Often many people struggling to lose weight will reach for what appears to be a simple solution to a complicated problem. They lose focus of what’s important, become frustrated when the simple diet myths do not help them, and then just quit their weight loss plan. Almost no one believes that you can lose 30 lbs./month without dieting or that there is a pill that dissolves fat around thighs. Yet people accept these and other unproven claims with little question. Some of the claims are based on outdated “scientific” studies done years ago. Most claims are either stories passed down over generations with no medical basis, “Internet science”, or just plain falsehoods.
Myth #1: Bread Makes You Fat
Calories are calories and it does not matter where they come from. If the bread contributes to excess calories for the day, then fat accumulates just as if it was olive oil, brown rice, chocolate or apples. There is not much difference in calories or carbs between white bread and whole wheat bread, though there are a few more grams of fiber in the latter. Whether white bread makes you fat and whole wheat does not is really not the issue. I have never seen anyone gain weight from eating a few pieces of bread a day–white or whole wheat.
I see so many people taking the bread off the fatty hamburger and then gorging themselves on the cheese, sauce, and fatty meat! It’s what between the bread–the cheese, the mayo, the fried meat–that has the calories. Even though it’s white bread (and there is nothing wrong with white bread) are the carbs in the bread more important than the calories and fat in the cheese, the sauce and the meat? I think they are not.
There are millions of people who will disagree. However, the failure of the low carb diet craze that began about seven years ago, suggests that the vast majority of overweight people are unable to maintain a very low carb diet for very long anyway. So why not enjoy the bread and spend time and effort on the sauces, fried foods, and fats. That’s where the excess calories really are and that is easier to change for most people than their favorite bread.
Myth #2: Drinking Water Makes You Lose Weight
Drinking 8 glasses of water a day does not make you lose weight, other than the effect of temporarily filling your stomach. There is no clear evidence of benefit from drinking increased amounts of water. Looking at other scientific papers revealed that while drinking more water did effect the rate at which various substances were cleared by the kidney, there was no suggestion that this led to any actual health benefits. In the case of water, it’s in response to thirst. Too many overweight individuals struggling to lose weight waste time and effort on counting the bottles of water they are drinking and thus lose focus on their food—the real cause of their weight problems.
Myth #3: Artificial Sweeteners, Including Diet Soda, Are Bad For You
Most low calorie foods and drinks are made with artificial substances–artificial sweeteners and fat substitutes–and have food additives, and are not bad for you. In April 2006, the National Institutes of Health reported on the effects of artificial sweeteners: They Are Safe. There has been no link between artificial sweeteners and birth defects, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, epilepsy, emotional disorders or even cellulite. Drinks with artificial sweeteners, especially sucralose (Splenda) do not increase appetite and, in fact, may be beneficial in a weight loss program.
People really like the taste of sugar. We are born with the desire and it only seems to increase as we age. Diabetics and individuals seeking to prevent weight related medical complications have switched to consuming more and more artificial sweeteners (AS) not only in soft drinks but in almost every food possible. Yet the issue of safety and even effect still sparks controversy. Losing weight with diabetes is hard–very hard–and making it harder by having irrational beliefs about artificial sweetener safety is a bad idea.
In 1977 4.8% of the population used AS’s daily. That number has quadrupled to more than 15% today–still not has high as one might assume given their popularity. During the same period the number of overweight children has exploded from 5% to 34% and the adults from 44 to 67%.
The safety and efficacy of artificial sweeteners for weight control has been the subject of continued controversy in the press and all over the Internet. Numerous health problems have been blamed on the use of AS ranging from multiple sclerosis and cellulite to cancer and kidney stones. When the FDA and the National Cancer Institute and such consumer organizations as the Center for Science in the Public Interest settle one issue, another arises. Who should the consumer believe and what should they do? Should the consumer avoid artificial sweeteners because of fear of cancer only to get diabetes, heart disease and other obesity related problems?
