Cris LaBossiere

Cris LaBossiere
Strength training and mountain biking. My two favorites

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Why we fall for diet and exercise myths

Slow metabolism makes weight loss difficult, preventing many from losing weight

It's hard to get vitamins and minerals from food, we need pills

To get fit, we need exercise that beats the hell out of us

Carbs make you fat

Let me demolish these four myths

The power and durability of the common urban myth is often greater than what the truth is.  While disassembling urban myths gives me personal short term gratification because it makes me feel like I'm making a difference in the world by conquering the dark side, the satisfaction I feel is undeserved because in reality I'm not making much of dent.. I'm up against something bigger than me.  Who, or what, is keeping these myths alive?

Is it big brother?  Big fast food?  A cult movement? Darth Vader?

Nope.  It's a 3 pound gelatinous mass that has infested 100% of humans, and we can't get rid of it.

The human brain.

Dum dum duuummm!  - that's dramatic music, not a slag against dumb brains.  Although that works too.

I have been told that my brain is up my um.. well you know where.   I'm not sure if this is a genetic trait or perhaps I have an advanced mutation that occurs in higher (or lower) thinking evolving humans.  Wherever the location, the brain is bit of a busybody recluse doing a heck of a lot of work behind the scenes, often to our detriment.

Don't believe me?  Ever tried finding your keys?  You would think your brain could remember this one simple value.   Even when you nail a key hook to the wall, there is no guarantee that your brain will remember that this is where keys go, and confoundingly, when keys are placed there, your brain won't remember putting them there.


Brain in denial. 

Myths play to our denials

Denial ; something we do when it's too hard to face reality. The brain is really, really good at denial.  In fact studies have shown that when we're presented with plane, easy to understand facts that refute our current beliefs our brains go into "FU" (False Understanding) mode and our belief in that which is clearly wrong is strengthened.

We humans can be somewhat stubborn when trying to get a grip on reality, and we have a lot of historical boondoggles to show for it.

It seems our natural instinct is to deny facts.  More facts?  Bring on more myths to support our denial.

"Cris, you should quit smoking".  Did I like hearing that?  My defence?

Get angry with the person (redirect away from subject of me smoking).

Make up some crap about them meddling with my life (redirect).

Claim that is hasn't hurt me so far (denial), that lot's of old people smoke and they're not dead yet (redirect/ denial of how it affects me personally).

Demonize the person delivering the message (so I could make it feel easier to discredit their quit smoking concerns).

Having been in denial of reality and a believer of some these myths myself I can say I know exactly where the myth believers are at.

If my writing style had the talent of brevity I might write something like, "You're all wrong.  Cut the crap and get real.  You'll be better off.".. I could make this would a one line blog entry.

I'm not so talented though so I make satirical references hoping that that my cro-mag humour will lull you into reading more of my stuff.

On with the myth busting..

Slow metabolism makes losing weight more difficult.

It's difficult to change our habits and eat less and exercise more to lose weight, but a slow metabolism isn't one of the things working against us; slow metabolism causing weight gain is a myth.

What's more work; walking up stairs carrying just yourself, or walking up stairs carrying 40 pounds of bricks?

Of course it could be 40 pounds of anything, but hey, bricks sound heavier.

The more we weigh the more energy we expend to move our bodies around.  Comparing our lean selves to our extra weight selves, the extra weight version will always expend more energy doing the same tasks.  Even sitting down relaxing is more energy intensive when we weigh more.

Our breathing muscles have to work harder to move the extra mass on our upper bodies to allow our ribs to expand to fill the lungs.  When resting metabolism is measured the heavier versions of ourselves will always burn more calories at rest than the leaner version.

Resting metabolism increases as body fat increases, the exact opposite of the myth that suggests weight gain slows metabolism.

"Whoa, whoa there Cris.  OK fine, calories in calories out.. whatever.  You can't seriously be in denial of true health disorders that actually do reduce metabolism can you?

Ever heard of hypothyroidism? Look who's in denial now!

Gotcha Cris!"

I put that in here because I've actually had people say those words to me.

Here's an excerpt from the American Thyroid Associations brochure on Thyroid and Weight

"In general, 5-10 pounds of body weight may be attributable to the thyroid,
depending on the severity of the hypothyroidism. Finally, if weight gain
is the only symptom of hypothyroidism that is
present, it is less likely that the weight gain is
solely due to the thyroid."

Hypothyroidism does not cause excess fat gain.  Most of the weight gain that occurs with hypothyroidism is water mass. If a persons primary complaint is excess weight gain, Hypothyroidism will not be a suspect for the weight gain, even if Hypothyroidism is diagnosed.  Eating too much and not enough physical activity will be suspect.

Here are the facts for all to deny..

