8 Common Diet Strategies: Myths and Truths

Few things are as confusing as diet and health information.  Here, I attempt provide some clarity as I dive into the myths and truths of eight common diet strategies.

Yahoo recently posted an article written by Janice Graham entitled, The Surprising Truth About 8 Common Diet Strategies, and me thinks it’s largely spot on.

Except for a few things, some pretty important.

And it’s these few things I’d like to dive into and expound upon so that you, dear reader, are left with the clarity of Buddhist chimes.

Well, at least as pertains to these eight “strategies” about diet.

The “8 Common Diet Strategies” cited by Ms. Graham (along with my quick comments in parenthesis) are:

1. To lose a pound, you must cut 3,500 calories.
(Correctly deemed “FALSE” but there’s more to it.)

2. Three squares a day works as well as a “many mini meals” plan.
(Typically “TRUE” as stated with an important caveat.)

3. A history of yo-yo dieting wrecks your chances of future weight-loss success.
(Yes, “FALSE” as stated, and I have pretty much nothing to add to Graham’s assessment.)

4. Exercise does not burn off pounds. 
(No, no this is not “TRUE” as claimed for specific reasons I’ll cite.)

5. It’s best to set challenging weight-loss goals.
(I’m OK with “TRUE” but there is an important footnote.)

6. Milk drinkers lose more weight.
(Yeah, “FALSE” is right on and there’s an even better alternative to the suggested yogurt.)

7. Tracking carbs is the best way to keep pounds off.
(The “FALSE” claim on this one is confusing, but I’ll yak about it anyway.)

8. You have to watch what you eat – forever.
(This is marked as “TRUE” and it is for most of us.)

OK, now that the stage is set, let’s get into the details presented in The Surprising Truth About 8 Common Diet Strategies, and then launch into my twist on things.


From time to time, it may be handy to refer to Janice Graham’s article, which is right here.

 

The Truth (and My Truth) About 8 Common Diet Strategies

1. To lose a pound, you must cut 3,500 calories. (“FALSE”)

The reason this is marked “FALSE” is that while in the lab 3.500 calories equals a pound of fat, this doesn’t necessarily hold up in the real world with real human bodies.

Remember: a “calorie” is the approximate amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. (Source)

Which makes me wonder if scientists figured out that it takes 3,500 calories to make a pound of fat by heating up water hot enough to burn a pound of the unsightly jiggly, and then measured how much energy was needed to make the heat.

(Just kidding.)

Anyway, the point Yahoo makes from citing the work of Kevin Hail, Ph.D. is that as you lose weight your metabolism slows down, and thus as you get thinner and thinner, each extra pound of fat takes more caloric energy (calories) to burn off.

The example provided in Ms. Graham’s article is a 46-year-old woman who weighs 170 pounds and thinks that she needs to cut 500 calories per day to drop a pound per week, losing 26 pounds over six months, but will actually only lose 19.5 pounds according to Dr. Hall.

Dr. Hall has created a “body weight simulator”, which is how he did the math expressed above for our 46-year-old, which looks like this:

And can be watched in action here.

There’s one more thing relevant to this topic – and that’s about the equality of calories.

Are all calories created equal? 

I –and those who actually study this stuff for a living — assert that they’re not; Ryan Andrews over at Precision Nutrition, for example.

The idea here is that different foods will affect insulin sensitivity, metabolism and fat storage differently.  Manufactured food – the stuff that lives in cans and boxes and resembles nothing like that which is grown on farms – are “non-foods”.

As Ryan Andrews puts it in his post, All About Dietary Displacement:

“Non-food” calories are more likely to be stored as fat, degrade health, lead to further hunger, lead to further food preoccupation, and low energy levels.”

The moral of the story is to eat a variety of lean protein (grass fed meat and low-mercury fish), complex carbs (low glycemic brown rather than while), healthy fats and as little manufactured food and drink (soda, fruit drink) that you can manage.

More about calories:

 

2. Three squares a day works as well as a “many mini meals” plan. (“TRUE”, somewhat)

In the Yahoo article, this one is marked “TRUE”, but then correctly makes an important caveat, which is: three meals per day is as good as several frequent meals throughout the day only if you’re good at portion control.

If you’re going to eat three modest meals and two healthy snacks each day, the key is not to actually wind up eating five modest meals.

