Feeding us lies: Is everything you know about weight loss a myth?

by Emily Shoemaker, School of Public Health

“While it doesn’t sound like much, shaving off 100 calories a day could help you trim 10 or more pounds a year—even if you never set foot in the gym.” –Prevention, October 2010

The litany of “small daily changes add up to big results” can be found everywhere—from health news to women’s magazines to academic publications. However, is this widely accepted weight-loss fact actually a myth?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A new article from The New England Journal of Medicine by researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham examines the scientific evidence for twenty-two obesity-related beliefs.  The authors classify these beliefs into “myths,” “presumptions,” and “facts.”  They define a “myth” as a one that is refuted by sufficient scientific evidence.  Some of the myths may surprise you: Casazza, et al. cite a study that found that rapid weight loss programs and gradual weight loss programs produce similar outcomes in the long term. Perhaps this suggests that maintaining weight loss is just as challenging, regardless of whether the initial weight loss is rapid or gradual. But keep in mind that healthy weight loss should not exceed 1-2 pounds per week. Other myths from this study are less surprising. Have you ever heard this one?

“Don’t feel like hitting the gym? Grab your partner and head to the bedroom. A 30-minute romp in the sheets can burn upwards of 150 calories. That’s like running a mile on the treadmill!” –Cosmopolitan.com

Unfortunately, a bedroom romp won’t replace a good workout, despite what this “authority” says.  The article suggests that a man of average weight engaging in sex for an average amount of time burns about 21 calories—not much more than for watching TV.

“Presumptions,” or beliefs that require more study to actually be proven true or false, also contain some surprises.  According to this study, the habits of eating breakfast and eating more fruits and veggies have not actually been shown to help in weight reduction/management as much as we may think.  And snacking might not be such a diet-saboteur after all.

The final portion of the article deals with the empirically proven facts surrounding obesity and weight-loss.  Most of these facts are related to obesity policy, clinical weight-loss treatment, and obesity interventions.  However, there are a few that might be useful:

  • Healthy, realistic diets can work; telling someone to go on a diet does not.
  • Genes don’t solely determine your jean size; many environmental factors also play a role.
  • Increasing physical activity benefits health, even if you don’t lose weight.
  • Physical activity, when done correctly, can help with weight loss and weight maintenance.

reality checkOverall, this article is a nice reality check: you can’t believe everything you hear or read, regardless if it comes from Cosmo, a supposed scientific authority, or even this article!  Even if “sufficient scientific evidence” has disproven the belief that rapid weight loss produces poorer long-term weight outcomes, slow weight loss may still be a safer—and more realistic—way for someone to lose weight.  Fruits and veggies impart benefits apart from potential weight loss.  And as for sex being a poor replacement for the treadmill?  I’d say to take that one as a challenge.



Casazza K., Fontaine K.R., Astrup A., Birch L.L., Brown A.W., Bohan Brown M.M., et al. (2013). Myths, presumptions, and facts about obesity. New England Journal of Medicine, 368(5), 446-54.

Morris, M. Why Sex is Good for You. Cosmopolitan. http://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/advice/health-benefits-of-sex?click=main_sr#slide-2

Roberts-Grey, G. (2012, October). 8 Ways to Lose 10 Pounds Without Exercise: Effortless ways to cut calories and rev metabolism. Prevention. http://www.prevention.com/weight-loss/weight-loss-tips/how-lose-10-pounds-without-exercise#ixzz2K9SgUF8e


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