6 Obesity Myths & Facts Explained

Jenna Birch
by Jenna Birch
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6 Obesity Myths & Facts Explained

There are some common assumptions about dieting and weight loss that we all seem to make: eat your fruits and veggies, drink more water, never forget breakfast, etc. However, a new paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine calls 19 of these prevalent assumptions into question, suggesting we either need to ditch the claims or seek more evidence to support them.

What works in the lab and what experts see in the field can be different, though—which is why we asked New York City-based nutritionist Jaclyn London, M.S., R.D.N., to give us her take on the claims. Are they myths or facts? Here, she fleshes out the truth behind six major assumptions from the study.

Claim #1: Assessing stage of change, or “readiness to diet,” is important in helping patients who pursue weight loss treatment to lose weight.
This is the fancy way of saying that a person will only lose weight if he wants to lose it. While the researchers offer evidence refuting this as a major issue, London says it does play into the mind of registered dietitians when they issue diet plans, despite researchers branding this one as a myth. “There is often an assumption among clients that simply showing up for a consultation will magically make them lose weight,” she says. “I wish it were that simple!” Since dieting isn’t a miracle pill, it’s totally based on a person’s willingness to stick to the plan and exercise—and if a person doesn’t have the time or energy to follow a new regimen, logically, it may fail. Still, since it is hard to study something this subjective, don’t discount this as a total myth. If you want to lose weight, you have to commit to a lifestyle change. “It is a major part of the behavior-change process,” London says. Verdict: Mostly Fact

Claim #2: Regularly eating vs. skipping breakfast is protective against obesity.
If you’re eating a Big Breakfast from McDonald’s instead of a healthy bowl of oatmeal every morning, you’ll probably see the scale creep up—which is why researchers call this presumption into question, and suggest more research. It matters what you eat just as much as when you eat—but, you should eat. “We do already have substantial research to support the claim that breakfast intake is linked with lower BMI,” says London. “Many people think that skipping breakfast is an easy way to cut calories, but the habit typically leads to an increased energy intake throughout the day, making people susceptible to overdoing it at other meals.” So here’s the takeaway: eat healthy, but still eat. Greek yogurt and fruit, almond butter on an English muffin, or whole-grain cereal—there are tons of quick, healthy options. Verdict: Mostly Fact

Claim #3: Eating close to bedtime contributes to weight gain.
Don’t eat after 8 p.m.! At least that’s what common weight-loss wisdom proclaims, but London says it is mostly myth—although studies support both sides of the clam. People tend to believe this old adage, for a couple reasons. “First, much current research links people with fewer hours of sleep per night to a higher risk of overweight obesity, and eating too close to bedtime can frequently be associated with disrupted sleep,” she says. “Second, eating close to bedtime could lead to waking up ‘too full’ to eat breakfast, leading to meal skipping and then binging later on—another inhibitor of weight loss.” Overall intake of calories is more important than timing, though, says London, as the researchers suggest. As long as you’re not skipping meals, focus on hitting your goals, no matter the time. Verdict: Mostly Myth

Claim #4: Eating more fruits and vegetables will lead to weight loss or less weight gain, regardless of whether one intentionally makes any other changes to one’s behavior or environment.
Sadly, simply amping up fruit and veggie intake will not necessarily cause your waist to shrink—but eating more can help. Here’s why: “Fruits and veggies aren’t magic weight loss pills, but they do have the power to impact our intake overall due to their high water-volume and high-fiber content,” says London. “increasing intake of fruits and vegetables can displace other calories from less nutrient-dense sources, like processed foods, and is typically the ‘first line of defense’ when it comes to weight loss.” Which is why dieticians push for it. Eating too much of anything can lead to weight gain, but filling up on fruits and veggies should make you less hungry for the cake and cookies. Verdict: Mostly Fact

Claim #5: Snacking contributes to weight gain and obesity.
“This is another one that is both true and untrue,” says London, insisting that you have to snack right. “Skipping meals can lead to binging at your next meal, so very often, it’s beneficial to recommend choosing healthy, fiber and protein-rich, 150- to 200-calorie snacks to decrease total energy intake for the day.” However, snacking can backfire if you’re downing processed foods or not keeping tabs on exactly what you’re consuming—or how much. “It’s really the mindless snacking and grazing—a handful here, a handful there. That’s where we see problems with clients who can’t seem to lose weight,” London says. “Those extra calories all add up.” Verdict: Mostly Fact

Claim #6: Drinking more water will reduce energy intake and will lead to weight loss or less weight gain, regardless of other changes.
Water is often hyped as a major component in feeling full and flushing bloat, which will help you lose weight. Here’s why this one isn’t entirely true, though, as the researchers suggest: “Yes, it’s true that a lot of people are not as in touch with their ‘thirst’ mechanism or satiety cues as we’d like—it’s not easy and it is definitely the case that we often see people who mistake hunger for thirst,” says London. “That said, I think it’s difficult to say that this is totally true for everyone, not to mention the fact that fluid and hydration needs are different for everyone, based on age, sex, weight, height and physical-activity level.” Drink up and hydrate consistently with (on average) eight glasses a day, but don’t expect water to be a weight-loss miracle drink. Verdict: Mostly Myth

What do you think? Does this research cast doubt on any of your dieting strategies? Tell us in the comments!



