Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD
See the actual truth behind diet myths and the reality of healthy eating here
You don't have to be on social media for more than a few minutes before you encounter an ad or post about dieting or weight loss. And once you click on one ad, the apps will keep sending you more. And if you're not careful, you could fall into a rabbit hole of unhealthy thinking about eating and body image.
Luckily for you, I've gathered evidence-based research to debunk some common diet and weight loss myths that I've heard over the years. Then once you cleanse your mind from such misinformation, you can fill the void with the facts about healthy eating and what form of healthy eating could work best for you.
What is a diet?
A diet is just the type of food and drinks one consumes regularly. But over the decades, the word "diet" has become linked with thoughts of weight loss and restriction. It has become a dirty word of sorts since it typically brings up images of giving up favorite foods and eating nothing by broccoli and chicken breast for every meal. If only we could erase centuries of diet culture to get back to the basics of just eating when we're hungry and stopping when we're full. Unfortunately, the history of fad diets or extreme dieting started way before any of us reading this article were born or before our grandparents were born for that matter.
The history of dieting
One early diet plan that is well-known in history was written by William Banting in the "Letter on
Corpulence" published in 1864. This man had no nutrition background, no medical background, or any healthcare background for that matter. He simply went on a diet recommended by his doctor and lost some weight. And because it worked for him, he thought everyone should know about it. Does this sound familiar? Untrained, unlicensed people touting diets just because they worked for them? That describes just about every diet "program" or pill advertised by celebrities and "health coaches" you see around today.
Well, this letter is quite long, so I will just give you a few points made in this publication as to what diet Mr. Banting was recommended by Dr. Harvey to consume. And thereafter, I will explain what this letter did to create the foundations for what we know as diet culture today.
four moderate-sized meals daily
quality, not quantity
"Five ounces of sugar distributed equally over seven days, which is not [even] an ounce per day, will [increase] my weight nearly one pound by the end of that short period. The other forbidden elements have not produced so extraordinary a result."
Less than a pound of butter in a year
Less than a gallon of milk in a year
Fruit, cooked and without sugar
Sherry was initially noted as admissible, but after discovering it promotes acidity, Mr. Banting found that weak light claret [red wine] or brandy, gin, or whisky with water suited him better.
Foods not "admissible:"
No bread unless it is "stale, cut thin, and well toasted."
No root vegetables or peas; Mr. Banting remarks, "Being fond of green peas, I take them daily in the season, and I gain 2 or 3 pounds in weight as well as some little in bulk, but I soon lose both when their season is over. For this trespass I quite forgive myself."
No pie or pudding crusts
Meat and game pies and the "best possible" gravies and jellies are admissible with the fat skimmed off
Pretty much, this historical documentation of a diet, with no concrete research-based evidence to support it, is a low-dairy, low-sugar, low-fat, no starchy vegetable diet that allows alcohol in an unspecified amount. It reminds me of a paleo-style diet that allows stale bread and whisky. A 2020 study shows that the paleolithic style diet, which avoids foods like sugar, grains, dairy, and beans, has no greater benefit on glucose and insulin health than other diets like the Mediterranean diet and diabetes diet, for example.
Some key phrases in this letter that reveal its fad diet-like qualities include:
"It is now proved that by proper diet alone the evils of corpulence may be removed without the addition of those active exercises, which are impossible for the sickly or unwieldy patient."- In other words, according to Mr. Banting, being overweight is evil and this diet he is on can remove said evil without exercise. Oh my.
"...it is a simple remedy to reduce and destroy superfluous fat; that it may be an alleviation, if not a cure, of gout; that it prevents or eradicates carbuncles, boils, and the elements of dyspepsia; that it makes advanced life more enjoyable; and that it promotes longevity."- Mr. Banting feels that his diet can not only "destroy" fat, but may also cure gout, boils, and acid reflux as well as help you live longer. The key red flag here is "cure." No matter how healthy the food, nothing you eat or drink can cure any disease. It may lower your risk, but there is no evidence of food curing disease.
