I've Spent 10 Years as a Wellness Writer. This Is the Best (and Worst) Advice I've Heard
Since I started writing about diets and health in 2008, I've seen countless trends come and go (looking at you, HCG diet and "toning" shoes). I've also seen some truly awful advice posted on message boards and Facebook by people trying to shed pounds and—sadly—even by health professionals peddling quick fixes, outdated ideas, and their own unhealthy habits.
In the last couple of years, we've turned a corner. Body positivity, the understanding that we can be healthy at all sizes, and a rebellion against diet culture are becoming the new normal—hallelujah! We're starting to understand that complimenting someone on weight loss isn't necessarily a good thing, and neither is Instagramming the macro count and calorie burn of every blessed meal and workout.
The root of the issue is the outdated idea that weight is the gold standard for health. "Science simply doesn't support the cultural belief that higher weight causes poorer health and lower weight causes better health," says registered dietitian nutritionist and exercise physiologist Rebecca Scritchfield, author of Body Kindness.
So let's look back on the worst of the bad advice my colleagues and I have had to debunk. The most absurd advice I ever read was in a major women's magazine...
"Snack on still-frozen corn and peas. They're sweet and crunchy, and they'll make a great substitute for higher-calorie treats like ice cream."
Nope. First of all, that's a food safety issue. Also, ew. Vegetables are tasty, but they're not ice cream and won't satisfy you the same way. Sure, this advice is pretty laughable, but there are other diet "tips" that are harder to brush aside—and that experts say could cause real problems...
The bad advice: "The scale never lies."
Why you should ignore it: Whether your weekend was filled with long runs and kale salads or deluxe nachos and Netflix binges, when you hop on the scale on Monday morning, the number you see doesn't necessarily mean you really gained or lost weight. Not only can your weight change by several pounds during the day based on factors like whether or not you're drinking alcohol, staying hydrated, and going to the bathroom, Scritchfield says, but it's also not the best indicator of health.
So what's a better approach to reflexively hopping on the scale to assess the "damage" after overeating? Flip the script. "Ask yourself, 'What bothers me about my habits?' and look to make changes there," Scritchfield says. If you are actively working to lose weight, step on the scale once every week or two—then keep it out of sight. You'll still get an idea of your progress without letting one metric impact your mental health.
The bad advice: "Focus on cardio for weight loss."
Why you should ignore it: Back in the day, the advice was "do cardio (lots of it) to burn calories and shed pounds; do strength training to build muscle." This ignored some key principles, like the fact that dieting can lead to muscle loss and that the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn while at rest.
Skipping strength training is a surefire way to hit frustrating plateaus, says Angel Stone, M.S., a certified personal trainer. "Does cardio contribute to fat loss? Yes," she says. "Is cardio essential for heart health? Yes. Will cardio fix your weight problem? My answer is a resounding no, I regret to inform you."
To be heart-healthy and lose weight, cardio should be part of your fitness plan, along with stretching, interval work, and resistance training.
The bad advice: "Count every calorie—all of them are equal."
Why you should ignore it: In my health-coaching practice, I've helped several clients end their reliance on low-calorie processed diet foods—a holdover from the fat-free, lifeless diets of the 90s. Instead, we shifted their focus to macronutrients and the nutrient density of what they were putting in their bodies. Thankfully, we now know we need to eat mostly real food, and religiously counting every calorie is starting to fall out of favor among the pros.
"Calorie counting has proven to be an utter fail unless you are trying to gain weight," says Kristin Koskinen, RDN, CD, of Eat Well Pros. "If you are interested in getting to or maintaining an ideal weight, your emphasis should be on eating nutrient-dense foods that nourish the body." While you can gain weight by eating whole foods, Koskinen says that nutrient-rich foods are the way to truly feel satisfied and well-fed.
The bad advice: "Share every workout and meal online."
Why you should ignore it: If you eat grilled chicken and cauliflower instead of ribs and fries but there's no photographic evidence, does it even count? And if you run an 8-minute mile but forget to 'gram a shot of your Apple Watch, did it really happen?
I'm sorry to say I used to document all my virtuous health choices on social. While it's normal to be excited about healthy habits—and want to share your progress—posting pics of every meal and workout (complete with macros and calories burned) is borderline obsessive and downright annoying. (Sorry, friends.)
"I question the helpfulness of sharing food and exercise pictures online because of the potential harms of social comparison," Scritchfield says. "A picture communicates that our value and worth are in our appearance or the quality of food we're eating."
