Why am I not losing weight? 4 surprising weight loss myths that have to die

About 40 years ago, several major reports altered the way Americans ate. So began the worst mistake in US health policy: the low-fat diet craze.

The advice was to eat less fat and cholesterol, resulting in a national food production frenzy that stocked supermarket shelves with low-fat food products.

Everyone started eating egg whites, low-fat crackers, low-fat dairy products, low-fat everything.

But something strange happened: we kept getting fatter.

US Obesity

Sturm, R., J. Ringel, and T. Andreyeva, “Increasing Obesity Rates and Disability Trends,” Health Affairs, Vol. 23, No. 2, March/April 2004

Woof.

Clearly, there’s a disconnect between government advice and popular culture diet fads and what actually helps you stay thin.

Look around the health and diet landscape online and you’ll find wacky diet claims that are outdated, misinformed, and ineffective. No wonder why most of the US population can’t lose weight.

There has been too many extreme diets and poor science reporting for the general public to understand what “eat healthy” actually means.

We’re fat because we don’t know how to eat.

Who can blame us? Corporations spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince us that their food products are healthy. We’re inundated with marketing messages:

  • 100-calorie snack packs FTW!
  • Want to lose weight? Just eat this bowl of fiber cereal for breakfast and lunch every single day.
  • Dr. Oz said this green coffee bean supplement was a “magic weight loss cure!”

I’d rather eat only Gu for the rest of my life than listen to this nonsense.

Aside from diet, there’s also exercise. Many of us focus on running for weight loss and some see great results – but others don’t. The simple reason is that most runners exercise instead of train. With more focus, you’ll get more results (but this topic is for another day).

Today I want to clear the air about food choices and how they help or hinder your weight loss goals.

Of course, I’m not a doctor and I certainly do not play one on the internets. I’m acting as a journalist (this article took nearly 10 hours to research and write). I’m also piggy-backing on the work of the many Registered Dietitians that were consulted for this post.

Let’s start with the most widespread diet and weight loss myths that just won’t die.

Myth #1: Cholesterol is Bad For You

Cholesterol

A few decades ago, the US government advised that we should limit our intake of dietary cholesterol because it causes heart disease. Many people still believe they should limit dietary cholesterol.

Finally, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Council (DGAC) has reversed its stance on dietary cholesterol and is acknowledging the science: there’s no need for most of us to limit dietary cholesterol.

Not only does dietary cholesterol have virtually no impact on blood levels of cholesterol, but all cholesterol isn’t created equal. There’s “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL) versions.

But it’s even more complex: there are different types of LDL cholesterol, some of which are completely benign.

This is important because we’ve been led to believe that we should avoid cholesterol, but the truth is that only a tiny minority of people (diabetics, for example) should be worried about cholesterol.

And more importantly, we should focus our efforts on increasing our HDL cholesterol. Lifestyle has the biggest effect, so here’s what you should do:

  • Don’t smoke cigarettes (it amazes me that people still smoke today…)
  • Lose weight
  • Exercise at least five times per week for 30 minutes of aerobic activity – like running!
  • Eat healthier fats (grass-fed beef, nuts, fish, flax) and avoid trans fat whenever possible
  • Drink alcohol in moderation. I.e., have fun in moderation 🙁

But why does this matter for runners?

Simple: when you avoid cholesterol, you’re avoiding nutrient-rich foods. Without a variety of nutrient-rich foods, your overall nutrition will suffer and your performance and recovery will suffer.

Plus, cholesterol helps you run faster!

Krista Austin, owner of Performance and Nutrition Coaching, has a PhD in Exercise Physiology and Sports Nutrition. She agrees:

The body needs cholesterol, especially for producing hormones that  improve physical performance. Too much or too little is not good so it’s important to be reasonable.

Of course, we’re not saying eat two dozen eggs every day. But just like you don’t have to actively avoid protein or Vitamin C, you don’t have to actively avoid cholesterol.

