The Nutritional Lies That Keep America Fat
If there’s something I’ve noticed about fitness myths, it’s that everyone is equally vulnerable to them. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how many facts you know, or how many letters come after your name; it’s easier than you think to fall prey to false truths.
Here are three of the most egregious, and believing them isn't just wrong, it can keep you fat and sick. Get ready for a few surprises.
Myth 1: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day
You’ve probably heard this one repeatedly from pretty much anyone who has an opinion. Unfortunately, opinions in nutrition are like assholes -- they're at your work, get on your nerves, and tell you what to do even when they're wrong. The truth is that breakfast isn’t the most important meal of the day. Your body doesn’t care when and what you call the first meal you shove down your throat.
I’ll give you a minute to digest that. You may be upset -- after all, it’s the slogan that fuels the $11 billion+ cereal industry, so you can be excused for falling for high-powered marketing. But a quick dig through the research tells a different story.
Think about the significance of breakfast: it’s the first meal after (hopefully) about eight hours of fasting. According to conventional wisdom, any sort of fasting is bad: it starves your muscles, drags down your metabolism, impairs your thought processes, and basically sabotages any of your efforts to be a better human.
But that’s not true. Short-term fasting showed no impact on cognitive abilities when research subjects didn’t know they were skipping breakfast. Additionally, skipping the first meal has no impact on metabolism, and in fact, it’s actually known that fasting under 48 hours actually increases your metabolism.
Surely those claims on your cereal box must have been based on something? Well, they were, but incorrectly so. Research supporting breakfast usually resulted in correlational studies -- so instead of proving breakfast caused those benefits, it just showed that people who ate breakfast also happened to experience those effects too.
For example, a study may survey people for their eating habits and find that breakfast eaters tend to be more overweight than their skipping counterparts. It’s likely, however, that breakfast eaters were more health conscious, and thus took better care of their weight. In actual fact, controlled experiments that split groups into an experimental group and a "control" group -- rather than rely on surveys -- have found that, at best, skipping doesn't really make a difference.
I use the breakfast example because it demonstrates the first rule of nutritional myth propagation: if enough people repeat with frequency, people will believe it without question.
Other examples of myths greatly boosted by repetition are:
- Saturated fat is bad and leads to heart disease. This was essentially refuted by two meta-analyses (a study of studies), one from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and one from the Annals of Internal Medicine.
- High-fructose corn syrup is worse than sugar.
- Beer inherently makes you fat.
These myths are particularly nefarious because they place artificial constraints on your diet, rather than allowing people to do what works for them. But sheer repetition isn’t the only thing keeping these myths alive. They often have help from authority figures... which brings us to our next nutritional lie.
Myth 2: ALWAYS listen to doctors (and other authorities, like the FDA)
Since my parents are both medical doctors, you’d think I grew up a shining beacon of health and fitness. Instead, I grew up obese, and resembled the hypothetical spawn of that kid from Up and Manny from Modern Family. I know what I’m talking about when I say doctors often don’t know shit about nutrition and exercise.
In the United States, obesity is the largest preventable killer, and annually costs the country hundreds of billions of dollars. Whether it’s your personal physician or a well-known figure like Dr. Oz, doctors are usually the first people someone looking to get healthier will seek out. Unfortunately, they’re turning to the wrong people, since only 0.04% of the 40,000 hours spent in medical school is devoted to nutrition.
As my good friend Dr. Yoni Freedhoff (who, as an actual obesity expert, runs one of Canada’s largest obesity clinics) has told me: medical doctors reduce weight loss to “eat less, move more.” That’s sweet in theory, but it’s about as helpful as telling a depressed person that they “just need to be less sad."
So where did that nutrition advice your family practitioner gave you come from? The same place that your grandmother got her advice to eat breakfast -- your doctor heard it from "somewhere." At some point. Most likely.
I’m probably just being a dick (no pun intended), as many doctors are aware of their nutritional shortcomings. The problem is that their advice is still passed along as government recommendations, and even these are often based on faulty findings that do things like use rabbit studies as the basis of their dietary cholesterol warnings, or classify pizza as a vegetable.
Myth 3: Exercise is the key to weight loss
On the surface, this myth makes sense. Americans are busier than ever, and our lack of exercise shows up on our waistlines. "Fat people are obviously just lazy... send them to bootcamp and watch the pounds melt off," is what some would like to think, especially when this practice is endorsed by shows like The Biggest Loser.
Well, one study did just that. Researchers took 320 obese subjects and told half of them to exercise more. The result? Not much. The subjects lost 5lb despite exercising an additional three hours per week for an entire year.
Sure, Americans might be more sedentary than ever, but that isn’t what impacts our growing waistlines, because exercise really doesn’t burn that many calories in general. In fact, when you compare Americans with an indigenous tribe of hunter-gatherers -- people who are on their feet all day -- there’s not much difference in calories burned per day.
In many cases, people think that they can simply out-exercise a bad diet, but the truth is much more complicated: processed foods and sugary drinks play a large role in weight gain (surprise!), along with a host of other lifestyle and genetic factors.
It’s also important to understand that if you’re overweight, it’s not necessarily because you’re physically lazy. Common sense has it backwards. People aren’t fat because they don’t exercise... people don’t exercise because they’re fat. If you were told that you could be Adrian Peterson for 24 hours, you’d be sprinting around like a puppy during its first time in the park. Conversely, if any self-proclaimed exercise lovers (p.s. I hate you) worked as hard as they do, only to find themselves looking like this guy, there's a good chance they’d throw in the towel.
Far too often I see people make New Year’s resolutions to hit the treadmill every single day before work. When the number on the scale doesn’t budge, they give up on fitness -- each time lasts longer than the one before. Exercise is great for your health, of course, but thinking that it will shed pounds is, ironically, what might be keeping them on.
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