Western countries are currently in the midst of what has been called an ‘obesity crisis’. Right across Europe and North America, obesity rates are rising. Since 1975, obesity across the globe has tripled – and most of the almost 2bn adults who are now overweight come from wealthy nations.
Governments are rushing to come up with policies to reverse the trend. Public health initiatives such as the UK government’s latest ‘Better Health’ campaign have been introduced to encourage people to eat healthier and exercise more. Taxes on sugary drinks and snacks have been levied in a number of countries over the past few years to discourage people from buying them. Schools are renewing efforts to inform parents and pupils about the dangers of childhood obesity.
As a society, we value appearances highly – and the obesity crisis is no different. Countless startups, media organisations and public figures have emerged in recent years promising miraculous diets and techniques designed to help you lose weight as quickly as possible.
But the reality is that there’s no silver bullet when it comes to losing weight. And to make matters worse, the dubious diet plans and techniques endorsed by prominent figures and organisations are in many cases ineffective, and in some instances actively dangerous.
Below is a list of five of the biggest myths about losing weight, debunked.
1. Certain foods boost your metabolism and help you lose weight faster
The assertion that foods such as apple cider vinegar and chilli peppers help you lose weight has gained traction in recent years. The idea is that these foods speed up your metabolism, which causes your body to burn calories faster.
The problem with this claim is that it rests on shaky empirical ground. A 2014 study into the effects of apple cider vinegar on glucose metabolism, lipid profile and body weight concluded that the evidence is nowhere near substantial enough to definitively say that apple cider vinegar speeds up metabolism or assists with weight loss(https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25168916/).
Chilli peppers don’t fare any better than apple cider vinegar when it comes to weight loss claims, either. Research published in 2012 found that while capsaicin (the part of a chilli pepper that makes it spicy) has a modest impact on fat oxidation, extremely high doses would be required to noticeably help weight loss(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257466/). And unless you’re that guy who runs the hot sauce YouTube channel, eating a kilo of chilli peppers every day probably doesn’t sound like a good time.
2. Weight loss is all about willpower
Like a lot of weight loss myths, this one is half-true. For the vast majority of people who want to lose weight, willpower is needed to succeed. But anyone who tells you all you need to lose weight is a can-do attitude is dead wrong.
The reality is that obesity is an extremely complex disorder. It has hundreds of contributing factors, many of which can’t be overcome with a White Goodman mindset. These include your thyroid, mental health and a lot of genetic variables. Your body also produces hormones that regulate body weight, and these tend to be dysfunctional in obese people (https://www.nature.com/articles/ijo201559a).
It’s easy to look at people and claim their weight is just a failure of will. But willpower is extremely difficult to muster when the hormones that are supposed to regulate your weight and tell you you’re full don’t work properly.
3. Low-fat foods are healthy
This is a classic myth with roots spanning more than four decades. In the 1970s, academic researchers were torn over a vital question: what causes heart disease – sugar or fat?
Eventually scientists concluded that fat was to blame, and the food industry responded by manufacturing foods purported to be “reduced-fat” or “low-fat”. The problem, however, was the fact that all that fat had been replaced with sugar.
Supermarket shelves are to this day stacked with foods that are low in fat and packed with sugar. Too much sugar can lead to weight gain as is, but there’s the psychological impact to consider as well. A 2016 study found that foods labelled as “diet” or “low-fat” can cause consumers to eat more because they think it’s healthy to do so (https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/journals/jacr/pr/151015).
4. Obese people are always unhealthy
Again, this is half-true. Obesity does increase your risk of a number of illnesses, including heart disease, type two diabetes and some cancers.
But there are also a lot of obese people who, metabolically speaking, are very health – and plenty of skinny people who aren’t. A 2009 study found that while weight is a determinant of metabolic disease, it certainly isn’t the only one(https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr013.pdf).
5. Magic weight loss diets work
Let’s cut to the chase: you should always be skeptical of diets that purport to cause rapid, healthy and sustainable weight loss. Think about the ‘low-fat’ thing we talked about earlier: 50 years ago, academics told the world fat was dangerous and needed to be avoided. But the world got fatter anyway.
In recent years, magic diets have become weirder and sometimes more sinister. ‘Tea-toxes’, for example, involve drinking herbal tea throughout the day with small dietary changes. The idea is that they help the body “detox” and aid weight loss. The problem is that detoxing is what your liver and kidneys do every day. They don’t need tea to help – especially if those teas contain laxatives, as some do.
Plenty of other celebrity-endorsed fad diets have popped up in recent years promising miracle results. Rihanna and Chrissy Tegan, for example, advocate vitamin IV drips that they claim nourish the body and burn fat (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/dec/31/resolution-avoid-quick-fix-diets-nhs-top-doctor).
This is actively dangerous. First, it’s possible to have too many vitamins. Second, IV drips administered by unqualified people may cause infections and blood clots, which can kill you if untreated. When in doubt, remember: IVs are for medicine. Not weight loss.
This isn’t an exhaustive list: there are too many myths about losing weight to go into in a single article. The point, however, is that any tips and tricks on losing weight you come across in the media or online should be treated with skepticism.
If you’re concerned about your weight, the first person you should seek advice from is your doctor. That’ll give you the knowledge you need to create a weight loss plan that’s right for you.
Rob English is the Senior Solutions Officer at Pharmica, an online pharmacy based in central London. In addition to his responsibilities in web and business development, Rob also writes about issues related to health and wellbeing.