Myth #2: Skim Milk is Healthier than Whole Milk

Dairy

Ask anyone over 50 about milk and they’ll all agree: nobody drank watery skim milk when they were kids.

But after the low-fat movement in the 1980’s, skim milk stole the show and whole milk sales plummeted.

Unfortunately, eating less fat doesn’t mean that you’ll lose more fat. Consider the research:

  • Eating whole fat dairy is “inversely associated with weight gain” in middle-aged women according to this study
  • A high intake of dairy fat was associated with a lower risk of central obesity according to this study
  • This literature review concludes that high-fat dairy foods do not contribute to obesity and suggests that high-fat dairy consumption within typical dietary patterns is inversely associated with obesity risk

It seems like our fear of full-fat dairy is misplaced. More specifically, our fear of the saturated fat in dairy products is misplaced.

Consider a few more studies:

  • There’s no evidence to support the claim that dietary saturated fat is associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease
  • Current evidence does not support low consumption of total saturated fat

Fat is necessary for the absorption of many vitamins – like Vitamin A and D – so if you’re limiting your fat intake (often through non-fat dairy options), you’re simply not absorbing most of these vitamins.

For more on this topic, see this article about saturated fat from Tim Ferriss.

Like anything, it comes down to moderation. If you’re having a hearty breakfast, it’s wise to choose one food from the choices of bacon, whole milk, and gobs of butter on your pancakes.

But why does this matter for runners?

One word: Satiety.

To avoid over-eating, you must satisfy your hunger at the appropriate times.

By choosing low-fat options, you’re depriving yourself of less-processed, higher satiety foods. Meaning an hour later, you’re more likely to grab a handful of M&M’s in the office kitchen.

Lindsay Livingston, a Registered Dietitian who writes the Lean Grean Bean blog, encourages full fat foods because they contain less junk:

In most cases, low-fat and fat-free products have the fat replaced by things like salt and sugar to make the product continue to taste good. I’d rather have a higher fat product with just a few, wholesome ingredients than a lower-fat product filled with junk!

Myth #3: Cut Calories for Effective Weight Loss

Why am I not losing weight

The keyword here is “effective” – if you do cut calories, you WILL lose weight. And rapidly.

But it will be short-lived. Research suggests rapid weight loss and extreme dieting can slow your metabolism, deprive your body of essential nutrients, and weaken your immune system.

And that weight you lost? It will come right back, and likely even more than before.

The issue is calorie counting. Until recently, humans never counted calories – so why are we all of a sudden being told it’s the only way to maintain our weight?

Anne Mauney, MPH, RD (my partner on the Nutrition for Runners program) works with her private clients using an approach called Intuitive Eating, which is a philosophy based on the premise that listening to the body’s natural hunger signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight than tracking calories.

Our bodies use a complex system of hormones that alert you when fuel is needed. Those cravings you have? They aren’t the enemy. They are your body telling you that it needs nourishment. Don’t ignore it! It’s when we suppress those signals that we get into trouble.

In the Nutrition for Runners program, we go into far more detail about how to actually put this into practice (with example meal plans, how to avoid over-snacking, and even how to structure each meal).

Eating intuitively forces you to be more aware of what you’re eating and how much you’re eating.

Instead of calorie counting, Danielle Omar, a Registered Dietitian and author who writes the Food Confidence site, says this “awareness” is key:

Calorie awareness is better than calorie counting! It’s important to know how much food you’re eating and how much you need to eat.

Once you’re aware of your ‘budget’ each day, you can choose the most nutrient rich, calorie poor foods within that budget.​

For intuitive eating without calorie counting to work, you must focus on real foods.

But what exactly is “real” or whole food? It’s just how it sounds – food that is in its most natural state and has not been processed or refined. Things like whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and unprocessed grains. Animal products should be grass-fed and organic, if possible – the way nature originally intended.

The reason for eating real food is twofold: first, real food generally has more nutrients than processed food. In order to make foods shelf-stable, whole foods are often stripped of many of their nutrients during processing.

