Get ready to question everything you've been told about diet rules and conventional weight-loss strategies
When describing how you really feel about the latest miracle fix in the diet and fitness world, you'd probably like to drop an F-bomb—as in, what the fad? After all, how many times have you trusted logical sounding ideas, put all your faith in a diet strategy, only to find out that the time you invested was a waste—and you still haven’t dropped the weight?
Consider this your F-bomb free zone. No fads, no faking, and no frustration. You see, when you really dig into the research, most of what you assume is correct about dieting is actually wrong. Discover the real diet rules for weight loss here and the only f-words coming out of your mouth will be “Finally. Fat loss!” (Check out Shape's exclusive Bikini Body Diet to find out how to achieve your best body ever in just six weeks.)
One of the diet rules for weight loss that we've heard more than any other: A healthy diet begins with a great breakfast. There's just one problem: A good breakfast doesn’t guarantee an overall healthy diet. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the NPD group, nearly 90 percent of Americans now eat breakfast, and yet nearly 50 percent of Americans are either overweight or obese. There are two things you should know about breakfast:
1. Timing isn't as important as you think. You don’t need to eat immediately (or even within one hour) after you wake up. Your metabolism won’t be harmed.
2. Eating an early breakfast means you’re creating a bigger eating window (you eat for more total hours during the day), which might lead to more fat storage and more health problems, according to scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. If you eat your first meal at 7 a.m. and eat a late-night snack at 10 p.m., that’s 15 hours of eating—which might be more than your body wants.
The fad-free truth: No one meal is more important than any other. What matters most is total calorie intake, food selection (think salad versus Big Mac), and then how much time you spend eating each day. So if you don’t love breakfast, skip it. If you do, enjoy your morning meal but keep an eye on your feeding window to make sure you’re not eating more calories than you need.
We all know that dinner is the most popular meal to eat with friends and family, but most people think eating after dark is the cardinal sin of weight loss. Nothing could be more incorrect. Italian researchers compared eating earlier in the day (10 a.m.) to eating later in the day (6 p.m.) In that study, there was no difference in weight (pounds) lost, but the late eaters lost more fat. Several follow-up studies concluded the same thing—timing doesn’t matter. This statement from University of Oregon researchers sums it up well: “Eating too many calories causes weight gain regardless of when you eat them.”
The fad-free truth: Living in a world where you can’t eat at night and can’t enjoy food with your friends and family is restrictive and doesn’t adhere to any science-backed rules of weight loss. You won’t become fat by eating at night—that will only happen if you overeat at night. If you’re aware of how much you should be eating within any given day, you can place those calories in whatever meal works best for your body.
We know that when you eat, you burn calories. So about 30 years ago, one of the newest diet rules was that if you eat more frequently, you must burn more calories overall. Thus the “grazing” method was formed and a nation of people began consuming four to six small meals per day. One small problem: French researchers found that there is “no evidence of improved weight loss” by eating more frequently. They even went one step further to show that when it comes to the number of calories you burn per day (i.e. your metabolism), it does not matter if you graze or gorge, assuming that you’re eating the total number of calories you need to lose weight.
The fad-free truth: If you’re told to eat 2,000 calories per day, it doesn’t matter if it’s separated into five 400-calorie meals or two 1000-calorie feasts. (However, the composition of those meals does matter—that's the science of dieting.) What works best for your schedule should determine the number of meals you eat. When Canadian researchers compared eating three meals per day to six meals per day, breaking the six into three main meals and three snacks, there was no significant difference in weight loss, but those who ate three meals were more satisfied and felt less hunger.
From Atkins to the Paleo movement, carbohydrates have been criticized more than all of the ladies on the Real Housewives shows—combined. Here’s the real reason why carbs get such a bad reputation: Up to 50 percent of the carbohydrate intake in the typical American diet is in the form of highly processed carbs and sugar. So when people say carbs are bad, they’re usually just talking about eating lots of sugar. But that’s not really fair to every other food that also is labeled a carbohydrate.
When compared to a typical American diet, a low-carb diet looks like the undisputed champ. However, when compared to a good carb-based diet that is low in sugar, refined foods, and gluten (like the “Japanese Diet”), the results are very different. Before 1991, when Japan was considered a carb-dominate society, diabetes and obesity rates were never greater than three percent of the population. If carbs in general were the enemy, with their high starch intake via rice and sweet potatoes, the Japanese would be the fattest, most diabetic and unhealthy population on the planet. However this was not the case, and their levels of obesity are a “problem” people in the United States wish they had.
The fad-free truth: Ignore the outdated "carbs are evil" diet rules. Your body needs carbohydrates. If you completely remove this essential nutrient from your diet, you could experience a down-regulation of the hormones that control fat loss, making it harder to have the lean, sexy body you want. A good general rule: Eat more carbs on the days you’re active and fewer carbs on the days you’re sedentary. And make sure most of your carbs come from whole foods such as fruits and vegetables.
Most miracle “fat-burning supplements” are about as effective as an hour of Prancercizing. But if you want to take a pill to help promote fat loss, your best bet is a vitamin that you associate with the sun. Researchers from Canada found that people with higher levels of vitamin D also have lower levels of body fat. The connection isn't a coincidence. Vitamin D helps you feel fuller because, according to Australian researchers, it releases more leptin, a hormone essential to weight loss. It also helps you store less fat by decreasing parathyroid hormone, which makes you hold on to your love handles. Best of all, vitamin D literally burns more fat by reducing production of the stress hormone cortisol.
