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Don't fall for food fables when dieting

As part of the "Today" show's "New Year, New You" series, nutrition expert Heidi Skolnik explodes some common myths about dieting and exercise.
/ Source: TODAY

Millions of Americans use New Year resolutions to try and get in trim -- and many of those fall prey to the many myths that surround diet and exercise. As part of the "Today" show's "New Year, New You" series, nutrition and fitness consultant Heidi Skolnik talked to Ann Curry about some of the shaky advice that tends to circulate at this time of year. Skolnik, a certified nutritionist and fitness instructor, is a columnist for Men's Health magazine as well as a consultant to the Giants football team and the School of American Ballet.

Myth #1: "Eating breakfast will make you eat more."
It’s important to eat a good breakfast because it kick-starts your metabolism – and that helps burn calories. If you delay eating you just get hungrier once you do eat and end up eating more later in the day. Studies have shown that people who skip breakfast end up eating more after dinner .  The best thing you can do is eat a well rounded breakfast -- eating between 300-500 calories is a good target. I suggest an egg white omelet with chopped veggies, a slice of whole-grain toast and an orange OR a slice of whole grain bread with peanut butter, a banana and a glass of milk OR a whole grain toaster waffle with cottage cheese, berries and nuts.  Just having a bowl of cereal is totally fine but you will probably find you get hungrier sooner. Protein helps to give you a feeling of being full, which keeps the hunger pangs at bay for longer.

Myth #2: “Eating grapefruit for breakfast help you to burn more calories.”
It's fine to eat grapefruit at breakfast. It's nutrient rich. But there is no food that will burn more calories. This whole idea with grapefruit came about because it is such a low-calorie food and, like any other breakfast food, it kicks off your metabolism. This is a perfect example how we take something from science and distort it.

Myth #3: "Don't eat after eight at night."
It depends on how late you are staying up. You should eat two-thirds of your calories in the first two thirds of your day. And hunger can actually keep you awake, so don't go to bed without an evening meal. You should try to distribute the intake of calories evenly over your waking hours.

Myth #4: "If it's low-fat, you can eat more of it."
Research shows we eat more if something is labeled low-fat – and that’s a big problem, especially because a lot of low-fat items are higher in sugar, which means higher in calories. So it actually ends up being better to eat one or two regular cookies than five of the low fat cookies. I suggest watching portions but eating the real deal; for example, a scoop of ice cream instead of 11/2 cups of frozen yogurt.

Myth #5: "You'll save calories if you skip meals or don't snack."
First, going too long without eating slows down your metabolism, which, of course, helps burn calories. Second, it just leaves you starving, so that when you do finally eat something you tend to overeat. Third, it can tend to push you toward unhealthy snacks. Especially in the office, people think "I'll be home in an hour and I'll be making dinner so I'm not going to snack now" -- and then they end up stealing M&Ms off their neighbor’s desk because they are so hungry. I suggest you plan snacks throughout the day. Bring nutritionally based items into the office like nuts and fruits. Eat a snack like this in the afternoon and you will still be hungry for dinner but also sane when it comes to choices. Anticipate your hunger. If you are slightly hungry and expect to be eating in an hour, eat a piece of fruit. If you are really hungry and eating in two and half hours, have a mini-meal, such as half a sandwich or a bowl of cereal.

Myth #6: "If dieting, you should deny a junk food craving."
This is a mistake. If you try to eat around the craving, you usually end up consuming a lot more calories than if you just gave into it. For instance, if instead of giving into the need for a Snickers bar, which is 280 calories, your tried eating some mini-carrots. Chances are, that’s not going to do it – and then it’s an apple with peanut butter. And that doesn't do it. And so on -- and you keep eating other items trying to kill the craving and it adds up to 500 calories, which is more than the candy bar. And sometimes in the end you end up having the candy bar, too! Just eat a little of what you want. Try one of those bite size bars. Have something with a start and a finish (an ice-cream bar instead of eating from the pint). People have this all or nothing attitude and it's a big mistake. They think, “I'm going on a diet I can't have cookies or ice cream or chips.” Then when they eat a cookie they think they blew it so then they eat a ton because they say "Oh well." You don't want to eliminate any foods -- that just sets you up for failure.

Myth #7: “If you're exercising, you can eat more."

Only if you’re an athlete. The way the average person exercises really only allows them to eat normally and maintain their weight. People often think they can exercise off what they ate. You can't -- you have to run 30 minutes to burn off 200 calories. You should exercise for health and fitness, not as an excuse to eat more. And you should exercise regularly – it helps to keep your metabolism working. It also helps with stress release and sleep, two factors which help people stay focused on goals.

Myth #8: "If you stop working out, your muscle will turn to fat.”
This makes it sound like a straight swap, when in fact there are two things going on. When you stop exercising you loose muscle first and then you put on fat. That's why when you first stop working out you don't notice it at first because you may way the same because you are loosing muscle. Then you get out of shape and you begin to notice that you're adding fat.