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Don’t Believe the Health Hype: Six Fallacies Debunked

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By this time, you know that you should never skip breakfast, all carbs are not bad for you, fasting is a dubious get-thin-quick solution with negative short- and long-term repercussions, and cutting up your food up into tiny pieces before eating it doesn’t decrease your caloric intake, despite what Alicia Silverstone’s diet-obsessed character in Clueless says. But just when you think you’ve found a clear path in the labyrinth world of fitness, nutrition, and health, a whole new set of myths, exaggerations, and flat out lies pop up, ready to thwart your wellness goals. This means that you have to be forever vigilant, separating the bad information from the good to ensure that your health doesn’t suffer as a result. Here are a few common fallacies explored to help you stay on track.


1. I should exercise in my “fat burning zone.”
You hop on the elliptical machine at the gym and study the console’s colorful diagram. Without making a single rotation, the words “Fat Burning Zone” cause your heartbeat to accelerate. A special zone that allows me to burn more fat? Perfect! So you accelerate, check your heart rate, then decelerate and peddle cautiously to ensure you never leave the fat burning zone. According to Michael Brazeal, Director of Fitness and Exercise Physiologist at the California Health and Longevity Institute at the Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village, California, you’ve been misled. “Yes, at low levels of exercise, a greater percentage of the calories burned come from fat, whereas at higher levels of exercise intensity a greater percentage of the calories burned come from carbohydrate combustion. But the bottom line is that it’s all about calories and creating an energy imbalance—your body doesn’t care where the calories come from.”


Brazeal explains that when he measures his clients’ resting metabolic rates (the energy required to perform vital body functions such as respiration and heart rate), a higher percentage of calories burned come from fat combustion. This means that you would be in the optimal “fat burning zone” when watching TV on the couch or lying in a hammock by the beach. Obviously, that’s not going to help you with your health goals. Instead, Brazeal, whose advice is evidence-based and substantiated by scientific research, tells his clients, “Exercise vigorously. Get the most out of it.”


2. If I focus on abdominal exercises, I will lose inches off of my waistline.
Remember the video of the woman in the pink leotard trying to trim her waist by being violently jiggled by a vibrating belt machine? Guess what? It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. According to Brazeal, “There is no such thing as spot reduction unless you know a great plastic surgeon. But you can spot tone the musculature beneath the fat.” Performing leg lifts, abdominal crunches, or bicep curls will, overtime, increase the muscle’s strength and may change the physical appearance of the area. Your biceps may appear larger or smaller depending on your genetics and exercise routine, but it is the muscle mass that has changed, not the fat surrounding it.


According to Brazeal, “The best way to get rid of fat is by doing cardio exercise—long duration, vigorous cardio exercise.” So you can abercize, ab-tone, abdominalize, ab-crunch, ab-sculpt, and ab-burn for days, but as for losing inches off of your waist in the process, you better go running, jump on the elliptical machine, or take a spin class.


3. If I do too much weight training, I’m going to look like Schwarzenegger.
Many women like having a toned body, but don’t want a bulky one. As a result, we are suspicious of weight training, scared that the end result will be an overly muscled, Amazonian physique ideal for winning body building competitions. According to Brazeal, that’s a fallacy. “Due to hormonal differences, very few women are capable of achieving exaggerated muscle hypertrophy which is an increase in muscle mass caused by resistance training. Unless you are on some type of supplement, you are not going to bulk up,” says Brazeal.


Rather than worrying about bulking up, women should be more cognizant of realistic fitness challenges more likely to plague them like saddlebags, the deposits of fat that settle around the hips, butt, and thighs. According to Brazeal, one reason to go all out with weight training is because it’ll help you in the future. “Muscle is metabolically active. The more muscle you have, the more calories that you burn.” So although spot training alone won’t get rid of saddlebags, weight training in general will make your body an efficient calorie burning machine which will help you reach your long-term fitness goals.  


4. If I eat meals from the low calorie menu at a restaurant, I’m being responsible.
Just as decadent chocolate desserts tempt us, so do the words guiltless, low fat, low calorie, and heart healthy when they’re printed on the menus at our favorite restaurants. But relinquishing control of what you eat is always suspect no matter how convincing the marketing campaign. According to registered dietician Anne Stone of Thousand Oaks, California, “If you want to lose weight, you have to reduce the frequency that you eat out, because even though something is advertised as a guiltless menu item, studies have recently been showing that it depends on who is preparing the food that day and how carefully they are following the guidelines.”


In one investigation conducted in 2008 by Local 6 News in Orlando, Florida, the station’s reporter packed and shipped food content from eight different meals from popular restaurants to scientists at Analytical Laboratories in Boise, Idaho. The laboratory reports revealed that in all but one of the eight meals, there were more calories in the meals than advertised. Some meals were around one hundred calories over the marketed amount. In two of the meals, there were over 80 percent more calories in the supposedly low calorie fare. This is clearly a good argument for preparing your own meals at home whenever possible.


5. If I want to lose weight, I can’t go wrong by eating lots of salads.
The salad myth is wrong for two reasons: salads can be just as high in calories and fat as any other meal (especially when ordered at a restaurant) and your body can feel deprived when it doesn’t receive meals that incorporate all three major food groups. This can cause you to munch relentlessly later on. Stone, who is familiar with this mindset, tells her clients, “You’d be better be off never ordering salads unless it’s a garden salad on the side of your turkey sandwich. I’m a big believer in sandwiches; they are very filling, they look like a meal, and they taste like a meal.” Stone looks beyond the calories in/calories out weight loss equation into murkier psychological waters. “Psychologically, it’s more satisfying to eat a sandwich. Our body likes all of the three major food groups: carbohydrates, protein, and vegetables.” According to Stone, as long as you make smart choices when ordering or making a sandwich (whole grain bread and hold the mayo for example), they are the clear winners over salads.


6. At least I don’t have to worry about heart disease; that’s a man’s problem.
Not only is this assumption wrong, it’s potentially deadly. When you learn that of the approximately 870,000 people who die annually of cardiovascular disease, almost 450,000 are women, it’s clear that this is also a woman’s problem. According to Brazeal, “It’s not that a man is the poster child. The thing is that women show different symptoms and signs. They will go into their physician and complain of fatigue, lethargy, insomnia, stress, and oftentimes the physician will dismiss these symptoms as stress-related, write a prescription for Xanax or Zoloft, and send her on her way.”


Not having overt symptoms can confound the problem. According to the American Heart Association, 64 percent of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms. Similarly, women still see it as a man’s disease. Historically, most of the research on cardiovascular disease was performed predominantly on middle-aged men. Ironically, only thirty years ago, a 1960s American Heart Association conferencein Oregon devoted to women and cardiovascular disease was titled, “HowCan I Help My Husband Cope with Heart Disease?” Help him, but know that you need to stay informed and help yourself as well.


Although there are many misleading claims made about fitness and health, sometimes our worst saboteurs are ourselves. Yes, it’s easier to tell yourself you’re avoiding bulking up by not weight training, but in the end, the right choices will always produce the right results.

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