5 Fat Loss Myths that are Wasting
Your Time and Energy
This article originally appeared on the InBody Blog and can be found here:
Making a change in body composition comes down to two different goals: losing Fat Mass and gaining Lean Body Mass. While everyone has a different body composition and will focus on these two goals differently, at the end of the day, everyone has to work on these goals to change their body composition.
Of the two goals, the discussions surrounding fat loss seem to fall victim to more myths, pseudoscience, and full-blown quackery than muscle gain. That’s because there’s a hard truth about losing fat that few people want to hear: if you want to lose Fat Mass, you need to be in a caloric deficit (which means eating less than your body demands, increasing your energy output, or probably both), and it’s going to take longer than you might want.
And that’s the hard truth. Today, people love shortcuts. They love “life hacks.” They want results without putting in the necessary effort.
It’s this desire for shortcuts to avoid the discomfort of making lifestyle changes that has created a slew of fat loss myths and whole cottage industry of products, articles, and “gurus” to support them.
Don't be fooled. Let’s take a look at some of the worst offenders and see what science has to say about them.
1. To Lose Fat, All You Have to Do is Work Out
You might start your fat loss journey by signing up for a gym. This is a great start! However, if this is all that you do, you could be wasting their time if you aren’t careful.
You see, fat loss occurs as the result of being in a caloric/energy deficit. That means you have to take in less calories than your body requires. According to the Centers for Disease Control, you need to reduce your energy intake by at least 500 calories a day to lose around a pound of fat per week.
Here’s the problem: if you start increasing your daily energy use at the gym, you’re going to feel hungrier than you do normally, and if you eat more than you used to as a result, from a fat-loss standpoint, your workouts are wasted.
Let’s say your body needs 2,100 calories to maintain its weight, and on a normal day, you eat 2,100 calories. Your weight won’t change much, if at all. Now let’s say you burn 300 calories on a stationary bike; now your body needs 2,400 calories to maintain weight. If you make no change to your diet, you’ll be in a -300 caloric deficit. But if you start eating more because you think “your metabolism is speeding up” (which is NOT how it works, by the way) you’ll negate any energy deficit you worked for, leading to no fat loss.
2. If You Eat at Night, You Get Fat
Eating at night seems to make sense intuitively. If you eat a bunch of food and go to sleep, your body turns it all into fat because you’re not moving around and using it. Just like a bear in winter, right?
This type of thinking ignores a basic physiological process: your metabolism, which is more formally known as your Basal Metabolic Rate. Your BMR is the amount of calories that your body consumes over a 24-hour period at rest, and according to the CDC, it’s the amount of calories you burn over a 24-hour period that affects your weight. That includes when you sleep.
Let’s say your BMR is 1,600 calories/day. That means your body is burning roughly 67 calories per hour, which multiplied by 8 for an 8-hour sleep is a little over 533 calories.
This means that if you eat a meal right before sleeping, it’s much more important about how much you ate rather than when. If your daily caloric intake to maintain weight is 2,100 and you decide to have a 200-300 calorie snack before sleeping when you’ve already eaten 2,100 calories that day, then yes, you will likely gain weight. But if you’re watching your caloric intake and a 200-300-calorie snack is still within your limits, you will be fine.
Also: the same is true for bears. They don’t wake up fat in spring, do they?
3. You Can Go On A “Detox”, “Juice Cleanse”, or “Juice Fast” To Lose Fat
This is an especially popular myth, and it has so much staying power because it involves something people know they’re supposed to do but don’t: eat enough fruit and vegetables.
Juice cleanses promise to remove harmful “toxins” from your body, which are blamed for causing everything such as tiredness, sluggishness, poor health, and of course: weight gain.
Juice cleanses are incredibly expensive – one company sells a 3-day regimen for nearly $200 – and are incredibly ineffective at producing lasting weight loss. Furthermore, there is virtually no peer-reviewed scientific literature supporting it.
Hop on Google Scholar for yourself and take a look; you won’t find anything published in any journal endorsing any type of “detox” or “juice cleanse” for weight loss. You also won’t find any established organization like the CDC, Mayo Clinic, or US Department of Agriculture promoting them either. Instead, you’ll find these organizations expressly discouraging them.
What you will find are many companies ready and willing to take your money for a couple bottles of fruit juice, which you could make yourself with a good juicer or blender for a lot less money. Why are so many people fooled by juice fasts??
Because of what happens when you go on a 3- day ANYTHING fast: you deprive your body of essential macronutrients, causing you to go into a temporary caloric deficit as well as significantly reducing the amount of glycogen in your body. This has a significant effect on weight loss, albeit temporary weight loss.