"I have not taken any kind of medicine for eighteen months, and I find that my dietary contains all the needful regimen that my system requires."- Apparently this diet is so amazing, that Mr. Banting doesn't need to take medicine for anything. And he seems to know everything that his system "requires."
More recent history of dieting
The early 1900s brought about with it the concept of chewing 32 times to help with weight loss as well as calorie counting. In 1925, the cigarette company Lucky Strike encouraged people to smoke one of their cigarettes instead of reaching for sweetened food. This was of course before American doctors in the 1930s began to realize the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.
From here, the 1950s brought with it fad diets like "The Cabbage Soup diet" which has participants consuming only a soup made from cabbage, celery, onions, tomatoes, vegetable juice, garlic, lemon juice, pepper, and bouillon cubes, for the most part.
Around this time was also the advent of what we now know as the Apple Cider Vinegar diet. It involved drinking honey mixed with vinegar with each meal to help you lose weight. The most recent version of this attributes three teaspoons of apple cider vinegar before each meal to help burn fat and reduce appetite. Research shows no evidence that apple cider vinegar can aid weight loss. In fact, due to its acidity, this vinegar can irritate the throat if consumed often. Not to mention, that it can cause low potassium if taken by those on insulin or diuretics.
In the 1960s, there was a diet known as the "Drinking Man's Diet" that included "manly foods" like steak and fish with as much alcohol as you want. It claims to have not encouraged drinking alcohol but did not deny it either. The republication of this book considers it the original low carbohydrate diet. It doesn't take a genius to realize that this is your liver's worst nightmare, not to mention it contains no gut-friendly fiber. And as a side note, recent studies show that no amount of alcohol is beneficial to health.
However, it was also around this time, through into the 1970s that diet programs like Weight Watchers and the Pritikin Longevity started, which focused more on managing the way you eat instead of going to extremes in fad dieting per se.
That doesn't mean that fad diets went away though. In the 1960s, the Sleeping Beauty diet involves taking sedatives and falling asleep so you aren't awake to eat for most of the day. For those of us with a job and responsibilities, this is not a practical way to go about your weight loss goals. But even for others that could fit this in their schedule, there is nothing healthy about depriving yourself of food and consuming sedatives daily, which could cause dependence on such medicines over time.
Then in the 1980s and 1990s came diet after diet putting sugar in the line of fire. There was the paleolithic diet (mentioned earlier); a variety of vegetarian diets; the Mediterranean diet that focused on fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats; and the famous Atkins diet, which focuses on low-carbohydrate, low-sugar living. Recent studies show that the low-carbohydrate diet is no better than the low-fat diet at promoting heart and metabolic health or weight loss.
The blood type diet was also around in the 1990s and claimed that you could gain health benefits from avoiding certain foods that may not work well with your specific type of blood. If you look at an example of the Type A and B blood type diet instructions, it looks very much like the paleolithic diet in that it avoids most beans and legumes, avoids dairy, and avoids many grains. Research shows no evidence that the blood type diet provides any unique health benefits.
As you come into the 2000s, you start to see the raw food diet, which prohibits eating any food cooked above a temperature of 104 to 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Research shows that long-term intake of such a diet can lead to underweight status and loss of menstrual period in women. Not to mention that it can cause gas and bloating when first starting the diet, takes a great amount of prep time to ensure you are consuming enough nutrients daily and may require supplementation of nutrients like B12 and iron unless you are consuming dried meats.
This is because iron from plant-based foods is not as bioavailable as that from animal products, and B12 is mainly found in animal products and fortified cereals. Also, research reports that cooking may help release important nutrients from produce such as lycopene and beta-carotene.
Currently, some of the most popular diets you see on social media include the ketogenic diet, the plant-based diet, and the intermittent fasting diet. Here is some research on each of these current popular diets:
Ketogenic diet: This diet which is very low-carbohydrate, moderate protein, and high-fat, can help produce weight loss and can improve some metabolic health markers. However, research shows that this diet can increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or "bad" cholesterol, and therefore is not heart healthy.
