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Myths and Facts About Weight

Here are some myths about weight, mixed in with some true facts. See if you can tell which is which:

1. You can't lose a significant amount of weight unless you feel hunger cramps at least some of the time.

True. The only way to lose weight is to eat less. Exercise and all the rest are helpful, but weight is about how many calories you eat. And when you lower how many calories you eat you're bound to feel hunger cramps. 

2. Hunger is a form of pain.

Not necessarily. On lithium, my hunger got to be really hard to bear. Smelling or seeing food I liked could practically kill me with hunger. Finally I got desperate, and I started thinking hard about what hunger really is.

Hunger is what you make of it. You were probably raised to think of hunger as extremely painful, so you still do. But if you're intelligent enough, you can change your feelings about it. My sister, who has gotten her tendency to gain weight under almost complete control, once said, "Oh good! I'm hungry! That means I'm losing weight."

Think about it. Is hunger really painful? Doesn't it go away for a while if you get interested in or distracted by something else? Maybe your hunger goes away if you're really angry or if it's over 100 degrees out. Should you take anything that undependable seriously? If you stop being afraid of hunger, you'll feel hunger pains sometimes, but they won't be as severe.

Show your hunger who's boss!

3. Exercise burns off calories. If I work up a sweat for a long enough time, I can burn off enough weight that I can eat more.

False. Exercise doesn't burn off significantly more calories than sleeping does. That is, your body's metabolism (digesting food, thinking, making your heart beat, healing cuts, and so on) burns off most of your calories, and you'll gain just as much weight by eating more as somebody who has been sitting around all day.

4. When you're trying to lose weight, it's important to exercise.

True; it's very important. If you cut down the calories you eat without exercising, your hypothalamus will think you're faced with a life-threatening shortage of food. It will slow down your metabolism, desperately trying to make your scarce resources (usually the protein in your muscles) last longer. Then you'll burn fewer calories in your sleep.

So exercise! The activity will tell your hypothalamus not to burn up your muscles (since you're using them) and to burn lots of calories by keeping your metabolism going fast.

5. Whenever you eat "fattening" foods you're cheating on your diet, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

False, for at least four reasons:

a. Feeling ashamed of yourself is rarely justified. You should probably feel ashamed of yourself after committing cold-blooded murder, but you should never feel ashamed after eating anything.
b. Shame just doesn't work. Life is about choices. Do you choose to pass up this food at this time, or are you willing to risk gaining another ounce or another pound? We all have the right to make the choices we want to make without being judged by ourselves or other people. Shame just makes us feel bad, and then we want to make ourselves feel better by -- guess what? -- eating something.
c. "Diet" is a dangerous word. It implies that when you lose enough weight you can go back to eating what you used to eat. No! Then you might gain the weight back. Don't "go on" a diet; change your diet -- your whole way of eating -- permanently.
d. Weight is about the calories you eat. Weight loss is about reducing the calories you eat. Don't pick on certain foods, calling them "fattening". Go without some foods during the day, so you'll be able to eat your favorite dessert that evening without increasing the number of calories you eat. It's not about good and bad foods; it's about choices. Just choose which (reasonably nutritious) combination of foods you want to eat while still keeping inside the number of calories you want to eat that day.

6. If you're overweight, don't let anybody see you eating "fattening" foods or they'll say, "Look at that fat person making him/herself fatter!"

They might say that, but they'll be wrong. There's no such thing as a "fattening" food, just the calories you eat. And they don't know how many calories you've taken in or will take in that day.

You would have better luck in France. In France, the average person eats more fat than we do but, on average, French people weigh less than Americans. Why? Because many French people are trained from childhood to be gourmands, that is, to eat what they like ("fine foods") and savor every bite. That means they rarely feel deprived enough to want to eat more food.

7. To lose weight, you should avoid "junk foods".

False. My friend once had a dream that potato chips, often called a "junk food", organized and marched on Washington, D.C., to protest prejudice and discrimination. Potatoes aren't junk. Salt isn't junk; you'll quickly die without it. 

The oil potato chips are fried in is fatty, but fat isn't necessarily junk either; you need a certain amount of fat in your diet. There are plenty of great foods that are full of fat, many of them made with dairy products. All nonpoisonous food (I consider alcohol to be poison) is good. Exactly which foods you eat each day doesn't matter quite as much as how many calories you eat per day.

For a while, doctors were saying that LDLs (fats) were harmful (junk?) and HDLs (also fats) were good. Now they're saying more complex things about fats. I'm waiting for the doctors to come to a more or less permanent consensus on this issue before I deal with it.

