Swimsuit season is officially in full swing, and as millions of beachgoers are stressing about finding the perfect vacation getaway, countless others are agonizing over their bodies.
But amidst all the worrying, panicking and self-loathing that summer causes for most body-conscious people, an insidious yearly epidemic is once again rearing its ugly head: sensationalized tabloid headlines about starlets' slim-downs, the surge of commercials advertising weight loss miracles and endless feelings of guilt and shame.
As temperatures rise and clothing is shed, America becomes obsessed with dieting. Despite the evidence that sustained weight loss results from a combination of healthy eating and exercise, we continue to invest hope and billions of dollars into an industry dedicated to quick fixes and profiting from our insecurities.
But "dieting" and "weight loss" have become loaded terms in our society. Being thin is seemingly synonymous with being healthy, fit, and in the most frighteningly judgmental ways, worthy or good. Thinspo and fitspo images continue flooding Instagram feeds to supposedly motivate healthy behaviors, but all the obsessive calorie counting and hours logged in the gym may be more about achieving thigh gaps and so-called bikini bridges than actually being about personal health and wellness.
A recent study examining 21 long-term, randomized, controlled diets found only minimal improvements in cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure and fasting glucose — and none of these improvements correlated with weight change. As one of the study's authors points out, many people believe that the more weight is lost, the healthier the person is. However, the reality is actually parallel: The highest rates of mortality are found in underweight people, rather than those overweight.
Whether you actually need to lose weight for better health, or you truly believe that whittling down your natural waist to unrealistic proportions will drastically improve your life, this is ultimately a question that should hinge on personal progress, sustainable wellness and a more positive body image.
And unpacking these dangerous myths about dieting could be all the more life-changing:
1. It doesn't matter what you eat, as long as you eat less.
While some people such as nutrition professor Mark Naub have lost weight on an all-Twinkie diet, don't count on that strategy for weight management.
In the real world, you're not just eating "calories" — you're eating foods that are comprised of a combination of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. All of these key nutrients are processed differently in each body. And while drastically slashing your daily caloric intake can lead to short-term weight loss, the long-term health implications aren't so promising. An all-sugar (or all-protein, all-fat, all-any-one-thing) diet may be rich in calories, but it lacks just about all the other nutrients you need to survive and feel your best.
2. Weight is only about "calories in, calories out."
It may sound simple, but that simplicity is precisely the problem. The math of calories consumed minus calories expended works out beautifully ... in a laboratory.
Once you factor in the complexities of the human body, metabolism and genetics, things get a little more complicated. "It leads all young people to believe, that the body they would like to have is something they can just choose—like a pair of shoes," said registered dietitian Michele Vivas.
While it's tempting to believe we all have the ability to diet and exercise down to whatever magical weight goal we desire, our bodies are much more complicated than that. There are a slew of lifestyle and genetic factors that can affect your weight in the long-term — not just the numbers you add and subtract to your calorie intake.
3. Fatty foods are the root of all evil.
Let's make one thing absolutely clear: You need fat in order to live.
When the food industry flooded the market with low-fat everything in response to new nutritional guidelines in the 1970s, fatphobia was unwittingly borne into the mainstream. Since fat contains more calories per gram than carbohydrates and proteins, it may seem logical that more dietary fat would lead to more pounds on the scale.
But according to research, that's not true. Dietary fat has not been shown to be the root cause of body fat and studies have revealed minimal differences between groups following low-fat and low-carb diets. And though saturated fat — the kind found in red meat, cheese and butter — has long been demonized for raising cholesterol levels and causing coronary heart disease, newer research indicates that's not true at all.
Instead, people compensate in unhealthy ways for the lack of animal fats in their diets: an increase in insulin-releasing carbs and excess consumption of vegetable oils.
4. Overweight = loser.
In a culture where being thin is synonymous with being healthy, anyone carrying around extra pounds is often presumed to lack discipline, self-control or a clean bill of health. Wrong.
While being obese has been associated with significantly higher mortality rates compared to being a "normal" weight, there are indeed significantly lower mortality rates associated with being overweight. And the body positivity Health At Every Size movement has used scientific evidence to debunk the myth that "health" can be judged solely on physical appearance or a number on the scale.