It’s hard to know who to believe because there are some many voices. Safety issues long ago settled by the regulatory agencies are brought up by anti-artificial activists who spend a great degree of effort alerting the public to what they perceive are dangers of AS. Most are hypothetical questions totally lacking scientific evidence. While they claim to be unbiased and “independent” they simply are not qualified to be able to scientifically evaluate the numerous safety evaluations, complex toxicological studies and expert committee reports. Instead of using peer reviewed medical reports their conclusions are based on personal experience and anecdotal stories. As in all life sciences false positives and false negatives are a fact of life and expertise is required to properly interpret data from such studies. Over-simplistic interpretations lead to incorrect conclusions.
What is the consumer to do in this situation? Like any issue, the consumer needs to seek out the most trusted, experienced and educated experts he can find. This is not difficult since there is literally a mountain of reliable scientific studies, some old and some very recent.
Here are the issues to answer:
- Based on the most reliable, scientifically proven studies are artificial sweeteners safe?
- Do artificial sweeteners help people lose weight and prevent the complications of obesity?
To answer these questions I have relied on the best scientific studies I was able to find over the past 20 years. Here are the guidelines I have used to evaluate the data.
- Only scientific studies written by M.D.’s or Ph.D.’s from recognized university medical centers are even considered.
- The scientific evidence had to be presented in a scientific, recognized, peer reviewed medical journal, containing the qualifications of the authors, the location of the studies, pertinent medical references as well as any disclosures of conflicts of interest of the authors. Studies sponsored by pharmaceutical companies were rejected.
- Evidence from regulatory agencies, both US and European, and position papers from expert committees of scientific associations.
Aspartame and Headaches: No Cause and Effect
Randomized, double blind controlled studies, done in a clinical research center, in individuals who were convinced that aspartame caused their headaches, failed to show that aspartame produced headaches. Numerous long-term, high dose aspartame studies showed no evidence of headaches from aspartame.
Aspartame and Cancer: NO Relation
Researchers examined the relationship between aspartame and lymphoma, leukemia, and malignant brain cancers and found no increase rate of any malignancy due to consumption of artificial sweeteners in animals or humans. After an Italian report of increased cancer in rats fed large doses of AS, the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) re-examined all of the human and animal evidence again and confirmed the safety of AS and rejected the need for further studies. The National Cancer Institute examined human data from the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study of over half a million retirees which included participants drinking from 1-2 cans of soda to day to as much as 11 cans a day (the average was 2 cans per day or about 7% of the ADI). Even at this high level of intake there was no increase risk of cancer or any other medical problems.
Dr. George Blackburn, a noted Harvard researcher made it clear, “Man is not a rat.” In one of the longest and largest studies, Dr. Blackburn found not only no complications, but significant weight loss in dieters drinking AS.
Here is the expert committee report from the American Cancer Society Guidelines (2007):
“Does aspartame cause cancer? No… Current evidence does not demonstrate any link between aspartame ingestion and risk of cancer.”
In Italy, from the European Society for Medical Oncology (2007):
“The present work indicates a lack of association between saccharin, aspartame and other sweeteners and the risk of several common neoplasm’s.”
Aspartame and multiple sclerosis, seizures, chronic fatigue, visual disturbances
No Relation: Again all of these reports are based on anecdotal stories. No reliable reports have proven any connection between aspartame and these disorders. Surprisingly, the answers are much simpler than one would think. Of the two issues, safety and efficacy, the safety has been settled by all reasonable individuals: AS’s are safe.
Aspartame does carry a cautionary note, however. It isn’t safe for people who have the rare hereditary disease phenylketonuria (PKU). Products that contain aspartame must carry a PKU warning on the label.
There are published safety standards for consumption of AS. The term ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) is used by the FDA, the Joint Commission of Experts on Food Additives of the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the European Food Safety Agency. In general the ADI’s include about 20 cans (12 oz.) per day of diet cola for aspartame, 12 packets of saccharin sweetener and 6 cans of diet cola for sucralose.