Frequent eating requires good food quantity control. If you aren’t adept at that, then stick with the traditional three squares per day.

More about meal frequency:

 

3. A history of yo-yo dieting wrecks your chances of future weight-loss success (“FALSE”)

Over the years, it’s been an oft-cited mantra that yo-yo dieters are damned to eternal fatness. But now the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle says something like, “not so, yo-yo”.

Their research asserts that even women who lost 20 or more pounds on three or more occasions were still able to follow yet another new diet and exercise program just as ably and successfully as those who don’t yo-yo.

(Yes, their focus was women because, apparently, they are overwhelmingly representative of yo-yo dieters.)

This is good news and I hope it get propagated throughout the land till everyone who is dejected and dizzy from yo-yoing realizes that they can still get trim.

 

4. Exercise does not burn off pounds. (“True”, they say; “Not, say I.)

Janice Graham, the writer of the Yahoo article under review here, begins this part with:

“It’s hard to believe, but in a study of 411 women, those who worked out for one, two, or three hours a week for six months didn’t lose significantly more than those who’d devoted themselves to Suoku or other sedentary purists.”

She goes on to say: “You’d think this finding was a fluke…” and then mentions 15 studies that conclude the same.

The reason touted for this surprising, “fluke”-like result is explained by how the body adapts to weight loss by lowering resting metabolic rate, thereby burning less calories – a similar situation as described in #1 above.

If, like me, you’re thinking that these outcomes don’t pass the smell test, Diana M. Thomas, Ph.D., of Montclair State University in New Jersey, provides us a clue about what may be actually going on here.  She says that although the exercisers didn’t lose weight, the exercise:

“… helps reduce your waist and gives you a firmer, leaner-looking shape overall.”

So, I’m thinking that two things are going on here that unwittingly contributed to the assertion that “exercise does not burn off pounds:

a)    Total pounds may not have gone down but the fat component decreased, as the muscle component increased, thus resulting in Ms. Thomas’s description about improved “shape overall”; and

b)   The women’s exercise intensity and type were subpar to burn fat.

Listen up and listen good:

It’s true that, generally speaking (that is – for most of us), diet is more important than exercise from a strict fat loss point of view. But as the economists like to say: this is a necessary but insufficient condition.  (Irrelevant fact: I studied economics in grad school.)

To the extent that your exercise builds muscle, that muscle – although weighing some 40% more than the fat it replaces will increase your basil metabolic rate (burn more calories at rest) and slow down the ravages of aging.

Not to mention, make you look better.

Nuff said.

Learn more about fat-burning exercise:


5. It’s best to set challenging weight-loss goals. (“TRUE” with a twist.)

A Dutch study is cited showing that:

“… the more weight loss the participants strived for, the more effort they made – and the more weight they reported losing after two months.”

The conjecture is that ambitious goals are more “energizing” and pumps up “your commitment and drive.”

I have no complaint with this assessment, but my twist is that although you can make your goals ambitious, they should then be parsed into smaller, more easily achieved sub goals that as achieved they step by step enable you to complete the bigger ambitious goal.

As I wrote in Why Your Goals Should Be Small:

“Make goals that are small, but in the direction you want to go.”

The point is to make them achievable, because there’s nothing like one success that catalyzes another.

The example I use in Why Your Goals Should Be Small is a person who is 50 pounds overweight.  My presumption is that someone in this situation got there over the course of many years, and through “an assortment of activities, propensities, emotionally charged stuff and habits.”

And that it’s precisely because of these big, entrenched reasons that losing 50 pounds is too big of a goal psychologically for most people.

It probably took years to gain that weight through an assortment of activities, propensities, emotionally charged stuff and habits.  And it’s precisely these big entrenched reasons that make losing 50 pounds too big of a goal.

I think it would be better to break down the process of achieving the loss of 50 pounds into specific, achievable sub goals, each leading to the rapturous one.

What do you think?

More on this:

 

6. Milk drinkers lose more weight. (“FALSE”, yep.)

Researchers from Harvard examined 29 studies about this and found that over the long run, milk does give you a white mustache to help your friends take their eyes off your increasing girth.

Do you like diary?  Eat yoghurt, or better yet, kefir.

Kefir?

Yep, the probiotics contained in kefir far exceed those in yoghurt in both quality and quantity.  You can get it at many grocers and all health food stores.

Why should you bother?

