Dieting is surrounded by myths and gimmicks. No single food or diet can help you lose weight. Extreme low-carbohydrate, high-carbohydrate, high-protein or restricted diets can damage your health. To reduce body fat and lose weight, you need to change the way you eat and increase your physical activity.
More Australians are overweight or obese than ever before, and the numbers are steadily increasing. Around 70 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women are carrying too much body fat and 25 per cent of children are overweight or obese. This means that the incidence of obesity-related disorders, such as coronary heart disease and diabetes, is also on the rise.
There's no magic weight loss potion
There are many unhealthy misconceptions about weight loss. There are no magical foods or ways to combine foods that melt away excess body fat. To reduce your weight, you need to make small, achievable changes to your lifestyle. You need to change the way you eat and increase your physical activity.
Some dietary fats cause weight gain
Fats contain approximately double the amount of kilojoules (calories) per gram than carbohydrates or protein. They are a very concentrated form of energy. If you eat a lot of fat you are more likely to put on weight than if you eat a lot of carbohydrates.
The type of fat you eat may also be important. Research shows that animal fats (saturated fats) may be more 'fattening' than plant and fish fats. Fish and plant fats appear to be more readily used by the body and less likely to be stored as fat in the belly. They can also provide some health benefits.
Excess carbohydrates or protein can also be converted into body fat. If you eat more kilojoules than you use, you will put on weight whether those kilojoules came from fats, carbohydrates or proteins.
Low, moderate or high-carbohydrate diets
In the short term, very low-carbohydrate diets can result in greater weight loss than high-carbohydrate diets, but in the long term, weight loss differences appear to be minimal. Very low- carbohydrate diets can be unhealthy as carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for our bodies to work effectively. The long-term safety of these diets is unknown.
Five food myths exposed
There are many myths about foods - what you should eat and when you should eat them. We expose five myths as false.
1. Potatoes make you fat – false
It was once thought that the key to weight loss was eliminating all high-carbohydrate foods, including pasta, rice and potatoes. We now know that carbohydrates are the body's preferred energy source. Eating a potato, or any type of carbohydrate rich food, won't automatically make you fatter. However, if you are watching your weight, enjoy potatoes in moderate quantities and be careful of how you eat them (for example, butter and sour cream are high in fats).
You have to regularly eat more energy than your body needs to put on weight. This is harder to do with high-carbohydrate foods than high-fat foods, because carbohydrates contain about half the amount of energy compared with fat .
2. Single food diets really work – false
There are plenty of diets based on the belief that the digestive system can't tackle a combination of foods or nutrients. Commonly, carbohydrates and proteins are said to 'clash', leading to digestive problems and weight gain. The opposite is often true. Foods eaten together can help the digestive system. For example, vitamin C in orange juice can increase iron absorption from a meal rich in plant-based iron like beans and rice, lentils and other legumes.
Very few foods are purely carbohydrate or purely protein; most are a mixture of both. The digestive system contains enzymes that are perfectly capable of breaking down all the foods we eat. Single food diets should be avoided.
3. Breakfast should consist of fruit only – false
There is no evidence that eating only fruit at breakfast has any health or weight loss benefits. Most fruits are not very high in complex carbohydrates, which the body needs after an all-night fast. They are, however, a good source of fibre and vitamins.
Cereal foods (especially wholegrain varieties) like bread, muffins and breakfast cereals are a much better source of carbohydrates to get you going in the morning. You can add fruit to your breakfast for additional nutrients and taste.
4. There are some magical foods that cause weight loss – false
Some foods, such as grapefruit or kelp, are said to burn off body fat. This is not true. Dietary fibre comes closest to fulfilling this wish, because it provides a feeling of 'fullness' with minimal kilojoules. High-fibre foods such as fruit, vegetables, wholegrain breads and cereals, and legumes also tend to be low in fat.
5. Drinking while you are eating is fattening – false
The theory behind this misconception is that digestive juices and enzymes will be diluted by the fluid, and this will slow down the digestion and lead to excess body fat. There is no scientific evidence to back this up. In fact, evidence suggests that drinking water with your meal improves digestion. Kilojoule-heavy drinks such as alcoholic beverages can be fattening if consumed in excess, but drinking them with meals doesn't make them more fattening.
The key to weight loss
Aim for slow weight loss. You should lose no more than 0.5-1.0 kg a week or 10 kg in six months.
Aim for a healthy waist circumference of less than 94 cm for men and less than 80 cm women
Suggestions for safe and effective weight loss include:
- Don't crash diet. You'll most likely regain the lost weight within five years.
- Cut down on dietary fats, especially saturated fat, and choose low-fat varieties where possible.
- Cut back on refined sugars.
- Increase your intake of fresh fruit, vegetables and wholegrain breads and cereals.
- Consume less alcohol.
- Eat less takeaway, snack foods and sugary drinks.
- Exercise for approximately 30 minutes on most days of the week. Introduce more movement into your day – try to include 30 minutes of walking daily.
- Don't eliminate any food group. Instead, choose from a wide range of foods every day and choose 'whole', less-processed foods. Have a regular pattern of eating and stick to it.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Dietitians Association of Australia Tel. 1800 812 942
Things to remember
- 'Crash dieting' can affect your physical and mental wellbeing.
- There are no magical foods or ways to combine food that will help you lose weight.
- The best way to lose weight is slowly, by making small, achievable changes to your eating and exercise habits.
You might also be interested in:
- Body image - men.
- Body image - women.
- Body image and diets.
- Disability - managing overweight and obesity.
- Disability - managing underweight.
- Weight loss - a healthy approach.
- Weight loss and carbohydrates.
- Weight loss and fad diets.
- Weight management services.
Want to know more?
Go to More information for support groups, related links and references.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
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Deakin University - School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences
Last reviewed: July 2012
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