Diet Myths: Let’s Bust Them Open, Part 1

Tuesday Dec 2 | BY |
| No Comments

Diet Myths

Diets are often all about suffering—this really bothers me!

I’m in a myth-busting mood today, so let’s take on the topic of modern-day diets and bust some myths!

I have so many myths to bust that this is part one of a two article series.

It’s mind boggling how many ridiculous diets there are. It seems when one fades out of favor, another takes its place.

The one idea they all seem to have in common is that in order to lose weight, you need to suffer. Whether it’s using immense willpower, under-eating, or over-exercising, if you don’t suffer enough, according to these diets, you won’t succeed.

This really bothers me! First, it’s not healthy, and secondly it sets people up for a cycle of failure.

Let’s take a look at some of these myths and you’ll see what I mean.

Myth #1. People lack willpower and can’t resist temptation.

Let’s face it. If willpower was what it took for a diet to succeed, the world would be skinny. Unfortunately, we think diets work and we are failures.

There are so many things that influence a person’s weight: stress, a sedentary lifestyle, convenient fast food, and many others. If you’re on the diet cycle and none of them seem to work—and your belief system doesn’t change—you’ll keep going back to willpower as the root cause of your failure.

But weight management is not about willpower or wanting weight loss bad enough. It’s about change and your beliefs. The first one belief to change is that willpower is all it takes to succeed on a diet.

Myth #2. Weight and health are mutually exclusive.

Do you think this is true?

Think about this for a minute before answering.

Do you think you cannot be healthy unless your weight and/or body mass index reaches a specific number?

Of course there are risk factors at the extremes of weight, but maybe we put too much emphasis on weight as a marker of health. There are new studies coming out all the time on this topic—too many to discuss—but let’s look a little deeper into this question.

Weight doesn’t exist as a number all by itself. In other words, health has a great many variables and weight is one of them. Some studies show that carrying some extra weight, yet eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, mitigates risk.

This makes sense, because it seems to me that health is too complex to be judged by a number on a scale. If what we’re after is a number to match some ideal body mass index measurement and we never get there, it leaves us feeling like failures.

Dr. David Katz from Yale University says losing weight and staying healthy is not about willpower, but rather about SKILLpower. I like this term! And of course the skills he’s talking about are not suffering, sacrificing, or struggling. He mentions planning, organization, and thoughtfulness as the skills needed to enjoy a healthy relationship with food.

Myth #3. Dieting must be difficult—if it’s not, it won’t work.

Human nature is not about suffering. Yet dieting has always been about some combination of under-eating and over-exercising, which both involve suffering.

I’m not a psychologist, but I think I’m wise enough to know that the idea that we are a failure as a consequence of being unable to suffer enough is self-destructive and can damage our self-esteem in many areas of life.

Weight management is a life-long process, so using the suffering model will not work. Long-term health requires that we focus on ways to be more thoughtful about food and fitness, so suffering isn’t a part of the deal.

Myth #4. Fitness is more important than food for weight loss.

I’d suggest there’s no more important habit you can adopt for long-term abundant health than exercise, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to weight loss.

I can’t tell you how many runners I’ve trained who thought they’d lose weight from all their marathon training. Nope. In fact, they often gained weight. How about the people who leave an exercise class and head straight to Starbucks?

I’m known for saying that people overestimate how much they exercise and underestimate how much they eat.

Once you start eating in response to your exercise, exercise’s potential weight loss benefits will disappear. Exercise does, however, help keep weight off and we know without exercise we’re far more likely to regain whatever weight we’ve lost.

I’d suggest that dietary choices are perhaps 70-80% of a person’s weight, and fitness the other 20-30%. This would lead us to conclude that it’s far easier to lose weight in your kitchen than in your gym!

Myth #5. Diet cheat days are supposed to make it easier.

This myth has been around for a while now—cheating is supposed to make dieting easier. It can be done in various ways. Some do a cheat day, some a cheat meal. While the cheat day concept works for some, it doesn’t work for most.

It’s an idea worth trying, but let me play the devil’s advocate here and suggest that if you are feeling compelled to cheat, something else is going on. Feeling the need to cheat can mean you are living an overly restrictive lifestyle.

The idea that using food for reasons other than fuel is “cheating” goes back to our human nature. We don’t eat just for sustenance, and food isn’t just fuel. Food is pleasure, comfort, and part of our social nature.

For many, establishing a healthy relationship with food is best done without concepts like cheating. This leads us to our next myth!

Myth #6. Some foods are forbidden.

Seems to me that the idea that people can successfully and permanently avoid some foods—chocolate or ice cream, for instance—doesn’t make sense. Whether your “danger” or “forbidden” foods get eaten because of emotion, stress, celebration, vacation, or fatigue, there’s no need to be so harsh with yourself when this happens. We all have foods we struggle to control ourselves around. To restrict them is too harsh.

I’d suggest, as one trainer I know advises, that we shift our thinking and learn to switch from blindly restrictive to being thoughtfully reductive. Asking questions like, “Is it worth the calories?” or “What’s the smallest amount of this food I need to be happy?” can help us not only enjoy a healthier relationship with food, but also ensure we enjoy all foods and still manage our weight.

Stay tuned and watch for part two of this series coming to you soon!

Shelli Stein

Shelli Stein

Shelli Stein holds a Master’s degree in exercise physiology and has completed over 12 advanced certifications in the field of health and fitness. She coaches and teaches from her home base in San Diego, California. Her specialties include hormone health for women, run coaching, and helping her clients move from pain to performance. She offers free newsletters both weekly and monthly from her websites: and

Comments are closed.