Fact or Fiction: 10 Diet Myths Debunked

Sorting fact from fiction in the nutrition world isn’t often easy. On the same store shelf, we’re likely to see books and magazines touting the latest “lifestyle plans,” diet tricks, super foods and diet “dos and don’ts”—all with contradicting messages. And while some of these publications are well-intended and contain some valuable information, many present mostly fiction, disguised as fact. Fortunately, many qualified health professionals—me included—care more about public wellness than financial gain or fame.

The following myths are extremely common and worth debunking:

Myth #1: Carbs are criminal—captivating, but cruel.

Fact: Carbohydrates are the body’s and brain’s main nutrient source—the protagonist’s BFF. Severely restricting carbohydrates poses a slew of health risks, including constipation, depressive moods, nutrient deficiencies, fatigue and more.

Tip: Rather than avoid carbs, choose mostly healthy sources, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products. (Moderate amounts of sweets or other treats is fine, and often beneficial.)

Myth #2: High-protein diets are weight-control magic wands.

Fact: High-protein diets are far from magical. They’ve been shown to increase the risk for kidney stones, gout, metabolic problems, long-term weight gain and cardiovascular disease. And while increasing your protein intake to 15 to 20 percent of your overall diet is important for building muscle, more than that hasn’t shown any benefits, according to the American Dietetic Association. There is one exception. A low-carb, high-protein diet (also called a ketogenic diet) has been shown to reduce seizures in some epileptic children.

Tip: Aim for meals containing a reasonable balance of complex carbs, lean protein and healthy fat. Particularly nutritious protein sources include fish, beans, lentils, yogurt and quinoa.

Myth #3: Gluten is a sadistic psychopath, harmful to everyone.

Fact: Gluten-free diets are essential for people with wheat allergies or celiac disease, which account for about 1 percent of the population. Avoiding gluten needlessly, on the other hand, which an estimated 23 percent of Americans are currently doing, can make way for nutrient deficiencies and weight gain.

Tip: Unless you have celiac disease, Tricia Thompson, registered dietitian and author of The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide, recommends emphasizing whole grains and fortified cereals. If you have do have celiac disease, she suggests a gluten-free diet rich in folate sources, like leafy greens and fortified foods, replacing grain products with quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth and taking a daily multivitamin.

Myth # 4: Unless you’re a vampire, night-time noshing triggers fat gain.

Fact: Eating more calories than you burn routinely causes weight gain, regardless of when you eat them. Eating near bedtime, particularly large amounts, can disrupt restful sleep, however. This can indirectly lead to weight gain, because sleep deficits can slow our metabolism and increase our appetites. Eating spicy and fatty foods at night can cause heartburn, if you’re susceptible.

Tip: For restful sleep, leave at least 2 to 3 hours between your last meal and bedtime. For many people, a balanced snack, containing carbs and protein, enhance sleep. Useful examples include oatmeal made with low-fat milk, yogurt and fruit, a whole grain turkey sandwich, mixed nuts and a soymilk/fruit smoothie.

Myth #5: Certain foods have mystical fat-burning powers.

Fact: No foods burn fat. Activity does.

Tip: For improved weight control, amp up your fruit and vegetable intake and emphasize fiber-rich foods, such as beans, lentils, sweet potatoes, raspberries and whole grains. When you eat fatty or sugary foods, keep your portions modest. To burn more, move more.

Myth #6: Not skimping on calories works like kryptonite to Superman; less is best.

Fact: Our lives shouldn’t feel like The Hunger Games. We couldn’t eat, sleep, think, breath or move without calories. Overeating and under-eating can be equally damaging, contributing to a reduced metabolism, brittle bones, excessive body fat and cardiovascular problems over time. What matters is what we gain from our calories (energy and nutrients) and that we consume appropriate amounts.

Tip: Treat yourself like Superman/woman. In order to “fly,” we need enough quality fuel (in the form of calories) to feel energized and function well. If we overdo it excessively or often, we’ll get weighed down. With too little fuel, we’re paralyzed. (That is kryptonite-like.) Instead of loathing, fearing or avoiding calories, emphasize whole foods and aim for variety. Eating balanced meals and snacks and listening to our bodies’ “I’m hungry” and “I’m full”-cues promotes portion control and wellness.

Myth #7: Potatoes are practically poison.

Fact: Potatoes are nutritious. (And French fries aren’t potatoes.) They provide valuable amounts of B-vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, potassium and fiber. They also provide tryptophan and complex carbs—promoters of feel-good brain chemicals and calmness. Skinless white potatoes have a high glycemic index, meaning they can cause blood sugar spikes. But even sugar-sensitive people, like people with diabetes, can enjoy spuds with ease by pairing them with other foods.

Tip: If you’re concerned about glycemic impact, eat potatoes—skin-on—as parts of balanced meals. Choose nutritious toppings and cooking methods most often and view fries as occasional treats (if you like ‘em). Baked and sweet potatoes, seasoned with olive oil and herbs, are loads healthier than french fries or bacon, cheese and sour cream stuffed taters.

Myth #8: Fruits are so sugary, they belong in the Gingerbread House—not our stomaches.

Fact: The natural sugars in fruits vary big time from table sugar and other added sweeteners. Whole fruits promote blood sugar control—not the opposite. Fruit also provides valuable sources of water, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. (Sheesh!)

Tip: Incorporating fruits and/or vegetables into most of your meals is one of the healthiest moves most people can make. To meet your basic antioxidant needs, aim for at least 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables per day. But, the more the better. Research shows that eating 7-plus collective daily servings guards against heart disease, cancer and early death. So yes. Eat more produce. Please.

