Yes, we know, the internet is already full of articles about fat loss myths and lies. But let ours then be the ultimate. Seventeen persistent fat loss myths debunked once and for all.
1. FAT MAKES YOU FAT
Eating fatty foods in and of itself does not necessarily increase your body fat. Gaining fat happens when you take in more calories than you burn over a longer period of time. Gaining or losing weight is therefore basically nothing more than calories in, calories out. With a negative energy balance you lose fat, with a positive energy balance you gain fat. In principle, what you eat makes no difference to fat loss, as long as you create a negative energy balance.
It is true that foods that contain a lot of fat and/or sugar are often high in calories and at the same time not very satiating. If you want to lose weight, it is therefore better not to snack too much, because you step outside your calorie budget much faster and easier. In addition, snacking is of course bad for your health, although that too is in principle separate from gaining and losing weight – see myth 11. Finally, fats have a lower thermogenesis than carbohydrates and especially proteins, but that does not detract from the principle either calories in, calories out.
So even if you eat lots of fatty foods you can lose weight, as long as you have created a calorie deficit at the end of the day. As a bodybuilder in the cut, however, you know that’s a recipe for muscle loss, since to maintain your hard-earned muscle mass you need to eat mainly proteins and carbohydrates.
2. FAT IS BAD FOR YOU
Fats, like carbohydrates and proteins, are an essential part of your diet. In fact, with a healthy diet, about 35% of your calories come from fats, which are a good source of energy, among other things. In addition to fuel, fats are also a building material, necessary for healthy cells. And besides that, fats are also indispensable for the body to absorb the so-called fat-soluble vitamins. Finally, they are important for maintaining your testosterone level.
Fats therefore have different functions in the body and should absolutely not be removed from a diet. However, you must ensure that you mainly consume unsaturated fats , also known as good fats. Although it does not hurt to consume some saturated fats as well. The only really bad fats are trans fats.
You don’t necessarily have to follow a low-fat diet to lose weight. Not a low carb diet either – see myth 4. The key to weight loss is limiting your total calorie intake while maintaining a high protein intake.
As a bodybuilder in the cut, in our opinion it is wise not to eat more fat than necessary. This is mainly because carbohydrates for strength training are a more efficient energy source than fats, and that strength training is crucial for maintaining your muscle mass. The minimum required fat intake in one day is 0.5-1 gram per kilogram of body weight per day.
Also remember that low-fat (‘light’) products often contain a lot of calories and/or sugar to maintain a pleasant taste. So they are certainly not necessary for a successful cut.
In short, don’t be afraid of fats, but don’t eat more than necessary either.
3. IF YOU BURN A LOT OF FAT, YOU WILL LOSE WEIGHT
You lose weight if you create a negative energy balance over a longer period of time. You burn fat at many times of the day, for example when you walk, but if you eventually eat more than you burn, you gain weight. Fat burning is therefore fundamentally different from fat loss.
4. CARBOHYDRATES MAKE YOU FAT
Here we go again: you gain fat mass if you consume more calories than you burn. It’s not what you eat that determines whether you gain weight, but how much you eat. In short, it is about the energy balance. Carbohydrates only make you fat if they lead to an energy surplus.
Many diet and fitness gurus recommend that their followers follow a diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates for fat loss. Due to the low carbohydrate intake, you keep the level of insulin (the hormone that supplies your body cells with glucose) low, making it easier for your body to burn fat, is the argument, which is correct in itself.
However: eating more fat also means that your body stores fat more easily. By far the largest part of the fat storage comes from the fats in our diet, because fat storage from carbohydrates is a relatively difficult process. The other way around: if you follow a high carb/low fat diet, you will burn less fat due to the high insulin level, but at the same time you will also store less fat. So the net result is more or less the same.
There is therefore still no hard evidence for the often heard claim that low carb/high fat is more effective for fat loss. Not the other way around. A large-scale study that lasted twelve months endorses this, as do dozens of other studies.
Whether you mainly cut carbohydrates or fats in your diet is usually purely a matter of personal preference: you choose the diet that you can maintain most easily.
