The best way to lose weight is a hotly debated topic. Ultimately, you have to find what works for you—and dispelling these common myths should help you achieve success.
Myth 1: Just walk for exercise
“Walking is a form of transportation and a good place to start, but it is by no means a finish line in your quest to stay young, stay healthy, and be strong,” says Eric Von Frohlich, an expert fitness trainer and cofounder of Row House and other exercise studios in New York City. For a very overweight person, a short daily walk may be the best starting point, increasing distance by about 10 percent each week. But ultimately, everyone needs weight training to strengthen muscles and bones, and cardiovascular exercise intense enough to get the heart pumping.
Myth 2: It’s all about portion control
Eating off smaller plates or constantly trying to stop yourself from eating is not the way to go. “Don’t change the portion, but change the combination of what you’re eating,” says Joe Colella, MD, a weight-loss specialist and author of The Appetite Solution. Specifically, replace most (but not all) starchy foods with protein and nonstarchy vegetables. For example:
Always include protein, such as eggs or smoked salmon. If you prefer cereal, eat oats or other whole grains, and replace milk with a low-sugar (less than 5 grams), ready-to-drink protein shake.
Needless to say, this means that you should eat meals, rather than snacking at your desk or in front of the TV. But if you eat enough protein and a variety of multicolored, nonstarchy vegetables, snacking urges should take care of themselves—not instantly, but within about a week. If you’re hungry between meals, a ready-made protein shake is a good choice.
“Doubling up the protein and increasing nonstarchy vegetables impacts the way other foods you eat are absorbed and processed, which people don’t think about,” says Colella. “It shifts your metabolism from fat storage into fat breakdown and fat disposal.”
As a rule of thumb for weight loss, Colella recommends eating 1.5 to 2 grams of protein per pound of your ideal weight, and for weight maintenance, between 1 and 1.5 grams of protein per pound.
Myth 3: Fruit is off limits
Although fruit naturally contains sugar, it also contains fiber and a wide range of nutrients. If you’re eating meals with plenty of protein and vegetables, your body shouldn’t have a problem with the sugar content of fruit, and will definitely benefit from its nutrients, according to Colella.
Refined sugars and starches should not be on the menu. “But the big point is, the elimination of those things starts to happen on its own when you start to put the good things in, in the quantities I’m talking about,” he says.
Myth 4: Eat everything in moderation
An NIH-funded study of 6,814 people found the opposite to be true. After five years, waist sizes among those with the greatest diversity of food types were 120 percent larger than among those who ate a narrower range of wholesome foods. “Americans with the healthiest diets actually eat a relatively small range of healthy foods,” says senior study author Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, at Tufts University in Boston. “These results suggest that in modern diets, eating ‘everything in moderation’ is actually worse than eating a smaller number of healthy foods.”
At Duke University in Durham, N.C., researchers identified the most obesity-promoting foods in diets of more than 4,000 adolescents in the United Kingdom. Liquid calories were the worst. Potato chips, breaded or coated chicken or fish, French fries, processed meats, refined grains such as white bread, desserts, sweets, and milk were other top contributors to weight gain.
Myth 5: Slow weight loss is best
Medical guidelines usually recommend a loss of no more than 1–2 pounds per week, but slow weight loss may be less likely to be successful. A study of 200 obese Australians compared a slow diet, cutting 500 calories per day for 36 weeks, and a fast diet of only 400–800 calories daily for 12 weeks. Only half of those on the slow diet lost at least 12.5 percent of their weight, compared to 81 percent on the fast diet. There were no differences in weight regain during the next three years.
Researchers found that fewer people dropped out of the fast diet, likely because quick weight loss was more motivating. In addition, because the very-low-calorie diet contained fewer carbohydrates, it helped to reduce appetite.
Myth 6: You’ll be hungry all the time
“The big mistake people make—even many nutritionists, personal trainers, dietitians, and weight-loss doctors—is to tell people to eat a restricted-calorie diet and increase physical activity at the same time,” says Colella. Starting with this combination of a low-calorie diet and exercise will set anyone up for failure because, he says, these are “the two most appetite-stimulating events.”