According to author Linda Bacon PhD, every human body has a natural healthy weight set-point and it regulates itself tirelessly to stay put at that weight. Instead of promoting health, dieting sometimes causes problems and fluctuations that make the body fight harder to get back to its set-point.
Trying to starve or exercise the body down to a lower weight than it's meant to maintain can actually raise the natural set-point, making every weight loss attempt even more frustrating and fruitless.
5. Thin = winner
Despite media and social pressure brainwashing people to believe that being thinner is better at any cost, the research doesn't quite add up with that assumption.
It's not just obesity that's associated with higher mortality rates — being underweight has also been associated with excess deaths, for factors including high cholesterol and normal weight obesity. While that certainly doesn't mean that anyone with a naturally thin frame is unhealthy, it should prompt some serious reflection about the messages we consume, and even send to each other, about our body image.
In addition, the relationship between fat and health isn't always a clear one. Researcher Jimmy Bell coined the acronym "TOFI," Thin Outside Fat Inside, to describe lean people who have a substantial amount of internal fat surrounding vital organs. These individuals are also at an increased risk for many of the same ailments we've come to associate with obese individuals, such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and much more. Still, doctors continue to use the Body Mass Index (BMI), an arguably arbitrary equation, to measure health instead of more costly, yet accurate measures of body fat: skinfold thickness, waist circumference and Bell's MRI technique.
6. Zero calorie drinks and sweeteners are a dieter's best friend.
Just because a product name includes "diet" or "no calorie," doesn't mean it's synonymous with wellness and weight loss.
On the whole, these are marketing ploys that encourage people to cut corners with basic human physiology. Although a Diet Coke clearly has less sugar than the real thing, the total lack of calories doesn't come without a cost.
Much of the research over the last 40 years dedicated to artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose and saccharine has been conflicting and inconclusive. So, in reality, there's no way of telling if these products will have any tangible benefits for your health, but they could be harming your body. Research suggests that the promise of zero-calorie sweetness is indeed too good to be true, and yet 30% of adults and 15% of children between ages 2 and 17 are blissfully consuming the fake stuff. Natural sugar intake typically tells the brain and gut to prepare for incoming calories, but if those calories consistently fail to show up because of artificial sweeteners, the body may insufficiently process real calories when they do arrive. And getting the sweet taste with no nutritional bang for your buck can leave you craving more sweet foods that, most likely, contain lots of calories.
7. Gluten-free is the way to be.
Gluten-free cookies, crackers, pastas, breads, snack bars and virtually gluten-free everything is packed on supermarket shelves in record numbers.
Sales of these products are estimated to hit $15 billion by 2016 and many people have come to associate the "g-free" label with promises of health and weight loss. But despite the fact that 30% of Americans say they'd like to eat less gluten, Jimmy Kimmel unscientifically proved that many of them don't even know what it is.
Gluten — a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley — can cause gastrointestinal distress in people suffering from a chronic condition known as celiac disease. But the reality is that only 1% of the entire population has the digestive syndrome. And though a 2011 study indicated that non-celiac patients can still be "gluten-sensitive," new research suggests that gluten isn't causing GI symptoms at all — the culprit is more likely short-chain carbohydrates known as FODMAPs.
So while a small percentage of people must avoid gluten at any cost, scarfing down gluten-free products isn't necessarily the key to better health or weight loss for everyone. In fact, many gluten-free items are processed and packed with sugar and sodium. Despite crafty marketing, going gluten-free isn't even intended to lead to weight-loss. Many celiac sufferers stop experiencing diarrhea and malabsorption of nutrients when they cut their gluten intake, and actually end up gaining back necessary pounds after properly absorbing nutrients again.
8. If a TV doctor says so, it must be a diet miracle.
We all like to believe that a plant, pill or potion can cause unwanted pounds to magically melt off, but products that seem too good to be true generally are — even when endorsed by reputed TV doctors
In June, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) called The Dr. Oz Show host Mehmet Oz to testify at a hearing on weight-loss scams and fraudulent endorsements he made on show. The celebrity doctor admitted he used "flowery" and "passionate" language that was incendiary rather than helpful.
The next time you see a familiar face extolling the benefits of a "miraculous" weight-loss supplement, consider the reality that the weight loss industry could just be angling for your dollars. It's probably a better idea to rely on common sense and scientific evidence in order to reach your health, wellness and weight goals.