The 12 biggest fat loss myths

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Yes, we know, the internet is already full of articles about fat loss myths and lies. But then let ours be the ultimate. Twelve 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 also 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 will exceed your ‘calorie budget’ so much faster and easier. In addition, snacking is of course bad for your health, but that too is in principle separate from gaining and losing weight – see myth 7.

So even if you only eat fatty foods, you can lose weight as long as you create a calorie deficit at the end of the day. As a bodybuilder in the cut, however, you know that this is a recipe for muscle loss, since to maintain your hard-earned muscle mass you have 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. In addition to fuel, fats are also a building material, necessary for healthy cells. Fats are also indispensable for the body to absorb certain vitamins, the so-called fat-soluble vitamins. Plus they’re important for maintaining your testosterone level.

So, fats have different functions in the body and should absolutely not be removed from a diet. There is a difference between ‘good’ (unsaturated) and ‘bad’ (saturated) fats, but even this difference is relative, because you also need a small amount of saturated fats. The only really bad fats are trans fats.

You do not necessarily have to follow a low-fat diet to lose weight. Also not a low-carb diet by the way – see myth 8. The key to weight loss is limiting your total calorie intake, not cutting fat from your diet.

As a bodybuilder in the cut, it is wise not to eat more fat than is strictly necessary. This is mainly because carbohydrates are a more efficient source of energy for strength training than fats, and that strength training is crucial for maintaining your muscle mass. The minimum required fat intake is estimated at 0.6 grams per kilogram of body weight.

3. IF YOU BURN A LOT OF FAT, YOU WILL LOSE WEIGHT

You will 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 end up eating more than you have burned in fat, you gain weight. Fat burning is therefore something fundamentally different from fat loss – see this article.

4. A CALORIE IS NOT A CALORIE

Nope, a calorie is a calorie, just as a meter is a meter. A calorie is nothing but a unit for energy. We usually express the energy of a food in kilocalories (kcal). One thousand calories equals one kilocalorie.

But then why do many coaches and diet gurus say it isn’t? That in short, not every calorie is the same?

In fact, they usually mean that not every calorie produces the same calorie burn. In net terms, one food has more calories than another, even if the calorific value of both products is the same.

So why is it that some foods have fewer calories on balance than others? The most important explanation for this is the so-called thermogenesis. That is simply the energy your body uses to process food. And that thermogenesis differs per macronutrient: for proteins it amounts to 30-40% of the calorific value, for carbohydrates 5-8% and for fats only 2-3%. So if you ingest 2000 kcal in a day, of which 120 grams are protein, you will burn more calories than if you eat 2000 kcal of which only 60 grams are protein.

Aha, so a calorie is not a calorie is a bit true, as long as you don’t take it literally? Yes, but that still doesn’t change the calories in, calories out principle. And that’s what those diet gurus often try to tell you: that calorie tracking doesn’t make sense because no calorie is the same. But that’s not right: the calories in are right, 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 never be very accurate, but that’s not an argument not to do it. Calorie tracking in combination with weighing yourself is an extremely useful tool to find out if your diet is on track for the goal you are pursuing. As far as we are concerned, it is even an indispensable tool – see also myth 12.

5. TO LOSE WEIGHT YOU NEED TO MOVE MORE

You can also lose weight purely by eating less. A calorie-restricted diet is in any case your first (because most efficient) step if you want to lose a lot of fat mass.

More exercise is a great addition to this: you burn extra calories, you can compensate for any dietary mistakes and exercise is good for your sleep and overall health.

Bodybuilders often ask whether they should do cardio during the cut. So the answer is no, but it’s certainly not a bad idea to do so. Especially if you really want to become lean and you have to go very low in calories , partly due to metabolic adaptation, cardio can make dieting a bit easier. But mind you, cardio itself also makes you hungry. In addition, as a bodybuilder, you should primarily reserve your energy for strength training. Excessive cardio could be at the expense of your strength training performance and recovery, and thus muscle maintenance.

6. TO LOSE WEIGHT YOU HAVE TO EAT A LOT OF SMALL MEALS

Perhaps the classic among the waste myths, once again disproved: no, you don’t have to eat small amounts throughout the day to ‘maintain your metabolism’. Because the latter is the so-called theory behind the idea that eating more often leads to more energy consumption.

We have already seen that eating and drinking does indeed cost energy, namely the thermogenesis associated with the processing of food. But whether your body has to process 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 simply stays at the right level throughout the day and does not have to be ‘boosted’ or something like that all the time.

