Weight loss myths and reality

Few commercialized areas of science are so filled with myths as that focused on weight loss. Everyone wants a simple, safe, no-willpower solution. Someday, we may actually get one. For now there are no magic cures. But there are quite a few myths that need to be exploded.

You may have read this one: eating ice cream actually causes weight loss. The so-called theory is that since ice cream is cold, and it takes energy (measured in calories) to warm it up, your body is consuming energy while eating.

Your body does certainly require energy to warm up ice cream, and even to digest it. Any action the body takes requires energy, that's basic physics applied to physiology. But the devil is in the details. Eating ice cream, usually high in fat and sugar, takes in far more calories than are used to warm and digest it. Sorry, you still need to go easy on the dessert.

Sometimes ice water is substituted in the myth. True it has no calories, so you're much better off. But the energy needed to warm it to body temperature is negligible in terms of the weight loss effect. However, sometimes you feel hungry when in fact the body is just slightly dehydrated. Drinking water can cause you to feel less hungry, and it's much lower in calories than regular soda or even orange juice.

Or, you might have heard this one: adding a pound of muscle makes the body burn an extra 50 calories. Not only not true, but meaningless. 'Burns 50 calories' over how long? Just sitting consumes about 70 calories per hour. The body is consuming energy to maintain internal temperature, repair cells, pump blood, etc.

A pound of new muscle will burn at most a dozen calories per hour. Still, adding muscle is a good idea, since to do so requires high effort - either through running, weight training or other vigorous exercise. Mild exercise, such as walking, is good but tones more than builds muscle. The average man will burn about 350 calories in an hour long workout.

Vigorous exercise also raises the metabolic rate for a day, burning about 250 calories more than if one hadn't exercised. A brisk walk will do so also, but at a much lower level. It's still a good idea to workout every other day and walk on the non-workout days. It keeps the muscles toned, stretched and helps prevent the lactic acid buildup that causes sore muscles.

The reality is that if you take in more calories than your body uses the remaining energy is stored, generally in the form of chemical bonds in fatty tissues. When the body requires more energy that you've supplied, it will turn to those fat stores in order to get some needed energy. That leads to lower fat in the body and weight loss. That reality is best achieved by the old-fashioned combination of proper diet and adequate regular exercise.

Spot reducing, myth or miracle?

There are no miracles in weight loss, though there are lots of myths. You may have heard a new one making the rounds: cortisol will dissolve fat around the waist. Not so.

Whenever you take in more calories than you use, the remaining energy is stored in chemical bonds between adipose tissue, fatty deposits. In adult men those fat deposits are preferentially stored around the waist and abdomen, in women around the hips, thighs and abdomen.

As you take actions that place a demand for energy on your body that is greater than can be supplied by available glucose (its preferred source), it turns to fat to supply the deficit. Fat molecules are broken down and severing those chemical bonds releases the energy needed for maintaining internal temperature, muscle movement, etc.

But, here's the kicker: you have no control over where the body takes that fat from. Cortisol may aid in releasing those fat deposits and breaking down those bonds, but it isn't targeted. There is, currently, no technology that will remove local fat deposits from any part of the body except mechanical removal, such as in liposuction.

It's true that doing abdominal exercises, though, helps reduce fat around the waist, and in two ways.

First, since abdominal exercises typically involve large-scale movement that requires high effort, it naturally requires lots of energy. Once the available free energy is consumed, the body turns to those fat deposits to get more. The result is less fat and weight loss.

But it does that in an overall way, with no narrow location getting most of the benefit. Most of the fat may indeed come from the waist, but that's because that's where most of it is, as a percentage. But the exercise doesn't target that fat in any way.

Second, during a vigorous abdominal workout those muscles are being worked harder than others. That's the whole point of abdominal exercises. As a result, those muscles (along with the back muscles, typically) are being strengthened. Toning and strengthening those muscles helps restore their youthful ability to hold in the internal organs, primarily the stomach.

At the same time there will be a (largely temporary) loss of fluid that contributes to both weight loss and slimming. The net effect is that the waist looks slimmer, the bulge is reduced. That's definitely a good thing, both for general health and weight loss or fat reduction.

But it's not the same thing as targeting specific fatty deposits, as the makers of cortisol pills, and other, "miracle cures" would like to sell you. The only effective program for reducing fat deposits - around the waist, on the thighs and buttocks, or anywhere else - is the old-fashioned, high effort, high willpower one.

A program of adequate daily exercise and proper diet is the key to long-term health, safe weight loss and fat reduction. You'll feel better and your health will be optimized. And, not coincidentally, you'll reduce those unattractive fat deposits around the middle.

Junk science

Apart from discussions of the environment, there is nowhere that junk science is more common than in issues surrounding weight loss, nutrition and diet, exercise and health topics in general.

Every month there's a new claim, often given a coating of respectability by quoting the latest 'study'. But if trained scientists have difficulty deciding what the truth is, you can bet the average laymen doesn't know for sure.

So what's a person who just wants to lose weight to do? Not everyone is a scientist, and very few have the time or inclination to read a dozen scientific studies. Well, there's no perfect solution to that dilemma, but there are a few common sense guidelines that can go a long way toward avoiding common mistakes.

Greet with a skeptical eye any outsized claims. 'Outsized', here, means those that make rock certain claims to know what's best in nutrition - especially when they contradict long-standing and obvious guidelines.

Studies may differ on details, but they all agree that a balanced diet of the basic essentials - carbohydrates, protein, etc - is best. All agree that moderate, regular age-appropriate exercise is an important factor in health.

Be wary of anyone making promises for safe, easy, quick results. It's possible to achieve any one of these three, but never all three together. A wise weight loss program will definitely consider safety first. It will rarely be easy - technology has advanced, but not THAT much. And, it is almost never quick. Reducing excess body fat, losing weight and getting fit require a long-term commitment.

Treat with caution any program that tries the other side of the coin: to scare you into adopting it. Many will tout claims of the dangers of meat, for example. While consuming excess animal fat can increase health risks, what is 'excess' is still being examined.

Any claim that eating meat in moderation is harmful is based only on junk science. Adopting a strictly vegetarian diet for ethical reasons or matters of taste is a valid choice, but not one required by science.

In other words, avoid extremes.

There are 3-day diets that recommend eating nothing but fruit for three days, then other foods the rest of the week. Bad idea. Such a diet is necessarily unbalanced and will cause roller-coaster effects on the body.

There are diets recommending almost all protein and very few carbohydrates. Bad idea. The body needs a variety of materials from which to extract and synthesize what it needs. That means it benefits from a balance of protein, to produce amino acids, carbohydrates for energy, fiber and other essential elements.

Anyone selling a miracle cure, effortless or instant results, while claiming to have a safe and reliable program is selling you air. Don't buy.