About the Author

Jenna Birch
Jenna Birch

Jenna Birch is a health and lifestyle writer. She has written for many web and print publications, including Marie Claire, Runner’s World, mom.me and WomansDay.com. As a nutrition and fitness junkie, she’s a lifelong athlete, major college sports fan and developing yogi—but still can’t resist the allure of an occasional chocolate lava cake. (Everything in moderation, right?) For more, visit her at jennabirch.com or follow her on Twitter.  


34 responses to “6 Obesity Myths & Facts Explained”

  1. Avatar UTBH says:

    “Many people think that skipping breakfast is an easy way to cut calories, but the habit typically leads to an increased energy intake throughout the day, making people susceptible to overdoing it at other meals.” – If people are carefully monitoring meals by weighing food and counting calories, they won’t binge at later meals in the day.

    • Avatar Matt Taylor says:

      I have to agree, ive tried 3 meals a day which can work, even 4-6 small unstasifying meals. But in the last few months of eating on average 2 larger meals per day, while tracking what i eat, ive lost 40lbs.

    • Avatar Jedidiah Tritle says:

      Exactly. It’s called intermittent fasting haha

    • Avatar Debbie says:

      I haven’t eaten breakfast in over 40 years, if I started now it would just be extra calories and do me no good at all.

  2. Avatar Gringa says:

    Tracking meals, focusing on higher fiber items and portion control is my recipe for weight loss. 18 lbs lost over last 7 wks using My fitness pal and my Fit Bit One!

  3. Avatar Josh Wilson says:

    Do not underestimate the power of the human mind. A lot of these “myths/facts” are completely contingent on personal choice, and that comes with knowledge. The body is always looking to operate itself in the most efficient way. If that way happens to be converting carbs to fat for later use because it has no use for it (as in, you eat a bunch of fruit while sitting on the couch watching t.v.), it is being efficient. It is doing what it naturally does. We may hate it, but we can only change it by making personal choices about what we eat. Eating foods at times that call for that type of food. I would say that is a big reason that people that have office/desk jobs have such a hard time losing weight. Their bodies cannot do anything with the excess carbs that they are given. So, regardless of what is above, we just need to listen to our bodies, not our tastebuds. Plain and simple. It is not a perfect science, and it is not easy by any means, but we can all find a way that works for us. GO MFPers!!!

  4. Avatar Lindsey says:

    As a nutritionist, I can agree with each of these! The most common change I discuss is eating breakfast. It’s amazing what it can do for your body, muscle preservation, energy, and clarity. Nice blog post!

    • Avatar Debbie says:

      I haven’t eaten breakfast in over 40 years, for me to start eating breakfast is just adding calories I don’t eat more than a chicken salad with no dressing for lunch and an normal supper. I don’t snack other that a piece of fruit and a high protien smoothy after a work-out.

  5. Avatar pbear86 says:

    Ok wtf is up with #3. It’s never been known not to eat close to bed for those reasons, you’re not supposed to eat close to bed or at least it’s best to stop eating 2 hours before you plan on going to sleep because your body will NOT properly digest the food while you sleep, which will leave it to turn to fat.

    • Avatar Josh Wilson says:

      What about heavy protein? I like to stuff myself with protein, from animal sources, before I go to bed. The triptofan aids with releasing melatonin, and the protein is harder to digest, keeping the body about 15% more active at night.

    • Avatar Kal says:

      many studies prove that simply eating cottage cheese before bed will help you loose weight!

      • Avatar Debbie Stewart says:

        I don’t think so or we’d all just eat 130 calories (60 0f which is fat) and loose weight, it just isn’t that simple. Weight loss is accomplished by eating sensibly (get rid off all that processed junk) cardio and weights.

    • Avatar DaveHPT says:

      just because you fall asleep doesn’t mean your bodily functions clock off for the night as well. Your body will continue to process the resources you’ve given it and utilise them as necessary. Only energy in excess of your requirements can be stored as fat in any circumstance, and you’d still have to digest the food for that to happen.

    • Avatar Rebecca Lane says:

      That is not how the body works, at all.

