Classic Diet Advice You Can Safely Ignore

It's time to reconsider everything you once held true about dieting. Health experts debunk the most commonly believed weight loss myths.

Weight loss myth: Don’t lose weight quickly

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Many experts have chided that losing weight too fast means you won’t keep off the pounds over time. “Yet it’s not true,” says David Allison, PhD, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). “In clinical trials, rapid initial weight loss is associated with lower body mass long-term.” For example, a University of Florida study compared people who lost weight quickly (one and a half pounds a week for the first month), slowly (half a pound a week), and moderately (somewhere between these two amounts). Participants in the fast–weight-loss group lost more weight overall and were five times more likely to have kept it off 18 months later than those in the slow group. Need major weight-loss motivation? Here’s the secret weight-loss advice used by the folks on The Biggest Loser and other reality shows.

New tip: Think beyond 'slow and steady'

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Drastically cutting calories or doing some crazy cayenne-pepper-and-cardboard diet isn’t healthy, of course. But slow and steady isn’t the only option. “Some people get more motivated when they lose a lot of weight right off the bat,” Allison says. Do what works for you. Just don’t dip below about 1,200 calories a day (men may need more).

Weight loss myth: Always eat breakfast

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Heck, even the surgeon general and first lady want us to start the day with a healthy breakfast. But UAB researchers discovered scant evidence of trials that have tested whether breakfast helps people lose weight. The few that did found that skipping it has little or no effect. A 2002 study of people in the National Weight Control Registry (a database of more than 10,000 people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a year or more) found that 78 percent of successful dieters regularly have a morning meal. Experts have interpreted this to mean that breakfast helps the formerly overweight stay slim, but the research doesn’t show that. “The only way to prove that is to have a bunch of men and women skip breakfast and see if they gain weight,” says David Levitsky, PhD, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. But when he and his colleague recently did just that, the results were quite surprising. They found that people who skipped breakfast wound up eating an average of 450 fewer calories by the end of the day than when they ate breakfast. These breakfast mistakes are too easy to make without realizing.

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New tip: Be open to eating later

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While there are many healthy reasons to start your day with breakfast, don’t feel like you have to eat a morning meal if you’re not hungry or you’re trying to lose a few pounds. A nutritional SWAT team will not show up at your door, and it may help fast-track weight loss.

Weight loss myth: Eating at home is always better than eating out

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For years, we thought that calories from foods and drinks away from home—giant sodas, fast-food burgers, vending machine snacks—comprised a major portion of calories in our diets,” says Adam Drewnowski, PhD, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle. But people may have been misinterpreting the numbers. About 35 percent of the amount of money we spend on food and drinks happens in restaurants—because eating out is generally more expensive than dining at home. That got incorrectly equated to the percentage of calories we get from eating out, says Drewnowski. A study he recently conducted found that meals at fast-food and full-service restaurants accounted for only 17 to 26 percent of our total calorie consumption. “Soda bought from these spots provided about 1 percent of dietary calories, and vending machine foods accounted for almost zero,” says Drewnowski. Up to 76 percent of the calories in our diets hail from food bought at grocery, convenience, and specialty stores—then eaten at home. Here are 20 tricks to eat healthy when you dine out.

New advice: Inspect your grocery cart

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“Take a hard look at your grocery bill,” suggests Drewnowski. “Stores often give an itemized list, which means you can see where the major sources of calories are.” You should have a balance of produce, lean protein, and whole grains and minimal refined or packaged foods.

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Weight loss myth: Small changes add up!

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Nutrition scientists today know that equations like this don’t work in real life: Cut 200 calories a day, and you’ll lose 20 pounds in a year. As your body shrinks, you don’t need or burn as many calories. “Say I weigh 150 pounds, and I burn an extra 100 calories a day going for a walk. After 35 days, I should be down 3,500 calories—or a pound. In 365 days, it should be more than ten pounds,” explains Allison. “But as I get lighter, it no longer takes 100 calories to move my body. If it did, ten years from now, I’ll have lost 100 pounds. How is that even possible?”

New tip: Burn more calories as you slim down

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At some point, little things won’t be enough to keep up weight loss. Commit to change: In addition to a daily walk, you may need to shave a few hundred calories by, say, nixing the cheese on your sandwich or the side of rice with your stir-fry.

Weight loss myth: Big, ambitious weight-loss goals set you up for failure

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Such a behemoth goal as “I want to go from a size 14 to a 2” is doomed from the get-go, we’ve always believed. Better to set the bar lower (“I want to lose ten pounds and go from there”) so you can actually clear it, right? “The logic here goes that if you have too-high expectations, you’ll get frustrated and discouraged and drop out of your weight-loss program,” says Allison. “But big-goal setters are no more likely to drop out than those who make smaller ones—and there’s some evidence that they may do even better.” A University of Minnesota study found that women who set weight-loss goals that the researchers deemed unrealistic were more likely to achieve their ideal BMIs than those who chose more “reasonable” goals.

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New tip: Don't be afraid to be bold

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Small goals can provide a motivating sense of  accomplishment as you tick each one off. But don’t be afraid to go after a big number. “It’s helpful to have some optimism,” says Allison. The key: having specific steps to achieve it, such as exercising five days a week and cutting portions.

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