The 9 Worst Pieces of Health Advice Coach Jen Often Hears

When I started working at SparkPeople more than 13 years ago, the community was just a handful of members and a few hundred message board posts daily. Fast forward to today, and we have millions of members posting messages in many areas of the community, asking for support, seeking advice, looking for friends and more. Times have certainly changed.

One of the great things about our community is that members are so willing to help each other. While we have experts on the site who are available to answer questions about exercise, diet and other health-related topics, often it's other members who respond with good advice and resources. Ninety-five percent of the time, the information is probably reliable and helpful, especially when it comes to motivation. There are always those occasional times, though, when the advice someone gives is outdated, inaccurate or, in some cases, potentially dangerous. Anyone remember the HCG diet? Goodness, that was a fun one when it became popular—lots of people thinking 500-calories a day and injections were a healthy way to lose weight.

When the advice given isn’t ideal, typically one of three things happens: Our experts see the post and correct the misinformation; another member reports the post to direct our attention to it; or other members provide the correct information, sometimes including links to content on SparkPeople to back it up. At the end of the day, the advice people receive on our site is overwhelmingly reliable, trustworthy and helpful as they work toward their healthy living goals.

Sometimes, though, misinformation courtesy of a saturated market or 24-hour news cycle that touts every scientific study as fact infiltrates the community and confuses the process. Over the years, these are the traps into which I most often see members fall.

1. "Falling short of your calorie goals once or twice is going to put you into starvation mode."

The concept of starvation mode is confusing, especially because there are different definitions depending on who you ask. The general idea is that when you don't eat enough, your metabolism slows down because your body starts to conserve what it has, ultimately making weight loss more difficult. However, this isn't something that happens in a day, a week or even a month. In reality, starvation mode occurs after a prolonged state of too few calories (such as those who do not have access to enough food or an eating disorder like anorexia) and typically you're not actually starving but rather not offering your body enough of what it needs for your metabolism to functional optimally.

For good overall health, it's important that you're getting enough of the calories and nutrients your body needs daily. If you fall short a day or two, don't panic. Just make the necessary adjustments so that you're eating within your recommended calorie range most of the time.

2. "You'll burn more fat on an empty stomach."

When you eat something, your body releases insulin into the blood stream. Insulin partially inhibits the release of fat from fat cells, so, according to this oft-shared theory, if you exercise before eating, the fat is more easily released from fat cells. The truth is that exercising on an empty stomach does not help you burn more fat overall. When you burn more fat during a workout, it's likely because you're working at a lower intensity (where fat is the preferred fuel by the body). A lower-intensity workout means fewer total calories burned, which is really what matters when it comes to weight loss. If you feel better exercising on an empty stomach, that's okay. But don't do it because you think it's going to affect the quality of the workout or your weight loss progress.

3. "Natural sweeteners like honey and syrup are better for you than white sugar."

The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugar to less than 10 percent of daily calories, which is 120 calories or 7.5 teaspoons of sugar for a 1,200-calorie diet. Too much sugar, whether it's marketed as "natural" or not, is not good for your health. There are a few types of sweeteners that offer some vitamins or minerals, but not in amounts significant enough to be a good source of nutrition. It's important to enjoy the foods you love in moderation, so don't feel like you have to swear off all sugar completely—just recognize that sugar is sugar and your body treats it all in the same way.

4. "Protein shakes help with weight loss."

SparkPeople recommends 10 to 35 percent of your total calories come from protein, with a minimum of 60 grams for females and 75 grams for males. Protein performs many important functions in the body and also helps with feelings of fullness. If you're falling short on your daily protein goals despite your best efforts to get your protein from natural food sources, then supplements can be a good option. But the reality is that most of us get adequate amounts of protein in our regular diet and don't need the fancy shakes and powders.

Protein shakes themselves do nothing to help with weight loss. If you are getting enough protein in your diet, you can skip the shakes and your weight loss progress will be unaffected. If you aren't getting enough protein and want to try a shake to supplement, be aware that some products out there are better than others.   

5. "As long as you stay in your calorie range, you can eat whatever you want and still lose weight."

While it's true that you can lose weight on a fast food diet, it's not recommended for a number of reasons. The reasons comes down to our body's natural hunger signals. When we eat, our bodies release the hormone leptin, which signals to the brain to stop eating when your stomach is full. When we indulge in junk food, our brain has a similar reaction to a drug, in which dopamine is released and we get excited for our "fix." If we eat these kinds of foods often, it becomes more difficult to get the same "fix," thus the brain convinces us to continue to eat beyond the point where we are full. Therefore you're more likely to overeat. Your body also processes junk food and nutrient-rich food differently.

Consider how you want to lose the weight. Do you want to do it in a way that's healthy and sustainable, so that you can maintain your weight loss for a lifetime? If the answer is "yes," then focus on the quality of your food, not just the quantity.

6. "You need to drink eight glasses of water/half your body weight in ounces/100 ounces of water daily."

The truth is that each person's fluid needs are different based on your activity level, how much you sweat, your current weight and more. There is not a "one-size-fits-all" formula for determining how much water you need daily. The best indicator of hydration is the color of your urine—if it looks any darker than a lemon squeezed in it, you should probably drink a little more. Also keep in mind that other drinks count towards your fluid intake for the day, not just plain water.

7. "Eating too close to bedtime will hinder your weight loss efforts."

Your body doesn't know what time it says on the clock, so when it comes to weight loss, what matters most is how many calories you've taken in over an entire day, not when you're eating them. That being said, certain foods have been shown to affect sleep patterns and many people just don't feel comfortable going to bed on a full stomach. Others find that "closing the kitchen" after dinner prevents evening snacking that would take them over their calorie budget for the day. In those cases, it's probably a good idea to stop eating after a certain time. But if it doesn't interrupt your sleep and you like your bedtime snack, plan for it and enjoy.

