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Nutrition Made Easy For Busy People

Diet Myths Debunked

Just what is the best way to lose weight and stay in shape? The mountain of media advice out there makes it very confusing, so that it’s hard to know what to do. I’ve examined three of the most common diet myths so you can see just where you might be going wrong and put together some practical tips for successful weight loss.

Myth 1: Fruit juices and smoothies are less fattening than colas.

Not so. The single biggest culprit when it comes to weight gain is excess sugar, as it generates the release of insulin which encourages the body to lay down fat stores.  You might think that fruit juice is a healthy option for a drink, but if you’re regularly grabbing a smoothie or fruit juice on the way to work then this will take a major toll on your waistline. Just a couple of glasses of juice per day can add up to a whopping 8 teaspoons of sugar, the equivalent of a can of Coke. Commercial smoothies are even worse, with just one small Innocent Smoothie bottle containing around 7 teaspoons of sugar.

Eat the whole fruit but avoid the juiced versions. Fruit is naturally high in fructose, which is fruit sugar, but it also contains plenty of fibre which balances out the sugar. By eating the two together you can slow down the flow of fructose, allowing the liver time to process it and mitigating the potential harm it can do. The juicing process extracts the fibre from the juice, so that you’re only consuming the sugar which is where the problems start.

Although it might seem that smoothies get around this problem by blending the whole fruit, it’s important to realise that the sharp blades break down the cellulose in the fruit which makes up the insoluble fibre and slows down the absorption of the sugar, so the impact is just the same as with a juice.

If you’re keen to boost your vitamin and mineral content AND keep the sugar down, then go for a vegetable juice instead. Purists would advise focusing on green juices, as starchy root vegetables such as carrot or beetroot will eventually break down to sugar. However, they’re a great way to start if you’re a veg juice virgin and a much better option for your waistline than a mango and passion fruit smoothie, for example.

Myth 2: Skipping meals or fasting for a couple of days is the easy route to weight loss.
After all, weight loss is basically all about calories in-calories out, right? Wrong! But in a few short weeks, the party season will be upon us and many people will be tempted to try this route, just so they can fit into that special outfit.

The problem with fasting is that it confuses your metabolism and will lead to more weight gain in the long term. Our eating behaviour is all controlled by hormones and the relevant one here is leptin, which manages your appetite by informing your brain about the status of your energy stores and whether you need to stop or carry on eating. Short term fasting leads to a dramatic drop in leptin levels, indicating a state of famine to the brain. Within a short space of time, your nervous system has gone into conservation mode to protect you by preserving energy (fat), increasing your appetite and generating the insulin response(see Myth 1).

Even just missing breakfast can generate an unhelpful hormonal response. Ghrelin is the hormone that manages hunger and it’s programmed to increase before a meal and decrease after a meal. Skipping breakfast may seem like a smart way to keep calories down, but studies have shown that people who miss breakfast eat more at both lunch and dinner than people who regularly eat breakfast, because the ghrelin levels remain unchecked. The reality is that no matter how strong your willpower, you’re never going to win against your hormones and in the long term the weight will simply pile back on.

Regulating the insulin response by limiting sugary foods and drinks and boosting your intake of fibre (e.g. wholegrains, pulses and vegetables) is the key to ensuring optimal leptin levels and successful and sustained weight management. Try keeping a food and drink diary for a week, as you might be surprised at how much sugar is finding its way into your diet. It’s also worth noting that sleep deprivation can disrupt leptin levels too. Regulating this area alone will be a much more successful way of ensuring you fit into that little black dress or new pair of jeans on a permanent basis.

As for managing your ghrelin levels, the single best way to do this is to ensure your breakfast contains some protein: add a large spoon of pumpkin and sunflower seeds to your morning cereal, plain yoghurt or porridge, or have wholemeal toast with an egg or unsweetened peanut butter. It will make all the difference to your eating habits later in the day.

Myth 3: Dietary fat makes you fat.
This is the most common misconception out there and many a client proudly tells me that they only ever have low-fat fruit yoghurt or skimmed milk, for example. Dietary fat doesn’t make you fat – it does a number of other things, such as balancing hormones, supporting brain and cardiac function, ensuring the absorption of certain vitamins and producing sex hormones. It’s also responsible for much of the flavour in our food, which is why manufacturers add sugar to low-fat products, as the flavour has been stripped out along with the fat. This is the real problem, as excess sugar is the single biggest factor when it comes to weight gain. If you take a close look at the label of a small 125g Activia low-fat yoghurt pot, you’ll see it contains up to four teaspoons (16g) of sugar, so almost a quarter of the whole pot is just sugar. The crowning irony of low-fat products has to be the Starbucks “Skinny” Blueberry Muffin which contains 8.5 teaspoons of sugar – 2 more than the Classic Blueberry Muffin. Not only will it not taste as good as the Classic, but the high sugar content means that it’s far from the sensible treat that the marketing suggests.

Take a really close look at the labels of any low-fat products to make sure you’re not introducing excess sugar into your diet. A teaspoon of sugar is roughly 4g, so it’s simple enough to do the maths. If you don’t have the time or inclination to fiddle about with calculations, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

a). If you really want a muffin, keep away from any of the Starbucks skinny muffins and opt for their Rise and Shine Muffin instead. This contains 5g of fibre per unit, which is better than most breakfast cereals and is also packed with protein-rich pumpkin seeds and oats.
b). Avoid pre-packed sugary granolas, such as Pret’s Bircher Muesli – this small pot contains 8 teaspoons of sugar and isn’t as healthy as it looks. Try their porridge with fruit compote instead – the sugar content is much less, at 3 teaspoons, and it has the advantage of being full of protein and fibre to keep you going.
c). Keep away from fruit yoghurts – low-fat or otherwise – and opt for delicious full-fat plain yoghurt that you can sweeten with fresh berries or chopped fruit, which is a much more fibrous and low-sugar option.

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