explored by many peer-reviewed studies suggesting that when we restrict, overeat, restrict etc., over and over again, the weight point our body is naturally happiest and healthiest at increases.”
This explains why the more you diet, the harder it seems to get. Lowery continues, “The problem is that this set-point is easy to increase, but very difficult to bring back down. We get stuck in the yo-yo diet cycle and then blame ourselves for not having enough ‘willpower’ and the cycle continues when we restrict ourselves again to make up for the weight gain.” So all of this dieting makes it harder and harder to lose weight. And for Lowery, experts telling us that we’re failing and should diet more is a problem as it’s harming, not helping, our health (and weight!) to diet in the first place.
Pharmaceuticals and Supplements can Help
Diet pills and supplements are ubiquitous, promising fast, easy results. But popping a pill is anything but the right way to approach weight loss. Dr. Svetlana Kogan, author of Diet Slave No More, tells me, “In my opinion, mainstream medical clinics are getting it all wrong about weight loss — they assume that there is a malfunction on the cellular level, which needs to be fixed with the medication. So, there is a push to market pharmaceuticals, which either block the cravings by introducing the amphetamine substance into the brain or try to disrupt fat absorption or processing by the intestinal cells. Both approaches are outrageous. They assume that there is something intrinsically wrong with us that needs to be fixed.”
Additionally, these pills promote the idea that something is wrong with women that we can’t lose weight. Kogan continues, “From the ‘alternative community’ there is not much help either. Some are trying to sell their supplements and herbs, which are increasing your metabolism and follow the same faulty logic.” And that faulty logic — that women are broken — isn’t helping women in the least.
Fat is the Enemy
It might seem intuitive: eat less fat, burn more fat, lose weight. But it’s not so simple. Eating fat can actually be an effective weight loss tool! Puryear tells me, “The fat-free diet was all the rage back in the day and so many people fell for the trick that reducing fat intake would reduce body fat and promote weight loss.”
But the reality, according to Puryear, is that the opposite is true. “When we consume a diet high in healthy fats (think avocado, olive oil, nuts and salmon) our bodies efficiently metabolize and use this fat for fuel. Fat also promotes lipolysis (the breaking down of fat for energy) and has little-to-no effect on insulin, which actually promotes fat storage! In fact, fat is the only macronutrient that does not affect insulin and thus does not promote fat storage.” So in short, Puryear is saying that to burn fat, you have to eat fat.
But be careful not to overdo it, though. Millie Shedorick, MS, RD, author of The ON-a-DIET, OFF-a-DIET Syndrome, notes, “Although we do need some fats, preferably from animals, we generally get too much. I tell my patients, ‘Fats make you fat’ because they are extremely calorie dense —even healthy fats, such as olive oil, which people are pouring over everything.” When you do the math, Shedorick says that the fat calories can add up.
“One quarter of a cup of olive oil is approximately 400 calories! That means half of a cup of olive oil is 800 calories, compared to half a cup of cooked pasta for 100 calories, half a cup of fruit for 50 calories, or half a cup of vegetables for only 25 calories. One level tablespoon of oil, butter, mayonnaise and most dressings contains 100 calories that is added to whatever you are eating. If you overeat only 100 calories more a day than you need, you gain 10 pounds a year.” Suffice to say that it adds up, so be mindful with your fats.
Bad Feelings can Fuel Weight Loss
Dieting because you hate your body and feel ugly is a bad place to find motivation to slim down. Instead, it’s better to be motivated by the same positive feelings you have for the people and things you love. Psychologist Jacqueline Julien, Psy.D.,L.P., tells me, “Starting a weight loss program because you love yourself will pull you toward the weight loss. You take care of the things you love — significant other, children, pets. You don’t want to work hard for something you dislike.”
Instead of focusing on the negative, Julien says it’s important to focus on the positive — self-hate won’t do it. “When you continually tell yourself ‘I hate you’ or ‘you are so fat’ and the other negative messages, your mind picks up on it and doesn’t want to cooperate. When you let yourself know that you are trying to lose weight because you love yourself and want to take care of your body, it is a much easier pill to swallow. And because it is positive oriented your brain says, OK, yes, I want to do this!” And you can!