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 extended “fasting period” between two large meals, encouraging hunger and eating (snacks). But this claim is not supported by scientific research. It is much more important that you choose foods with a high satiety level. Whether you eat a lot of snacks or not, seems to us purely a matter of personal preference.

As a bodybuilder, it is important to concentrate your protein intake in four to five 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 purely with muscle building or maintenance.

7. TO LOSE WEIGHT YOU HAVE TO EAT HEALTHY

We repeat ourselves: to lose weight you have to create a calorie deficit, in other words 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 nothing but cookies and chips, and the American who lost over 13 pounds of body weight by drinking beer alone.

Conversely, you can certainly gain weight if you only eat healthy food. This will be more difficult than with unhealthy food, because healthy food is usually less calorie-rich than unhealthy food.

Partly because of the latter, we still recommend that you eat healthy during a calorie-restricting diet, even if this is not strictly necessary for fat loss. Unhealthy food only makes dieting unnecessarily difficult, because you go over your calorie budget much more quickly. 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.

Having a snack every now and then is fine, but that doesn’t necessarily make dieting any easier: snacks usually taste like more, so save yourself that torment.

8. CARBOHYDRATES MAKE YOU FAT

Let’s go again: you get fat (or rather, 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.

Many diet and fitness gurus advise their followers to adopt a high fat, low carbohydrate diet for fat loss. The low carbohydrate intake keeps the level of insulin (the hormone that supplies your body’s cells with glucose) low, making your body easier to burn fat, the argument goes, 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. The net result is therefore more or less the same.

There is therefore always no hard evidence for the often heard claim that low carb/high fat is more effective for fat loss. Not the other way around either. A large-scale study that lasted twelve months supports 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 is easiest for you to stick to.

The distribution of macronutrients is only essential for bodybuilders, as we have already seen: in order to lose as little muscle mass as possible during a long-term energy deficit, the diet must be rich in proteins and carbohydrates. The intake of fats should be minimized.

9. 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 eating exactly 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. In your sleep you burn just as many calories as during rest moments during the day. Apart from that, this is just wrong thinking. We have often seen that you gain or lose weight based on the net energy balance over a longer period, usually 24 hours. So even if you had a lower resting metabolic rate at night, you can’t compensate for that by eating less in the evening. Just like you won’t lose more weight if you do cardio on an empty stomach – see myth 10.

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 to get too much insulin into your blood. And the less great the risk that carbohydrates are stored as fat. Insulin sensitivity is said to be lower in the evening than during the day, so it is better not to eat too much, 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 a midday meal and an evening meal. Fluctuations in insulin sensitivity are also not really something to worry about. It is better to focus on improving your insulin sensitivity in the long term, especially by optimizing exercise, diet and sleep.

Two years ago, the Leiden University Medical Center came up with yet 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 to be further investigated.

But summing up all the research on this much-discussed 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 do it. Therefore, the fact that some people gain weight from eating late at night does not seem to have a physiological cause, but to be a matter of bad habits. Grabbing chips while watching Netflix, for example.

10. IT’S BETTER TO DO CARDIO ON AN EMPTY STOMACH

With cardio on an empty stomach you burn more fat (at that time), but that says nothing about how much fat you lose at the end of the day. Again fat burning versus fat loss.

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 doesn’t matter whether you do cardio that burns a relatively large amount of fat, such as cardio on an empty stomach or cardio in the ‘fat burning zone’. At a later moment 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.

11. “I EAT ALMOST NOTHING AND YET I DON’T LOSE WEIGHT!”

If you follow a (strict) calorie-restricted diet and still do not notice any fat loss, 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 nevertheless not losing fat is simply not possible. Only if you do strength training, it can happen that your body weight remains more or less the same, despite you losing fat. Apparently you build muscle mass at the same time: body recomposition.

If you successfully follow a calorie-restricted diet, but after a while you no longer notice any fat loss, you have reached a plateau. This is because your body has started to economize on energy, causing your maintenance level to drop: metabolic adaptation. You will therefore have to eat even less or exercise (even) more to create an energy deficit again. Another option is a diet break or refeed, in order to (partially) reverse the metabolic adaptation.

12. IF YOU ONLY EAT WHEN YOU ARE HUNGRY, YOU WILL LOSE WEIGHT

Hunger is a subjective feeling. One is rarely really hungry and the other all day. So eating when you’re hungry is a bad guideline for weight loss.

Moreover, the same applies to hunger as to thirst: if you have it, you are too late. So you should actually try to prevent a feeling of hunger. When you’re 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 need to gain much more 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.

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