5. WEIGHT LOSS IS FAT LOSS
An (unexpected) change in body weight does not necessarily indicate an increase or decrease in fat mass. The weight that your scale indicates can even vary considerably from day to day. For example, you will notice that you lose weight one day and gain some weight the next, despite the fact that you have adhered to your diet.
So, weight loss does not automatically mean fat loss. Often the loss of moisture is the cause. After all, by cutting down on carbohydrates and/or salt, you will pee out a lot of fluid. Which is also the reason why you lose a lot of weight at the start of the diet.
In addition to diet and fat loss, changes in body weight can also have other causes: you have not yet had a bowel movement, you have drunk significantly more or there are hormonal fluctuations.
In any case, weight loss does not mean fat loss, especially not at the beginning of your diet.
6. A CALORIE IS NOT A CALORIE
Yes, a calorie is a calorie, just like a meter is a meter, and a euro is a euro. A calorie is nothing but a unit of energy. We usually express the energy of a food in kilocalories (kcal). One thousand calories equals one kilocalorie.
But why do many coaches and diet gurus say that not every calorie is the same?
Usually they mean that not every calorie causes the same calorie burn. Net you have more calories from one food than from the other, even if the calorific value of both products is the same.
So why is it that some foods on balance provide fewer calories than others? The main explanation for this is the so-called thermogenesis. Simply put, that is the energy your body uses to process food. And that thermogenesis differs per macronutrient: with proteins it amounts to 30-40% of the calorific value, with carbohydrates 5-8% and with fats only 2-3%. So if you consume 2000 kcal one day of which 120 grams consist of protein, you will burn more calories than if you eat 2000 kcal of which only 60 gram protein.
Aha, so a calorie is not a calorie is kind of true, as long as you don’t take it literally? Yes, but that still doesn’t detract from the calories in, calories out principle. And that’s what those diet gurus often try to tell you: that calorie tracking is pointless because no calorie is the same. But that is not correct: the calories in are correct, it is only the value of calories out that contains food-induced fluctuations.
Tracking food and physical activity, for example using a calorie app, will therefore never be very accurate, but that is no argument not to do it. Calorie tracking in combination with weighing yourself is an extremely useful tool to find out whether your diet is on track for the goal you are pursuing.
7. TO LOSE WEIGHT YOU HAVE TO GO VERY LOW IN CALORIES
No – you don’t have to starve yourself to lose fat. On the contrary, a relatively small calorie deficit, of 20-25%, is enough to lose 0.5 to 1% of body weight weekly.
But why not a bigger calorie deficit? To lose even more fat? First of all, you can only lose a limited amount of fat in a short period of time. Losing weight is therefore a matter of patience. Secondly, 20-25% is a percentage where you not only lose a lot of fat mass, but also protect your muscle mass. After all, eating too little, such as in a crash diet, more easily leads to loss of muscle mass, which you try to avoid as a bodybuilder in the cut.
8. TO LOSE WEIGHT YOU NEED TO MOVE MORE
A calorie-restricted diet is your first (because most efficient) step if you want to lose a lot of fat mass. More exercise is a great addition to that: you burn extra calories, you can compensate for any dietary mistakes and exercise is good for your sleep and overall health.
Bodybuilders often ask if they should do cardio during the cut. So the answer is no, but it’s certainly not wrong. Especially if you really want to get lean and, partly due to metabolic adaptation, you have to go very low in calories (resulting in fat loss plateaus), cardio can make dieting a bit easier.
But mind you, cardio in itself also makes you hungry. In addition, as a bodybuilder you must reserve your energy for strength training in the first place. Excessive cardio could be detrimental to your strength training performance and recovery, and therefore muscle retention.
You can also try doing some more ‘spontaneous movement’ during the cut, also known as NEAT. For example, go to the store on foot instead of by car.
9. TO LOSE WEIGHT YOU NEED TO EAT A LOT OF SMALL MEALS
Perhaps the classic among the waste myths, hereby disproved once again: no, you don’t have to eat small meals throughout the day to boost your metabolism. Because the latter is the so-called theory behind the idea that eating more often causes more energy consumption.