White rice, for example is made from brown rice. It’s processed to remove its fiber-rich bran and germ, which contain about two-thirds of the nutrients in rice.

And second, this lack of nutrients also means that processed food is not nearly as satisfying as real food. Have you ever eaten a processed food and found you’re hungry again minutes later? You’re taking in calories, but not a whole lot of nutrition. The food you’re eating isn’t “food” at all – it’s a food product.

But why is this important for runners?

Simple: when you cut calories and “diet” while training, you sacrifice performance AND weight loss goals.

By trying to train for a race and lose weight, you effectively accomplish neither goal. You won’t lose as much weight and you won’t run as fast in your race.

This is why we include weight loss training plans in Nutrition for Runners. They’re to be used before a race training plan so you can lose weight first and then get fast.

Separating the two goals is the fastest way to accomplish both.

Myth #4: Low Carb Diets Make it Easy to Lose Weight

Carbohydrate

Yes… and no. Again, the reality is somewhere in the middle.

If you drastically cut your carbs, you WILL lose weight. But a big chunk of that weight will be water (for every gram of carbohydrate you eat, your body stores roughly 3g of water).

If you’re looking to temporarily cut weight and don’t mind that you’re not losing body fat, then a low-carb approach works great (say, you want to look slim for your wedding).

But for people who want long-term, sustainable weight loss, low-carb diets aren’t your best option.

Omar has this to say about low-carb diets:

Not a fan. It may work in the short run but it’s not a sustainable lifestyle for most people. It’s important to enjoy your food and if you’re constantly focusing on foods that you love but can’t have, that’s no way to live.

Besides, there’s nothing wrong with eating whole grains, fruit, beans and other complex carbs. In fact, they’re extremely important for weight loss!

I find this fascinating. Why do so many Registered Dietitians tell runners NOT to follow a low-carb diet?

It’s for the same reason that low carb diets don’t work long-term: they’re more difficult to follow. Low adherence might is the nail in the coffin for these diets.

Nancy Clark, arguably the country’s top sports dietitian (she consults with the Boston Red Sox, has been on the back of a Wheatie’s Box, and has the top-selling nutrition book for athletes ever) agrees:

The body is the best calorie-counter. You don’t need to count calories.

But why is this important for runners?

Eliminating carbohydrate is almost always disastrous for runners, resulting in low energy, sub-par training, and poor race results. Ultimately, reducing carbohydrates diminishes your training capacity – or the amount you’re able to exercise.

But focusing on a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods that provide the fuel (i.e., carbohydrate) you need to boost your training capacity, you’ll be able to run more, train harder, and race faster. These in turn improve your body composition (and make you a better runner).

If you want to learn more about the intuitive eating approach, we cover it in-depth in our free nutrition series.

Recommended Books, Podcasts, & Resources

If this topic gets you jazzed up and you’re tired of wondering why you’re not losing weight, you should definitely check out our Nutrition for Runners program. It’s exhaustive while this is just one blog post.

I’ve also had the pleasure of learning about diet, nutrition, weight loss, and training to lose weight from a wide variety of sources.

There’s a lot more on the diet and running books page, but the resources below are my favorite choices.

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

Pollan outlines his philosophy on food and diet in one easy to remember phrase: “Eat food. Mostly Plants. Not too much.” This book is highly recommended if you’re into healthy food and forms the central pillars of my own diet philosophy.

The Paleo Diet for Athletes by Loren Cordain and Joel Freil

If you’re gung-ho about Paleo, this is the best resource available on how to still fuel appropriately for running. The authors give a great overview of the Paleo Diet’s background and a complete diet plan for how to implement it with your training.

No Meat Athlete Radio hosted by Matt Frazier and Doug Hay

This podcast is for our plant-based friends. Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan, or veg-curious, Matt and Doug cover nutrition, healthy lifestyle, and running tips with guests like Rich Roll and Brendan Brazier.

