When it comes to losing weight, there are things we’ve been told over and over again. While certain things hold true (calories matter, interval training works and deprivation doesn’t), there are other long-held beliefs that recent research has shown to be a little iffy.
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In some cases, things we’ve always thought to be true about weight loss have turned out to either be wrong or vastly oversimplified. Here, dive into three common misconceptions and explore what the latest research says. Spoiler: There’s still no magic bullet when it comes to losing weight.
Read more: 7 Common Weight-Loss Myths Debunked
1. Just Eat Less and Move More
Follow this common advice and you should reach a calorie deficit, meaning you’ll burn more calories than your body takes in. “In a perfect world, this would be simple enough, but our world and the human body and brain are complicated,” says Jonathan Jordan, a San Francisco-based personal trainer.
The problem is that it’s not just about how much you exercise and what you eat. Stress — such as from a demanding job, personal troubles or too much high-intensity exercise — can throw off body composition, Jordan says. “This can happen even in a calorie deficit,” he says. Sleep also plays a role, since not getting enough shut-eye adds stress to the body.
The second problem with this advice: It’s vague. For instance, what does it mean to eat less or move more? How much less? How much more? And compared to what?
“We tell people to ‘eat less’ with no real plan, and they attempt to eyeball what they are eating, and it turns out we are bad reporters,” Jordan says. “We aren’t intentionally lying to ourselves, but the brain is terrible at estimating and accounting for what we are eating.”
That’s why Pat Salber, M.D., founder of The Doctor Weighs In, is a fan of apps that track eating and exercise. “Most people already know that’s what they need to do, the problem is actually doing it,” she says. However, there are apps like LIVESTRONG.COM’s MyPlate that deliver advice and alerts to help you stay on track.
And if you’re really struggling with the “calories in, calories out” model, schedule a session with a nutritionist or personal trainer (or both). They can help you tailor a plan specifically for you that helps you “eat less and move more” in a way that your body will actually respond to. Your doctor can also help you figure out if you have any underlying medical condition that’s making it difficult for you to lose weight.
2. You Need to Exercise to Lose Weight
Ask any personal trainer and they’ll tell you the key to weight loss is both diet and exercise. But more and more research suggests that if you’re talking strictly numbers on the scale, losing weight boils down to what you’re eating (and what you’re not eating).
A meta-analysis published in 2014 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that during the first six months of a weight-loss journey, whether or not a person exercised made no difference when it came to how much weight they lost.
One of the reasons exercise may not play as big a role is because people tend to overreward themselves with food following a workout. You know the drill: You spend 60 minutes sweating in Spin class in the morning and find yourself reaching for more snacks than usual the rest of the day. Maybe it’s because the workout made you hungry, or it could be because people tend to overestimate the number of calories they burn and increase their caloric intake as a result, according to a 2012 study published in Obesity Review.
There’s also the fact that the body adapts to exercise. A 2016 study published in Current Biology found that as people continued an exercise program and increased their levels of activity, the number of calories they burned eventually leveled off.
That’s not to say exercise is a waste of time. Tons of studies have proven its benefits — including a lower risk of depression, improved blood pressure and better cognitive function. “Even though exercise is not the single most important factor for weight loss, it is a critically important factor for overall health, particularly cardiovascular health,” Salber says.
Research has also found that increasing the amount of exercise is crucial to maintaining a lower body weight. A small 2017 study published in the journal Obesity confirmed this idea after looking at data from “The Biggest Loser” contestants.
3. Add Strength Training to Lose Weight
Just like people have always thought diet plus exercise equals weight loss, the go-to advice for exercise has been to combine cardio and resistance training. The thinking is that building more muscle through strength training revs the metabolism, which helps the body burn more calories and fat throughout the day.
That’s all true, but when it comes to weight loss, relying on strength training alone won’t make the scale budge. That extra calorie burn you’ve undoubtedly heard about? It’s not all that significant. The New York Times puts it at about 24 calories a day with the addition of 4.5 pounds of muscle.
So what does work? Cardio. A study published in 2012 in the Journal of Applied Physiology investigated which exercise method would produce the biggest changes when done for 45 minutes a day three times a week: resistance training, aerobic training or a combination of the two, which took twice as much time. Not only did the aerobic group see the most significant reduction in fat and body mass, but the resistance training group didn’t see a reduction at all.
Jordan warns not to get hung up on these findings, though. “If the person, for some reason, could only do one, I would start them on a cardio program with a nutrition program. That will have the quickest effect on body composition,” Jordan says. “But resistance training also burns calories, can reduce stress and can strengthen muscles that are weakened through chronic sitting.”
If you do prioritize cardio, don’t make it the same thing every day (hello, burnout). Jordan recommends a mix of steady-state, low-intensity cardio and high-intensity interval training.
What Do YOU Think?
Are you surprised by any of the latest research? Will it change your approach to weight loss at all? Do you have other go-to strategies when you’re looking to lose weight, or are you feeling confused about it? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!