Nutrition science is complicated. Go on a vacation and you’ll come back to mounting research negating last week’s headlines. But you can safely forget about these diet tips for good.
Low-carb or low-fat? Paleo or vegan? Three square meals a day or five mini meals? The jury is out on the efficacy of so many popular diet trends, and as a registered dietitian and healthy food blogger, I hear them all. But luckily, we’ve come pretty far during the last 20 years and have some definitive answers about poorly backed but widely believed nutrition beliefs. (Read: Just because your friend at work raves about this new elimination diet doesn’t mean it’s healthy or good for you.) These are just some of the diet tips and myths I am SO sick of hearing.
Bad Diet Tip 1: Eat less and burn more calories if you want to lose weight.
Weight loss is not as simple as a third-grade math problem. Your weight is determined by a variety of factors aside from the calories you eat. Things like age, gender, ethnicity, activity level, and genetics all influence your natural metabolism. I mean, we all have that friend who can eat McDonald’s hash browns all week and never gain a pound, right? How could that work out if it were a perfect numbers game?
Aside from ignoring individual metabolic differences, simplifying weight loss to a calorie-cutting exercise usually does more harm than good. In the famous Biggest Loser study, for example, researchers found that chronically restricting calories for weight loss actually slows down someone’s metabolism so much so that you’d have to further reduce calories to an extremely low level just to maintain the weight loss. In other words, whether you’re a contestant on The Biggest Loser or just someone looking to drop, say 30 pounds, if you lost weight initially by eating 1,500 calories, you’d then have to eat 1,000 calories just to maintain that weight loss over time as a result of your sluggish metabolism.
While you chew on that depressing little nugget of truth, let me help by clarifying that when it comes to calories, it’s about changing your mindset from focusing on quantity and instead, thinking about quality. For example, one study found that even though total calories consumed were the same, people who ate a lot of processed, refined foods (think potato chips and sweets) gained more weight than those who ate a minimally processed diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. So instead of religiously counting calories regardless of their source, focus on getting foods that are rich in fiber, protein, and healthy fats so you get more nutrition from the food. This is what I like to call the hunger-crushing combination that helps satisfy cravings and prevent blood sugar spikes that may contribute to fat storage. See, you’ll get more nutrition instead of empty calories, and you’ll get some bonus weight-loss benefits. Trust me, you’ll be a lot more satiated on 500 calories of chicken breast, broccoli, and quinoa than you would be on a tiny slice of cake.
Bad Diet Tip 2: Fat is fattening.
Since before the 1970s, the medical world was captivated by the simplified notion that eating fat made you fat. In response, there was a massive push for fat-free foods in the marketplace. Unfortunately, when food manufacturers removed fat, they often replaced it with processed sugar and salt. Whether you’re a fan of the Keto diet or not, today we can all agree that fat is no longer the devil du jour. The right fat is essential for helping your body absorb minerals and vitamins, promoting good heart health, and contributing to satiety and weight management. (Read more on the foods high in healthy fat that every diet needs.) However, not all fat is created equal, and it’s still true that you’ll want to limit your saturated fat and trans fat intake, as both can contribute to heart disease, weight gain, and a slew of other health problems.
Admittedly, back when I was studying nutrition, teachers were all about pushing the fat-free milk and yogurt, but today’s research has dietitians singing a different tune. One large study found that women who consumed the most high-fat dairy products actuallylowered their risk of obesity. And another study found that women who consumed the highest amounts of full-fat dairy had a 46 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. So don’t feel so bad about adding that slice of cheddar to your burger.
Rather than swearing off all fat, aim to get a wide range of fats to get the most diverse fatty acid profile in your diet, and focus on choosing heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats most often. Some of my favorite fat sources include pistachios, salmon, flax, sunflower seeds, avocado, and extra-virgin olive oil.
Bad Diet Tip 3: Don’t eat eggs because they raise cholesterol.
For years, eggs had a bad reputation based on their cholesterol content and the reasonable assumption that foods high in dietarycholesterol must be the root cause of high blood cholesterol. What we now know is that trans fats have a far greater impact on raising bad cholesterol than your innocent morning egg. In fact, the results of two large cohort studies found that consuming an egg a day (and we’re talking about the whole egg, not just the whites) was not associated with an increased risk of heart disease in healthy individuals. Eggs are an inexpensive, nutrient-dense, convenient source of protein packed with B vitamins, vitamin D, and a variety of antioxidants. So go ahead, enjoy your runny yolks—this vegetarian breakfast pizza looks like a good place to start.
Bad Diet Tip 4: Never eat after 8 p.m.
Ah, yes. This one just won’t go away. Truth bomb: Your body doesn’t know what time it is. The reality is that it doesn’t really matterwhen you eat your calories. Rather, it’s what you choose to eat that makes the bigger impact on your health. The reason why this myth prevails, however, is likely because of the kind of food you tend to reach for late at night. Most people aren’t sitting in front of the TV eating raw almonds and hard-boiled eggs at 10 p.m. No, you’re most likely lounging around and stuffing your face with a family-size bag of cheese puffs.
You may also find that you crave food after dark because you could be undereating during the day. If you have a hectic day at the office and don’t get a chance to slow down until 5 p.m., chances are your mind will eventually catch up with your body and the hunger monster comes later than expected.
Rather than creating silly time restrictions and rules, simply resolve to sit down (ideally) to a satisfying breakfast, lunch, and dinner (as well as any interim snacks your body needs) during the day. If you still feel like you’re hungry after dinner, choose a healthy satiating snack before bed with fiber, protein, or healthy fat. I like air-popped popcorn mix with nuts and other nutritious add-ins, or you could try sweet potato nice cream, or protein oatmeal cups to satisfy your desire for something crunchy
Bad Diet Tip 5: Eating breakfast kick-starts your metabolism.
Your mom nagged you about it every morning as you rushed out the door—breakfast is the most important meal of the day! Most breakfast-pushers say that it’s important for kick-starting your metabolism before your life gets going. But new research has actually disproved that long-standing theory. It seems that eating or not eating breakfast doesn’t actually have an impact on resting metabolism.
Am I telling you to skip your morning meal? Heck no! But eating breakfast is no more or less important than eating lunch or dinner. Sitting down to satisfying, mindful, balanced meals helps keep your brain and body fueled, which is a good enough reason to eat in general. Other research has also pointed out that eating breakfast may also help promote weight management—not necessarily because it boosts metabolism, but because it just helps prevent you from overdoing it later in your hangry state.
Choosing the right breakfast is important, too. Ideally, you’re looking for a mixture of protein, fiber-rich carbohydrates, and fat to deliver energy while keeping you full until your next meal. (Morning meals before or after a workout deserve some specific attention, though, so here’s what to eat if you like to get your sweat on in the a.m.) Need some inspiration? Try white bean avocado toast for a balanced breakfast that puts a twist on the classic.