Plant-based diet: This diet avoids any animal products, is high in fiber, and is good for gut health. However, research shows that such a diet may be low in vital nutrients like vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and omega-3 fats. Therefore, if you follow this diet, you will have to be sure to have your nutrient levels checked often and take dietary supplements daily.
Intermittent fasting diet: This diet limits the amount of time one eats daily. There are various types of this diet which include the popular 16:8 diet. A person following this diet would eat for only eight hours a day and would fast for the other sixteen hours. There are no set foods to avoid on this diet, but "healthy food choices" are encouraged and you can drink black coffee, unsweetened tea, or water in between meal periods. This diet encourages eating rules such as avoiding processed and sugary foods and drinks. Research shows that although this diet may help with weight loss and metabolic health, there needs to be long-term, large studies with humans to confirm such initial findings as of yet.
Let's continue the diet history lesson below with some of the most common myths I have heard and evidence to debunk them.
Common Nutrition Myths
Whatever post-baby weight you don't lose in the first eight weeks postpartum will turn to fat.
This is a myth that my mom remembers her doctor telling her in the 1980s and that I recall hearing from others more recently as well. It says that whatever weight you don't lose in the first two months after you have your baby will turn to fat and will be impossible to lose. She told me that the doctor also said to her that whatever breast milk she did not use would turn to fat. Research shows that the human body destroys any remaining milk-producing cells after breastfeeding ends, so we can debunk this myth pretty quickly.
First of all, this is such a fearmongering statement for a doctor to make. It is a healthcare provider telling you that weight loss is more vital right now instead of bonding with your baby. And once I started doing the research, I realized how biologically inaccurate and harmful it was. Multiple sites, including this one from Mayo Clinic and this one from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, reveal that it is crucial to not intentionally try to start losing weight right away.
For one, exercising to lose weight in the 6 to 8 weeks postpartum may delay healing if you had a C-section. And as far as eating is concerned, restricting calories can decrease milk production, so if you're breastfeeding, it's important to focus on consuming plenty of nutrient-dense foods without counting calories so much. This will ensure your baby receives enough nutrition for proper growth and development.
Secondly, the weight gained after pregnancy is not from unused breast milk and won't be permanent. Experts say that the most common reason for extra weight gain after pregnancy is hormonal changes and continuing to consume extra calories for the baby after delivery. This same concept goes for breastfeeding. I won't get too scientific here, but read below for summaries of what I am talking about:
Hormones: Experts reveal that thyroid function may decline after pregnancy, so it's important to have a check-up with your doctor and have a thyroid and hormone panel done to make sure you are within normal levels. This is because a low thyroid function can cause weight gain and trouble losing weight. Also, in the initial months after breastfeeding, one can have higher than normal prolactin levels, which is the hormone that produces breast milk. This hormone can also increase appetite and may lead to consuming excess calories. when someone is sleep-deprived, of which most new moms are, it can lead to growth hormone deficiency and high cortisol, which in turn can lead to weight gain. The average adult should receive about seven hours of sleep on average whenever possible for optimal health.
Extra calories consumed: It only takes an additional 300 to 500 calories per day (on top of your calories per day consumed for weight maintenance) to supply enough energy for baby through your milk. But often, hormonal changes and habits can attribute to consuming way more than this daily, which in turn can lead to weight gain over time. It's important to note that breastfeeding alone will not help you lose weight if you are consuming much more calories than necessary. This calculator created by the Mayo Clinic is a great resource to help provide you an estimate of how many calories you should consume each day to maintain your current weight.
Eating after 7pm is unhealthy.
