Every single day we learn more. It is impossible to know everything. And because of this I may be saying things right now, that I will realize later were not so smart.
I am a bit unique in the world of health, fitness and fat loss in that I am a biochemist, integrative physician, and a strength and conditioning specialist. My major expertise is in functional medicine, nutrition and weight loss.
What I have noticed in my career is that many things are declared but few things are questioned. The 5 things in this blog are a testament to that. You have likely heard all of these statements.
You probably even think they make a lot of sense. But as soon as you look at the arguments from a slightly different angle you will see they are not as wise or accurate as you thought.
The point of this blog is to get us all thinking more critically about the things we say and promote. This is especially true of the professionals who will be reading this.
Warning: this blog is going to challenge your biases and beliefs. Psychology research tells us that when this happens, the natural tendency of the human brain is to defend and critique instead of ponder and consider.
One reaction stifles your growth and learning. The other, even if it doesn’t change your mind, leads to furthering your understanding.
Be willing to challenge your belief systems and grow as our understanding of science and the human body evolves.
Without further delay, here are the 5 worst weight loss tips you can give:
- Only eat real food
- Eat anti-inflammatory foods to lose weight
- If you can’t pronounce it, you should not eat it
- If it has more than a few ingredients you should not eat it
- Sugar is toxic
1. Only eat real food
It is important to understand who you are talking to when you make statements. Are you talking to a well-educated natural health and fitness junky?
If so, this statement might make some sense.
Or are you speaking to an overweight and out of shape person who does not have the first clue about nutrition? If you are talking to this person, the statement may make zero sense.
To the latter person anything you can put in your mouth and chew and contains calories is “real food”.
So that is the first issue. But it gets more confusing. How are we going to define “real food”? Is it only food that adheres to your view of a dietary dogma?
If you are a paleo or primal person, “real food” means things like bacon and butter.
If you are a vegan or vegetarian, you wouldn’t include those foods but rather tofu.
If you are an Atkin’s devotee, then “real food” could be a bacon double cheeseburger from McDonald’s with the bun stripped off.
Who defines what this “real food” is? Is real food anything that you can gather or hunt? If so, than how do we define a turkey sandwich?
Wheat can be gathered. Turkey can be hunted. Mayonnaise can be made from free-range eggs and mixed with fresh hand smashed olive oil.
See the problem? I am not trying to be difficult. This is a serious question. Is a banana more real food when compared to pre-cut, bagged and frozen organic broccoli?
And is telling someone to just eat real food that helpful without further clarification and education?
What if, for example:
A young working mother doesn’t have time to cook her kids fresh eggs with organic coconut oil and organic blueberries before she sends them off to school and gets herself to work?
What if she needs something more convenient? Which is the more “real food” in her case?
Would a protein powder smoothie with almond milk and frozen berries be so much worse than eggs and bacon? Would oatmeal and nuts or Greek yogurt and berries not be real food?
Good nutrition is only good nutrition if the person following the eating plan can actually do it. The idea that convenience foods are not “real food” is not a helpful idea.
In my clinical practice I have always had the most success when I make change easier NOT harder. It is time to consider that the “real food” message may not be helpful for all people. In that case, it is important to amend your approach to meet people where they are.
You may disagree with this next statement, but science does not. While science is not perfect, the consensus among the research we currently have is that– health and weight loss seekers should be eating nutrient dense, calorie sparse foods that have properties that increase fullness and satisfaction during and between meals.
In general, this means a diet plentiful in protein, fiber and water-rich foods that contain less fat and starch. Yes, this looks an awful lot like a diet of things you can gather and hunt (wild animals tend to be much leaner). These same properties can be duplicated in modern day convenience foods.
In fact, as much as my natural health background biases me to this “eat real food” dogma, my real world clinical experience tells me it may not be feasible for all people. In fact, it may not be best for most.
And just to give you a little bit of objective data, research actually shows including convenience-based, “processed foods” while on a diet, may be healthier than not including it.
A study published in the June 2007 issue of Nutrition Journal followed 97 female dieters over the course of a year:
One group followed a traditional diet approach that did not include processed meal replacements (in this case shakes and bars). The other group included 1-2 meal replacement drinks and/or bars per day.
At the end of the year there was no difference between the groups in weight loss. However, the traditional food group was shown to be inadequate in several nutrients putting them at risk for deficiencies. The meal replacement group did not have these issues.
Kind of blows your biased-mind doesn’t it? But if you buck the natural trend to ignore that which does not agree with you, you become open to a new and perhaps a better way.
