Whether your main aim is to build muscle or lose fat, the most important aspect of your diet is simply the amount of calories you are consuming each day. Next in importance is how these calories are divided up between protein, carbohydrates and fat. And then there’s your pre and post workout nutrition to consider.
Apart from that, though, everything else is pretty much incidental. There are a few general guidelines that will help, of course, such as eat mostly whole natural foods, and avoid processed, refined and sugary foods as much as possible. But much of what is generally taught as good dietary practice is simply irrelevant and useless. Some of it will make absolutely no difference to your results, and some may actually hold you back from making the changes you want.
So, just to help clarify the situation for you, in this article I’ll cover 10 of the most common food and diet myths that just won’t die.
Myth 1: You Should Eat Six Small Meals Per Day
You’ll often hear it said that you should eat five, six or even seven small meals per day. Or that you should eat every three hours, or something similar.
The idea behind this is that because digesting food burns calories, if you eat more often you will “raise your metabolism” and burn more calories over the course of the day than if you eat less often.
But the truth is that eating small meals burns a small amount of calories, and eating large meals burns a proportionately larger amount of calories. So, as long as your total calorie and nutrient (protein, carbohydrate and fat) intake is the same, it will make no difference how many meals you eat per day. Eating three meals of 800 calories is exactly the same as eating six meals of 400 calories.
So how many meals per day should you eat? That’s entirely up to you. If you like eating a lot of small meals, you can eat six or seven meals per day. But, if you find it inconvenient to prepare food so often, and you always feel unsatisfied and hungry, then eat three or four larger meals per day. Whichever method is easier for you to stick to is the one you should use.
Myth 2: You Should Never Eat After 7.00pm
Again, it’s the total amount of calories consumed, and how these are divided up between protein, carbohydrates and fats, that are the most relevant factors. How often, and at what time, you eat is not particularly important. Your body will process 1000 calories eaten in the evening in just the same way as it will process 1000 calories eaten in the morning.
So, whether you finish eating at 7pm, or 8pm, or 9pm, will make no difference (as long as you are not consuming more calories than you would otherwise have done by eating at this time).
Myth 3: Breakfast is the Most Important Meal of the Day
You’ve probably heard that if you don’t eat breakfast soon after getting up, your metabolism will slow down, you’ll gain fat, and you’ll lose muscle tissue. Or, if you skip breakfast, you’ll be so hungry at lunch time that you’ll binge on unhealthy, fattening foods.
However, once again, meal timing has little relevance. Your metabolism will not slow down, you will not go into “starvation mode”, and you won’t lose muscle tissue, by delaying your first meal for a few hours. And, as to whether you binge out at lunch time or not – that’s entirely your choice. You are not compelled to do it.
So, should you eat breakfast? Again, it’s entirely up to you. If you feel hungry when you wake up, or you feel you perform better after eating breakfast, then go ahead and eat it. But if you are busy on a morning, or simply have no desire to eat, it won’t matter at all if you give it a miss.
Myth 4: You Can Only Digest 30g of Protein at a Time
This myth ties in with the “eat six meals per day” myth. The belief is that you can only digest a maximum of 30g of protein at any one time, so you need to eat frequently in order to keep your muscles fed.
But actually, digestion is a very slow process. And the larger the meal, the longer it takes to digest. So if you eat 50g or 60g (or more) of protein in one sitting, it will feed your muscles for several hours.
There is, of course, a limit to how much protein you can assimilate, but this is more of a daily limit than a single meal limit.
Myth 5: Fat Makes You Fat
Many people believe that fat makes you fat, because it’s, well – fat. But it doesn’t work that way. Its excess calories (wherever they come from) that make you fat; not fat per se.
Of course, fat is higher in calories than either protein or carbohydrate, so it is easy to eat too much of it, and that will make you fat. And it’s also true that dietary fat is more easily converted into body fat than protein or carbohydrate. But, ultimately, if you are not eating a calorie excess, you will not get fat by eating fat. And, in fact, you do need some fat in your diet to maintain optimum health, as fat (including saturated fat) has many important functions in the body.
Myth 6: Low Carb Diets are Best for Losing Fat
Once again, it’s not carbs that make you fat, it’s too many calories. And, although low carb diets can have their place for sedentary people, if you work out regularly you need your carbs to ensure optimum performance, as well as to help with recovery and to keep your hormones properly balanced.
Refined carbohydrates and sugary foods do cause problems though, because not only are they a very poor source of nutrition, they are also absorbed very quickly, causing a rapid spike in insulin. This then forces blood sugar levels right down, so you get an energy surge followed by a slump. And this causes cravings for more of the same types of food, so you end up eating far more than you otherwise would have done. So stick to low glycemic, complex carbs, most of the time.
Myth 7: All Calories are Equal, Whatever Their Source
As I’ve said, the most important aspect of your diet is the amount of calories you consume each day. But, next in importance, is how these calories are divided up between protein, carbohydrates and fat.
And the reason for this is not just that you require a balance of the different nutrients; it’s also because your body handles calories from these macronutrients in different ways. For instance, although all digestion takes energy, and therefore expends calories, protein digestion burns the most calories, followed by carbohydrates, and then fat.
The body also uses different types of each macronutrient in different ways. For example, the omega-3 fats cause you to burn more calories by raising body temperature.
And then there is the insulin health of the individual to consider. Those who are most insulin sensitive will handle carbohydrates much better than those who are less insulin sensitive.
So, to say all calories are the same is not accurate, because the different macronutrients all go through different metabolic pathways and have different effects on the body.
Myth 8: Dairy is an Essential Food Group
There is a myth that dairy must be part of a healthy, well balanced diet. But that is not the case. There’s nothing wrong with having some dairy, if you tolerate it well, but it’s certainly not essential, as all the nutrients contained in dairy products (including calcium) are easily obtained from other foods.
Myth 9: Egg Yolks Cause Heart Disease
Eggs are one of the most nutritious foods on the planet, and almost all of the nutrients they contain are found in the yolks. So the idea that you should throw the yolks away is ridiculous.
And, although it is true that eggs are high in cholesterol (about 210mg per large egg), the fact is that dietary cholesterol has very little impact on blood cholesterol for most people. The reason for this is that most of your cholesterol is produced by your body, and when you consume more cholesterol, your body simply compensates by manufacturing less of it.
The bottom line, however, is that studies have shown absolutely no link between egg consumption and heart disease in normally healthy individuals. Although, some studies have found an increased risk of heart attack in diabetics who eat eggs.
And, as I’m sure you are aware, eggs are one of the best muscle building foods there is. So, unless you are diabetic, go ahead and eat them as often as you want.
Myth 10: Salt is Bad for You
Salt is actually essential to life. And, although it can raise blood pressure very slightly, it has absolutely no effect on heart attack, stroke or death by any other cause. Some people are salt sensitive, however, and in this case it will make a difference. But, for the majority of people, there should not be any undue concern over salt intake.
And, if you work out regularly, getting sufficient salt is necessary to ensure peak performance.
So, those are my top 10 food and diet myths that just won’t seem to go away. There are many more of course, and all most of them will do is make your life more complicated. Or they may even hold you back from achieving the results you want. So, if you’d like some reliable information on how to eat to build muscle, see this article. Or, for information on the best diet to lose fat, take a look at this one.
Photo credit: VirtualSteve, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons