The Top 10 Myths of Weight Loss

Don't fall for these common fallacies

By R. Morgan Griffin
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

Weight loss is a subject that seems to stir the emotions while suppressing reason.

People who are otherwise perfectly rational become convinced of the "miraculous" properties of a fat-blasting ointment hawked on a late-night infomercial. They latch onto a radical diet -- one that eliminates all foods beginning with certain letters of the alphabet, for instance -- and defend it to the death. They take the nutritional advice they got from a cousin, who heard it from a friend, who saw it in a paperback next to the gum rack at the supermarket, as gospel.

We're a country desperate for the "secret answer" to weight-loss success, and that desperation can make us gullible. We're informed -- or misinformed -- by articles and broadcasts about eye-catching scientific studies and "breakthroughs" that are often lacking in scientific context. And we're subjected to plenty of advertising from the diet industry, which can profit from our desperation and gullibility.

To help you tell how to sort fact from fiction, WebMD asked some experts on weight loss what they consider to be some of the most common myths about getting fit. Here's what they said:

1. The best way to lose weight is with a very strict diet.

"There's this idea that weight loss has to be a horrible struggle, and that the harder you have the struggle, the more effective the diet must be," says Randi Konikoff Beranbaum, RD, with the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. "You could tell a lot of people the most bizarre, outlandish diet and they would think that it has to work because it's so bizarre."

The reality is that severely restrictive diets tend to be scientifically unsound and, because they're so strict, impossible to stay on. "Think about it," says Beranbaum. "Who can really stay on a cabbage soup diet? Or a diet that makes you regularly test your urine?"

And because it's so easy to fall off the wagon, you're more likely to feel like a failure afterwards. Then you might just repeat the cycle, thinking that you're at fault when, in fact, the ridiculous diet is the problem.

Lola O'Rourke, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, suggests a moderate approach. "You can and should include foods you like in your meal plan," she says. "There's this idea that you should deny your cravings, but it's better to enjoy a small amount of what you want than to ignore the desire, since that can lead to overeating."

2. My genes are to blame.

"Genetics plays a role in your weight," says Beranbaum, "but not as big a role as people think."

James O. Hill, Ph.D., agrees. Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, says that "while your genes have an impact on your weight, so does your behavior." He argues that genes don't determine your weight so much as your body's natural range of possible weights. "For example, you might be able to achieve any weight between 150 and 300 pounds," he says.

So while you may never be able to get below 150 pounds no matter what you try, you still have a wide range of possible weights. Where you are within that range is determined by your lifestyle: how much you eat and how much you exercise.

3. Carbohydrates are the enemy!

This is one of the most contentious health topics in the media today, but experts who talked with WebMD said that proponents of protein diets are giving carbohydrates a bad rap.

"One misconception is that people still believe that carbohydrates are the main culprit," says O'Rourke. "It's just the calories that count." Carbohydrates provide needed energy in sources like whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, and are relatively low in calories.

Again, the experts recommend moderation. "Is adding protein to your diet a bad thing? Not at all," says Beranbaum. "But a dinner of steak with a side of pork rings isn't a good idea." Beranbaum argues that any extreme diet -- or food-elimination diet -- is probably not a sound approach to weight loss.

4. I don't eat much and I exercise plenty, but still can't lose weight.

According to the experts, you may be eating more than you know. "People tend to underestimate portion sizes," says O'Rourke, and we all tend to absent-mindedly eat without realizing it.

The only way to really know what you're eating, O'Rourke says, is to keep a food journal noting exactly what, how much, and why you're eating. "Awareness is the first step to change," she tells WebMD, "and journaling is one of the indicators of people who are successful in losing weight."

Beranbaum says some of her patients are puzzled by their inability to lose weight since they're exercising every day. "It always turns out that they're eating as many calories as they're burning," she says. "It doesn't take much."