Part of my work as a nutritionist involves unraveling some misguided thinking. No matter how well-intentioned clients are in their healthy eating efforts, if they subscribe to one of these myths, it's that much harder to eat right and manage their weight.
Myth: To lose weight, you need to cut calories drastically
Not true at all. What makes it difficult to combat is this simple math would seem to make sense: eat less, weigh less. Therefore, if I eat a lot less, I'll weigh a lot less. That's just not how our bodies work.
If you drastically slash calories, you will see a quick drop in weight. This is water weight that the body releases as it dips into stored calories to mine the necessary fuel to keep you going. Very quickly, however, things take a turn and not only are you not losing weight, you're maintaining or even gaining. Why? Because the body shifts into survival mode. Survival is your body's main priority, not fitting into that smaller pair of jeans. If you restrict your calorie intake too much, your body will think there's a famine and react by slowing your metabolism down so you can survive with less food. Your body will be proud that it took the initiative to keep you alive, but you'll probably curse the scale.
Healthy weight management is a long-term activity. Trim rather than slash calories, increase your exercise and think "lifestyle changes" rather than "crash diet." The result will be easily-sustainable weight loss and more time spent in those smaller jeans.
Myth: The main measure of success is the number on the scale
The number on the scale is only one way to tell if you're eating right to manage your weight. Unfortunately, it's the easiest one to measure so it's what many people rely on.
Weighing yourself can help you gauge progress if you're trying to lose weight. But it's hard not to get completely caught up in that number and ignore all of the other signs that you're doing the right thing.
It's more important to focus on your behavior than what the scale has to say. If you eat the right amount and exercise, you'll lose weight. So step on the scale occasionally (use the same scale first thing in the morning, clothes off (if possible) so you can compare apples to apples. Also, pay attention to how your clothes fit and how you feel. Remind yourself that you feel better when you eat better. Taking this approach will encourage you to eat better and make it easier to manage your weight.
Myth: If you exercise, you can eat as much as you want
Wouldn't that be nice? If you want to lose weight or maintain what you've got, you simply can't hit the all-you-can-eat buffet once you leave the gym.
I think it's human nature to overestimate the calories we burn when exercising and underestimate the calories contained in the food we eat. Combine that with the "I deserve a treat" feeling we sometimes (OK, often) get after working out and it's no slam-dunk to lose weight.
Reality: Don't think of weight loss as a transactional process of "I exercised for 30 minutes so I get the pizza." If you do that, you're really just exercising to stay in place, treading water rather than swimming to shore. Develop a well-rounded program that includes challenging exercise and eating the right amount of food (including treats).
Myth: All vegetarian choices are healthy
I once worked with a client who prided herself on following a vegan diet. The only problem is that her diet included meals like casseroles made with piles of vegan "cheese" and crushed-up corn chips for the crust. Vegan, yes; healthy, no.
Don't be fooled by thinking anything "vegan" is healthy (same holds true for "organic"). Instead, know what a healthy vegetarian choice is, like:
real vegetables and fruit
nuts and seeds
whole grains like black rice, quinoa, steel-cut oats
beans (dried or canned)
Myth: Healthy food costs more
Of course you can always find expensive healthy choices, especially if you're looking at organic food. But that doesn't mean it has to cost more to eat healthy.
Some ways to pare your grocery bill:
Buy in season: Seasonal fruits and vegetables travel less to get to your store and their bounty makes their price lower too.
Buy in bulk: Rather than paying for the convenience of individual oatmeal packets, buy in bulk and put it into zippered plastic bag. Buy dried beans instead of canned, bulk nuts instead of more expensive containers. Load up on cheaper produce like carrots, cabbage, apples and oranges.
Don't buy organic: Organic food costs more because it tends to come from smaller producers who don't receive the same government subsidies that larger producers do. Here's a big secret: for some foods, organic is just not worth the extra expense because there's no real extra benefit. One of the main reasons to buy organic is to reduce the amount of chemical pesticides you eat. The Environmental Working Group has published a list of the Clean Fifteen -- produce with the least amount of pesticides (note that this doesn't take into account any genetically modified crops, so to avoid the highest risks like corn, you'd still want to buy organic). Clean choices include sweet potatoes, onions, eggplant and cantaloupe.