Losing Weight Fixes Everything
Often it can seem like the extra weight we carry is the source of so much of our unhappiness, and that losing the weight will fix all of our problems. But often times, simply carrying extra pounds can be an indicator of deeper problems.
Marion Rodrigue, MS, LMHC, NCC, tells me, “We often see individuals who are under the impression if they simply lost weight, their life would dramatically improve in all areas. Unfortunately, this is not often the case. Although they are taking courageous steps toward health, other aspects of their life such as relationships, anxiety or depression, and self-acceptance need to be addressed directly. Weight loss is not a ‘fix all’ for other challenges.” This can be tough to pinpoint in a culture that promotes and values dieting, but it’s important to remember that weight loss in an of itself won’t cure your woes.
Eating counselor Hood agrees. “The weight is only a symptom of another problem – whether that problem is due to a health condition, emotional issues, lifestyle issues – it’s not about the fat on the body. Yet that’s all anyone focuses on,” she told me.
She continued, “and, of course, there’s the belief that once it’s gone, life will be great, all problems solved. This just feeds the diet-binge cycle and keeps those in it stuck. If you uncover what’s making you unhappy, or what thoughts/beliefs that you’re holding on to that are causing problems in your life, or whatever else the reason for the weight gain (and it’s often yo-yo dieting), when you resolve that issue, it’s likely that the weight will take care of itself.” So it’s important to dig deep and find out what’s at play beneath the surface, and use the right tools to heal.
You have to Diet Restrictively
When people want to lose weight, the first instinct is to go on a diet. But Registered Dietitian Madeline Basler, MS, RDN, CDN, informs me that, “Diets don’t work, as they are restrictive and lead to feeling deprived, and hence overeating. They also are not sustainable for long periods of time. Working with eating disorder patients reveals that their restriction leads to bingeing and losing the ability to tell if they are hungry or not.”
Basler notes that it’s important to distinguish between physical hunger and emotional hunger. How? Listen to your body. “Hunger cues such as a growling stomach, or low energy is a physical sign of hunger, where as craving a particular food or what you are eating is not satisfying, are emotional signs. Watching a small child eat is how we intuitively eat. They eat when they are hungry and stop when they are satisfied. Getting back to that is the key to staying at a weight that is meant for you to be healthy and feel comfortable.”
Genetics aren’t on your Side
Is it possible that genetics are preventing us from slimming down? Dietitian Basler says it isn’t, though it’s understandable that there is confusion around this topic. She explains that there have been studies estimating a genetic component to obesity. Specifically, the FTO gene, she explained, has been associated with a higher BMI.
Basler notes it’s not clear exactly what impact genetics have on weight. But, “the good news is that a study led by John Mathers at Newcastle University in September 2016, showed that the FTO gene didn’t have much impact when it came to weight loss. A group of nearly 9,000 people were enrolled in 11 studies in which they agreed to genetic analysis. They were randomly assigned to a variety of weight loss methods, including diet, or drug-based therapies. Mathers found there was no difference in the amount of weight loss between those with the FTO gene and those without it.” So it seems that genes aren’t preventing us from dropping unwanted pounds after all.
Thin Equals Healthy
Many experts will tell you that being overweight automatically means you are unhealthy, at risk for a host of problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. However, being heavy doesn’t mean you aren’t in good shape overall. In fact, it could potentially be better for you than the alternative. Eating counselor Hood notes that, “It’s been proven that you can be ‘fat’ and healthy. There are many women who are intentionally not losing weight because the whole process made them sick and miserable, and they couldn’t live their lives, because they believed they didn’t deserve to live fully until they lost the weight.”
So opting out of diet culture is not only possible, but might be the best route for some people. Hood continues, “Now so many of them have awesome, full, interesting lives and most importantly, they are healthy. A side note here – you can also respect or even love your body no matter what the size. Acceptance is necessary before anything is going to change, at least permanently change.”