Glycogen is an energy molecule that your body creates primarily from carbohydrates. Your body loves glycogen, and under normal circumstances is its preferred energy source. When you significantly cut carbohydrates out of your diet, your glycogen stores become depleted.
Reduced glycogen in your body has a significant effect on your weight because water bonds to glycogen at a rate of about 3.5 grams per gram of glycogen. Cut out the glycogen when you go on a juice “cleanse” for a couple of days and all you’ve done is lose water weight, which you’ll gain right back after your expensive “detox” ends.
4. You Have to Go on a Low-Fat Diet to Lose Fat
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This one is a bit tricky because technically, this partially true: cutting dietary fat out of your diet will cause you to lose fat if it causes you to be in a caloric deficit, but that’s only because cutting anything out of your diet will also cause you to lose fat too, regardless of nutrient source.
Fat alone doesn't make you any more fat than carbs or protein do. Yet, a stigma against dietary fat still exists.
This a shocker for many because anyone born after 1980 has never lived in a world where the promotion of a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet wasn’t a standard dietary recommendation from the US government.
That’s because in 1977, a controversial set of well-intentioned dietary recommendations explicitly linked dietary fat to a whole host of dangerous diseases including heart disease, cancer, obesity, and strokes. As a result, the high carb/low fat diet was introduced and officially recommended by the US Department of Agriculture.
Americans, following their government’s advice, began to eat more carbohydrates in place of fat. What followed was a sharp, 20+ year rise in obesity.
Due to facts like these, in 2010, researchers writing in the journal Nutrients published a study bemoaning that some controversial positions - such as the demonization of fat - had been allowed to persist unproven for 30 years and reappear in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
5 years later, their concerns were finally heard. When the guidelines went through their scheduled revision, the 2015 guidlines both lessened the recommendations for carbs and increased those for fat while waiving the ban on dietary cholesterol altogether.
Does this mean that you can eat as much French fries, fried foods, and every other delicious fat-filled treat and expect to avoid health problems? Of course not. There is still such a thing as good and bad types of fat. Trans fat is still super bad.
But this does mean that outright cutting out all fat from your diet or stressing about reducing your dietary fat intake isn’t always necessary.
While cutting fat is a good way to reduce overall caloric consumption (at 9 calories per gram, fat is the most calorie-dense macronutrient), what’s more important for most people is to try to stay within their recommended daily caloric intake and not take drastic dietary steps like significantly reducing or eliminating an entire nutrient group.
Oh, and the food pyramid? It actually doesn't exist anymore
5. You can Burn Fat by Targeting it With Exercise
This myth, despite being disproven in the scientific literature a number of times, remains a particularly resilient myth because it touches on a major fitness stressor that many people have: “How do I get rid of this belly fat?!”
Like juice cleanses and detoxes, this myth has created an endless supply of articles – like this one from Health.com – supporting the myth that somehow strength/resistance training burns fat in a specific area.
That’s not entirely accurate. Strength and resistance training is designed to build muscle, not burn fat. The more crunches you do, the bigger and stronger your abs will be; but you won’t get any closer to actually seeing abs without reducing your body fat percentage. That means fat loss which means using more energy each day than you consume.
Does this mean that developing your muscles won’t result in burning fat? No, it actually can, but the fat loss won't be specific to the area you worked out. Increases in Lean Body Mass (which your skeletal muscle makes up a part), influence your metabolism by increasing your BMR. This means the amount of calories you're eating plays a role as well.
So, in theory, if you increase the number of calories your body needs in a day because you have more muscle, but you don’t increase your calorie intake at all, you could lose fat over time – but this is going to be a much slower/indirect process and will do nothing to target belly fat, arm fat, or any other fat.
Don’t Waste Your Time
Almost everyone has some fat they’d like to lose. Having extra fat on your frame can be very frustrating because it can significantly influence your appearance, how your clothes fit, and your health. That’s why it’s so tempting to believe one or more of these fat loss myths. They’re easy to believe in, and they promise results if you believe and follow them.
Unfortunately, if you try to lose fat by following these or other myths you may have heard of, it’s going to take much longer for you to lose the fat you want to lose.
Don’t waste your time. To lose fat, stick to the basics; stick to what’s been proven over and over again in the scientific literature. Proper diet and exercise might not sound like a fast and easy way to go, but there’s a reason why any trainer, nutritionist, or researcher worth their title will tell you to do it: because it works.
When you hear something about fat loss that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Stick to the basics and you will see results.