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19 Popular Food and Obesity Myths Debunked

Written by S.O.

Posted on March 6, 2015 at 10:13 pm

Photo by Stéphanie Kilgast

No one likes to watch as his or her cherished beliefs get discredited.

This is especially true of when the debunked belief is among the constellation of convictions we most strongly hold. Unfortunately, diet and weight loss are among the least understood/most likely to be misunderstood concepts around, so this area is ripe for pseudoscience and grift.

Clearly, we like our notions about weight loss almost as much as we like the food that causes us to gain that weight. That means it can be even more difficult to dislodge these myths from what we actually know to be true.

Just look around our culture. False beliefs about foods and diet abound in our media. One week, the latest fad diet is held up as the next cure-all, only to be replaced with a new diet the very next week, which is conveniently bundled with a product, potion, or fitness modality that will help speed up the process…for a price, of course.

Luckily, science is doing its part to let out some of the air of a few of our beloved food and diet beliefs. One study in particular, from a group of internationally respected researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public health, made plenty of waves in 2013 when a preliminary survey of their results was published in the New England Journal Medicine. Those findings were expanded upon in 2014 with a published article in the June issue of Critical Reviews of Food Science and Nutrition.

So what did the researchers find? While not rising to the level of a screaming ‘Everything you know about diet and food is wrong!’ headline, the study established 19 myths and presumptions many of us have about food, diet, and obesity in general.

9 Popular Obesity Myths

  1. Unless weight is dropped slowly, you stand a greater chance of regaining the weight you just lost.
  2. Unless realistic weight loss goals are set at the beginning of the program, dieters soon will lose focus and fail.
  3. You must be ‘ready’ to lose weight; if your not, you’re just wasting your time.
  4. Phys. Ed. classes, as we currently offer them, play a big part in reducing childhood obesity.
  5. Breastfeeding plays a part in reducing the chances a child will be obese later in life.
  6. You should not weigh yourself daily, as it tends to demoralize people.
  7. Genes have nothing to do with obesity.
  8. College freshman will gain 15 pounds.
  9. If you live in a food desert (localities, usually inner cities, with little or no access to fresh, healthy foods), you have a greater chance of being obese.
    As surprising as it might sound, none of the above claims has ever been shown to contribute to obesity.

UAB researcher Krista Casazza Ph.D. said holding onto the above myths doesn’t just sidetrack the average dieter. Doing so also prevents the kinds of public policy initiatives that actually may help fight obesity.

“It’s vitally important to label these myths for what they are to prevent a misallocation of the resources available to address obesity, which is a serious public health problem,” said Casazza about the myth list.

10 Popular Food Myths

  1. Those who eat breakfast are less likely to be obese.
  2. Eating later in the evening contributes to obesity.
  3. Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables is all you really need to do to lose weight.
  4. Yo-yo dieting (that is, losing large amounts of weight only to gain it back again) will reduce your lifespan.
  5. Snacking is a factor in weight gain.
  6. The more pedestrian-friendly a city, the less likely the residents will be obese.
  7. Getting children to spend less time watching television (including tablets or computers) will decrease their chances of being obese.
  8. Smaller portion sizes will reduce overall food consumption.
  9. Families that eat meals together have a lower chance of obesity.
  10. Drinking more water, without making any other dietary changes, will help you lose weight.

Again, there isn’t a single study in existence that provides evidence of any of above presumptions about food and diet. Further, Casazza said holding onto these presumptions may have dire health consequences.

“These presumptions are often the force that drives decisions about obesity treatment, public health policies, public health recommendations or future research,” she said.

Digging deeper into the findings, the researches did their best to suss out the reasons people get and then hold onto these kinds of ideas. One reason is what the researchers called “mere exposure effect.”

We’ve all heard the old canard: ‘Tell a lie enough and eventually it becomes the truth,’ right? Well, this extends to our misplaced or pseudoscientific beliefs, too, especially when diet gurus tout the above myths and presumptions enough times that, lo and behold, we eventually come to believe them.

Just as powerfully, quite often we’ll grasp onto the ideas that either make us feel better or align with beliefs we already hold. Commonly called ‘confirmation bias’, Simon and Garfunkel put it best when they sang, “Still, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” We see confirmation bias at work all around us – be it from the lips of a handsome television doctor pushing the latest ‘cure’ using a false veneer of science, or from those who claim their favorite sports team is a lock to win the big game – and its tentacles reach beyond what we think all the way to how we treat our bodies.

The way to fight these often-unconscious biases is through the use of reason and the scientific method itself. That means, instead of rushing to embrace the latest and greatest dietary claim, it would serve all of us to examine the statement with a critical eye. Does the advice come from a reputable source? Do terms like ‘Breakthrough!’ or ‘Miracle Cure!’ appear in the headline or lede of an article, while the actual findings, located much further down in the story, fail to bear out those claims? Do you embrace claims simply because they conform to some of your already-held beliefs?

No one is saying that it’s easy digging through the haystack of claims to find the needle of truth at the bottom. But when it comes to losing weight and getting healthy, we’re just wasting our time if we fall hook, line and sinker for the assertion de jour.


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