We have already seen that eating and drinking does indeed require energy, namely the thermogenesis that accompanies the processing of food. But whether your body receives one large meal or three smaller meals, the net thermogenesis will be the same: either a very large thermogenesis in one go, or three times a smaller thermogenesis. By the way, thermogenesis is only a small part of your metabolism, which just stays up all day and doesn’t always have to be ‘supercharged’ or something like that.
But what about subjective things like hunger and appetite? Some argue that frequent eating maintains blood sugar levels and that it would fall during the longer ‘fasting period’ between large meals, promoting hunger and snacking. But this claim is not supported by scientific research. It is much more important that you choose food with a high level of satiety. Whether you eat a lot of snacks or not, seems to us to be purely a matter of personal preference.
As a bodybuilder, it is important to divide your protein intake over four to six meals, evenly spread over the day and with your training exactly in between two of those meals. But that has nothing to do with fat loss, but only with muscle building or maintenance.
10. SKIPPING BREAKFAST LEADS TO WEIGHT GAIN
Provided: breakfast is a great start to the day. The morning meal ensures a full stomach, gives energy and can also be very tasty. But how bad is it if you skip breakfast once? Or if you rarely or never eat breakfast?
We already saw: it is not necessary to ‘start’ or keep your metabolism going. Not even after a night of ‘fasting’. Moreover, not having breakfast does not automatically lead to compensatory eating at other times of the day. People often eat even less in total in a day, simply by skipping breakfast. And the energy balance seen throughout the day determines weight gain or loss, we now know. Research confirms all this.
11. TO LOSE WEIGHT YOU NEED TO EAT HEALTHY
We’re repeating ourselves: to lose weight you have to create a calorie deficit, or calories in, calories out. And you can even achieve such a deficiency purely on the basis of unhealthy food. Just think of the professor who lost weight by eating only cookies and chips, and the American who lost more than 13 kilograms of body weight by drinking only beer.
Conversely, you can indeed gain weight if you only eat (so a lot of) healthy food. However, this will be more difficult than with unhealthy food, because healthy food is usually less high in calories than unhealthy food.
Partly because of the latter, we advise you to eat healthy during a calorie-restricted diet, even though this is not strictly necessary for fat loss, nor for muscle growth. A lot of unhealthy food (snacking) only makes dieting unnecessarily difficult, because you exceed your calorie budget much faster. In addition, it is easier to miss out on valuable micronutrients (vitamins, fibers and minerals), which indirectly also contribute to achieving a good body composition.
12. YOU LOSE WEIGHT FROM GLUTEN-FREE FOOD
Are you losing weight on gluten-free food? No, eating gluten-free has nothing to do with losing weight. A gluten-free diet means that you do not eat products made from wheat, rye, spelt, barley and kamut. But with the same number of calories, you lose no more weight than on a diet with gluten.
Yet eating gluten-free does mean that you remove many high-calorie products from your diet, such as (regular) bread, biscuits, cakes and pizza. This makes it easier to create a calorie deficit.
13. EATING LATE AT NIGHT MAKES YOU FAT
Although a controversial topic, there is no convincing evidence that eating late at night leads to more fat storage than if you ate the same thing during the day. Not even if you eat a lot of carbohydrates.
For example, it is not the case that your resting metabolism slows down during your sleep, as is sometimes claimed. You burn just as many calories in your sleep as during rest moments during the day. Other than that, this is just plain wrong thinking. We have already seen that you gain or lose weight based on the net energy balance over a longer period, usually 24 hours.
Another argument for not eating (a lot) in the evening is insulin sensitivity. Insulin is an important hormone that controls your blood sugar levels. Simply put, it ensures that sugars are transported to your cells so that you can use them as energy (glucose). However, excess glucose is stored as fat. The higher your insulin sensitivity, the better you can digest carbohydrates without having too much insulin in your blood. And the smaller the risk of carbohydrates being stored as fat. Insulin sensitivity is said to be lower in the evening than during the day, so it is better not to overeat, the argument goes. Research shows, however, that insulin sensitivity in the morning, after an overnight ‘fast’, is indeed greater than later in the day, but that there is hardly any difference between an afternoon and an evening meal. In addition, fluctuations in insulin sensitivity are not really something to worry about. It is better to focus on improving your insulin sensitivity in the long term, in particular by optimizing exercise, nutrition and sleep.
