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Diet Myths: Truth, Hokum and Wishful Thinking

Australia has a weight problem.

Fourteen million of us are obese or overweight. Obesity has surpassed smoking as the leading cause of premature death and illness in this country.

Our obesity rates have doubled in 20 years. If this trend continues, nearly 80% of adults and 33% of our children will be obese or overweight by 2025.

Have you heard those optimistic assertions that humans will live to be 150 in the future? Forget it – based on current trends, it’s predicted that because of obesity and related health issues, by the time our children reach the age of 20 they’ll have a briefer life expectancy than previous generations.

These sobering facts are at odds with our body-conscious society, and this has given rise to all manner of fad diets that promise to ‘take off 20 kilos in 2 months’, ‘reduce belly fat’ or ‘slim down with this one simple trick’. The term ‘fad’ is the clue, here – these so-called miracle diets pop up daily, but usually disappear just as quickly.

Dieting is nothing new. Lord Byron recommended diluted apple cider vinegar for dieting back in 1820. In the 1930s the Hollywood Diet became popular, advocating grapefruit consumption after every meal.

plate of salad with fresh figs

And the Cabbage Soup Diet of the fifties promised people they could drop 10-15 pounds in a week through a diet featuring daily helpings of cabbage soup. Weight Watchers came on the scene in 1963, the Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet made its debut in 1978 and the Dr. Atkins Diet arrived in 1992.

Whatever your goals, the first step is to separate diet myths from fact.

Celebrities are paid good money to endorse diet regimes and health products. If you’re looking to lose weight, however, these people probably aren’t the best source of scientifically valid information.

Of course, today’s popular diets always seem much more interesting than the diet your family doctor is likely to recommend: the ELF (Eat Less Food) diet. The desire for a ‘quick fix’ has spawned a fitness/diet/nutritional supplement industry that rakes in billions annually.

Yet despite all this money we’re spending, our obesity rates are at an all-time high.

Whatever your goals, the first step is to separate diet myths from fact.

So let’s take a look at some of today’s most prevalent diet myths – and the truth that busts them:

Myth #1 – Diet soft drinks are better for you than regular soft drinks

Soft drinks are an artificial manufactured beverage. Many contain caffeine (which can make them slightly addictive) and lots of sugar. Both these ingredients act as a diuretic – which means that instead of quenching your thirst, soft drinks actually increase it.

Both diet and non-diet varieties normally contain chemicals to add colour, tartness or other qualities. These chemicals can only be deemed ‘natural’ by seriously stretching the definition of the term.

Bottles with soft drinks

A 1991 Harvard Medical School study tracked the health of over 50,000 women – none of whom had diabetes. Over the 8 years that followed, 741 women were diagnosed with the disease. Researchers discovered that participants who consumed one or more sugary beverages a day gained more weight. They also had a 83% greater chance of developing Type 2 Diabetes than those who drank these drinks less than once a month.

But what does this have to do with diet soft drinks, which are advertised as having no sugar at all? Aren’t these much healthier? Alas, no. The artificial sweeteners that are substituted for sugar in diet drinks create their own problems

For example, aspartame is one of the more common artificial sweeteners found in soft drinks. It has been associated with over 92 different health side effects. Soft drinks (diet or not) have zero nutritional benefits. And the acidity in sodas makes them even worse for your teeth than the sugar found in lollies.

In addition, a study published in the Epidemiology journal found that drinking more than two colas daily (diet or otherwise) was associated with a twofold risk of chronic kidney disease.

Soft drinks (whether marketed as colas, sports drinks, ‘health’ drinks or energy drinks) should always be viewed with suspicion. If there are ingredients on the label you aren’t familiar with, do some research to find out what you’re consuming.

You may personally decide that things like phosphoric acid, Acesulfame-K and sodium benzoate aren’t your best friends.

Or, you could simplify your life by just sticking to pure water – nature’s healthiest beverage .

Myth #2 – Carbohydrates are evil

Most of us have heard of low-carb diets, or met people who want to equate carbohydrates to Linda Blair’s character in The Exorcist (the scariest of all evils). In truth, carbohydrates are our main source of energy.

Carbohydrates are things like grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables. Oatmeal and almonds – two of the healthiest food choices available – are carbohydrate-rich foods. Carbohydrates are whole foods that include valuable antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and fibre.

Burger (1)

In whole form, carbohydrates provide nutrition, fuel the brain and assist digestion. It’s what we do to adulterate them that causes the problems. We strip them of nutrients, remove the natural fibre and then add ingredients like fat, sugar, flavourings, colourings, and preservatives.

For those who are dieting, one disadvantage of eating all those adulterated carbs is that much of the original fibre is removed.

Basically, we take perfectly good carbohydrates and find new and innovative ways to convert them into junk food.