Restricting calories also impedes production of your thyroid hormones, which slows down metabolism and elevates stress hormones, which, in turn, leads to more fat storage. With that in mind, it’s best to begin a weight-loss program by changing the types of food you eat, establishing a healthy eating pattern for a couple of weeks, and then starting a workout regimen.
Myth 7: No pain, no gain
“People think that they have to be tortured to be successful,” says Von Frohlich, but that isn’t the case. To improve, you do need to go beyond your comfort zone, but not too far. “You want to work hard enough to get benefit,” he says, “but not so hard that you don’t want to come back and do it again the next day.”
On five or six days each week, your routine should include weight training that challenges muscles enough to make them stronger, and short bursts of intense cardiovascular activity, interspersed with moderate intensity. A variety of methods incorporate both types of exercise. The first step is always learning how to do the movement safely and effectively, and then increasing the weight, duration, and/or intensity.
Working with a trainer, one-on-one or in a small group, is a good way to begin or improve a fitness program. And, since consistency is key, it’s important to find activities you enjoy.
Myth 8: You have to get up earlier to hit the gym
Many people find it easier to make time for exercise first thing in the morning, but physiologically that isn’t necessarily the best time. “We want to be energized when we go into a workout because we’ll be able to push a little harder and get more out of it,” says Von Frohlich. The peak time of day is different for each person, but for many it’s about three hours after waking up. In an ideal world, that would be your best exercise time, but realistically, do it when it’s practical—just do it regularly.
If early-morning workouts are best for your schedule, that means going to bed early enough to get enough rest. “Lack of sleep raises your cortisol levels, and that slows down your metabolism,” says Von Frohlich. “A slowed-down, depressed metabolism means storing more of the calories that you’re eating instead of using them.”
Myth 9: Diet soda will help you lose weight
Drinks sweetened with stevia or other natural, sugar-free sweeteners may be a practical option. However, several studies have found that artificially sweetened diet soda promotes weight gain. (The nonprofit consumer advocacy group, U.S. Right to Know, is asking federal regulators to ban the “diet” label on such sodas—see details at usrtk.org.)
On the flipside, the combination of polyphenols and caffeine in tea helps to promote weight loss, according to several studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Green and other teas slightly increase the amount of body fat that is used for fuel, and overall, regular tea drinkers have less body fat.
Myth 10: Weight-loss supplements don’t work
“Supplements are aids,” says Harry Preuss, MD, professor and researcher at Georgetown University, and author of The Natural Fat-Loss Pharmacy. Rather than replacing the need for a healthy diet and exercise, they can improve the way food is metabolized and help suppress appetite—if you choose and use them correctly.
Preuss recommends selecting ingredients that have been studied and found to be safe and effective. Product labels and company websites should provide this information, along with a phone number for the manufacturer. If you have questions, ask in-store personnel or call the manufacturer.
Equally important: Weight-loss supplements should be taken as they were in studies that demonstrated effectiveness. This means following usage instructions, including the dose and frequency, with or without food, as recommended. And know what to expect. For example, with HCA (short for hydroxycitric acid, extracted from the Indian tamarind plant, Garcinia cambogia), changes in body shape may be noticeable before a loss of pounds during the first couple of weeks, but the scale reading will eventually drop. Preuss recommends a studied form of HCA that is bound with either potassium or magnesium, such as
SuperCitrimax. And, it should be taken on an empty stomach with water, as taking it with food will reduce benefits.
Even in some studies, Preuss has seen supplements taken incorrectly, leading to inconsistent results. “If you don’t comply,” he says, “don’t complain.”
New Research on Weight-Loss Supplements
In addition to Garcinia cambogia, the following supplements also boast potential slimming benefits, according to research released in the past year:
- Resveratrol: According to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity, mice fed a high-fat diet and given antioxidant-rich resveratrol were better able to convert flabby “white” fat into “brown” fat, which burns more calories,
compared to a placebo group.
- Fish Oils: Mice fed fatty food plus fish oils gained significantly less weight and fat compared to mice given just fatty food, according to a study published in Scientific Reports.
- Probiotics: A small study published in the Journal of Obesity and involving 20 healthy men showed that those who drank a probiotic-infused milkshake had lower body-mass gain compared to men given a placebo milkshake. Both groups followed a high-fat, high-calorie diet for four weeks.
