8 Diet and Exercise Myths That Die Hard

By Mike Howard

2693-lochness.jpgAKA “Things we thought we knew that might be wrong”.

In this article, we will look at some other misconceptions surrounding nutrition and exercise.

There are many diet and exercise philosophies that have been preached for so long that most just assume they are true, but are they?

Artificial Sweeteners are bad

If you read chain emails started by lunatics then yes, they are horrible – causing everything from cancer to leprosy. But are they really carcinogenic? The body of evidence says no – although some may be safer than others. My beef with AS’s is not the potential dangers they supposedly cause but rather the caloric emptiness of the foods they are designed to sweeten.

These substances are rigorously tested – toxicology, mutagenicity, carcinogenicity, reproductive toxicity, etc. Scientists collect data and determine an Acceptable Daily Intake – the maximum amount that regulatory bodies consider safe. Even 90th percentile consumption falls in about 5-10% of the ADI. Over 1000 studies have been published on Aspartame alone and with scant exception they have been deemed safe. Of course you’ll hear the “yeah but those studies are funded by the companies that make it”. When looking at studies, the methodological quality is the most important factor when validity is the subject.

Hallowing or “Drawing in” your stomach muscles is the best way to stabilize them

“Hallowing” is a technique popular in yoga and Pilates whereby people are instructed to “suck in” their bellies” to stabilize. Unfortunately the science here is unstable (nyuk, nyuk). The rationale is to try and fire up the deep muscles of the abdominals and lower back.

When tested clinically, however, a technique called “bracing” was shown to be far more effective in recruiting the right muscles for lower back stability. To “brace”, think about filling the belly up with air without letting the belly button stick out or draw in. Pretend you are bracing for a punch to the gut. Side note: Anyone involved in prescribing exercise should read Stuart McGill’s books.

Counting Calories Doesn’t Work

Telling people what they want to hear 101 – the #1 trick of the trade of diet book authors. In a perfect world we could just eat near-limitless amounts of certain kinds of foods and never gain an ounce. Well, reality can be harsh, but it’s the only place to get a good steak. The simple indisputable fact remains, that chronically eating more than you burn will cause you to gain weight – regardless of macronutrient composition. At some point, even extreme low carbers and the fading low fat advocates will have to watch calories.

High Protein Intake will ruin your kidneys

This one has weaved its way into “common knowledge-hood” without much in the way of scientific validity. The fact is, however that there is no evidence that those with healthy kidneys will suffer kidney issues from elevated protein intakes. In fact, boosting protein (in the presence of adequate calcium) will likely benefit bone density.

Eat often to stoke metabolism

“Eat smaller, frequent meals to keep that metabolism humming”. This is a familiar rhetoric that has just been accepted as truth for many years. And while it may seem elementary that eating often would keep metabolism up and hunger at bay, the research cupboard is empty when it comes to validating this. In fact, recent research shows that 3 meals is better than 6 for weight control.

Muscle is a massive metabolism booster

“1 lb. of muscle uses 50 extra calories a day”. This one’s been promoted heavily by health practitioners and fitness authors alike for years. Forget about science for just one second and let’s apply some common sense to this one. If the above were true, if one were to put on 10 lbs. of muscle, they would burn an extra 500 – 1000 calories PER DAY. The more rigorously designed the study, the lower this number becomes. More tightly controlled studies put that number closer to 6.

Eat your carbs in the morning

Stop me if you’ve heard this one; “No carbs after 3”.. “Eat carbs only in the morning”. Well, it turns out you won’t sabotage your fat loss efforts by indulging in the oft-maligned carbohydrates – even if it’s after 3. This study shows BENEFITS to eating carbohydrates mostly at dinner.

Exercise Makes you Hungry

People just assume this to be true. I picked this assumption apart in a certain TIME Magazine article last year. So while this assumption has been parroted by journalists and other health experts – both qualified and not – the majority of research says otherwise. Here’s a good summary of research on the topic.

While the scientific process is never final, it’s a good idea to question things we think are fact.


  1. Diet and nutrition

    A diet with lot of salt can contribute to high blood pressure and a major risk for cardiovascular disease. Reducing the salt in the diet is a big part of a heart-healthy diet. The American Heart Association recommends no more than about a teaspoon of salt a day for the adult. Some more things can be followed to prevent heart disease.

  2. Kiki

    Just a small comment/clarification to O. & Bonnie about food preferences:
    Aside from neurochemical reactions & the brain’s reward system concerning food, we humans as a whole (and many primates) prefer foods that taste sweet– because sweet foods contain glucose, the easiest and quickest source of metabolic energy, and because naturally occurring sweet foods are rarely poisonous– and foods that taste salty because our bodies require sodium that we cannot internally synthesize in order to function properly (and when this evolved we had little easy access to salt).
    🙂 Hope this helps!

  3. julie

    I’ve been hearing a lot recently about fake fat and sugar messing with our natural eating regulations, which in many of us, is messed up anyway, but I’ve decided to use real sugar instead of Splenda in my coffee, and not avoid fat, though I haven’t been doing that in a long time anyway. Splenda makes my stomach hurt if I haven’t eaten, anyway.