  6. Avatar Fourester says:

    Dieticians use the term”fruits and vegetables” like it is one term, or all fruits and vegetables are interchangeable. They are not. Many fruits and some vegetables are very high in carbs and low in fiber. Use myfitnesspal to figure out which ones are low in carbs and high in fiber and stick to those. I lost 20% of my body weight by cutting carbs and increasing fiber.

  7. Avatar DancinDJ says:

    As for #1 – I completely agree!!!! I’ve always said “it isn’t about Will Power, it’s all about WANT POWER”. If you want it bad enough, you will make it happen.

  8. Avatar Fozmeister says:

    Far too many double negatives and contradictory quotes in this blog am afraid. This is getting away from simple, straightforward, weightloss strategy and has done nothing to assist me in my weightloss regime. A poor and complexing set of “claims” and has coinfused more than it has confirmed………

  9. Avatar Laura W says:

    I honestly only lose weight only when I skip late night meals – and cut it off early. That’s hard since my appetite kicks in later.

  10. Avatar Rebecca Lane says:

    So this is a column which asks a non-scientist to judge the factual accuracy of research based upon her own beliefs? How is this at all defensible?

  11. Avatar Leah..... says:

    I need advise then..I have graves disease along with the thyroid issue. I have changed my whole diet and work out 6 days a week and my weight has not changed.

    • Avatar Grapplingfit says:

      It’ll be very difficult for you with these underlying conditions to lose weight on a simple traditional “calories in/calories out” sort of diet. These are outdated claims to some extent. Check out the YouTube channel “underground wellness” they have a wealth of information on thyroid health, a lot of it very recent. Hormones are going to be a very powerful key player for you. I hope that that info helps you

    • Avatar Debbie says:

      I also have graves disease (had surgery done last Sept. and I have another one in Nov.) get rid of bread, rice, potatoes etc. Eat lots of leafy green vegies and meat and get processed foods out of your diet. Remember you want more protein than carbs in your diet. You need the the carbs for energy and you need protein to build muscle. Also weight is a funny thing, muscle is heavier than fat so you want to lose inches. Eat healthy, do cardio and lift heavy things and you will loose weight.

      • Avatar SJ says:

        ” Also weight is a funny thing, muscle is heavier than fat”

        This is not true. A pound of fat and a pound of muscle are both a pound. Muscle takes up less room than fat, but it doesn’t weight more.

        It’s also not a matter of giving up “bread, rice, potatoes, etc.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with these foods, even for someone with thyroid problems. I have a host of autoimmune disorders as well as hypothyroid, and I’ve lost 162 pounds while still eating these foods.

        Leah you need to ask your doctor about what to do. It is not impossible for you to lose weight, though it might be more difficult.

        • Avatar Leah..... says:

          I have done all of these things, I pack my own breakfast and lunches so I know exactly what I am eating. I have lost 10 lbs only to gain it all back. Went to the Dr she said see a nutritionist. I was very athletic so I totally understand discipline as far as sticking to things.

      • Avatar Mon says:

        Ever heard of Isagenix? I can send you more info if you like?

  12. Avatar no says:

    Eat less, lose weight. Simple thermal dynamics.

  13. Avatar Lady37 says:

    I have often wondered if #2 might be backwards. Is it possible that heavier people have an energy reserve and don’t feel the need to eat breakfast, but thin people wake up hungry and need to “fuel up” before they start the day? I wish someone would tell the doctors about #6, no matter what the problem is they say to drink more water. It doesn’t work for me!

  14. Avatar Grapplingfit says:

    There is some good advice in here as far as guidelines are concerned, but the people who try to make dieting and weight loss seem like a very simplistic basic process of “calories in vs calories out” “thermodynamics” etc are doing a lot of people a disservice. For example the woman who commented saying she had graves and a thyroid problem, needs a lot better advice than calories in vs calories out. By that logic she would get down to one meal a day, be malnourished, have her metabolism shut down, and still not be losing weight. Please do research on the powerful role that hormones in our bodies play on hunger, fat storage, and energy balance. What we eat is just as important as how much we eat.

  15. Avatar Linda Christie says:

    I never eat breakfast. Once I stopped eating breakfast I became far less hungry during the day. I now practise intermittent fasting and find that one meal a day is quite sufficient and keeps me slim.

  16. Avatar nettnutt says:

    This article is poorly written and absolutely wrong. Cut out carbs, increase good fats is the only way to healthy eating.

  17. Avatar Dale says:

    Mostly true. It is What you eat. Not how much or how often that keeps you slim. Lots of fiber and minerals in fruits and veggies. Most overeating is because your Brain tells your Body you need more vitamins and minerals.

  18. Avatar Anon says:

    this article does not give a clear message… everything says it is true and untrue all at once……..

  19. Avatar Sassy59 says:

    Thank you for this article. I’m in the process of losing weight and these tips are very helpful to me.

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