- Herbs: Research presented at a conference of the American College of Nutrition shows that a patented extract of two Eastern plants can enhance weight loss. The extract, called Meratrim, comes from flower heads of Sphaeranthus indicus (also called the East Indian globe thistle) and fruit rinds of Garcinia mangostana (better known as mangosteen).
- Gymnema sylvestre, another Eastern herb, is known to bust sugar cravings and reduce high blood sugar levels. A recent study in the European Journal of Integrative Medicine found that subjects given the herb for roughly six weeks lowered their blood sugar levels.
—Nicole Brechka and Vera Tweed
Weight-Loss Success Story
For health professional Cynthia Pasquella, dropping 30 pounds was just the beginning of a journey of self-discovery. By Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS
When you meet and talk to transformational nutritionist Cynthia Pasquella, one of the first things you’re bound to notice is the elephant in the room. Like most elephants in the room, no one wants to comment on it, everyone wants to ignore it, but no one can because, well, it’s an elephant and it’s standing right there so all we can really do is politely pretend not to notice.
The elephant in the room is that Cynthia Pasquella, a nutritionist and instructor, happens to be gorgeous. And, politically incorrect as it might be to mention that, it’s actually very germane to our story.
“Do people think it comes really easy for you?” I ask her. “After all, I imagine you work with a lot of people who have been struggling with their weight for a long time. Do they look at you and think to themselves, ‘She’s probably never struggled with weight, or sadness, or rejection, or cravings a day in her life. How can she possibly understand me?’”
Her response is a lesson in why one should never jump to conclusions based on appearance. You see, it did not come easy for Cynthia Pasquella. Far from it.
“I came from a very abusive background,” she answers. “My parents lost a 2-year-old son before I was born. They were angry. They came from families with a long line of abuse, and they passed the tradition on. I was sexually abused.
I was addicted to drugs. I had horrible acne. And I was about 30 pounds heavier.” By her early 20s, she was a physical and
emotional wreck, and seriously contemplated suicide. Then something happened. She hit rock bottom. And, in a miraculous moment that people who hit rock bottom sometimes experience, she decided to climb back up. “I decided that suicide and all that wasn’t something that happened to me—it happened for me,” she said earnestly. “It started me on my path back to health.”
Pasquella’s way back to health—not just physically, but mentally and spiritually—came via nutrition. Which is precisely why she calls her work Transformational Nutrition. “I realized that nutrition was just the beginning, and that to really create a happy life in which you’re at peace with your body and with yourself, you have to do so much more than just follow a diet,” she said. “I know from my own personal experience how painful it can be to buy into the whole perfection thing,” she explained, adding that following a diet just to have the perfect waistline or to fit into a bathing suit or to snag a partner never makes you happy. And people rarely stick with these kinds of diets for long. “The question isn’t so much knowing what to eat,” she says. “The question is more what stops people from doing what they know they ought to do.
“I like to play the ‘I wonder’ game with clients,” she continues. “I wonder why you ate that pint of ice cream. I wonder what you were feeling.’”
Pasquella is quick to point out that she does not accuse her clients. “There’s no, ‘Why didn’t you listen to me?’ No ‘Don’t you know how bad that food is?’ Just unconditional acceptance, genuine curiosity, and a desire to understand how we sabotage our own goals,” she says. And there is a commitment to empower the people she works with so that they can get out of their own way and experience their own magnificence.
It’s a magnificence Pasquella believes every one of us has inside, if we could only stop standing in our own way and get reacquainted with it. “We’re constantly outsourcing our nutrition,” she points out. “Everyone says, ‘Just tell me what to eat,’ and from there it’s just a short step to ‘Just tell me what to do,’ or ‘just tell me who to be’! And we get so busy trying to be what they say we should be that we don’t remember who we really are. We forget about the greatness we have inside us. And when we forget who we are,” she adds, “we become very hungry.”
“Hungry for what?” I ask her.
“For compassion. For connection. For love and appreciation. We want to feel like we matter.”
So for Cynthia, nutrition is just the beginning. “The diet books aren’t the problem,” she tells me. “We are the problem. And the solution lies in finding out what we’re really hungry for.”
Cynthia Pasquella trains and certifies health professionals at the Institute of Transformational Nutrition. For more information go to cynthiapasquella.com.
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