    I’ve also decided to eat all the fruit I want, regardless of calories. Life is too short.

  4. Dan

    I am not a member of Weight Watchers, but I do believe this information does call into question the idea that all fruits can be eaten without limit. One woman I found on the web stated she ate 5 bananas a day and gained weight on this Points Plus program- she remembered she could eat bananas without limit on the Points Plus program. I found this one person who calculated the true points for various fruits and this is what he found,
    Apple – 1 point
    Apricot- 2 points
    Banana- 5 points
    Cherries, 1 cup- 2 points
    Clementine- 1 points
    Grapefruit- 3 points
    Grapes, 2 cups- 3 points
    Orange- 2 points
    Peach- 2 points
    Pineapple, 1 cup chunks- 2 points
    Strawberries, 1 cup sliced- 1 point
    Tangerine- 1 point
    Watermelon, 4 cups- 5 points

    Therefore bananas indeed should carry a lot of points. I eat them and often more than one a day, BUT I exercise everyday and I count each calorie in my total calories for the day. Therefore, I might be forced to cut back on some other calories, rather than just adding these calories to the bananas. Possibly Weight Watchers could come up with a system which encourages people to eat fruit, which is indeed healthy, in a swap system by subtracting other foods that are less healthy that have similar numbers of points. Similarly people could eat nuts *instead* *not* in addition to eating potato chips. Maybe a person could eat 1 or 2 bananas instead of a candy bar. Maybe they could encourage exercise so people can eat more fruit, and make this the paradigm instead of exercising to be able to eat more junky foods, which is the all too common motivator for exercising.

  5. Ninjutsu-Training

    Good god, I had no idea that bananas had that many calories!

  6. SoSad!

    I happen to be someone doesn’t send out chain letters but believe that aspartame is unhealthy because of personal experience/PUBLISHED medical studies contradicting those done to approve aspartame in the 70’s & 80’s (you may want to correct that they ARE rigorously tested to that they WERE 25 years ago)…
    I’ve suffered clinical addiction to (caffeine-free or not) Diet Coke, up to 8 litres per day – WORSE than a cigarette addiction – which brought on years of major depression, anxiety, muscle tightness and lack of appetite resulting in an 80 pound weight loss. When I try to quit the aspartame I get intense withdrawl symptoms, shaking, anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, and I usually ‘cave’ into a major depressive episode.

    Does that make ME a lunatic?

    I believe you also left out the fact that there has been an urgent safety review called in Europe to conduct further studies on aspartame because of the concerns raised worldwide.

    Trust me – aspartame is the new tobacco. Yes, activists can be in-your-face sometimes, but when the message is backed up by professional medial opinions, it’s hard to ignore.

    Here’s a site for reference:

    I hope you read it.

  7. Dan

    Here is an abstract from a study which shows the effectiveness of a Vegan diet for weight loss. It has long term efficacy.

    A two-year randomized weight loss trial comparing a vegan diet to a more moderate low-fat diet.

    Turner-McGrievy GM, Barnard ND, Scialli AR.


    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2217 McGavran-Greenberg Hall, CB 7461, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7461, USA. brie@unc.edu



    The objective was to assess the effect of a low-fat, vegan diet compared with the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) diet on weight loss maintenance at 1 and 2 years.


    Sixty-four overweight, postmenopausal women were randomly assigned to a vegan or NCEP diet for 14 weeks, and 62 women began the study. The study was done in two replications. Participants in the first replication (N = 28) received no follow-up support after the 14 weeks, and those in the second replication (N = 34) were offered group support meetings for 1 year. Weight and diet adherence were measured at 1 and 2 years for all participants. Weight loss is reported as median (interquartile range) and is the difference from baseline weight at years 1 and 2.


    Individuals in the vegan group lost more weight than those in the NCEP group at 1 year [-4.9 (-0.5, -8.0) kg vs. -1.8 (0.8, -4.3); p < 0.05] and at 2 years [-3.1 (0.0, -6.0) kg vs. -0.8 (3.1, -4.2) kg; p < 0.05]. Those participants offered group support lost more weight at 1 year (p < 0.01) and 2 years (p < 0.05) than those without support. Attendance at meetings was associated with improved weight loss at 1 year (p < 0.001) and 2 years (p < 0.01). DISCUSSION: A vegan diet was associated with significantly greater weight loss than the NCEP diet at 1 and 2 years. Both group support and meeting attendance were associated with significant weight loss at follow-up. This was from one of the linked studies and it shows that in the long run, a Vegan diet is effective. Vegans probably should eat nuts, but I don't see the need to consume vegetable oils. I am much more Vegetarian now, and because I eat a lot of nuts, I am not low fat. But, on the other hand, I don't eat nuts to lose fat, but rather to keep myself from losing too much weight from all the exercise that I do. Numerous studies show that Vegans tend to be thinner than meat eaters, and that is because they eat less fat than meat eaters do. A person needs Omega 3's but Beef and Pork do not contain this and the fat from these just adds a lot of unnecessary calories. A low fat diet is fine as long as a person gets the essential fatty acids- not much fat needs to be consumed to get this. I am not quite low fat, but I think it is closer to the truth than low carb diets are, mainly because they are much more plant based. I also think low fat is not as much in tension with "calories in, calories out," as Low Carb is, since fat is much more energy dense than carbs are. Also look up durianrider on the web. This person is on a raw vegan, low fat but very high carb from 30 bananas a day and is very fit and lean at 145 and 6 foot. His diet is 80% carbs, 10% protein and 10% fat. He does get his protein from nuts. He is also extremely active from running and bicycling. Carbsane talked about him in the previous posting about whether fruit made us fat.