Two years ago, however, the Leiden University Medical Center came up with another argument for opting for a lighter meal in the evening. In the scientific journal Cell Reports they write that our brown adipose tissue, which burns sugar and fat, is most active at the beginning of the day. During the day, that activity decreases. As a result, glucose and fat from your food are stored faster by your body in the evening instead of being burned. Whether and to what extent this actually has an effect on fat loss needs further investigation.
Summarizing all the research on this hotly debated topic, Examine.com concludes :
While the evidence is mixed (…), there does not seem to be a major inherent weight-gain effect when eating late at night.
In short, fat loss is about how much you eat throughout the day, not when you eat it. The fact that some people gain weight from eating late at night therefore appears to be less of a physiological cause than a matter of bad habits. Grabbing potato chips while watching Netflix, for example.
14. INTERMITTENT FASTING IS THE BEST FORM OF DIETING
Intermittent fasting (IF) is a popular fat loss protocol. A few years ago, the mostly animal-based studies on IF were promising. More human research is now available, as well as more practical experience. As a result, we know that the purported health benefits of IF have not yet been conclusively demonstrated.
The big question is whether IF is more effective for fat loss than a continuous food intake diet. Based on two scientific reviews, from 2015 and 2016, that is not the case: IF is not better than regular weight loss, but not worse either. Yet IF may be detrimental to bodybuilders, as muscle growth or maintenance benefits from distributing protein throughout the day. However, this aspect of IF has not yet been specifically investigated.
In this article you can read more about IF in the light of health, fat loss and muscle growth.
15. IT IS BETTER TO DO CARDIO ON AN EMPTY STOMACH
If we use a relatively large amount of fat as an energy source during an activity (and therefore burn a lot of fat), the body will use a relatively large amount of carbohydrates (glucose and glycogen) as an energy source at another time. So it makes no difference whether you do cardio that burns a relatively large amount of fat, such as cardio on an empty stomach or cardio in the so-called fat-burning zone. At a later time you will then consume a relatively large amount of carbohydrates. The net effect is the same, namely the difference between calories in and calories out. A recent study confirms this once again.
16. “I HARDLY EAT ANYTHING AND YET I AM NOT LOSING WEIGHT!”
If you follow a (strict) calorie-restricted diet and nevertheless do not lose fat, the cause is very simple: you have not created a long-term energy deficit, even though you may think you have. Advice: use a calorie app.
Having an energy deficit and still not losing fat is simply not possible. Only if you do strength training can your body weight remain more or less the same, despite the fact that you lose fat. Apparently you build up muscle mass at the same time: body recomposition.
If you successfully follow a calorie-restricted diet, but lose no fat over time, you’ve reached a plateau. That’s because your body has started to cut back on energy, which lowers your maintenance level: metabolic adaptation. So you will have to eat even less or move (even) more to create an energy shortage again. Another option is a diet break or refeed, in order to (partially) reverse the metabolic adaptation.
17. IF YOU ONLY EAT WHEN YOU’RE HUNGRY, YOU’LL LOSE WEIGHT
Hunger is a subjective feeling. One is rarely really hungry and the other all day long. Eating when you are hungry is therefore a poor guideline for weight loss.
Moreover, the same applies to hunger as to thirst: when you have it, you are too late. So you actually have to try to prevent a feeling of hunger. When you are hungry, you tend to eat more. So maybe you should turn it around and eat when you’re not hungry.
Dieting purely on your (hunger) feeling may go well for a while, namely when you have a high fat percentage and cut the calories in one go. But once you have reached a plateau, due to the aforementioned metabolic adaptation, you will have to gain a much better insight into exactly how much you eat and how much you burn for a successful continuation of your diet. A calorie app is then an almost indispensable tool: use it at least temporarily.
Published on January 8, 2021, revised on November 17, 2022.