Myths You Should Stop Believing About Obesity

Obesity is a global phenomenon, affecting people of all ages. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that more than 650 million adults were obese in 2016. Over time, this chronic disease can contribute to diabetes, cardiovascular problems, sleep apnea, cancer, depression, and bone disorders, warns the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For example, did you know that every extra pound puts stress on your spine and joints? Losing just 10 to 15 pounds could lower your risk of osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease, explains Harvard Health Publishing.

Perhaps not surprisingly, obesity and its complications can be prevented in most cases, says the WHO. The key is to start making small but impactful lifestyle changes, such as engaging in regular exercise and limiting added sugar. But there's a lot of misinformation regarding these things. After all, we've all heard of juice cleanses, gluten-free diets, body wraps, and other supposed shortcuts to weight loss. What's more, experts have conflicting opinions on what we should eat to stay lean and trim. The same goes for exercise and other related topics.

Feeling confused? Listed below are some of the most common myths about obesity.

Myth: Obesity is just caused by poor nutrition

While it's true that certain eating habits can contribute to obesity, diet is just one piece of the puzzle. Stress, sleep deprivation, hormonal imbalances, lack of exercise, and other factors also contribute. For example, chronic stress promotes fat storage and increases appetite, making it harder to maintain a normal weight (per Verywell Mind). 

Sleep deprivation has similar effects, suggests Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Some research suggests that not getting enough shuteye can affect the levels of ghrelin and leptin, two hormones that regulate appetite, leading to increased hunger. Poor sleep also causes fatigue and tiredness, which may keep you from staying active, according to a 2018 report in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine. 

Additionally, certain diseases and medications may lead to weight gain — regardless of what your diet looks like. For example, sulfonylureas and other diabetes drugs stimulate insulin release. Antidepressants, on the other hand, increase the production of serotonin, a "feel-good" hormone that regulates appetite and body weight, notes AARP. Beta-blockers, migraine medications, and oral corticosteroids can affect your weight, too. Stress, poor nutrition, bad sleep, and other lifestyle factors only make things worse. 

Myth: You just need to go for a jog

It's no secret that regular exercise can improve heart health, aerobic endurance, and overall strength. At the same time, it aids in weight management and may increase lifespan, among other benefits, says the U.S. National Library of Medicine. However, exercise alone won't necessarily prevent obesity or weight gain.

For example, a 155-pound person will burn 108 to 216 calories in 30 minutes of weight training, and 252 to 369 calories in 30 minutes of rowing — depending on workout intensity (via Harvard Health Publishing). A large single-serving bag of potato chips, which doesn't even count as a full meal, boasts over 450 calories (per Nutrition Value). Fries, ice cream, and other popular snacks are chock-full of calories, too. Generally speaking, exercise will not undo the harm caused by a diet rich in processed foods.

Healthline estimates that physical activity can initially help you lose up to 3% of your body weight. Diet and exercise, on the other hand, may initially reduce body weight by 5% to 15%. The bottom line is, regular exercise can lead to fat loss, but it's only one part of the equation. You can hit the gym daily and still gain weight if your diet is off. 

Myth: You must cut 3,500 calories to lose a pound of fat

While it's true that high-calorie foods promote obesity, there's no magic formula to losing one, five, or 10 pounds of fat. Not too long ago, health organizations used to say that a pound of fat equals 3,500 calories, reports Today's Dietitian. Based on this premise, you should cut 7,000 calories from your diet to lose 2 pounds of fat or 35,000 calories to shed 10 pounds.

Today's Dietitian explains that it's possible to lose a few pounds by following the 3,500-calorie rule, but this strategy only really works in the short term. First of all, your body adapts to diet and exercise over time, which can lead to plateaus. Second, your energy expenditure depends on your age, gender, metabolism, and other factors. The leaner you get, the harder it becomes to lose weight. "Less energy is required to move a smaller body compared to a larger body," researcher Jasmine Jamshidi-Naeini told Insider

Moreover, it's difficult to determine the exact number of calories burned at rest and during exercise. For example, a heavier person will generally torch more calories in 30 minutes of weight training, cycling, bowling, and other activities than a thin individual, notes Harvard Health Publishing.

Myth: You'll definitely develop obesity if it's in the family

You might have heard that obesity has genetic causes — and that's partially true. However, just because your parents or siblings have obesity doesn't mean the same will be the case for you. The CDC reports that several general genes, including FTO, MC4R, INSIG2, and PCSK1, regulate appetite, fat storage, and energy expenditure. People with certain changes in the MC4R (Melanocortin 4 Receptor) gene, for instance, may have a higher appetite. The FTO (fat mass and obesity-associated) gene, on the other hand, can stimulate hunger and increase food intake. But that's just one part of the story.

For example, you can lose weight and keep the pounds off even if you have the FTO gene, according to John Mathers, a professor of Human Nutrition. "Carrying the high risk [form of the gene] makes you more likely to be a bit heavier, but it shouldn't prevent you from losing weight. That should encourage people," he told Time. "No magic genes change anything in that respect. You have to bite the bullet, and eat a bit less, or be more active [to maintain a healthy weight]."

The experts at Harvard T.H. Chan of Public Health agree with these findings. Certain genes can affect your metabolism and body weight, but it's your diet and lifestyle that matter most.

Myth: You can be obese but healthy

As discussed earlier, obesity goes hand-in-hand with diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems. Some people look and feel healthy despite carrying excess weight. However, a 2014 review published in Missouri Medicine states that healthy obesity does not exist. Individuals with obesity may enjoy good health for a couple of years, but their condition will likely get worse over time. Even mild obesity can significantly increase the risk of heart disease and death from all causes. 

A large-scale study conducted at the University of Birmingham investigated the impact of obesity on 3.5 million people. The subjects were obese but had no metabolic disorders such as diabetes. Scientists found that individuals considered "healthy and obese" were at higher risk of stroke and heart disease than those of normal weight. For example, their risk of heart failure was 96% greater compared to that of non-obese subjects.

"The priority of health professionals regarding these patients should be to promote and facilitate weight loss, as it is with any other obese patient," said epidemiologist Rishi Caleyachetty, the lead study author.

At the end of the day, obesity is complex. Good nutrition and exercise can help you get leaner, but you also need to address the underlying cause of weight gain. Forget about crash diets. Discuss your options with a medical professional and then take the steps needed to achieve a healthy weight.