  8. Pater Rolf Hermann Lingen

    Counting Calories – the neverending story…
    I am among those who watch every calorie.
    Sure, I do not know exactly how many calories I need. But at least I am pretty sure how many calories I need. Do not go for extremes. Maybe you need 2.231 kcal a day. Then do not panic if you have eaten 2.232 kcal once.
    A reasonable guessing should do the trick.
    When eating high calorie foods like nuts, I normally use a scale.
    When eating fruits, I normally have a guess. Say: A normal apple around 80 kcal.
    And yes: Sugar is the enemy, so avoid high amounts of sugar.
    Furthermore, try to get every day all the good stuff in reasonble amounts: Enough of saturated and unsatured fat, enough of essential proteins, enough of complex carbs.
    I have a quite strict diet plan, so I normally know exactly what I can eat and what I must eat (quantity and quality) to stay in good shape.
    Admittedly, it took a while to find the rigth spot. But once you have found your private diet plan, you can relax, enjoy your food and do not have to worry. It’s definitely worth the effort.

  9. Bonnie

    Check out the book ‘The End of Overeating’ by David Kessler. It explains how sweets, fat, and salt trigger the pleasure centers of the brain.

  10. LBC

    I think it depends. For how long are vegan low-fat diets effective? I assume they would work for weight loss, but are they sustainable?

    We had a family friend who was a (not entirely well-informed, I think) vegetarian, who ate low-fat meals religiously . . . and then followed them up almost compulsively with huge bowls of ice cream. Were talking three baseball-sized scoops. She didn’t eat a lot of nuts, avocado, etc., because they were fatty, even though they have healthy fats, and she did not otherwise have much of a taste for sweets (didn’t eat much candy, many cookies, etc.). We finally decided that she must be sabotaging herself because her main foods were too lean and she basically developed cravings for fat.

  11. O.

    What I’d like to know is what is it about sweet foods that make them so pleasurable?

    I would think it was a chemical reaction of the sugar itself but I have been getting just as much pleasure of artificial sweetners like Equal and Truvia.

  12. Dan

    I count every calorie, including fruits and vegetables. However, since the fruits and vegetables are fairly low in calories, they don’t seem to add up very much- I don’t worry about their calories, but I still add them to the total. However, I would say that the calories in bananas can add up. I weigh my food and found out that the three bananas I ate on Sunday added up to over 300 calories, since each ounce has 25 calories. I didn’t sweat it, but maybe someone who can’t eat as many calories I can should be a little careful about eating more than one banana a day. Most people should be able to eat one banana a day, but maybe be careful about eating more than this one each day. Fruits such as cantaloupes and strawberries are relatively low in calories, at about only 9 or 10 calories per ounce. Therefore a 100 calorie snack of these can have a fairly high volume. Also, be careful about potatoes. A large baked potato can have over 300 calories, even before you put any topping on it. So, a lot of people might want to eat smaller potatoes. Also, you did say that low fat was “fading” but I looked at the article you linked and found references which showed that vegan low fat diets are often effective. I think the kind of low fat diets that weren’t effective were the processed low fat diets that emphasized low fat ice cream and candy and what have you rather than low fat fruits and vegetables. I would also not think a person could just eat all the bread they wanted on a low fat diet, just because the bread has little fat. Bread is fairly energy dense at usually at least 80 calories an ounce. One thing that is good about calorie counting is that if done right, it prevents a person not only from eating too much, but also too little. When I was overweight, I would often go from eating very little to eating too much and then back again. Counting calories can be a useful tool in taking the golden mean in how much one eats.

  13. Spectra

    Great list! I do have a tiny issue with the calorie-counting thing, though: yes, for the most part, you DO need to count calories if you want to lose weight. But, if you eat a lot of veggies and fruit, you can probably relax a bit about the calories in those foods. A cup of broccoli is only about 25 calories–I treat veggies as “free” foods, but I do count calories in protein, carbs, and any processed food I eat.

    THANK YOU for clarifying that artificial sweeteners are not pure evil–I use them instead of sugar to save calories and I use them in conjunction with a healthy diet. I don’t think they make you gain weight or poison you, although phenylketoneuriacs have to avoid aspartame because it breaks down into phenylalanine in your body.