Here are the position papers of the major academic institutions involved in the safety issue of artificial sweeteners:
“Present levels of aspartame consumption appear to be safe for those who do not have PKU. . . . The blood phenylalanine levels reported in response to loading doses of aspartame in normal adults and those heterozygous for the PKU gene do not seem to be sufficiently high to warrant concern of toxicity to the individual or even to a fetus during pregnancy.” –American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition, Task Force on the Dietary Management of Metabolic Disorders, December 1985 Final Report
“The American Diabetes Association finds the use of the two commercially available non-caloric sweeteners saccharin and aspartame to be acceptable. The use of both sweeteners is encouraged for the particular advantages of each.” –Position statement of the American Diabetes Association, “Use of No caloric Sweeteners,” 1990
“Evidence indicates that long-term consumption of aspartame is safe and is not associated with any adverse health effects.” –American Dietetic Association “Use of Nutritive and Non-nutritive Sweeteners” position statement, July 1993
“Available evidence suggests that consumption of aspartame by normal humans is safe and is not associated with serious adverse health effects.” –American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs report, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, July 19, 1985
The finest scientists from all over the world have agreed that artificial sweeteners used in moderation are safe for adults, children, pregnant women and even breast feeding women. The regulatory agencies across the world as well as all of the professional societies have reached a similar conclusion. Substituting artificially sweetened beverages and foods for naturally sweetened ones, especially the juices and sodas, can lead to a significant reduction in calories for those on calorie-reduced diets but who still crave sweets.
However, adding more calories because the sugar calories are reduced defeats the whole purpose. The debate about the safety and efficacy of artificial sweeteners will most likely continue for years. In the meantime, artificial sweeteners can be found in everything from cookies to ice cream to sodas. Anybody who wants to avoid foods containing aspartame can identify its presence from the label. Consumers can make informed choices because food manufacturers are required to list food additives and other ingredients, including sweeteners, on labels.
Myth #4: Drinking Fruit Juices are Healthy For You
The myth that “natural” fruit juices have any place in a weight loss plan needs to be put to rest. Orange juice, whether you squeeze it or Tropicana® squeezes it, is not natural. Quarts of orange juice do not grow on trees. It’s the fruit itself that is natural and healthy. Squeezing and manipulating the fruit only removes the protective fibers making absorption from the stomach even faster. In addition, each glass of juice contains 120 calories and has 21 grams of sugar. Drinking a single glass a day, every day, results in a 10 lb. weight gain in a year. A weight gain of more than a pound a month for no good medical reason is not healthy. There are many places to obtain Vitamin C, other vitamins and other necessary minerals. Try a vitamin pill; lots of vitamins and no calories!
Myth #5: Sports Drinks (Gatorade®, Powerade®, etc.) are Good For Weight Loss or Weight Maintenance
Gatorade® and some 60 similar brands of sports drinks have now become very popular. For most of us, drinking them will make us fat. Last year Americans spent one billion dollars on such products. But what do these drinks do? What is the best liquid to prevent dehydration? If you are doing light exercise or doing nothing at all (couch-warming) – then sports drinks are a big waste of money and are full of calories and sugar. In most typical workouts water is perfectly adequate. After all, drinking a 150+ calorie sports drink will take most individuals more than 15 minutes on a treadmill to “burn off.”
Myth #6: Eating Eggs Raises Your Cholesterol
Egg yolks have a concentrated source of cholesterol but eating them does not raise your bad cholesterol. The type of cholesterol in an egg yolk is not the same type that causes heart disease. Research at Harvard Medical School showed that it’s not the total cholesterol in the diet that leads to heart disease, but the type of cholesterol (Hint: avoid saturated fat). Only 20% of blood cholesterol comes from the diet in the first place; the rest is made in the liver. So eat eggs, they are a good source of protein with easy portion control (look at the myth of low fat diets).
Myth #7: Low-Fat Foods Help You Lose Weight
“Low-fat” or “fat-free” doesn’t necessarily mean low calorie or calorie-free. The government regulations state that foods labeled “low fat” must have less than 10% of the fat found in the original. The calories can be whatever the manufacturer puts in them. Extra sugars and thickeners are often added to boost flavor and texture, so calorie content may be only a bit less or similar to standard products. New government guidelines now discourage the use of ‘% fat free’ claims. A low-fat food should contain no more than 3 grams of fat per 100 grams of food. People trying to lose weight see “low fat” and then end up eating twice as much.