[Obesity and hypothyroidism: myth or reality?]. [Rev Med Suisse. 2007] - PubMed - NCBI

Weight loss after therapy of hypothy... [J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011] - PubMed - NCBI

The only way to gain excess body fat is to eat too much, hypothyroidism alone cannot cause extra fat to accumulate in the human body.. that is in fact, an urban myth, a myth to support the denial of overeating.  This myth drives peoples creativity to generate other myths, such as believing there are special foods or food combinations that will speed up metabolism, or special exercise routines that increase metabolism after exercise.  Admitting to ourselves and others that we eat too much can feel bad, so we deny we eat too much.

If our daily energy expenditure reduces, we need to eat less to match the reduced energy expenditure.  Hypothyroidism can make people feel tired and less likely to be active. Less activity means fewer calories expended.  If a person develops hypothyroidism and becomes less active, but doesn't eat less to compensate, fat gain will occur from eating more calories than expended.

Only about 4 to 5% of the population has hypothyroidism so thyroid problems can't be the main driver for 60 to 70% of the population being overweight.  But due to the pervasiveness of the thyroid and metabolism myth, many people will self-diagnose themselves as having some kind of metabolism challenge as the root cause of their weight gain.  When facts are presented showing that this is really not the case, many can feel like they're being attacked and dismissed . What's really happening is their brains are refusing the new information, they're in denial, and they want to stay in denial by perceiving others as picking on them.

I'm not talking about the unacceptable nonsense of teasing someone because they are overweight or skinny for that matter.  I'm talking about straight talk about why we eat too much.  I wish the social stigma of overeating wasn't so strong, that would make it feel more comfortable talking about a problem that affects so many of us.

Here's a study that revealed why diet resistant people were not losing weight.

Discrepancy between self-reported and actual ca... [N Engl J Med. 1992] - PubMed - NCBI

The study examined obese people who "perceived a genetic cause for their obesity, used thyroid medication at a high frequency, and described their eating behaviour as relatively normal." However the researchers revealed these study subjects underreported their food intake by 47% and over-reported physical activity by 51%.

Study conclusions: The failure of some obese subjects to lose weight while eating a diet they report as low in calories is due to an energy intake substantially higher than reported and an overestimation of physical activity, not to an abnormality in thermogenesis.

They ate too much and didn't exercise enough and were in denial of this reality, to support this denial they bought into the myth of a genetic problem causing slow metabolism, causing weight gain. It's a difficult place to be.  Difficult to talk about openly.  That's one of the principal assets of denial; it's a protective mechanism that allows us not to face an uncomfortable truth.

That's how myths survive.  Myths play to our denials and play up our unrealistic hopes.  Diet and exercise myths tell us that eating too much didn't cause our weight gain.  Myths tell us to engage in crazy short term exercise plans because long term plans feel too daunting and we don't want to face that reality.  Long term exercise plans are actually not daunting but in reality are continually rewarding and liberating as we continue to increase fitness long term.

Hard to get vitamins and minerals from food

Here's a nutrient profile from a day of my own eating.

Here's what I ate

I actually ate a little more than this.  I ate a banana, some dried figs and apricots, and a homemade chocolate muffin.  The reason I didn't include these in the above analyses is I wanted to show that you can get all the vitamins and minerals you need in a day by eating fewer than 2000 calories in a day.  Most people wanting to lose weight will need their daily caloric intake to be between 1500 and 2500 calories, depending on their weight and activity level.  It's important to eat healthy nutrient dense foods, especially when reducing calories to lose weight.  Less food means chance to get the nutrients you need.

I am not at all saying that people have to eat what I ate here.  I'm simply demonstrating that we can get all the vitamins and minerals we need from food we buy at the grocery store.  The food I ate here requires minimal prep time, which addresses another myth; eating healthy takes too much time.

There are many ways to change up the variety of foods to get the same or better nutrient profile.

It took me 10 minutes to enter the foods I ate into eatracker, a free online diet analyses tool.  It took me longer the first time, but I've got the hang of it now.

Vitamin D is the exception here.  Research shows that people living above the 49th parallel most likely need daily Vitamin D3 supplements.  

 To get fit, we need exercise that beats the hell out of us

This myth comes from many places, one of the more common is from athletics.  No doubt; we can't develop peak athletic ability without pushing hard, really hard.  This leads many to jump the gun and superimpose elite athlete training onto those with little or no developmental training.

To gain performance we need to push hard, but only when we're trained enough to handle it otherwise injury and overtraining occur.

Not everyone is into trying to develop performance.  Why then are the majority of fitness programs based on killer gut busting workouts?  Because that's what sells.  It's a good business model.

Many believe in the myth that you have to exercise really hard and feel really sore to get a worthy workout.  Why not sell people what they believe they want?  This keeps the myth going.

The truth is productive exercise is moderate to easy most of the time, only reserving the more challenging workouts for when we're durable enough to do hard work, or when we're recovered enough from our last hard effort.