For those who are dieting, one disadvantage of eating all those adulterated carbs is that much of the original fibre is removed, which means you don’t get the same feeling of fullness that you get with ‘real food’ carbohydrates like whole grains, nuts, fruit and veggies.

That makes you want to grab for ‘junk carbs’ more often, resulting in a yo-yo cycle of blood sugar rush followed by the inevitable low-energy feeling. It’s the over-processing and all the fats, sugars and other added ingredients that sabotage your dieting plans – not the carbohydrates themselves.

Getting your carbohydrates from a banana, some raw cashews or a bowl of plain porridge is a lot different than getting them from a bag of glazed doughnuts or a large order of fries smothered in chicken salt and barbecue sauce.

It’s not the salad – it’s the rich dressing. It’s not the pasta – it’s the creamy bacon sauce it’s buried under.

Eating quality carbohydrates in moderation is a sensible and healthy habit.

Myth #3 – You can eat what you like, as long as you hit the gym regularly

One of the most common diet fallacies is that if you eat too much of the wrong things, a trip to the gym will fix everything. However it’s common to overestimate the amount of calories burnt at the gym and underestimate the calories eaten.

Burger (2)

A study conducted by the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness proved just this. They asked selected research subjects to exercise for a specified period and then estimate how many calories they’d burnt. They were then taken to a buffet and asked to eat what they felt was an equivalent amount of food in calories. The result was that they ended up eating 2-3 times as many calories as they had burned up.

A healthy diet combined with regular exercise is the way to go.

Exercise is highly recommended and can do all sorts of wonderful things for your health: reduce your heart attack risk, give you stronger bones and joints, lower blood pressure, give you a more toned body and improve your sleep patterns. What it can’t do all by itself is counteract the effects of a crummy diet.

A healthy diet combined with regular exercise is the way to go. Gym work, no matter how diligent and ‘high-intensity’, is not a magical antidote to poor lifestyle choices in other areas (diet, smoking, alcohol consumption, etc.).

Myth #4 – To lose weight, you should always eat breakfast and never snack before bedtime

Fad diets are full of timing obsessions: don’t eat this food before 10am, never eat such-and-such within three hours of dinner, don’t eat anything after 9pm, etc.

Actually, the time you eat is largely irrelevant. It’s wise to keep up your energy in the morning (falling asleep in morning meetings is frowned upon). But that doesn’t mean you need to wolf down a big breakfast as soon as you wake up.

And yes, if you were to tackle a massive T-bone steak ten minutes before bedtime, this could generate some indigestion. But it won’t make a bit of difference to your weight-loss aspirations.

Homemade Healthy Steel Cut Oatmeal

How many times have you heard people say “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”? Nutrition websites will tell you why this is so, without any irrefutable data to back their claims up.

What’s important is your daily calorie intake – not when you consume it. If all you want is some fruit or a bit of yoghurt in the morning, that’s fine.

If you prefer to eat 6 small meals a day instead of 3 big ones, that’s perfectly okay.

As long as you get the nutrition you need throughout the day for required energy, you feel good and you don’t fall into a starve/binge cycle, don’t worry about when you eat – worry about what (and how much) you eat. If you prefer to eat 6 small meals a day instead of 3 big ones, that’s perfectly okay too.

Myth #5 – The key to better eating is to buy low-fat foods

Food manufacturers have learned that one of the best ways to increase sales is to call a product ‘fat-free’. And when people buy the low-fat version of a particular food, they often feel virtuous. But there are three main problems with foods labelled ‘low-fat’.

To compensate for the reduced fat, many of these foods contain a lot of extra sugar, salt or other additives.

Secondly, when we see that something is low in fat, we feel it’s safe to eat more of it. Which can defeat any health advantages of the low-fat food. And thirdly, low-fat doesn’t necessarily translate to ‘a healthy amount of fat’. It just means there’s less fat than in the full-fat version of the same product.

When checking food labels, do look at the fat content – but also pay attention to what else is hiding there. A low-fat yoghurt, for example, might actually have more calories than its full-fat equivalent, when the extra sugar is considered. Low-fat doesn’t always equate to low-calories.

Health means quality of life. It means you can continue playing and continue working to provide for your family.

Breakfast cereals are especially notorious for having labels that proudly boast about their low fat. At the same time their high sugar and salt content is relegated to the fine print.

Health doesn’t have to be complicated

Health means quality of life. It means you can continue playing and continue working to provide for your family.

Young healthy girl on home scales.

And it can be pretty simple. Get enough sleep, eat quality food in moderation, reduce stress and poor lifestyle choices and get some exercise.

When focusing on improving your diet and fitness, the last thing that helps is the stress of your financial future.



This post was brought to you by Budget Direct Life Insurance

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