Nutrition Q&A and Myth Busting (2-part audio seminar with Anne Mauney, MPH, RD)

In this seminar, Anne and I discuss critical diet questions that impact runners (how to avoid over-snacking, fueling post-workout, how to maintain your goal weight, and more fun stuff). There’s two parts to this series, plus additional text lessons, recipes, and case studies.

One Last Thing

This article is long. There’s a lot of information here. And if you click on the many links in this article, you’ll fall down the rabbit hole of nutrition and weight loss.

My one critical suggestion: don’t get overwhelmed.

You don’t have to be perfect with your diet (I had a donut this morning).

Perfection is the enemy of the good. So if you’re wondering what to do now, choose ONE (only one!) piece of advice from this article and implement it today.

Think of it as an experiment. A fun experiment!

Now go have fun 🙂

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Comments

  1. Love the website in general but low carbs lifestyle are very misunderstood and both my wife and I are running better than ever and losing more weight than ever using it and have been for a long period of time. Sure in the initial week I lost 11lbs and a lot of that was water but what about the other 6 stone that I have lost?

    Plus your body ends up learning to burn fats more efficiently which is great for long distance running. I am doing my long runs at a faster pace and with better energy than I ever have before. I thoroughly recommend the books The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate living and The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance. Both are in great detail with lots of science and show that a low carb diet can be used successfully both to lose weight and in combination with performance exercise.

    As I said love the website but had to say that I know a lot of people that get on well with low-carb living long term and can perform well in high intensity exercise over a long period.

    Thanks,

    • Thanks Gary. I’m glad you’ve found a nutrition approach that works for you! I’m against low-carb diets (and all of the RD’s I spoke with are as well) because for MOST runners, it’s too difficult and won’t allow them to reach their top performances.

      • Most people are against them as they don’t fully understand them, I fully admit I am not an expert and that at the elite level it may make a little bit of difference (otherwise more elite runners would be doing it) but based on the strong evidence in the above mentioned book (evidence from scientific journals) it appears that at most levels it doesn’t have any real impact. I have gone from a 33 minute 5k when I started it and I am down to a 23 minute 5k now and still improving(but have lost weight and probably done better training in that time).

        From what I have read the reason most people find it too hard is because they don’t stick at it long enough, you need to be doing it a month or two before the benefits of exercising using this approach outweigh the process of your body getting used to low carb. As you have said in reply to another comment most of your readers will be runners that unlike myself have (or had) do not have lots of weight to lose so do not have the motivation to start it and stick to it for that length of time to see the benefits.

        Still as you say everyone is different and needs to find what works for them. This site is a great resource and I have found lots of great information I am putting into my workouts. As I said I think the books above, particularly the performance ones are worth looking at as they specific look at the impact in high performance endurance athletes after proper adaptation to a lower carb diet.

        • Hi Jason,
          Love your emails and thanks for putting together an informative article.
          I’m with Gary on this one. As a runner, training and aiming to get to my racing weight and on the start line in the fittest and best shape I can be, is a challenge (mainly the racing weight part). I have tried numerous strategies, watching calories and trying to stick to 1200-1500 calories a day on those big load training weeks. But I was always hungry!
          I started a LCHF adventure 8 weeks ago after being flagged as on the cusp of type 2 diabetes – weird because I’m not overweight and have a BMI of 21 (but have a family history). I got hold of Phinney & Volek’s books, Dr Tim Noakes and also read up on Dr Jason Fung (a canadian physician & diabetes expert who also espouses LCHF). I thought I’d give it a crack and see how my blood glucose and ketone levels responded.
          First 4-6 weeks of training on LCHF was hell as my body adapted to running long without its usual feast of carbs or gels. I felt sick, sluggish, and totally smashed. My running buddies, whilst supportive, thought I was insane as I tried to explain the logic of what I was doing. Easy trail runs I had done previously felt so difficult – but I perservered. Now I’m running long (22-28k trail runs) on just water and often in a fasted or semi-fasted state and I feel fantastic. Without counting a calorie, eating really well, I’m losing weight effortlessly – seems bizarre when I’m eating a generous plate of scrambled eggs, bacon and spinach for breakfast. Avocado, spinach & smoked salmon for lunch.
          I have wiped out almost all carbohydrate (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruit) and get my nutrition from meat, dairy, eggs and other non-starchy vegetables.
          My running buddies have noticed too. Commenting that I’m losing weight and looking more toned and in the last few weeks my running has improved.
          So …Each to their own. I agree we all need to work out what works for the individual.