This myth is one that I have heard time and time again, and I actually tried it several times in my life. The concept of this myth is that if you put a time limit on how long you can eat during the day, then you will be less prone to nighttime snacking, and in turn will eat less calories daily. This myth was popular before intermittent fasting became a trend. But the problem is that timed eating has not proven to aid in weight loss or maintenance. In fact, a 2020 animal study found that there was no significant difference in weight loss in an intermittent fasting group vs. a consistent meal timing group.
But experts reveal that there is not enough research to support that timing meals and eating periods is any more effective than simply cutting back calorie consumption. Although a 2022 study claims that intermittent fasting was superior to calorie restriction in weight loss production, the researchers of the study even admit that some
of the studies included in their meta-analysis had a small sample size and varying study length that could have impacted results. Therefore, there need to be more large-scale and long-term studies to confirm any true superiority of timed eating over consistent meal timing.
Snacks are not healthy.
There does not need to be any supporting research to debunk this one since snacks, although having a negative connotation by those entrenched in diet culture, are not created equal. Saying that any in-between meal eating is unhealthy is ludicrous since such snacking can help fill nutritional gaps not covered by nutrients consumed at meal times, and can help provide healthy energy in between meals and stabilize blood glucose levels if choosing high-protein snack options.
Snacks can provide small amounts of protein and fiber throughout the day if you are not getting enough of such nutrients at mealtime. Examples of such protein and fiber-rich snacks can include:
Apple/pear/banana with a few tablespoons of almond/peanut/seed butter
One cup of Greek yogurt with berries and granola
Carrot/bell pepper sticks with a few tablespoons of hummus or Greek yogurt dressing
1/4 cup of nuts and dried fruit
1/2 cup cottage cheese with 1/2 cup berries
1/2 to 1 cup grapes and 1-ounce cheddar or mozzarella cheese
Labeling all in-between meals as "bad" is another example of diet culture telling you to ignore your body's natural hunger cues in pursuit of the impossible "perfect" weight. Don't listen to those voices.
Calorie restriction is all you need to do to lose weight.
Although the phrase "calories in, calories out" is engrained in many of our minds, it simply is not the whole story when it comes to weight management. Of course, research shows that calorie control is an effective means of weight loss and can in turn help improve metabolic health markers. However, you can't expect to be in optimal health without eating enough nutrient-dense foods regularly.
What this means is that while it's important to manage your calorie intake for weight loss, you should watch what those calories are. Research shows that you should focus on eating plenty of healthy fats like avocado, plant-based oils like olive oil, as well as nuts, nut butter, seeds, and fatty fish like trout, salmon, and sardines, for example, for optimal weight management. Along with this, research shows that you should consume adequate protein daily to help you maintain lean muscle mass, and you should also reduce your intake of highly processed carbohydrates and sugars which can negatively impact insulin sensitivity over time.
You can't be overweight and healthy.
Although it's true that being obese can increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes, you are not destined to develop chronic disease if you are overweight. If you are active regularly and eat plenty of nutrient-dense foods daily, then you can certainly prevent such diseases. Not only that, but research shows that older adults over the age of 65 years old who are of high-normal or overweight body mass index status actually have a lower all-cause mortality rate than other body mass index groups.
Furthermore, older adults that had a body mass index in the obese group with sarcopenia, or low muscle strength, had protective levels of mortality as compared to underweight older adults with lower quadriceps strength. Another study confirms this finding since it shows that the physical fitness levels of older adults were a more accurate marker of determining mortality versus body fat levels. Finally, a 2022 study finds that taking more steps per day was linked with greater all-cause mortality.
Cleanses can help you lose weight.
This myth is one that I hear all the time from patients, family, and friends alike. It infuriates that so many companies make tons of money telling people that their cleanse or detox powder and pills can help them "safely" lose weight when this is just not true. Your liver, digestive tract, and kidneys do a great job of detoxing your body from harmful compounds on their own. It does need the help of special teas to do so.
