When it comes to nutrition, it can seem like everyone and their hairstylist is an expert. As a registered dietitian, I hear about all kinds of nutrition myths and misconceptions from my patients and clients, ranging from the amusing to the downright dangerous. Here are a few you may be familiar with, and why to add them to your BS list.
Don’t Eat After 6 pm:
Many people think that calories consumed earlier in the day are the only ones burned off, and that those consumed in the evening just sit there “in storage.” For better or for worse, calories aren’t smart enough to tell time. Even when you’re sleeping, your body is using its stores to carry out numerous processes. (Repairing from that after-work fitness class, perhaps?)
One reason late-night eating tends to be associated with weight gain is that this is the time of day many people consume sweets and other high-calorie snack foods in front of the TV. I often see clients trying to put the kitchen on lockdown after an early dinner but find themselves hungry later and reaching for the first thing they see—and then for something else.
That said, going to bed on a very full stomach can cause digestive discomfort like reflux, so if you need a nighttime snack, choose something satisfying but a little lighter, like a piece of fruit or toast with a teaspoon or two of nut butter or a small bowl of cereal with milk.
Going Gluten-Free Makes You Lose Weight:
Not necessarily. One reason people who cut out gluten lose weight is that, by default, they automatically stop eating a lot of high-calorie snack foods and processed items (chips, cookies, pizza, etc.) and prioritize fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, and nuts—all naturally gluten-free. Another reason #glutenfree sounds like “skinny”: people with legitimate gluten sensitivity may find bloating and other GI issues are alleviated when they eat a gluten-free diet. I do want to point out, though, that a lot of gluten-free foods are not actually low in calories, sugar, or salt. Simply swapping in gluten-free versions of treats may not actually address another underlying cause for not losing weight, such as eating more calories than you need. For example, a gluten-free cupcake is still a cupcake, so continue to apply the “in moderation” rule.
Going On a Very Low-Calorie Diet is the Best Way to Lose Weight:
When you consume minimal calories (think: under 1,200), your body goes into starvation mode in order to conserve energy, leading to a sluggish metabolism. You may know you’re trying to fit into a bridesmaid’s dress, but your body thinks you’re lost in the wilderness, foraging for berries, and it will try to hang on to every calorie possible to keep you alive.
Dropping a lot of weight quickly can also wreak havoc on your metabolism, making it hard to maintain that weight loss. Small changes add up over time. Trimming a few calories from each meal and snack and combining with exercise will help support safe, gradual weight loss and give your body time to adjust so you can stay in your new place.
Skip Meals to Cut Calories:
Bad idea. Aside from potentially screwing up your metabolism over time if skipping meals becomes part of your routine, it can also lead to overeating at subsequent meals. Ever notice how ravenous you feel by happy hour if you skip lunch? Running on empty will make it harder to resist the siren call of those $1 tacos to go with your 2-for-1 drinks.
“Diet” Foods Help You Lose Weight:
Whenever I see a hundred-calorie pack of air or a “lite” or low-carb” product, I can’t help channeling my inner Derek Zoolander and muttering, “What is this, a snack for ants?” My issue is that many of these foods tend not to be very filling and are often made with artificial flavorings and texturizing agents. They’re also wicked expensive in a lot of cases. Most importantly, though, they don’t encourage you to learn about portion sizes or to tune into hunger and fullness cues. I want my clients to feel they can go anywhere and eat well, not be dependent on the low-carb high-fiber diet bread from that one deli on Third Avenue.
Eating Fat Makes You Fat:
This throwback to the fat-phobic 1990’s makes me nostalgic for my childhood—not. While it’s true that fat is a more concentrated source of calories (9 calories per gram) than protein and carbohydrates (4 calories per gram), it’s incredibly important for maintaining proper cell function, hormone regulation, and maintaining healthy skin and hair. It also goes a long way in adding staying power and satisfaction to a meal or snack, as it slows digestion.
Pasta and Bread Make You Fat:
I’ve heard otherwise very intelligent people say things like, “I don’t need carbs” or “potatoes are bad” or “I know you don’t eat pasta, but…” Actually, our body does need some carbohydrate to function—carbs are its primary source of energy. What counts is quality and portion size. Prioritize complex carbs, which take longer to break down than their refined counterparts. Try whole grains, and starchy veggies like sweet potatoes, beans, and fruit.
Spread your carb intake throughout the day (one source at each meal with some protein and fat for balance is a good bet) for a slow energy burn to keep you going. Having a slice of sprouted grain toast with avocado slices and chia seeds is a different story from inhaling a loaf of brioche. I’m all for cauliflower rice and zucchini noodles, but eating the real deal in a realistic portion (think a half-cup of cooked rice or pasta) in the context of a balanced meal is fine and may help keep cravings at bay. If you just can’t stomach whole wheat pasta, even a small serving of white pasta now and then is okay—enjoy and move on with your life, guilt-free.
Just a note: If you find that certain foods make you feel bloated or cause stomach pain, check in with your doctor before self-diagnosing an allergy or intolerance. He or she might have some helpful suggestions to help you figure out what’s going on.