    • Jerry Mullins says:

      It’s great to teach or bodies to be more efficient at using fat for energy but the fact that Carbs are the body’s preferred and most efficient energy source can’t be denied. Good hard training along with a decent diet whether low carb or high carb will result in faster times, but how much faster would you be if you listened to the pros? Because your faster than you were is not proof that low carb makes us a better runner. Now if a great number of the best endurance athletes trained that way I would probably buy into such strange philosophy but they don’t. I have followed Nancy Clark’s advice and have seen great increase in speed, and endurance from 24 min. 5K to 20 min, from 4 hour marathon to 3:29 high amount of the right carbs work. 🙂

  2. Sara Fran says:

    Hey Jason! I thoroughly enjoyed your article and love the links to outside research so I can see for myself. I agree with many of your points, except one: counting calories works. It’s not a way to live, and the body doesn’t need to count calories to stay at a healthy weight, but obese people have already ignored this signal for so long that counting calories for a few months can help retrain the body and brain to know how to eat to satiety. Additionally, if people find it hard to eat only real foods, counting calories is a great reality check that the candy bar you really craved and needed to have is actually 15% of your daily intake! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say they eat healthy and don’t overeat, but don’t realize their morning Starbucks is 600 calories… without the whipped cream! I think calorie counting (especially with how much easier it is nowadays with apps) is a great tool for weight loss in some circumstances and shouldn’t even be included in the same list as “don’t eat fat” for nutrition myths.

    • Oh I completely agree that if you’re *obese* you need to take drastic measures like counting calories. But again, if you’re eating whole “real” foods, it’s not AS necessary. And for those who are clinically obese, calorie counting is a good first step. Though the majority of my readers aren’t obese, sedentary folks – they’re runners who’d just like to lose an extra 5-15 pounds (so that’s who I write for). Great clarification, thanks Sara.

  3. Dr. Steven Winiarski says:

    Hey Jason,
    I love this post and your dedication and contribution to runner’s health. As a board certified clinical lipidologist I would like to make a few clarifications. First, there aren’t two kinds of cholesterol, there is only one kind which is either stored in the HDL particle or the LDL particle (or in multiple other particles that were not mentioned here). Where the cholesterol is stored depends on multiple different factors, some of which we don’t know.

    Although most people don’t need to worry about eating a few eggs, there are a significant number of people that do need to worry about their cholesterol level other than diabetics. For example, those who have had heart disease in the past, those with a significant family history of early heart disease, those with a genetic predisposition for high cholesterol, just to name a few.

    The National Lipid Association Nutrition Work Group released this statement on the DGAC reevaluation of cholesterol consumption: “We encourage all Americans to set goals to reduce their cholesterol levels through diet and exercise to ensure optimal heart health. Furthermore, it is our recommendation that healthcare providers still advise their patients to make heart-healthy dietary choices and educate them about the distinction between blood cholesterol and dietary cholesterol. With the news that dietary cholesterol is being de-emphasized, it is important that patients remain diligent about decreasing their total and LDL cholesterol levels. There is compelling evidence that lowering blood cholesterol levels decreases the risk of heart disease.”

    Thanks for bringing up the multiple myths that have surrounded nutrition over the past several decades.

    Cheers!

  4. Jerry H says:

    Great article. Big fan of the advice to eat whole fat dairy products. Good example of the graph showing increase of chronic diseases in the last year. I wish more doctors would actually look at the flawed “study” which was the basis of the low fat movement. They would likely change their tune.

  5. Very interesting read, and yes I do drink alcohol, but I also have been drinking skimmed milk for years, and eat whole meal bread, and eat two eggs every day for breakfast.
    I run every other day for over two years and have lost weight!

