One of the most frustrating things about health and fitness is the way certain myths persist in popular culture. Often, it’s the nature of the news media–new findings are reported widely and with great enthusiasm, but corrections rarely get much attention. Most in the press don’t really understand scientific studies, and tend to misrepresent their findings, sometimes drastically. And of course, sometimes myths persist because nefarious interests are exploiting them to turn a profit.
As trainers, we hear these myths repeated again and again, often from frustrated clients who have been expecting a result science says they’ll never get. To help you, here’s the truth about ten common myths many people (perhaps even you) still think are true.
1. Eating many small meals will not speed up your weight loss.
This one bugs me more than most diet myths, mainly because you hear it repeated so often. No, eating many smaller meals will not speed up your metabolism to help you lose weight faster; weight loss is all about calories in versus calories out. If you’re looking to lose 5 pounds a month, you do that by eating 500 fewer calories each day (on average) than you burn–it doesn’t matter if you eat those calories all in one sitting, or spread across 5 or 10 meals.
There can be other benefits to spreading your calories across many smaller meals; for one thing, it can help you feel full throughout your day, so you aren’t tempted to indulge and wreck that calorie differential. That can make a big difference in weight loss success. For those working to build muscle, eating frequent small amounts of protein will help keep your body from breaking down the muscle fibers you are working so hard to build. But one thing it will definitely not do is speed up your metabolism and lead to faster weight loss.
2. You cannot target a body part for fat reduction.
Say it with me: SPOT REDUCTION IS A MYTH.
This is one of the most persistent myths in the fitness world; it seems nothing will ever kill it. Crunches will not burn the fat covering up your six-pack. Body wraps will not burn the fat they squeeze under cellophane. Waist training will not eliminate the fat around your midsection. Once again: You lose fat by eating fewer calories than you burn, and that happens all over your body.
Some people will lose fat from certain areas before others, but that’s genetics, not spot reduction. Body wraps and waist training work by expelling water from the cells, not burning fat. The only form of spot reduction that does work is liposuction, which literally sucks the fat cells out of the targeted area–but with those fat cells gone, if the patient doesn’t watch their calorie intake, their body will just find another spot to store that fat.
3. You can get fat without eating too much fat.
Does anyone remember Susan Powter? I know, she’s still out there, but in the mid-1990s her “Stop the Insanity” videos made her a big name in diet and weight loss. One of her mantras was, “You can’t get fat if you don’t eat fat.” Susan’s followers lived on bagels and pasta, and unfortunately while her mantra was consistent with some of the science of the day, it was dead wrong.
The human body’s only means of storing fuel–our only gas tank, so to speak–is fat. Therefore, any extra calories you take in will be converted to fat, regardless of the form they’re in when you ingest them. Carbs, protein, alcohol, and–yes–fat, all will be stored as fat if you eat more calories than you’re burning.
That said, one gram of fat contains 9 calories, compared to 4 each in carbohydrates and protein. So if your diet is high in fat, you are more likely to be overeating.
4. Eating lots of cholesterol won’t cause high cholesterol.
In the 1990s, Americans were warned left and right against eating eggs and beef because of their high cholesterol content, and to this day many people are leery of both products for that reason. But science says serum cholesterol (the cholesterol in your blood, the stuff you get tested at the doctor) is entirely manufactured by your body, it doesn’t come from your diet.
This is good news for many people who enjoy high-cholesterol food, but it’s frustrating for those with a genetic predisposition to cholesterol problems, who have to avoid the fats and sugars that their bodies will use to produce the offending molecules. The actual triggers are complex, so if you’re worried about your cholesterol you should talk to your doctor–but if your levels are safe, eating high-cholesterol foods won’t change that.
5. Organic foods are not healthier than regular foods.
I’m sure some readers are already angry with me about this one, so allow me to clarify: I’m not saying organic foods are never healthier; I’m saying that simply being organic doesn’t automatically make your food safer, and it almost never makes it healthier in the sense that vitamin or nutrient levels are higher.
Organic is a huge complicated topic that’s too much for me to get into here, but it’s important to note that (a) most organic food is still exposed to pesticides, some of which are even more toxic than those used on non-organic foods; (b) the regulations behind the “organic” label are so vague that, in many cases, the label is almost meaningless; and (c) in the majority of cases–with some notable exceptions–there is no substantial difference between organic and non-organic versions of the same food.
The Mayo Clinic and other sites offer lots more information on organic food. You may have very good reasons that you choose to buy organic, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that “organic” label automatically means the food is more nutritious or better for your body.
6. Diet soda will not make you fat.
I happen to have a bit of a Diet Coke addiction, so I frequently hear the many reasons people believe diet soda is unhealthy, particularly the idea that diet soda makes people fat.