Healthy productive exercise takes time and a gradual progression.  Since we want results yesterday, we create myths telling of fast results from "advanced" workouts.  These myths support our denial of the fact that it takes months and years to get fit, not days or weeks.

Here are a few blog entries on the subject

Young athletes forced to train too much

Runners get injured, then incur another injury before healed

Too much too soon injures pro's and 1st timers alike

Carbs make you fat

Do people ever love this myth.  It serves many purposes.  Allows us to believe that we didn't overeat to gain weight, it's those damn carbs. It allows us to make double bacon and egg sandwiches and laugh at those "nuts" eating veggies.  News flash.. only eating too much causes weight gain.  It doesn't matter if its carbs, fat, or protein.

Cut the high fructose corn syrup, pop, and high sugar snacks?  You bet, but don't toss the whole grains, fruits, veggies, beans, legumes, and potatoes.

If you cut out most of your carbs, What does that mean? No really, what is that?  Well if your daily carb rich muffin has 300 calories in it, and your daily white bread daily has another 300 calories, and that serving of rice, pasta, or potato each have 200 calories, and you're cutting all that out you're.. wait for it..

Cutting hundreds of calories per day!

Let's take a look at a typical low carb diet day..

These meals were taken off a "low carb" recipe web site. Although this day of food intake is a few hundred calories more than my own intake detailed above, it doesn't deliver all the vitamins and minerals that mine did, it comes up short on meeting daily needs.  That's what happens when you cut out or dramatically reduce carbohydrate sources; you drop a primary source of vital nutrients.  As expected though, the nutrients found in meats and fish are in abundance. Don't be going into denial and say, "look at those five nutrients! They're off the chart!  Low carb must be good."  This warped perspective is expected though, based on what we know about our ability to deny objective facts so we can sustain our current beliefs.

Sure, 5 nutrients are delivered in spades, but 8 come up short.  We will choose to deny the significance of over half of our nutrients needs not being met by focusing on information that supports our denial.

What I found most interesting is that the website I took these recipes from claimed that each day of meals delivered fewer than 20 grams of carbs per day, as 20 grams of carbs per day is supposedly the magic number for carb intake.  When analyzed though, the actual amount of carbs is double what is claimed.  Should I be surprised that a website supporting a myth based diet has incorrect data on it?

Typically low carb diets emphasize fats and proteins.  Interestingly a person would have a better chance of losing weight eating my diet compared to the low carb diet as mine had fewer calories.

My carb sources were whole grains, fruits, and veggies.  No refined sugars except what occurs in the multigrain bread, but this is insignificant.

Low carb extremists have become slightly more savvy since the typical low carb diet has been publicly eviscerated and its nutrient deprived profile revealed for all to see.  The modern low carb diet has more veggies and more carbs in it than the traditional (but still popular) variant I've used here.

So what does that mean?  Does that mean after decades of the validity of the low carb diet being hammered by the facts, the low carb'ers finally started to see past the myth and thus alter the low carb diet by what..  Increasing carbs via more veggies, grains, and fruits?  Say it ain't so.  Give it a couple more decades of maturing and the low carb diet will evolve into a normal diet.

The basic slight of hand (or mouth) scam of the low carb diet is diverting your attention from calories in/ out and focussing on carbohydrates.  In reality you're cutting calories. 

If you cut out hundreds of calories daily you're going to lose weight so long as you eat fewer calories than you expend.

The low carb restrictive diet isn't sustainable. The science shows that most people eventually gravitate back to eating the way they did before and gain back all the weight they lost plus more.

So if the low carb thing is a myth, why do so many fall for it?  Why do people keep smoking?  Why do people buy snake oil?  Why do smart people make dumb decisions?

It's the brain!  Blame it on the brain.  Once we humans believe something, it's near impossible, despite good evidence, to change that belief.  Our brains also get used to reward seeking patterns and if our brain knows we're going to feel rewarded from high doses of fat, salt, and sugar, then that is what we will crave.

If we've developed a habit, it can be very hard to quit because our brains are wired to keep it up, even if it's bad for us.  So is this denial as well?  It's not me, it's my brain?  Sure, this could definitely be used as an excuse to not change.. but it is our brain, and ultimately we can make efforts that do make for long term positive outcomes

Eating less and exercising are not actually all that difficult.  What is difficult is overcoming our prejudice, being myopic, old habits, wired in reward seeking, and our denial of reality.

I've repeated bad habits enough that they became wired in my brain; smoking, overeating, and exercising too much.  I also practiced not doing these things, and making better choices.  And like the stats suggest, I failed many times before I succeeded, but I did succeed and so have many others. It can be done.

That's the great thing about the brain, neuroplasticity is an adaptive asset of the brain.  It can change.  In fact the brain is just as good at changing as it is at maintaining the status quo.  All it needs is consistency  with the new thoughts and practices and it will change, we will change.  Living healthy can and does feel like a relief from living by these crazy urban myths.

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