The other day I saw a magazine article comparing the calories in different snacks. That article was harmful for two reasons:

a. The word "snack" implies "junk food." If the snack is a carb, use it as part of the day's carb allotment. If the snack is a protein, it takes care of part of the day's protein requirement. The same goes for fruit and fatty foods. Budget all the calories you eat into your diet; they're all good.
b. The article said that a handful of pretzels contains fewer calories than a granola bar. So? Is the author advocating eating pretzels instead of granola bars even if you don't like pretzels? If not, why compare granola bars and pretzels at all? Is the author saying that pretzels are better than nothing? No, they're worse than nothing, remember? You're trying to lose weight!

Your best bet is to eat what you like, and only what you like (except for fruits and veggies), so you won't be tempted to go off your diet. If you can't get what you like at the moment, go hungry for a while ("Great! I'm losing weight!") and get yourself through the hunger by looking forward to the time when you can get what you like.

8. Fat is bad; concentrate on carbs.

False, because it's simplistic. One gram of fat does contain about twice as many calories as one gram of carbohydrates. But the truth is much more complicated.

Put a helping of a high carb/low fat food (e.g., a few slices of bread) on your kitchen table. Put a helping of a high fat/low carb food (e.g., your favorite kind of candy bar) on the table. Make sure they contain the same number of grams (or ounces, if you prefer.) That is, make sure they weigh the same. You might want to use a supermarket scale to be sure.

Close your eyes and imagine eating all the bread on the table. How will you feel after eating it? Now imagine eating the whole candy bar. How will you feel? Most people will answer that eating the candy bar will give them more pleasure and that they'll feel more satisfied after eating it, even though the candy bar is much smaller than the stack of bread slices. I know bread and baked potatoes have fewer calories per gram than a candy bar, but I love candy bars so much that some days I choose to pass up 100 grams of bread and potatoes just so I can eat a 50-gram candy bar. (Candy bars aren't "junk food" either. Among other good things, chocolate contains milk and serotonin, which improves your mood.)

You know the candy bar on your kitchen table contains about twice as many calories as the bread. But which would you enjoy eating the most? Probably the candy bar unless, maybe, you put butter, margarine, peanut butter, and/or jelly on the bread. But that would increase the calories involved in eating the bread. Now a candy bar, on the other hand, is fun to eat on its own.

Which would make you feel more full? Probably the candy bar. Which would stave off your hunger the longest? Probably the candy bar, if only because for a while you wouldn't want to replace the taste of it your mouth with another taste.

Weight loss is more complicated than just measuring calories per gram. You have to take psychology into account too. Eating the candy bar instead of the bread might mean you'd take in fewer calories in the long run. (Of course, most days you'll be eating the bread, not the candy bar.)

9. Don't adopt a diet so strict that you start feeling deprived.

True, as long as you know what "deprived" means. It doesn't mean "I wish I could eat big meals the way the people around me do". It doesn't mean "I wish I didn't have to pass up this piece of cake or else eat too many calories today". It does mean "I haven't had a piece of cake (or whatever) for so long that I dream of it while I sleep and almost start crying when I see somebody eating cake. But I absolutely can't have it myself; I'm such a fat slob that I can't eat cake like everybody else can". "Deprived" means you're denying yourself so many foods you like that you start feeling depressed and worthless. Please don't go there. Lower the number of calories you eat a little at a time, so you won't be too hard on yourself.

10. Grapes, broccoli, and many other fruits and veggies aren't "fattening", so you don't have to count their calories. And what you drink doesn't have enough calories to worry about either.

False. "Fattening" is a meaningless word. Count the calories in everything you eat and drink, because all calories are equal, no matter what food or beverage they're in. Calories are calories.

11. When you start losing weight, the first few pounds you lose are water. That means water has weight, and you have to drink less water if you want to keep your weight down.

The first sentence is true. The second is false. Drink lots of water; you need it. Yes, losing water causes weight loss at first, but denying yourself water doesn't cause more weight loss in the future, and drinking more water rarely causes weight gain. 

12. Poor nutrition combined with cutting calories way down can make you sick. No matter how you lose weight, it's dangerous unless almost all the foods you eat are nutritious foods such as lentils, cottage cheese, and steamed spinach with nothing on it.