Well, in addition to substituting a fat-producing diary drink (milk) with a lower calorie, healthier alternative (kefir, or yoghurt), you will also be taking a large step toward gastrointestinal health.

You might have read that our bodies have more organisms that are “not us” than are “us”.

Trillions of them.

Some are beneficial and others are not.  Simply put, probiotics feeds the good guys and that’s really good for us.

Read more about probiotics:

 

7. Tracking carbs is the best way to keep pounds off. (“FALSE”…)

As mentioned, the Yahoo write-up on this confuses me.  Basically, the assertion is that counting grams of carbs or fat ingested doesn’t make for a successful weight loss technique as compared to a balanced plan:

“A balanced plan topped the usual technique of counting carbohydrates or fat grams in a study of adults who had recently lost a significant amount of weight.” (Source)

I don’t get if the point is that counting any macronutrient (such as fats or carbs) is futile for weight loss, or if it’s the actual amount of each respective macronutrient that is being, uh, weighed?

If you have a moment, go here and scroll down to #7, read it and tell us what you think.

The conclusion presented about the need to make your carbs be “low glycemic”, along with a balance mix of healthy fats and proteins is one I can readily get behind:

“The study’s balanced plan included lots of whole grains, fresh vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, healthy fats like olive oil, and lean fish and meats; it excluded heavily processed foods like white bread and instant rice.” (Source)

 The skinny on carbohydrates:

 

8. You have to watch what you eat – forever (“TRUE”, typically)

Yes, indeed, we all know someone who can eat anything and still stay trim.  That’s not me, and, likely, that’s not you either.

We need to pay attention to what we eat and how much of it.  This is particularly true in this age of manufactured food, where most of what you can buy in a supermarket is adulterated food; meaning, processed.

Manufactured foods possess the “Holy Trinity” of salt/sugar/fat, and it’s designed to make you want as much as you can stuff in as often as you can.

As weight-loss researcher Fiona Johnson, Ph.D., of University College London puts it in the Yahoo article I’m here referencing:

“… the constant bombardment of food temptations has led to a situation where self-control is essential.”

Psychologists suggest that rather than live a life completely denying yourself the guilty pleasures of the Holy Trinity, do occasionally indulge.

“Occasionally” is the operative word.

Here, a scale is useful.  As in, use it.

Weigh yourself regularly and when you see that an extra pound has appeared out of nowhere, remember what “occasionally” is supposed to mean.

As long as you take swift action in reaction to thoaw uninvited pounds, they won’t sneak up on you year by year till one day you look in the mirror and wonder where you went, and where that other person staring back at you came from.

Good stuff to know about diets, et al:

 

Conclusions

1. Calories are confusing critters.  The way they affect your body is largely determined by the food/drink source of the calories and what’s happening to you metabolically as your lose weight.  Eat high quality fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, low glycemic, so-called complex carbohydrates, and lean protein (grass fed meat, low-mercury fish, organic diary). To help with gastrointestinal health, consume probiotics.

2. When it comes to the number of meals you eat per day, know yourself.  If you’re good with portion control and can really eat two small, healthy meals intermixed with three modest sized ones, try it.  Otherwise, stick to three.  Whichever you do, consider consuming 30 grams of protein within the first half hour after arising, as this might set you on the right path the whole day, given the satiety that the protein will provide.  (Read Like Time Ferriss, I Try to Overeat Without Gaining Weight.)

3. While it’s true that – if you had to chose just one — diet is more important than exercise for losing weight… for true health you must move the body and eat right.

4. Make your goals manageable.  “Reach for the stars and you may get the moon” is an apt analogy, because you know the stars are unreachable from the outset given from where you’re starting.  So, if the stars are really the dream, make the first goal a star ship, next the moon, and go from there.

5. Remove “diet” from your mindset and replace it with “lifestyle”.  The point here is to make a lifestyle change that incorporates a new and different way of eating for the long haul, as opposed to some restrictive diet that you have to suffer through for some defined time frame.

 

OK, so that’s it for this post.

Please feel free to dive into the Comments below.  You may agree with me, or tell me I’m nuts.

Yep.

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Joe Garma
 

I help people live with more vitality and strength. I'm a big believer in sustainability, and am a bit nutty about optimizing my diet, supplements, hormones and exercise. To get exclusive Updates, tips and be on your way to a stronger, more youthful body, join my weekly Newsletter. You can also find me on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.

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