True or False? Study Offers Insights into Common Beliefs About Diet, Exercise

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that some of the things that we take for granted about staying healthy – like the idea that skipping breakfast is bad or the concept that small sustained changes in diet and exercise lead to significant weight loss over a long period of time – may actually be myths.


    “Many beliefs about obesity persist in the absence of supporting scientific evidence (presumptions); some persist despite contradicting evidence (myths),” the researchers wrote in a summary.  “The promulgation of unsupported beliefs may yield poorly informed policy decisions, inaccurate clinical and public health recommendations, and an unproductive allocation of research resources and may divert attention away from useful, evidence-based information.”

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    In conducting their study, the research team from the University of Alabama at Birmingham searched the Internet to review popular media as well as scientific literature. They then identified and classified obesity-related myths as well as presumptions. These classifications were then compared with facts that have been well-supported by earlier research.


    According to CBC News, the seven obesity-related myths that were identified by the researchers included:

    • Small sustained changes in eating or exercise will produce long-term and large changes in weight.
    • Setting realistic goals on weight loss is important because a person will otherwise become frustrated and, therefore, lose fewer pounds.
    • People who are too ambitious about losing a lot of weight rapidly is associated with poorer long-term weight outcomes in comparison to weight loss that is done slowly and over a longer period of time.
    • It’s important to assess patients’ willingness to change their diet when they seek treatment to help them lose weight.
    • Physical education classes are important in preventing or reducing childhood obesity.
    • Breastfeeding protects women against obesity.
    • Having sex burns 100-300 calories.

    And there are a number of ideas that haven’t yet been researched to determine if they are, indeed, fact. These include:

    • The habits that children develop related to diet and exercise are important because these habits will set the stage for the rest of their life.
    • Eating a lot of fruits and vegetables will help a person either lose weight or not gain as much weight.
    • Yo-yo dieting is linked to higher death rates.
    • Snacking leads to weight gain.
    • Adding bike paths, jogging trails, sidewalks and parks will lead to a thinner population.

    The researchers also found enough evidence to deem some beliefs as facts. These facts include:

    • While important in a person's life, heredity does not equal destiny.
    • Exercising helps a person maintain his or her weight.
    • Participants in weight loss programs that provide meals lose more weight.
    • Some prescription drugs can be helpful for people to lose weight and maintain their weight loss.
    • For some patients, weight-loss surgery can be appropriate for long-term weight loss, a lower risk of diabetes and a lower death rate.

    So why were the myths believed in the first place? CBC News reports that the myths were based on a variety of sources, such as studies of low-calorie diets that were done in the 1960s as well as national health guidelines. And some study participants were of one gender. For instance, only one study which was done in 1984 scientifically measured the energy output of sexual activity, and the participants were only men. And the finding of that study was that sex only burned 21 calories, which is about the same as walking. And the researchers noted that physical education classes in school typically do not last long enough, are not held often enough or are not intense enough to make a difference in children’s weight


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    There’s one other key piece of this study that shouldn’t be overlooked.  Marilynn Marchione, the chief medical writer for the Associated Press, reports that many of the study’s authors have significant financial ties to food, beverage and weight-loss product makers. So while this study does provide good food for thought, you may want to take some of the recommendations with the proverbial “grain of salt.”


    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:


    Casazza, K. (2013). Myths, presumptions, and facts about obesity. New England Journal of Medicine.


    CBC News. (2013). 7 obesity myths shattered.


    Kolata, G. (2013). Myths of weight loss are plentiful, researcher says. New York Times.


    Marchione, M. (2013). Report exposes obesity myths. ABC News.


Published On: January 31, 2013