8. "It's okay to use supplements as a jump start to your weight loss."

It can be very motivating to see big losses on the scale when you first start your healthy living journey, so who wouldn't want a little help to make that happen? Most people know that taking supplements like diet pills aren't a good idea long-term and won't help with permanent weight loss. Yet the idea that they are a good way to "jump start" your program still persists. Why? Whether the long or short term, they aren't a good idea for the same reasons.

In addition to the health risks associated with supplements, they are not required to be regulated by the FDA, which means there doesn't have to be reliable research to back up their weight loss claims. Most weight-loss supplements contain large amounts of caffeine or other stimulants, which speed up your metabolism temporarily. The problem is that as soon as you stop taking them, you'll likely gain that weight back. You're much better off saving your money and using a healthy diet and regular exercise as a way to start the weight loss process.

9. "Detoxes are important to flush the bad stuff out of your system."

If you've been feeling run down, tired or maybe you've been feeding your body too much junk lately, you might think you're in need of a cleaning. Is a detox what you need to feel better? The answer is no. Your body is already very efficient at removing toxins naturally—hello, kidneys, liver, lungs and intestines! If a detox gives you an energy boost, it's probably just because you've stopped eating foods high in sugar and fat, which will naturally improve energy levels. The best way to cleanse your body is through a healthy diet and regular exercise, no lemonade concoctions or crazy colon cleanses needed.

When seeking health advice, make sure you're using trusted sources of information—experts with the qualifications needed to answer your question correctly and websites or other resources with advice backed by reliable research. There is plenty of misinformation out there, so do your homework and don't take the advice of strangers on the internet as a substitute for guidance from a qualified professional.
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Member Comments

The biggest nutritional lie ever told was that fat is worse than refined sugar for our bodies. Report
I especially likes the "not eating after..." I've experimented over the years. I now enjoy an evening snack with the worry and the guilt as long as I've balanced calories and nutrition throughout the day, I see no difference in weight loss or gain. But I do relate to the idea for any of these methodologies may trigger eating more again, balance and common sense. Report
Good article!
I am not a professional in the medical field but have learned to listen to my body. It likes less sugar and more water. After any junk food I feel better after drinking 8-10 cups of "detox." Eating cleaner helps me feel detoxed. Lowering carb intake as in refined carbs makes me feel better too but I still eat some sugar of all sorts and never rule out fruit. Everything in balance.
Again, good article. Report
Thanks for this. Number 3 and number 9 are especially pernicious.

Detox diets are, to put it bluntly, a way to detoxify your wallet of money at the expense of your health. Your body is quite capable of removing toxins on its own - or we'd be dead.

As for sugar, the refined sugar we think of as "sugar" (whether brown or white) is concentrated sucrose. Molasses is the first process from raw sugar cane and still contains many useful nutrients: B vitamins, calcium, iron, potassium etc. Honey contains those nutrients as well. But, as far as sugar contents go, sucrose is sucrose. As for agave nectar, a sweetener some people use instead of sugar? Don't bother. It costs more than sugar, has more calories per serving, and has the same nutritional value: none at all.

Sugar: 1 tbsp has 32 calories with 9 grams of sugar, no nutritional value (empty calories)
Molasses: 1 tbsp is 48 calories with 9 grams of sugar, some nutritional value.
Agave nectar: 1 tbsp is 40 calories and 10 grams of sugar, no nutritional value (empty calories)
Maple Syrup: 1 tbsp is 52 calories with 12 grams of sugar, some nutritional value.
Sugar Cane juice: 1 tbsp is 56 calories with 13 grams of sugar, minimal nutritional value.
Honey: 1 tbsp is 65 calories with 17 grams of sugar, some nutritional value.

Sugar isn't evil, but you do need to watch your intake. I'd pick the molasses any day; honey has twice the sugar content and calories of table sugar while molasses is roughly equivalent to table sugar but has nutritional value.

As with anything, moderation is key. Report
I agree, although the sugar one gives me pause. While too much of any of those are not healthy refined white sugar isn't as nourishing as a natural sugars that humans have not tampered with. Report
As usual in my life, I've found my own good old common sense wins the day against all the latest fad pop advice. How many times have I told people who tell me I must drink endless gallons of water and only water to help to lose weight. I've always said, drinking coffee, tea, sugar-free drink-juices, and yes, sugar free sodas all count as liquids just as much as your beloved water. And, once again I am proven to be the genius I've always known I am to be. I can't stand the taste of water or milk either and I never drink them by themselves. Milk I don't drink at all (almond milk? Yes, love it in cereal, still not by itself) and I only drink water when I brush my teeth. You can guzzle all that water, just pass me a cup of coffee. Ahhh, that's coffee Mama. Report
Thanks for the helpful info Report
Very good information....Th
ank You! Report
This is a great article Coach Jen and I agree with it wholeheartedly!!!
Thank you Report
Excellent advice, Jen. Report
All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking. - Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols ~ 2/27/18 Report
A terrific article. Thanks. Report
oh, thank you thank you thank you! I've seen all of these "myths" too and recognize them as false. But I have no standing to speak against them. I'm so GLAD that you've put the truth out there! Report
Glad those 'beliefs' are debunked. Report
Excellent article. I've never understood why people would rather believe or take advice from "just anyone" instead of a qualified expert. Report


About The Author

Jen Mueller
Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist, behavior change specialist and functional training specialist. She is also a RRCA-certified running coach. See all of Jen's articles.
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