As a registered dietitian, I’ve seen and heard my fair share of diet and weight loss myths. Especially during the time of year when goal setting, weight loss, and overall health are on everyone’s minds, it can be challenging to discern fact from fiction. And with technology at our fingertips, there are many sources of information that are simply more harmful than helpful. So while I always recommend considering the source, I don’t think reading research papers is necessarily anyone’s idea of a good time—which is why part of my job is to break down these myths in order to help others achieve their health and wellness goals. Read on for the 10 weight loss myths I hear most often as a registered dietitian and how to actually achieve your goals.
Myth #1: Losing weight is a linear process
Anyone who has ever tried to intentionally lose weight, whether it be to improve their overall health or simply to feel more confident in their own skin, knows that the journey is a classic case of Instagram vs. reality. Weight loss relies on a variety of factors and is really more of a jagged up-and-down than a straight line. I’ve seen firsthand how discouraged individuals can feel when they’re doing their best and the scale is not going in the “right” direction. If this is the case for you, remember that it’s about the steps to get there rather than the end goal. Cliché, I know, but making small, sustainable changes will result in lasting habits in the long run.
Myth #2: You need to be in a large caloric deficit
Whenever someone tells me they are trying to eat 1,200 calories or less per day in order to lose weight, alarm bells immediately ring in my head. For the average adult, 1,200 calories is way below your daily needs, yet we have been conditioned to think that eating less automatically means we will lose more weight. In reality, eating too few calories can actually stall weight loss and cause you to miss out on key micronutrients from food sources. The truth is that every individual requires a certain amount of calories to maintain normal body functions (you can calculate your daily caloric needs here). For most people, a modest deficit of even 200 calories per day can help achieve sustainable weight loss, but it’s more important to focus on the quality of your food than the calories. As always, speak with your health care provider prior to beginning any sort of weight loss journey.
Myth #3: Fat makes you fat
If you’ve been around as long as I have (which admittedly isn’t that long), you may remember the peak of low-fat food labels in the ’90s (Snackwell cookies, anyone?). The low-fat frenzy took the ’90s by storm and had everyone believing that eating excess fat would, in fact, make you fat. In truth, fat alone doesn’t cause weight gain. It is an important macronutrient that the body needs for nutrient absorption and hormone production. Additionally, poly and mono-unsaturated fats have been shown to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and lower LDL cholesterol. So when it comes to looking out for your overall health, opt for heart-healthy, unsaturated fats that are found in foods such as avocados, walnuts, flax seeds, and salmon.
Myth #4: All calories are equal
By definition, calories are a measurement of energy. All foods (even healthy options) contain calories. So in essence, all calories are equal as a measurement in a lab, but what calories do to your body is very different. I’ll spare you the science lesson and just say that every food goes through different metabolic processes, which affect your overall metabolism, hormones, hunger/fullness levels, and weight. When it comes to losing weight, whole, fibrous foods and lean protein will put your gut to work (in a good way!), resulting in a metabolism boost.
Myth #5: You need to eat more protein to lose weight
Admittedly, this isn’t totally false. Protein is an important macronutrient that helps keep us full, build lean muscle mass, and repair tissues. And some research has shown that increasing the amount of protein in your diet can lead to weight loss. But these days, there is so much confusion around how much protein you actually need. While a general rule of thumb is to aim for .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, don’t go pulling out your calculator just yet. The amount of protein you need can vary significantly depending on your physical activity level, age, gender, or if you’re pregnant and/or breastfeeding. So instead of focusing on grams and percentages, opt for adding nutrient-dense, lean protein sources into your meals and snacks like eggs, legumes, tofu, fish, and chicken.
Myth #6: Weight loss supplements will help you lose weight—fast
Supplements are exactly like they sound: a supplement to your overall diet. As a dietitian, I always recommend food first and supplements to fill in the gaps. There’s no shame in taking daily vitamins or minerals to help promote your overall health (hello, vitamin D), but I often see people falling victim to weight loss supplement claims. There’s the old saying of, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” So before you buy the skinny tea, keep in mind that at best, it won’t replace eating whole foods. At worst, it could be damaging to your body.
Myth #7: Carbs make you fat
Is butter a carb? No. Do carbs make you fat? Also no. For decades, we have been taught to demonize foods such as white bread, pasta, pastries, etc. And I am here to say that carbs are not the enemy. No one food, or macronutrient, is responsible for weight gain. In fact, your body needs carbs to produce energy for your cells. You may be wondering, “Why is eating low-carb so trendy then?” Currently, there are studies that have exemplified how eating a lower-carb diet can aid in weight loss.
However, when people are successful with “low-carb” diets, that’s usually because they’re cutting out sugary or processed foods and not because whole carbohydrates can cause weight gain. That being said, nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all approach, so what works for some may not work for others. When it comes to eating carbs in your diet, I recommend opting for fruits and veggies, whole grains, and legumes. These will help keep your blood sugar stable while optimizing overall health.
Myth #8: Healthier foods are more expensive
For many people, a barrier to achieving health and weight loss goals lies within their financial constraints. Walk into any grocery store and it’s easy to see why choosing healthy foods can seem financially unattainable. Fortunately, choosing foods to achieve your health goals without compromising your budget is attainable. When shopping for produce, don’t forget about frozen and canned goods. Both are budget-friendly options and are just as nutrient-dense. However, I recommend choosing low-sodium or no-salt-added canned goods.
For fresh produce, check and see if your local store has an “ugly” or slightly damaged section, which includes fresh produce at a reduced cost (a few bruises doesn’t mean less nutrient value). Grain staples such as brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, and whole wheat pasta are great items to base meals around while typically being cheaper in cost. Lastly, protein sources such as canned tuna, frozen chicken breasts, or canned legumes are easy ways to get more bang for your buck.
Myth #9: You have to give up your favorite foods
When I tell people I’m a dietitian, they often assume I only eat “healthy” foods and I’m going to police their plate too. The same goes for clients wanting to lose weight. I’ve had so many people tell me they’ll never be able to eat pizza and lose weight or that they shouldn’t enjoy their favorite dessert because it will ruin their progress. Luckily, this is completely untrue. I always remind clients that all foods fit, and you can definitely enjoy dessert while also choosing foods that supply your body with sustained energy. The key is not to take away from your meals but instead, to add nutrient-rich options. An example of this could be eating a side salad with your Friday night pizza. This creates a better balance for your body while also bringing joy to your life.
Myth #10: It’s all or nothing
Akin to giving up favorite foods, many clients believe they have to go “all in” or cut out all processed foods and exercise seven days a week in order to be successful with weight loss. Having an all-or-nothing mentality leads to burnout and can make us feel as if we are lazy, a failure, or have no willpower (not true, by the way). So what really works when it comes to mindset? Some of the very first things I ask when someone tells me they want to lose weight are, “What is your ‘why?’ Why do you want to lose weight? Is it to feel strong in your body, have more energy, or run around with your kids?”
Whatever the reason, this is the inspiration and motivation that you will keep coming back to achieve your goal(s). In the end, it is not about having a lack of willpower or being lazy, it is about understanding your “why” and how to make meaningful changes to your daily habits and routines to live into your “why.” If you are struggling to find it, ask yourself: How would losing weight make me feel? What does my healthiest self, physically and mentally, look like? What are my values or what do I value?