Meal replacement shakes and bars are fortified with vitamins and minerals. The average human tends to eat a very narrow range of foods. Some research suggest we eat mostly the same 10-15 foods day in and day out. These two things taken together could explain why the inclusion of convenience items provided more nutrition.
And when you consider that we now live in a fast-paced, convenience driven world where people are overwhelmed and overworked, you begin to understand the utility of convenience-based foods. If there is not a healthier more convenient option, people will choose the less healthier convenience option over reverting back to an inconvenient more healthy option.
In other words, if your choices are a nutrient-enhanced protein bar, a candy bar or a homemade salad with grilled chicken, a busy time starved person is going to go with one of the two convenience-based options more times than not.
This is something to consider next time you or someone you know goes on a rant about whole foods and real foods.
Sometimes, processed protein powder mixed in water is better than organic kale and salmon when the chances of the kale and salmon actually manifesting into a reality is slim to none.
A perfect plan that cannot be executed is not the perfect plan.
2. Eat anti-inflammatory foods to lose weight
I am not sure where this came from. The idea that inflammation causes obesity is gaining ground. This has now led to many people saying to eat anti-inflammatory foods.
And I certainly have no argument with this since many of these “anti-inflammatory foods” are the same nutrient dense protein, fiber and water-rich foods we talked about above.
But that then begs the question, is it about the low calorie, high nutrient and hunger suppressing effects of the foods or their “anti-inflammatory” properties?
Science tells us it is likely the former, not the latter. There is no evidence that adding anti-inflammatory foods into a regular diet is going to result in weight loss.
The fact is, if you are eating more food than your body can burn off, you won’t lose fat and perhaps even gain it.
So where did this come from? Well, there is a correlation between obesity and inflammation, but the idea that inflammation causes obesity is not a claim we can all make.
If anything, it is likely the other way around. The process of overeating and not exercising, leads to obesity, and likely results in inflammation, which then causes metabolic changes that could negatively impact hormonal signaling and other factors making weight gain more likely and weight loss less likely.
This relationship however, is still being teased out. Until we have a randomized trial of two groups of people on diets including or not including anti-inflammatory foods, measuring inflammatory markers (hsCRP, IL-6, etc) before and after, and then comparing weight loss results, we can’t make a claim like this.
Now, I realize I am coming off as a contrarian here, but this is important. Obesity is an epidemic and we have very little in the way of effective tools to deal with it. It is critical we don’t provide advice that is wrong or incomplete that can distract from the big movers in the obesity equation.
Even if there is some truth to it, it is likely of little impact compared to the big movers of hormonal imbalance (i.e. controlling hormones that impact hunger, cravings, etc) and caloric excess.
3. If you can’t pronounce it, you should not eat it
I am going to give you a list of ingredients for two different foods. You tell me which one you should eat.
Helical amylose, milk solids, short and medium chain triglycerides, natural protein, monosaccharides, disaccharides, polysaccharides, amylopectin, cellulose, glucosinolate, glucoraphanin, pyridoxine, pantothenate, riboflavin, thiamine, other natural vitamins and minerals, natural flavors, sugar alcohols, sea salt.
Natural protein, monosaccharides, disaccharides, polysaccharides, isomaltooligosaccharides, medium chain triglycerides, cellulase, lipase, protease, pyridoxine, pantothenate, riboflavin, thiamin, vitamin and minerals, natural flavors, lactobacillus acidophilus, cinnamon and other natural herbs, sweet leaf.
Can you guess which of these two foods comes in a package and which does not? Food number 1 is broccoli with a little pat of butter and a sprinkle of sea salt. Food number 2 is a packaged protein powder.
Are you shocked? There is no trick here. Let me decipher for you what these labels really say.
- Fibers= helical amylose, cellulose, amylopectin
- Butter= milk solids (another way of say whey and casein), medium and short chain triglycerides (naturally occurring fat in butter)
- Starches and sugar= monosaccharides, disaccharides, polysaccharide (these are just different names for naturally occurring starch)
- Protein= naturally occurring protein is present in broccoli
- Phytonutrients= glucosinolates, glucoraphanin
- Vitamins= pyridoxine is vitamin B6, Pantothenate is B5, thiamine is B1, riboflavin B2
- Sugar alcohols= yes broccoli has trace amounts of things like xylitol and sorbitol in it
- Natural flavors and salt= broccoli contains naturally occurring flavors that give it its distinct bitter flavor.
