Losing weight and shedding fat is challenging enough without all the myths and misinformation out there complicating the process.
The fitness industry has always been a hotbed for myths and fads as people eager to lose weight and shape up chase quick-fixes and misguided approaches. But the consequences of following incorrect or ill-informed advice can be devastating to your health, your motivation levels and your chances of weight-loss success.
To help you navigate the information minefield, we demystify eight of the more common myths you’re likely to hear during your transformation journey.
Myth #1: Successful weight loss requires extreme measures
With all the pressure to be skinny, women often resort to extreme measures to lose weight. These include some often life-threatening approaches, such as starvation diets, or excessive exercise.
While fasting is generally used as part of religious rituals, or for health reasons, these diets simply restrict eating for specific periods, rather than limiting total calorie intakes.
Starvation or crash diets, on the other hand, severely restrict calorie intakes and often lead to nutrient deficiencies and malnourishment.
These conditions can be extremely harmful to your body and your health, and can cause cognitive and/or emotional problems. When sustained for prolonged periods, you can even damage vital organs.
Excessive exercise can have similar outcomes. While starvation diets limit calorie intakes, excessive exercise aims to burn energy at rates way above normal.
Chronic reliance on exercise to ‘purge’ calories leads to a condition termed exercise bulimia. In these cases, people use physical activity to lose excessive weight, rather than taking the route of the more common psychological condition of bulimia nervosa, which is an eating disorder characterised by binge eating followed by ‘purging’.
Both approaches are extreme in nature and are unlikely to result in long-term weight loss. In fact, they can sometimes lead to longer-term weight gain as the body enters survival mode and attempts to regain weight by slowing down your metabolism.
Myth #2: A calorie is a calorie
While this is true from a pure energy standpoint – all calories provide the same amount of energy (4,184 Joules to be exact) – the source of each calorie matters.
The body digests and metabolises calories from fat, protein and carbohydrates in different ways. In addition, these macronutrients have different effects on your hormones, which affect hunger, fat storage and energy production, to name a few.
Sugar-derived calories, for example, spike insulin, which is the body’s main fat storage hormone. And when there is too much glucose (from ingested sugar) circulating in our bloodstream, there’s no need to tap into fat stores for energy.
Calories derived from whole, natural foods also generally contain more micronutrients – the important vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients our bodies need to function optimally – whereas calories from overly processed, refined or convenience foods are generally ‘hollow’ with little nutritional value.
Myth #3: Exercise alone will get me there
For years, the theory of energy balance has fuelled one of the more pervasive myths about weight loss.
Broadly speaking, this theory suggests that losing weight is a simple equation – burn more calories than you consume. But, as the saying goes, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet.
While this isn’t entirely true, in general, exercise in isolation is inefficient at reducing weight, for various reasons.
For instance, most people simply don’t have enough time each day to exercise sufficiently to burn a significant number of calories. Even the most intense hour-long session will struggle to burn more than a few hundred calories. If you were an elite athlete who trained for 3-4 hours a day, it might be a different story, though.
But don’t throw in the exercise towel just yet. There are many health benefits to regular exercise, and weight training will help you build more muscle, which can boost your metabolic rate. Weight training can also spare muscle while on a calorie-restricted diet.
Myth #4: Weight training turns fat into muscle
This myth may make sense based on observations of impressive real-world body transformations. When we eat properly and train regularly with weights, we certainly alter our body composition.
But we aren’t creating muscle alchemy by converting one type of tissue into another. Instead, we’re burning stored body fat and building more muscle tissue at the same time.
Myth #5: Cardio is best to burn fat
The heart rate zone below our aerobic threshold is the most efficient intensity to metabolise fat for energy during sustained efforts. This physiological fact gave rise to the notion that prolonged steady-state cardio is the best way to slim down.
While this way of training can definitely help you shed some fat, it’s only really effective if you’re a committed endurance athlete who trains in this zone for many hours each week.
For most women, it’s more effective to burn as many calories as possible by working through a wide range of heart rate zones and boosting the metabolic effect of your training sessions with some form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
And you can apply HIIT principles to either weight training or cardio to realise results. The weights build more metabolically-active muscle, while sustained intense cardio efforts requires serious energy output, a lot of which will come from fat. Ultimately, a combination is best.
Myth #6: Crunches get you a flat tummy
The spot reduction myth suggests that we can lose fat from a specific area by performing exercises that target or isolate that region.
The truth is that we metabolise fat in a generalised pattern throughout the body via a process that is dependent on numerous factors, such as genetics, hormones, age, body composition, intensity levels and the type of exercise or activity we’re doing.
Natural body fat distribution processes (driven by hormones) also tend to store more energy in our midsections – our hips, bums, thighs and belly – with less stored in our extremities.
The areas with the least amount of stored fat, like our arms are legs, will therefore become leaner faster. Accordingly, those ‘spots’ that gained and carry the most fat will be the last area to become visibly leaner as there is more to lose.
And performing hundreds of sit ups every day won’t accelerate the process. Rather use your training time for intense full-body exercises to burn as many calories as possible each day.
Myth #7: Eating fat makes you fat
Eating any type of food in excess will increase our weight, but it is processed and refined carbohydrates and sugar, not fat, that seems to have the biggest impact on our waistlines.
Reducing our intake of these types of carbohydrates and sugar improves our insulin response and sensitivity, which directly affects how much fat we store, and also makes the body more efficient at metabolising stored fat for energy.
We also need to eat certain fats to ensure our metabolism functions optimally because various fats are critical for the production of hormones. For example, our bodies need saturated fat and cholesterol to produce testosterone, which is a potent hormone needed by both men and women to produce more muscle and burn fat.
Of course, not all fats are created equal. Processed, man-made trans fats and hydrogenated oils can negatively impact our weight-loss efforts and our health.
Fat is also more satiating than carbohydrates because it is more calorie dense, providing 9 calories per gram compared to 4 calories from carbs. This energy density can increase feelings of satiety, especially when consumed with protein.
However, it is easy to consume too many calories when following a predominantly fat-based diet.
Maintaining portion control and hitting the recommended macronutrient ratios will be vital to your overall success on a low-carb diet plan.
Just don’t cut out all carbs. A variety of non-starchy vegetables and low-GI fruits should form the bulk of our diet.
Myth #8: Weight training will make me bulky
Many women are afraid of working out on the free weights floor because they do not want to become too muscular.
But women don’t naturally produce as much testosterone as men, which makes it impossible to gain huge amounts of muscle mass by merely lifting weights.
Gaining muscle mass also requires lots of calories and plenty protein. As such, a calorie-controlled diet that abides by healthy recommended dosages won’t create the muscle-bound physiques that are synonymous with female bodybuilders.
So don’t avoid the weights room. Building more muscle and strength are vital to help you achieve the shapely physique you’ve always wanted.
And more lean, metabolically-active muscle will also make it easier to maintain your weight when you eventually reach your target.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.