The fad-free truth: Buying supplements to help you lose weight is not the best use of your hard-earned money. The most important things for weight loss are a healthy diet and exercise, but some supplements can help fill nutritional gaps that will help your body function more efficiently. Supplementing with 2,000 to 3,000 IU of Vitamin D3 is a smart investment for your overall health and fat-loss goals.
If you exercise with a high intensity, there’s nothing worse than feeling sick to your stomach because you felt forced to eat before you hit the gym or pavement. There’s a lot of science that shows eating before a workout is important, but “before a workout” is a much wider time range than you might think.
In the simplest sense, your digestive process is very complicated. When you eat, the food does not go directly to your muscles or your gut. It takes time—a lot of time, in fact. So if you eat many hours before you train, there’s still plenty of fuel to help you perform and feel great.
The fad-free truth: Research published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that the protein you eat digests anywhere between one gram per hour and 10 grams per hour. So if you have a meal consisting of 25 grams of protein, that meal could last in your system for up to 25 hours. Hydration level and sleep patterns also play a significant role in performance, so make sure you’re well rested and have plenty to drink, and then eat when it feels best for your body, even if it means a small meal or no meal at all.
Books like The China Study and movies like Forks Over Knives have pointed the finger at saturated fats—and all animal fats—as the reason for countless health problems. Yet all the research used to support this hypothesis took a very slanted bias and completely ignored populations that were incredibly healthy despite diets based on saturated fats. For example, people who live in Tokelau (a territory off of New Zealand) eat a diet that is 50 percent saturated fats, and they have cardiovascular health that is superior to any other group of people. Even Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard, has publicly stated (after a 20-year review of research) that fats—and more specifically saturated fats—are not the cause of the obesity crisis and are not the cause of heart disease. (Surprise! New research found that the sugar industry was behind the idea that fat causes cardiovascular problems.)
The fad-free truth: Cholesterol actually acts as an antioxidant against dangerous free radicals within the blood. When there are high levels of undesirable substances in the blood (caused by inflammation in your arteries from eating highly processed foods and large quantities of sugars), cholesterol levels rise in order to combat these substances. Cholesterol is also necessary for the production of a number of hormones, some of which help fight against heart disease. Plus, research shows diets higher in saturated fats are often lower in total calories consumed.
Any diet that has you not eat at all is not a diet—it’s starvation. But there’s a difference between withholding what your body needs and reprogramming your body so that you can control your hunger and let your body recharge. The idea of fasting is nothing crazy. You do it every night when you sleep, which is a time that that is essential for optimal health. Yet the idea of going several hours without eating during daytime is frowned upon.
When done correctly, fasting can actually help your body burn fat, recharge, and stay healthy. You’ve probably heard of cleanse diets that supposedly rid your body of toxins, improve the functioning of your internal organs, and help you age better. Most of these don’t work as advertised. The only real cleanse occurs at the cellular level. It’s called autophagy, and it’s your body’s ability to regenerate and become better. Autophagy makes your brain function a little better, helps with fat loss, and even assists in your ability to walk and breathe. But the more time you spend eating—as in actual hours during the day eating—the less time you spend in the autophagic process, which is why fasting isn’t a bad thing.
The fad-free truth: Researchers at the University of Utah found that people who fasted just one day per month were 40 percent less likely to suffer from clogged arteries. While there are many ways to fast, the important point is that you shouldn’t feel forced to eat if you’re not hungry. Short daily fasts (for 12 to 16 hours) or a once-per-week daily fast can have health benefits, and it will teach you to separate boredom or thirst from genuine hunger.
I love my local farmer’s market, and I always do my best to purchase products from the best sources. That said, slapping “organic” on a label does not mean it will help you lose weight, and in some instances, it won’t even guarantee that a food is healthy. Research published in the Annal of Internal Medicine reviewed 200 studies that compared the health benefits of organic foods to conventional foods and the results were surprising: There were no clearly distinguishable benefits of eating organic foods, whether measured by preventing disease or an assessment of overall health. Specific to weight loss, a random comparison of organic to non-organic foods found no significant difference in nutritional information, including calories.
The fad-free truth: More research on organic foods needs to be conducted. There’s no doubt organic foods have fewer pesticides and toxins, the real question is if the sometimes-small difference in toxins makes any scientifically significant difference on your health. More importantly, labeling a food as organic does not mean its weight-loss friendly. Organic sources of sugar are still sugar. And organic products loaded with 1,000 calories are still 1,000 calories. If you want to reduce the potential of anything bad entering your body, feel free to purchase organic products but still keep an eye on the label.
You may have heard that eating lots of protein can cause all sorts of health problems, including kidney stones and gallstones, but this is a moot point for most people. Why? Because there’s no research showing any relationship between eating a lot of protein and developing kidney problems. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research tested eating up to 400 grams of protein per day without any negative consequences. (Next up: Is Whey Protein Good for Weight Loss?)
If you have a pre-existing kidney problem, it’s possible that a higher protein diet could be hard on your body. But if you have a kidney problem, you should be talking to your doctor about your diet anyway.
The fad-free truth: If you’re healthy, you are clear to eat protein and not worry about any health problems—because there are none. What’s more, protein is one of the most metabolic macronutrients, meaning that the more protein you eat, the more calories you burn. Just remember the science of dieting: that calories are still calories so the rules of total intake still apply.