July 02, 2014

In a recent article published in Critical Reviews in Food Science & Nutrition and the New England Journal of Medicine, a research team from the University of Alabama at Birmingham put together a list of commonly held but scientifically unproven presumptions about obesity.

Now we're not talking about those last few pesky pounds preventing you from enjoying your summer bikini. This list is in regards to clinical obesity and how these misconceptions inaccurately shape our public policy and public health recommendations.

Here are the biggest obesity myths you need to reconsider.

Myth #1: Small Changes in Calorie Intake or Expenditure Will Produce Large, Long-Term Weight Changes

This "calories in-calories out" rule is an outdated mentality. A half-century-old research study equates a pound of weight to 3,500 calories, meaning that to lose one pound per week you had to eat 3,500 fewer calories or burn 3,500 more calories throughout that week. However, applying this rule to small, sustainable changes violates the original assumptions: That this only works for short term. The old study itself was only tested in men on very low-energy diets (less than 800 calories per day.).

The truth: Recent studies have shown that individual variability affects changes in body composition, and long-terms goals may take even longer depending on the quality of calories you're intaking. Think about it: 3,500 calories per week of vending machine snacks looks a lot different on your body than 3,500 calories of fresh fruits and veggies.

Myth #2: Setting Lofty and Unrealistic Weight-Loss Goals Is Counterproductive Because You Will Become Frustrated and Lose Less Weight

Although it is a reasonable hypothesis to set realistic and attainable goals, this study reminds us that technically there is no empirical research indicating a negative association between ambitious goals and actual weight loss. There were two studies that showed interventions designed to improve weight loss outcomes by altering unrealistic goals resulted in more realistic expectations, but not necessarily better or different results.

The truth: Tailor your goals to how you personally work best. If you like to pick a date in the near future and work toward small changes within a short- or medium-term goal, go for it! If you know you have more than a few pounds to lose and aren't scared of the total number, that's okay too! Keep your head down and stay focused, knowing that progress may be slow, but it will be worth it in the end.

Myth #3: Rapid Weight Loss Means You Are Predisposed to Regaining the Weight Back Quickly, Rather Than Losing Weight More Slowly

Weight-loss research trials typically conduct a long-term follow up one or more years after the initial weight loss. Comparing studies that encouraged rapid weight loss on very-low-energy diets versus studies with slower weight loss shows no statistically significant difference between the two in the long-term follow up.

The truth: If you are obese, you may see a greater initial weight loss than others. It is unclear why some obese people respond differently than others. If you fall into the rapid weight loss category naturally, it may actually slow your long-term weight loss if you try to interfere with your body's natural response. This rule does not apply for those looking to shed five quick pounds before a beach trip, as dramatic fasting causes proven internal damage. But for major weight-loss goals greater than 40 pounds, keep this myth in mind.

Myth #4: It Is Important to Assess the Stage of Change or Readiness in Order to Begin Weight-Loss Treatment

The stages of change model is used as a scale to assess where an individual rates themselves in terms of being ready to make a change. You may be thinking about making a change, preparing to make a change, or full-on ready to make a change today. Research says readiness does not predict the magnitude or effectiveness of a weight-loss treatment.

The truth: The explanation as to why there is no scientific evidence may be simple-people who voluntarily choose to enter a weight loss program are, by definition, ready to begin changes now. It may also be difficult to prove the connection between mental and emotional behavior and physical response. Let's wait for science to catch up with our hearts, and don't write this idea off quite yet. Make the change when you're ready.

Myth #5: Physical Education Classes, as They Currently Are, Play an Important Role in Reducing or Preventing Childhood Obesity

Physical education has not been shown to reduce or prevent obesity as it is typically provided today. Three different research studies found that even if the number of days children attended PE classes was increased, there were still inconsistent effects on body mass index (BMI) across sexes and age groups.

The truth: There is definitely a certain level of physical activity involving a set frequency, intensity, and duration that would be effective in reducing or preventing obesity. Clinical trials are warranted to uncover the magic ratio because the conventional school settings don't quite have it right just yet.

Myth #6: Breastfeeding Protects Against Obesity

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that people who were breastfed as infants are less likely to be obese later in life but recognized that these conclusions have been drawn from bias or confounding studies. A more comprehensive study is showing no compelling evidence on this relationship between breastfeeding and obesity.

The truth: Breastfeeding has many vital and crucially important benefits for the infant and the mother that makes this behavior still very much encouraged. Scientists still believe that they have yet to prove all of the protective and positive effects of breastfeeding, and are hoping to formally endorse the obesity-protective quality onto the list very soon.

Myth #7: Weight Cycling (i.e. Yo-Yo Dieting) Is Associated with Increased Mortality

Observational studies show that weight cycling is associated with increased mortality, but these findings are probably on account of confounding health status.

The truth: Science cannot prove that yo-yo dieting increases mortality, but it can still prove how harsh it is on your body and how detrimental it can be for your emotional and mental health too. Keep your confidence high, learn to love whichever shape you're in, and find a lifestyle that doesn't promote jumping off the deep end if it gets too unsafe or unsustainable. We all have cheat days, but don't put your system through the ringer too hard too many times. It is simply unsafe.

Myth #8: Eating More Fruits and Vegetables Will Result in Weight Loss Regardless of Any Other Changes to One's Behavior or Environment

It goes without saying that eating more fresh, whole foods has wonderful health benefits. However, when no other accompanying change exists, weight gain may still occur.

The truth: Still eat more fruits and veggies! If it grows naturally from the earth, typically you have almost free reign in terms of how much you're allowed to eat (bonus points if it's leafy and green). But don't expect that to be the silver bullet to your future skinny jeans. Make complementary changes like biking to work, drinking less soda, and getting more rest, and you will be sure to see results.

Myth #9: Snacking Contributes to Weight Gain and Obesity

Randomized, controlled trials do not support this presumption. Even observational studies have not shown a consistent association between snacking and increased BMI.

The truth: Each body is different. Some people do great with a few small meals throughout the day; it is said to stabilize blood sugar and keep energy up, especially if you are very active. Many people, however, snack too often and still have three large meals per day. Try sticking to three well-balanced meals and minimizing snacking in between. These few hours between meals is shown to be so restorative for your digestive system that it will promote more efficient metabolization of future meals the rest of the day.

By Katie McGrath for