The first sentence is true. It's best either (A) to watch your nutrition very closely as you lose weight quickly or (B) to lose weight slowly and carefully while watching your nutrition a little less closely. Method (A) tends to cause weight swings. To follow the Last-Resort Weight-Loss Plan is to use Method (B).

The second sentence goes too far. Losing weight, then giving up and gaining weight, then losing weight again is what's really dangerous. To lose weight for good, decide which foods you're going to eat for the rest of your life. Can you really eat lentils, cottage cheese, and steamed spinach with nothing on it for the rest of your life? There must be some nutritious foods (corn on the cob? turkey? pineapple slices?) that you do like enough to eat for the rest of your life.

Losing weight is about how many calories you eat. It's important to eat reasonably nutritious meals, of course, but it's not a good idea to concentrate so hard on nutrition that you don't have time to count your calories.

13. Variety is very important because eating lots of different foods increases the chances of getting all the vitamins and minerals you need.

True.

14. Different diets are best for different people. You may do best on a grapefruit diet. I may do best on a high-protein diet.

False because:

a. variety is important. It's not a good idea to limit your diet to a small number of foods.
b. Do you really want to eat primarily grapefruit (or even primarily protein) for the rest of your life?

But the above sentence is also true in the sense that to lose weight you need to eat at least some foods you like, and nobody else knows exactly which foods you like. Also you need to eat at the times of day you like. You need to tailor your (permanent) diet to your own personality and lifestyle.

15. To lose weight, it's best to eat several small meals a day.

True for many people but, again, it really depends on your lifestyle and personality. When I had a full-time job, eating five meals a day made me stop thinking about work and start thinking about food five times a day instead of three. That made it harder for me to lose weight. Besides, I was so busy preparing and cleaning up after all those little meals that I hardly had time to count the calories in them.

But then I lost my job. While I was unemployed and sitting around, I thought about food most of the time anyway. So why not eat five meals a day? All those meals made my periods of hunger shorter, and that made it easier for me to lose weight.

You might want to try different eating schedules and see what works best for you at this particular time in your life.

16. You can reward yourself with sweets if you haven't eaten many calories for a while.

True, if:

a. the reward doesn't take you above the number of calories you've decided to eat per day.
b. you don't reward yourself with food more than once a day. It's best to eat sweets in the evening only, and only if you have some calories left over at the end of that day. If you have eaten very few calories on a given day, eat 450 calories (such as a dish of ice cream) at the end of it. If you have eaten a moderate number of calories, eat one cookie. If you have eaten lots of calories, you had better not have dessert that evening.
c. you also give yourself non-food rewards.

The bottom line is that eating so many calories in one day that you can't have dessert at the end of it is not "bad". It's just your choice. 

17. When I get down to my target weight, I'll get more dates/my spouse will be more attracted to me.

Not necessarily. Beautiful people often have trouble getting dates. And, although I kept my weight below 112 when I was married, my husband still wasn't satisfied. He complained that my tummy was too fat. I told my doctor about it and she said, " Everybody has a tummy! Your weight is fine." (Flat abs are great if you're into that sort of thing, but it's a good idea to lose those extra pounds first.)

Also, if you're a woman, you may get envious comments from other women. Your best bet is to ignore other people's opinions (except your doctor's) and lose weight only for yourself. Lose weight:

a. to live longer.
b. to feel healthier and more energetic.
c. to like what you see when you look in the mirror.
d. so you won't have to keep buying new clothes as your weight changes.
e. for your own pride.

Please read The Last-Resort Weight-Loss Plan before sending in questions. Some of the above suggestions are repeated in the weight-loss article; these are things you must do if you want to lose weight and keep it off.

The Hypothalamus

Your hypothalamus is an organ in your head that monitors the levels of sugar and fat in your blood stream. When your sugar and/or fat level gets low, your hypothalamus takes steps to make you want to eat, so you'll get more sugar and/or fat.

The first step your hypothalamus takes is to tell your stomach to cramp up and growl in order to signal you to start eating. If you don't start eating within a certain amount of time, your hypothalamus goes to Plan B: it has the extra sugar stored in your liver taken out and dumped into your blood stream.

If you still don't eat, your hypothalamus goes to Plan C: it starts breaking down whatever is in your body that can most easily be broken down and converting it into sugar, then dumping the sugar into your blood stream. The hypothalamus does a very important job; it makes it hard for people to starve to death even if food is scarce.

Jean M. Bradt, Ph.D.

Got feedback? Email Dr. Bradt at cassjmb10@att.net

Donít force behavior! 
Change attitudes.