Many cleansing products, from my experience, are simply diuretics and/or laxative formulas that will have you on the toilet all day. This is how you "lose weight." However, as soon as you drink fluid or eat something, this "weight loss" will return to your body. It's because you are just losing water weight, not fat, regardless of what the product tells you it does. Therefore, experts suggest that if you want to cleanse your body, simply drink plenty of water, limit processed food intake, and consume plenty of whole foods like fruits and vegetables.
Red flags of a fad diet
It's important that before you start any eating plan that you make sure it is not just another fad diet that could have you on a diet roller coaster for the rest of your life. Read below for common red flags that reveal the markings of a fad diet:
Claims of a quick fix such as "Lose ten pounds in ten days," for example
Recommendations are based on a single study, especially one that is small in sample size
Labeling foods as "good" and "bad"
Programs that claim success is only possible if you buy their book, powder, or pill
Elimination of food groups (i.e. no carbohydrates) or subgroups of food (i.e. no dairy or grains)
Diets whose claims are solely supported by "testimonials" from clients or celebrities
There are a lot of factors that go into creating a reliable research study that you can read about here. This helps to properly test theories and find out how certain aspects of our world impact each other. Therefore, be leery of any diet or health program that has no studies to support its claims.
What is healthy eating?
Social media and the wellness blog world will have you thinking that there are only one or few ways to eat healthy. But the truth is that "healthy eating" is whatever keeps your body its healthiest. This will depend on many factors including your stage in life, food allergies or intolerances, activity level, and health status. In addition to such factors, the form of healthy eating that works best for you will also have to take into account certain social determinants of health like:
Safe housing, transportation, and neighborhoods: can impact the ability to travel to buy healthy foods, the safety of outside exercise, and access to healthy food options
Income: can impact the purchase of healthy food options
Access to nutritious foods and physical activity opportunities: living in food deserts can make it difficult to access fresh produce and meats, while living far from green areas that are low in crime can make it less desirable to exercise regularly outdoors
Polluted air and water: can impact access to fresh water, which in turn may influence the frequency of cooking food from home
Language and literacy skills: can impact ones' understanding of nutrition and what foods provide vital nutrients for them
Research shows that such determinants are linked with an increased rate of obesity. This is because if someone lives in a food desert, which is a community with low access to fresh produce and proteins, then they will have to adapt their diet to those foods they have regular access to. Many people in such areas will also have limited income to spend on food, so this will also impact their daily eating.
For example, instead of being able to enjoy lean meats and fresh produce daily, they may have to rely on low-cost proteins like beans and lentils, canned chicken and tuna, and nut butter as well as low-cost frozen vegetables. And this is perfectly fine and healthy. Unfortunately, many social media outlets and blogs demonize any canned or processed food items because of personal biases, lack of knowledge, or just plain old misinformation.
Research shows that the vitamin and nutrient content of certain fruits and vegetables is comparable and sometimes higher in their frozen form versus fresh. And when it comes to canned meat, although sometimes higher in sodium than its fresh counterpart, canned tuna is lower in mercury than fresh tuna. Finally, canned beans and legumes are not only a good source of protein at 7 to 9 grams per 1/2 cup, but are also beneficial to gut bacteria populations.
How do you know what form of healthy eating is right for you?
My number one piece of advice when it comes to figuring out what way of healthy eating is right for you is to ignore social media and online blogs unless they are run by an experienced registered dietitian with no ulterior sales motives in mind. If you want an unbiased and evidence-based assessment of your dietary needs, then you should talk to an experienced registered dietitian. This may not be accessible to everyone due to financial concerns and health insurance access, but you should check with resources such as Medicare.gov or Freelancer.com to see if you can find a low-cost dietitian that can help you.
In the meantime, feel free to read and reach out to websites like Lighttrack Nutrition, which are research evidence-based and run by a qualified and experienced registered dietitian to have your most important nutrition questions answered. And remember to never deprive your body of food and to always love your body, regardless of size for the life it helps you live each day. For more tips on building a healthy relationship with your body and with food, read my article on Womenhood today.