The skinny on weight loss

There’s a lot of information out there about weight loss but experts warn not all of it is helpful. Here are some top myths and misconceptions that could be keeping you from meeting your goals.

The more you exercise, the more weight you’ll lose

We know exercise has many health benefits and is an important part of controlling weight. In order to lose weight we need to use more calories than we consume — and exercise burns calories, right?

It’s not that simple, say experts. First, many people tend to over estimate how many calories they burn and underestimate how many calories they consume. For instance, an hour of brisk walking may only burn 200-300 calories — an effort easily wiped out by a snack or favourite specialty beverage. Worse yet, many people use a good workout to justify an indulgence, unaware their treat could have two to three times as many calories as they expended.

Another problem: longer bouts of exercise increase appetite, so some people ending up eating more as a result. Exercise alone won’t solve our weight loss woes, say experts. It’s necessary to watch our diets as well.

Never eat after 8:00 pm

Contrary to popular belief, eating at a time of day when you aren’t as active doesn’t mean those calories automatically go into storage.

What matters is the day as a whole, say experts — in other words, how much we eat versus how much activity we get. Any surplus of calories we in take will get stored as fat, regardless of when they’re consumed. It’s easy to overstep your daily calorie limit if you weren’t planning on having a snack — especially if you opt for high calorie snacks or mindlessly munch in front of the TV.

However, a healthy snack or evening meal that’s part of your daily plan won’t derail your diet. Experts say to keep in mind what you’ve already consumed during the day before you indulge in nighttime noshing.

Skipping meals is a good way to cut calories

Dodging breakfast or lunch might seem like a way to instantly cut calories, but experts warn this strategy usually backfires. Why? Remember, it’s the whole day that matters. Studies have shown that people who skip a meal often end up eating more at later meals or snacks. It may sound counterintuitive, but experts believe people who eat smaller meals and snacks throughout the day tend to have a better time controlling their appetite as well as their weight.

What if you miss the occasional meal? Don’t worry — it won’t derail your metabolism, but experts warn not to overeat at your next meal.


It’s okay to fill up on negative calorie foods

You’ve heard the rumour: you’ll burn more calories preparing and digesting foods like celery, cucumber and grapefruit than you’ll consume. But before you dig in, beware that scientific study has yet to back up those claims. Doctors say there’s no such thing as a negative calorie food — the amount of calories burned eating, digesting and eliminating food is pretty low, even if the food is low-cal.  

Besides, loading up on one or two foods isn’t how experts say we should handle healthy eating. Remember, variety is important to make sure we get the nutrients we need. Still, you can’t go wrong enjoying foods that are low in calories and high in water content as part of a balanced diet. (After all, they will fill up your stomach and help you eat less overall.) However, you still have to keep count of those calories.

It’s a healthy food, so you can eat as much as you want

Making healthier choices and reading food labels is only half the battle — minding portion size can also be a big challenge. Eating yoghurt instead of ice cream or poultry instead of red meat isn’t a green light to increase your serving size. (Some healthy foods like dried fruit can be high in calories too.) Experts say if you want to keep your calorie consumption in check, get to know portion sizes.

And yes, that means getting out the measuring cups and spoons to see what a 1/2-cup serving of yoghurt or a tablespoon of salad dressing looks like. Don’t worry, you need not measure everything you eat — just try it a few times until you’re familiar with what a serving looks like. Then you’ll have a better understanding of the amount of calories you consume. (Need to see it? Try Health Canada’s What is a Food Guide Serving?)

Liquid calories don’t count

We watch what we eat, but what about what we drink? A cup of juice at breakfast, a serving of chocolate milk at lunch and a glass of wine at dinner can total 350-400 calories. (Never mind the calories in sodas, vitamin enhanced waters and specialty coffee beverages.)  If you know your calorie math — 3500 calories equals a pound of fat — it doesn’t take long for those sips to add up.

Experts still recommend water as your go-to drink to stay hydrated, but low calorie beverages and choices that avoid added sugars can still be part of your diet — as can the occasional treat. Just make sure you account for the calories as you would with food. (To get an idea what you’re drinking, learn which drinks pack on the pounds.)

Supplements are a short cut to success

Wouldn’t it be nice if a pill could solve the problem? Despite the marketing hype, a new U.S. study found most weight loss supplements don’t deliver on their promises. As reported by CBC News, an analysis of studies involving hundreds of weight loss products found only a few actually contributed to weight loss. Even then, the loss was modest.

Which supplements showed some success? Green tea, insoluble fibre and low-fat dairy — but the small success was only seen when combined with diet and exercise. 

However, there’s more at stake than wasting your money: in the past five years alone, Health Canada has issued warnings for over 170 weight loss supplement products — like Hydroxycut, which caused liver toxicity. Experts still warn that anyone considering supplements should talk to their health care provider first — even “safe” products can have side effects or interact with other medications.

Fad diets lead to permanent weight loss

It’s tempting to turn to a fad diet to lose weight quickly — like when there’s a special occasion coming up. However, experts have long warned that fad diets like the “cabbage soup diet” aren’t a long-term solution. Even if people stick with them long enough to meet their goals, they usually gain the weight back when they return to their normal habits.

Chances are you’re not surprised. Overly restrictive diets aren’t a lot fun and can even leave you lacking essential nutrients. Instead, experts say we have to think long term and make permanent changes to our eating and exercise habits. It isn’t enough to lose weight — keeping it off is the next challenge.

There’s one right diet for everyone

Losing weight is big business, and there are no shortage of books, websites and products on the market promising to help out. Should you restrict carbs? Cut out animal products, or eliminate wheat? With big names like the Atkins Diet, South Beach Diet, Mediterranean Diet and Dukan Diet (to name a few), it’s hard to know where to get started.

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution because everyone’s health and dietary needs are a little different, say experts — not to mention allergies, intolerances and digestive issues. Some diets can have side effects or be risky for people with certain conditions. 

Right now there hasn’t been enough study on the long-term effectiveness and safety of these popular diets. Some studies even suggest that it doesn’t matter which diet you choose — so long as you’re cutting calories and exercising, no single diet triumphs over another. Ultimately, the best diet plan is one you can stick to in the long-term.

Confused by the myths and the studies? Experts may not have all the answers when it comes to diet and weight loss, but there’s one fact we can rely on: if we want to lose weight, we have burn more calories than we consume. How we go about doing that — well, that’s not so simple.

Additional sources:, Dieticians of Canada, the, Time Magazine, WedMD, Weight Control Information Network

Photo © Rubén Hidalgo

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