Nutritionist & Exercise Scientist Declan Doyle from Health@Work sheds some light on common health myths and shares his own discoveries.
One of the most important things I’ve learnt over the years is to become a critical thinker. I even went back to university at 27 to learn the art of how to debunk evidence. It has without a doubt been the best investment I ever made.
Unfortunately, not everyone loves reading through research papers until 11 pm most nights, so finding the truth when it comes to health advice can be mind-boggling and very contradictory.
Below are the most famous health and fitness myths, exposed. I’ve even linked to well-conducted studies in the majority if you want to find out more about them.
- “Fat makes you fat”
Let’s just get this one out of the way, eating fat doesn’t make you fat. A calorie surplus does, meaning eating more than your energy needs is what leads to putting fat on. We constantly get caught up in looking for scapegoats like blaming the slices of cheese we put in our sandwich as the cause of piling on the pounds. It’s not!
It’s the overall intake, meaning that it’s the total calories resulting in a surplus for our individual needs that drives weight/fat gain. Let me finish this one by saying you could be eating the “cleanest” food in the world but if you are eating it in excess of your needs then you’ll be putting on weight.
- “Carbs make you fat”
Just like fat doesn’t make you fat, neither do carbohydrates. What is probably triggering this mindset is water retention. For every 1 gram of carbs, you’re going to hold about 3g of water. Ever notice what happens when you cook pasta in boiling water? – Yep, the pasta absorbs the water! This is exactly what happens in your body.
The authors in this study put it correctly “Among persons living in a controlled setting, calories alone account for the increase in fat”.
- “Low-fat diets = Weight loss”
While cutting fat can make a dent in energy intake, people often compensate with an increase in calories somewhere else – usually sugar. Often food sources marked “low in fat” are high in “sugar” compensating for the reduction in fat intake.
Cutting out fats, particularly healthy fats will also make a dent in your health as fat is vital for the following:
- Making hormones
- Brain health
- Heart health
- Energy levels
- Supporting your thyroid
- Strengthening your bones
- Boosting your immune system
- Reducing your risk for cancer
- Giving you healthy skin and hair
And the list goes on as scientists learn more about this nutrient.
Weight loss is driven by an energy deficit and that’s it. Just one of the many studies that proved this is where the two authors tested two different fat reduction programmes with the same deficit and came to the following conclusion; “The negative energy balance alone is responsible for weight reduction.”
- “Eating saturated fats causes heart disease”
Another one from the fat-shaming community driving people to throw their butters, cheeses and fatty meats out the window! Although you should be mindful of unhealthy fats such as trans fats that have been processed more than your local fast-food chain, saturated fats are not responsible for people upsetting their heart and shouldn’t be avoided at all cost. So have some butter on your toast if you want.
A meta-analysis observing nearly 350,000 people concluded that “intakes of saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of CHD, stroke, or CVD.
- “Red meat causes cancer”
The actual heading from the investigators of this study was: “Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat”
The findings were mostly referring to cancer of the colon, so statements like this are generalizing and scaremongering, to say the least. Also, the study was based on observational research (watching what happens over time).
This means the actual cause is hard to pin down without any controlled measures. In addition, processed red meat is also included in the pot which we obviously know that any processed foods eaten in abundance are going to cause health issues. Here is a complete overview of all the ins and outs of the study.
All in all, it’s safe to say if you are eating mostly healthy red meat in moderation you’ll be okay.
- “The yolk in the egg is bad for cholesterol”
We only hear about cholesterol from our doctor or in mainstream media making sensationalised claims about risks to cardiovascular disease. It’s no surprise why people throw away that tasty rich yellow yolk in fear of clogging up their arteries.
The actual fact of the matter is that the cholesterol we eat from our diet has little impact on blood cholesterol for most people. In addition, studies using controlled trials on both healthy and unhealthy people eating eggs found no increase risk to heart disease. Like any myth, this drives people to focus on the minor details (the egg yolk), without focusing on the main factors such as energy balance, health and lifestyle. So you’re ok to keep dunkin’ your soldiers.
- “Too much protein damages your kidneys”
Another vital nutrient attacked for minding its own business. It seems that when they can’t blame carbs or fats, let’s blame protein!
Early studies made very weak links to protein issues but they were soon refuted with controlled studies including this long term one. An induced high protein diet for over a year found “no harmful effects on measures of blood lipids as well as liver and kidney function.”
- “It’s my genetics that stops me losing weight”
A review studying 9,053 random control trials concluded that individuals carrying genetic traits respond equally well to dietary, physical activity, or weight-loss interventions. You can still achieve weight loss/fat loss goals despite genetic influence, don’t predetermine your success before you’ve even got started.
- “Skipping breakfast slows down your metabolism”
The argument of skipping breakfast automatically slowing down your metabolism doesn’t have any merit. Studies on those who are in really good shape and those who are not showing that is just not true.
If you are not a breakfast person, then don’t beat yourself up. You might be a brunch person or more of a late lunch person. The key here is trial and error, if skipping breakfast drives you to binge throughout the rest of the day, leading to eating more than you normally would then you should consider including breakfast.
If it doesn’t do that and you feel fine with just staying hydrated, and it actually helps you stay within your energy needs, then that’s what works for you – Keep doing it.
- “You need to eat six times a day to lose weight”
There is no frequency of meals that improves fat loss or any other health marker for that matter. Whether you want to eat twice a day, six or anything in between is up to you. The timing and amount of meals are going to have nothing to do with losing fat. You know what I’m going to say, it’s the overall energy intake/expenditure that matters most.
- “The more you sweat the more you burn calories”
Sweat is fat crying, right? Wrong. Sweat is your body finding a way to regulate your temperature through evaporation of the skin. It’s NOT fat leaving your body and turning up the heat isn’t going to speed anything up except for your thirst.
It’s easy to lose sight of the most important principles when it comes to health with so much conflicting evidence out there. Look beyond a newspaper article and use credible resources which are independent before forming any conclusions.