The validation does feel good, so if you enjoy sharing your progress, consider finding an accountability group of like-minded people. Or share highlights—instead of a constant stream.
The bad advice: "You've got to burn it to earn it."
Why you should ignore it: You do not need to "earn" calories. That's "ancient thinking," says Stone, who is also a competitive triathlete. Exercise because you like how you feel or you want to get stronger—not to repent for what you ate or to earn what you'll eat later. This notion enrages me, and it's still pervasive in the fitness world—and it's a good idea to call out your instructor if you hear this terrible rhetoric.
"Food is necessary for life, and feeding people the myth that they 'must burn it to earn it' denies them of a normal relationship to food," says Rebecca Capps, M.A., MFT, a wellness coach who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders. "This way of thinking only perpetuates the understanding that you're not worthy of food unless you 'burn it,' which, in turn, promotes a fear-based narrative."
The bad advice: "This is the guilt-free version of another food."
Why you should ignore it: I love kale. I also love chips. One is not morally "better" or "worse" than the other, though they do have different nutrient profiles. If you're still sorting foods using the good-bad dichotomy, repeat after me: Calories aren't moral. No food should cause guilt. Food isn't sinful, sinless, guilty, guilt-free, naughty, or safe.
This black-and-white thinking is a cognitive distortion, and such labeling is a red flag for disordered eating, Capps says. "The dieting industry perpetuates this mentality—trying to convince us that certain foods will make us fat, and if we get fat, this somehow means that we're not worthy," she says. So, have the kale. Have the chips. Have the kale chips. But ditch the guilt trip.
The bad advice: "Keep your skinniest jeans front and center."
Why you should ignore it: Goals are helpful, but if yours are based on an outdated or unrealistic vision of yourself, they will backfire. Want to fit back into jeans you bought a couple of years back? Great! Want to fit into jeans you wore at age 16? Probably... not so great.
Those skinny jeans can sabotage your healthy habits. Your body will naturally change throughout your life—and that's OK. Let go of the idea that you were your healthiest self when you were at your lowest weight and that you should necessarily get there again. "There are many reasons why skinny doesn't necessarily mean healthy," Capps says.
The bad advice: "Chug water to deter cravings."
Why you should ignore it: Hydration is important—after all, we're mostly made of water. But this knee-jerk reaction to drown hunger is misguided. "Water, no matter how important to human life, will not be your antidote," Scritchfield says. Yes, thirst is often mistaken for hunger. But when you legit crave a food, downing a bottle of water isn't going to make it go away. And if you indulge a craving, you're not weak.
"Cravings are a normal part of the human condition," Scritchfield says. "If you're feeling negative emotions, that's a sign that your body is trying to talk to you, asking for self-care."
The bad advice: "Let the clock tell you when to eat."
Why you should ignore it: Forget Yanny vs. Laurel: If you want to get into a heated debate with someone, ask them about meals vs. snacks. Depending on your source, you might have heard that you should only eat three meals a day—never snacks—or you should eat every couple of hours, always keeping hunger at bay.
Ignore absolutes like always and never, and eat by your own internal clock. "We were not created to eat three meals and two snacks a day or according to a digital clock," Koskinen says. While keeping a consistent schedule will likely mean your hunger will be predictable, she advises to stay calm if your appetite varies and you skip a meal (or need an extra snack).
The bad advice: "Gluten-free or vegan diets are inherently healthier."
Why you should ignore it: Full disclosure: I'm vegan. But I'm quick to deter people if they're only trying to go vegan to lose weight. While you can lose weight on a plant-based or gluten-free diet, if that's why you're following them, you're overcomplicating mealtime (and not necessarily going to get healthier or slim down).
"Eliminating food groups may be a good idea for some people based on underlying health issues, belief systems, or for short-term therapeutic purposes," she says. But to drop pounds? Be skeptical of any diet that puts a food group off-limits for the sole purpose of weight loss. "Gluten-free" and "vegan" are not synonyms for "healthy"—and there are plenty of empty-calorie foods that qualify as both gluten-free and vegan.
Stepfanie Romine is an ACE-certified health coach, fitness nutrition specialist, and registered yoga teacher based in the mountains near Asheville, N.C. She has co-authored several books about healthy living, including The No Meat Athlete Cookbook. Her first solo cookbook, Cooking with Healing Mushrooms, is out now. Find her at The Flexible Kitchen or connect with her via Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.