Myths and Realities About Weight-Loss Myths and Realities

If you like to keep up to date on the latest nutrition research, you may be suffering from a severe case of whiplash this week. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine set off an explosion of news reports cautioning that pretty much everything you’ve ever been told about preventing obesity—Eat breakfast! Set realistic goals! Make small, sustainable changes!—is wrong.

The study authors, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham among other institutions, make a compelling argument. Some of our most strongly held beliefs about how to control weight persist, they say, even when they haven’t been scientifically proven. And the perpetuation of these untruths can lead to poor policy and incorrect clinical recommendations, as well as distract us from the information out there that is based on solid evidence. The researchers’ aim was to tease out the falsehoods and also highlight some realities that could help us in our collective weight-loss efforts.

To examine their hypothesis, they reviewed years’ worth of scientific literature looking for “substantial evidence”—by their definition, an “adequate” number of randomized clinical trials—to support common beliefs around weight loss and obesity. The researchers went on to identify seven “myths” (claims that have contradicting evidence), six “presumptions” (claims that have been neither proven or disproven), and nine “facts” (claims with enough scientific evidence to consider valid). 

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Here are a few examples of what the authors determined based on their criteria:

Myth: Large, rapid weight loss is associated with poorer long-term weight outcomes than is slow, gradual weight loss.

Presumption: Regularly eating breakfast is protective against obesity. 

Fact: Diet programs that provide meals and meal-replacement products promote greater weight loss.

I have heard a few criticisms about this paper. For starters, the researchers don’t make it 100-percent clear what criteria they used for the clinical trials that counted as “substantial evidence.” Another issue is that most of the study’s authors have financial ties to weight loss, pharmaceutical, and food companies, which raises some suspicion. Regardless, their findings provide some interesting food for thought for writers like myself, policy makers, and others. But what about for you, a person trying to achieve or stay at a healthy weight?

One of the biggest take-homes from this study is to always accept weight-loss advice with a grain of salt—a valuable reminder for all of us. And I’d say that a healthy dose of skepticism should be exercised regarding this report as well. 

The randomized clinical trials that the researchers in this study focused on are the gold standard when it comes to scientific research. But even the best studies have their limitations. And when it comes to measuring how our lifestyles influence our waistlines, you cannot completely separate one behavior from the rest of our actions.

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The most important thing that isn’t addressed in this and most other obesity research: Weight loss is a fiercely personal and always-evolving endeavor. There’s no guarantee that what works for your BFF, your hairdresser, or the majority of people enrolled in even the best clinical trial will be right for you. And, what’s more, strategies that are effective in your life this year might not be in another 10.

Weight-loss research is just one small piece in a complicated, personalized puzzle. No one headline holds the key to solving our weight challenges. But each new discovery is an opportunity to reevaluate your approach, as well as get excited about the role of food in health and healing (the main reason I love reporting on nutrition so much). And that might just help tip the scales in your favor. Reports like this can help inform your decisions; the real answers, however, lie within yourself.

What about you? Has your real-world weight loss experience ever run counter to a scientific “absolute”?

 

Rachel Meltzer Warren, M.S., R.D., is a New York-based nutrition writer, educator, and counselor. Her work appears in publications such as Prevention, Women’s Health, Good Housekeeping, Every Day with Rachael Ray, SHAPE, and Fitness. Follow her on Twitter @RMWnutrition.

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