The Protein Powder:
- Natural protein= whey protein from milk
- Starches and sugar= monosaccharides, disaccharides, polysaccharide, isomaltooligosaccharides, maltodextrin (these are just different names for starch. They are not manmade chemicals that will kill you)
- Natural enzymes= lipase, cellulose, protease (these are enzymes that help you digest the protein in the product. When you eat broccoli you release many of these from your own pancreas)
- Vitamins= pyridoxine is vitamin B6, Pantothenate is B5, thiamine is B1, riboflavin B2
- Probiotic= lactobacillus acidophilus (a natural probiotic found in yogurt)
- Sweet leaf= stevia (a natural sweetener from the leaf of a plant called Stevia rebaudiana)
So, why do I go through all of this? Because the average person looking at a label will see all of this stuff they can’t pronounce and be told these things are poisons or some other non-sense. The reality is most of these “scary chemicals” are just the scientific name for vitamins and minerals or natural starch or protein.
After reading all the chemicals that you could not pronounce or recognize, does this mean you should not eat broccoli?
Now again, I purposely rigged this game to illustrate an important point I hope you now understand. It might be good advice to tell people to not eat anything they cant pronounce until you realize what exactly these things are.
There certainly is some wisdom in keeping our foods simple. However, given this discussion, realize that not all packaged foods with ingredients you cannot pronounce are bad. In fact many may be very beneficial.
4. If it has more than a few ingredients you should not eat it
After all we’ve discussed this one should now be self-evident. A salad with a variety of vegetables, some salmon along with a nice homemade dressing will have 11-20 different ingredients in it.
It’s borders on silliness to assume you should not eat it.
Again, I get the point. Don’t eat processed food. But even that is not a great way to look at things in today’s world.
Frozen vegetables are processed. Organic free-range grass fed meat is processed. Bread is processed, butter is processed, etc.
In addition, the last point showed us that listing all vitamins and minerals can leave you with a very lengthy list of “ingredients”. Teaching patients to avoid foods with many ingredients is poor advice.
5. Sugar is toxic
This one, in my opinion takes the cake. First, what is a toxin? For the average person a toxin is synonymous with poison.
Sugar is not toxic. In fact it is a major fuel for the human body. Some would argue it is the preferred fuel for the body. Certainly it is the brain’s preferred fuel (the ketogenic people may argue with this).
Now if you amend the statement to say, sugar CAN be toxic you are getting closer to the truth. Even better, excess sugar in a diabetic person is much closer to the true definition of a poison.
However, eating a Twinkie loaded with sugar after running a marathon in a fit individual is not only not toxic, but dare I say… nourishing… GASP!
And this is the next thing to understand- eating extra broccoli after you have already consumed 5,000 calories that day may be more toxic than eating a Snickers bar when you have exercised all day and barely consumed 500 calories.
In fact, by the definition of toxic the way many people are using it to describe sugar, water would be just as toxic.
If you begin drinking as much water as possible all day long without stopping, you will likely die of hyponatremia before freebasing sugar all day would put you in a diabetic coma.
So are you now going to start preaching “water is toxic”? Please stop saying sugar is toxic. We need solutions and realism in these discussions not sensationalism and hype.
I realize this article could rub some people the wrong way. After all, we humans enjoy identifying bad guys and creating these extreme dichotomies. They speak to our natural human tendencies towards black and white, bias and exaggeration.
There is wisdom in each of these statements, but they have been taken too far and too literally by many. It is time to think more critically and be a bit savvier.
If you really want to take your knowledge of health, fitness and weight loss to the next level, you have to move beyond your biases and limited understanding and start thinking more critically.
When thinking about nutrition I suggest you stick to the ideas that we know make a big impact and leave the simplistic less helpful ideas behind.
The following are ideas that we know make the biggest difference:
- Eat a diet that is nutrient dense
- Eat a diet that is calorie sparse
- Eat a diet that helps keep you full and satisfied at the current meal and future meals
- Eat a diet that fits your metabolic expression, psychology and personal preferences
Based on everything we have learned this approach likely means:
- Eat a ton of non-starchy vegetables (nutrient dense and loaded with water and fiber)
- Eat plenty of fresh fruit (nutrient dense and loaded with fiber and water)
- Eat enough protein to keep you full and satisfied from meal to meal
- Eat enough fat and starch to round out your nutrition and enjoy your food. Find your tolerance for each
- Eat as many of the foods you love as possible while still being able to reach your health and fitness goals
Do not be afraid of convenience foods. Protein bars and shakes, greens drinks, and other convenience items may be the very thing that, when used, allows you and your patients to eat real food most of the time.
Most importantly, be willing to challenge your belief systems and admit when you are wrong when the evidence supports it. Providing your patients with the best advise to achieve their goals and optimal health requires constant evaluation and critical thinking of your current beliefs and biases.