And, like most people I engage on the topic, you probably won’t believe me when I tell you there is zero scientific evidence to support any of the beliefs about diet soda being unhealthy. That’s right: No evidence that it lowers bone density; no evidence that it causes cancer; and no evidence that it makes people crave sugar or calories. There is not one single negative health effect of diet soda that has ever been backed up by research–which is not to say it is definitely not unhealthy. That’s not how science works. All of those beliefs stem from hypotheses that may one day be proven correct, but at present it’s not so.
It’s true there have been studies that show a correlation between obesity and the consumption of diet soda, but as the saying goes, “correlation is not causation.” In yet another instance of the media running wild with a scientific misunderstanding, this was widely reported as ‘diet soda causes obesity,’ but it is equally as likely that obese people are more likely to choose diet soda. All we know for sure is the two show correlation.
7. Lifting weights will not make women bulky and masculine.
In recent years, particularly with the growing popularity of Crossfit, weight training has moved from something only muscle-bound bodybuilders enjoyed to something everyone wants to try. This is a very good thing; weight training has tons of health benefits, and health experts currently recommend it for literally everyone, from children to the very elderly. However, many women still gravitate toward those 5-pound dumbbells, worried that lifting heavy will make them look too masculine and bulky.
There is no reason whatsoever to be concerned; it is almost impossible for a normal woman to put on the kind of muscle a man can, for one simple reason: Testosterone. The human body requires testosterone to build muscle. Women naturally produce much less of the hormone than men do; enough to add some muscle, but not enough to really pack it on. Women who want to get big and bulky, like you see in some magazines, have to take supplements, eat a very specific diet, and (sometimes/often) rely on steroids to get that big.
There are one or two exercises that some women might want to avoid; using a wide-grip on lateral pulls, for instance, can broaden the back in a way some women find manly. The solution is not to reduce the weight, but to keep to a narrow grip. Lifting too light is never a good idea; it’s almost like not lifting at all.
8. Running is not harmful for your body.
As a runner, I hear this one all the damn time, usually some variation on “Oh, my grandfather was a runner until his knees gave out. What will you do when you can’t run any more?” The assumption seems to be that running is a limited-time enterprise, as if there weren’t people in their 80s and 90s still running marathons.
The truth is that running is not bad for your body; running badly is bad for your body. Just like any other physical enterprise, from walking to playing a sport to working a computer mouse, using bad form will eventually lead to injury. As a relatively high-impact sport, running may carry higher risk than some other activities, but these risks can easily be mitigated by learning proper form, wearing good shoes, and listening to your body. When something hurts, stop doing it. If it hurts a lot, or hurts consistently, talk to a medical professional about what’s going wrong.
Persisting in running through pain is a surefire way to end your running career forever, but if you treat your body right, and give it the preventive care and maintenance it needs, there’s no reason you can’t be toeing the start line for the rest of your life.
9. Weight lifting is not more dangerous for children.
This isn’t one I hear very often, but when I do it takes me by surprise. There is, apparently, an old belief that lifting weights and building muscle would cause children to stop growing. This is totally false, and dates from around the same period in time when women were warned not to exercise, lest their uteruses should just fall out onto the ground.
It’s safe for children to start lifting just as soon as they want to; however there are some added precautions kids should take to avoid injury, and I would strongly recommend working with an experienced coach or trainer. Weight lifting equipment is dangerous for anyone, and kids are often inexperienced, less coordinated, and less cautious than adults. That said, with proper guidance, there’s no reason a child can’t start lifting, provided it’s something they want to do.
10. Sugar is not a stimulant, and does not make children hyper.
My absolute favorite myth to dispel, and I’ll tell you why: I bet you don’t believe me. I can probably link to ten scientific studies that conclusively show sugar isn’t a stimulant, and isn’t linked to hyperactivity, and you still won’t believe me. It’s so ingrained in our culture that it seems impossible to believe, but it’s true.
Sugar is not a stimulant. In fact, it’s a sedative. No, really. Look it up. Or just think about your day. Do you actually feel stimulated after you eat something sweet? I’m not talking about coffee or chocolate, those have caffeine. A hard candy. Do you feel a surge of energy? Or do you just get sleepy a few minutes later?
Why is sugar so linked with child hyperactivity? There are a few theories, though none is conclusive; some researchers believe children have reactions to other ingredients in sweets, like preservatives and food dyes. Others point to the socially stimulating experiences that often accompany childhood sweets: Birthday parties, trick or treating, bake sales, and the like. I’ve seen suggestions that, over time, a sort of Pavlovian response can take hold; kids associate sugar with exciting activities, and tasting sugar therefore triggers excitement–but it’s not a biochemical response.
The one thing that is conclusively true? Sugar won’t make you, or your kids, hyper. In fact in the long run it will help them go to sleep.