Myth #8: Low Fat Diets are Better than Low Carb Diets
This myth could easily read “low carb diets are better than low fat diets”. In fact, at the end of one year, there is no difference between dieters who chose low carb diets over low fat ones. The largest observation of the effect of low fat diets on weight loss was the 49,000 women who participated in the Woman’s Health Study. It failed to find any significant weight difference in the thousands of individuals who followed a low fat diet for six years as compared to women on a “normal” diet. This is an important study since all of the participants were nurses who might better able to follow the diet plan than the average person. For many reasons, low carb dieters may have an advantage in the first few months, but that quickly changes. The key is to lower food intake and increase food expenditure such as exercise.
Myth #9: Eating Late In the Evening Makes You Fat -or- The Large Meal of the Day Should be Lunch
The common assumption that night is the worst time to eat is wrong. The logic: metabolism is slowest at night. It seems to make sense, but no studies conclusively prove that eating late meals causes weight gain more than eating early meals. Calorie intake, type of foods, and hormones play the most important roles. If daily food intake is planned properly and the evening meal turns into the main meal, then eating late could be highly rewarding. It is all about the balance of calorie intake and output. The weight gain consequences of eating the one large meal a day in the evening hours, when the metabolism has already slowed down, are trivial compared with what happens when you end up eating two large meals a day.
Myth #10: Eating “Healthy” Helps You Lose Weight
There is a serious misunderstanding of what “healthy” means. The oils in seeds, nuts, and salmon might be helping you prevent cancer or heart disease 20 to 30 years from today, but choosing these high-calorie foods that often have portion control problems only results in weight gain–not weight loss–today. The consequences of weight gain far outweigh any potential minimal benefit from the oils in these foods for almost everyone.
Myth #11: Diet During the Week, Eat on the Weekend – You Still Lose Weight
Almost Everyone trying to lose weight knows they have to exercise and be careful with their eating Monday through Friday. The question is what about the weekends? Do you need to watch your food 7 days a week? Do you need to exercise to lose weight? Our body weight changes almost daily depending on hydration status, dietary intake and physical activity patterns. For many overweight people there is a significant difference between these patterns during the week as compared to the weekends–especially Sunday when for many people activity levels are lower while food intake is increased.
Here are the questions that need to be answered:
- Can you lose weight by being careful on the weekdays and splurge on the weekends?
- Can you at least maintain your weight loss and still eat more on the weekends?
Certainly adding flexibility during the weekend, holidays and vacations reduces boredom and feelings of deprivation so important in long term weight management, but at what expense? The few studies that have compared dieters who were consistent with their eating and exercise across the 7 day week with those that splurged on the weekends revealed that individuals maintaining the same diet and exercise consistently through the whole week maintained their weight as compared to dieters who took “breaks” on the weekends either in eating, exercise or both.
It’s not surprising that consistency in food and beverage intake across the week was more important than in consistency in exercise, given the huge amount of calories one can eat even in a single meal. No exercise is able to compensate for eating 4 slices of pizza or going to an Italian or Mexican restaurant and gobbling down 2500 calories or more.
Dr. James Hill and associates at the National Weight Control Registry reported that dietary consistency through the entire week correlated better with long term weight loss maintenance than flexibility on weekends and holidays. In fact, they found dietary constancy as the best predictor to long term weight maintenance.
Dr. Racette and colleagues from the Washington University Medical School found that weight gain occurs during weekends relative to weekdays due to increased food intake on the weekends and to the slight decrease in exercise. The found an average of 0.2 lb. weight gain over the weekend. This works out to about 10 lb. of weight gain per year. Their conclusion is that weekend indulgences contribute to weight gain or cessation of weight loss.
Here is a summary of these studies for those confused about weekend eating and exercising:
- Losing weight takes 7 days a week; there can be no weekend splurges.
- Maintaining weight loss is possible by watching the food and drink during the week and breaks on the weekend.
- Paying attention to food intake on the weekends is more important for weight loss and maintenance than an extra day of exercise on Saturday or Sunday.