    But can I run faster if I have a full english once a week etc… I guess I might run faster if I eat more fatty foods… but will I loose that extra inch around my waste that I’ve been trying too for the last year?

    Have you changed your diet Jason, to run faster or loose an inch?

  6. Hi Jason! Good article!

    I agree with the idea of not cutting carbs, just changing the sources, but I have one question: What are good carbs sources for runners?

    I have something to ask you: What do you think about the recomendation of one cup of water each hour?

    Tks

  7. Jason, I’m in my 50s and with a slower metabolism as I’ve aged I find I I have to watch the overall food intake or I gain weight no matter how much I exercise. I have benefited from your site and the Nutrition for Runners book and I have one clarification question on “real” vs. processed foods. Would you now discourage use of protein shakes as a source for protein post-workout/recovery or for breakfast?

    I started on an egg-white-based protein drink breakfast about a year ago and I like the routine. I’d find it hard to get a large amount of protein down at breakfast or post-workout in real-food form, both because I’m not that hungry and because I’d have a hard time prepping and eating a high-protein breakfast under time constraints. I stay full until lunch-time on the protein shake, and I try to get a bit of protein with every meal in one form or another. I’m also accustomed to eating whole eggs, whole milk, and meats and cheeses–I never entirely bought the low-fat nutrition guidelines. So I mainly eat real food, mostly plants :-). Thoughts on the protein drinks?

  8. People love good news about their bad habits. It’s actually just a well-touted meme that we’re eating less fat and getting fatter. So to quote an oft-loved phrase, correlation doesn’t equal causation. “According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (pdf), every decade since 1950 Americans actually have been eating more fat, more sweeteners, more meat and more calories.” http://www.usda.gov/documents/usda-factbook-2001-2002.pdf

    “The decrease in the percentage of calories from fat during the period 1971 to 1991 is attributed to an increase in total calories consumed; absolute fat intake in grams actually increased.”

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-almost-everything-dean-ornish-says-about-nutrition-is-wrong/#Ornish

    Also, I believe the meta-analysis you reference that claims saturated fat is not bad for you has been cited: “overadjustment obscures true associations.”

    You should have a listen to Rich Roll’s interview with Dr. Garth Davis. He’s a bariatric surgeon who has looked closely at a lot of these studies that are regularly quoted and puts them into context with the larger body of scientific evidence. He’s obviously a plant-based advocate but don’t let that put you off listening to an interesting conversation. 😉 http://www.richroll.com/podcast/our-misplaced-obsession-with-protein-garth-davis-md-on-high-fat-low-carb-diets-bad-science-how-to-separate-nutritional-fact-from-popular-fiction/

  9. Hi Jason!
    I’m a competitive runner and a holistic health coach. This is a great informative post and I appreciate you sharing this information with your readers. So many runners have the Run to Eat mentality and don’t realize their poor diets effect their ability to perform and recover. I personally found myself in that situation and after battling too many illnesses and injuries went searching for answers. I discovered the first 3 myths and began making small changes. I agree with the 4th myth though it wasn’t an issue for me but I did find changing the quality of carbohydrates an cutting back on the processed ones has helped tremendously with fueling my workouts.
    I’d like to add that I’m pretty sure that Dr. Oz would agree with everything in your post and that while he may recommend certain supplements, I don’t think advocates taking them in lieu of a healthy diet, but instead in conjunction with a healthy diet. 🙂
    Keep up the good work!

  10. I followed a link to this post from the fANNEtasticfood blog, find that you’ve written an amazing article on a topic that is very close to my heart, then you mention Tim Ferriss and Lindsay from the LeanGreenBrean blog. I feel like this was meant to be 😉

    I’ve been working in health programs and health research for over a decade now and I’m returning to my dietetic roots to finish my training to become an RD. This article is everything that I’ve been trying to tell people for many years. Thank you for putting it all together in such a clear, evidence-based post. I will be checking in here often. Cheers!

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