Myth #9: Swanky devils wear prada—and follow low-fat diets.

Fact: Our diets should contain moderate amounts of fat, or about 30 percent of our total calories. Our bodies rely on fat for tissue repair, energy and absorption of fat-soluble nutrients (vitamins A, D, E and K). Eating too little fat can cause brittle nails and hair, skin problems, mood swings, fatigue and nutrient deficiencies.

Tip: Incorporate moderate amounts of fat—mainly from healthy sources—into your meals and snacks. Since fat grams are denser than carbs and protein, small-ish portions suffice. Drizzle your veggies with olive oil, for example, or snack on 1/3 cup of mixed nuts or seeds. Other healthy sources include nut butters, fatty fish, canola oil and avocados.

Myth #10: Dietary supplements are so The Jetsons-esque.

Fact: As much fun as the futuristic cartoon made it look, no pill can fulfill a food, meal or day’s worth of nourishment in one fell swoop. Supplements are meant to supplement, not replace food. And taken improperly, they can cause a broad range of side effects and health risks. When we get our vitamins and minerals from foods, we get the whole healthy package, minus the risks associated with supplements.

Tip: Look to food first and supplement—with caution—when necessary.

So what do you think? Were any of your beliefs debunked? Any burning questions?

Gluten-Free Diets: Useful Tools or Harmful Trend?

“Claims [about gluten-free diets] seem to increase daily, with no adequate scientific support to back them up. This clamor has increased and moved from the Internet to the popular press, where gluten has become the new diet villain.” — Celiac researchers Antonio Di Sabatino, MD, and Gino Roberto Corazza, MD, Annals of Internal Medicine

If you avoid gluten, you are far from alone. Research shows that about 25 percent of Americans avoid gluten and only 10 percent of people following gluten-free diets have a physiological need. In 2010, Americans spent $2.64 billion on gluten-free prepared foods. And gluten-free package claims have more than doubled since 2006. So it comes as no surprise that many health experts and food manufacturers are calling gluten-free diets the low-carb diet trend of the 21st century.

Any time we make a dramatic shift in our diets, we open ourselves up to potential risks and benefits. And since many gluten-free dieters have fallen pray to the mad marketing machine known as the diet industry—and we all know the risks dieting can pose—I couldn’t keep my mouth shut resist highlighting some vital information. Before making the decision to avoid gluten, unless you’ve been medically advised to do so, I feel there are several questions worth answering.

What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in grains, including wheat, barley and rye. It’s also prevalent in grain-based foods, like breads, cereals, crackers, cookies and cakes, and in less obvious foods and products, like soy sauce, meat marinades, malt vinegar and certain dietary supplements.

When does it cause problems?
While most people digest gluten with ease, your immune system sees it as toxic if you have celiac disease—an inherited autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine lining and disrupts nutrient absorption. It affects less than 1 percent of the population, according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, tends to run in families and can coexist with other diseases, like diabetes. Symptoms may include severe abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, anemia, joint pain, delayed growth (in children), skin rashes and unintentional weight loss. Treatment involves lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet.

Gluten sources also cause serious problems if you have a wheat allergy, which also triggers immune system reactions. Wheat is one of the eight most common diagnosed food allergies, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, which collectively affect about 2 percent of adults and 8 percent of children.

If you have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, a gluten-free diet is vital.

You can also have a gluten sensitivity, or “celiac lite.” In this case, your body reacts negatively to gluten, without any autoimmune reaction. Symptoms are similar to celiac disease, but milder: diarrhea, bloating, indigestion, fatigue and abdominal cramping.

Gluten sensitivity is tougher to pinpoint because many people claim to react adversely to gluten, but show no diagnosable symptoms. This doesn’t mean that the condition isn’t legitimate. Some thorough investigation, however, can help ensure that your nutritional needs are met and save you the time, money and stress that often accompanies gluten restriction.

Here are some examples of a misdiagnosed/misperceived gluten sensitivity:

  • You feel better after cutting gluten solely because you end up eating fewer processed foods.
  • Your “carb sensitivity” is actually a case of poor blood sugar control. (Carb sensitivity isn’t an actual condition; you can be sugar or insulin sensitive, but we all need more carbohydrates than any other macronutrient.)
  • The placebo effect: Believing we are doing something healthy for our bodies can go along way toward feeling better and vice versa; negative beliefs about foods can trigger physical symptoms. Put another way, fearing gluten can cause sensitivity symptoms.
  • You experience less gas and hunger after switching to a high-protein, low-carb gluten-free diet not because of you’ve eliminated gluten, but because starchy foods naturally cause gas during digestion—a normal/good thing—and because protein-rich foods are less likely to cause blood sugar spikes than, say, sugary sweets and breads.
  • You feel gassy and bloated after reintroducing grains into a grain-free or low-carb diet. This is not generally proof that your body is intolerant to gluten or grains. More often it’s a sign that you’ve been lacking fiber-rich, starchy foods. (To avoid this, gradually reintroduce grains and other fiber-rich foods. In healthy individuals, the digestive system readjusts.)
  • You follow the diet as a means of restricting your food intake, establishing a sense of control, as a coping mechanism for non-diet-related stress and/or to lose weight. These factors often reflect disordered eating: a range of disordered eating thoughts or behaviors not affiliated with a full-fledged eating disorder, like anorexia or bulimia. Though less life-threatening than eating disorders, it’s no way to live and no less worthy of addressing.

What are the benefits of a gluten-free diet?

  • If you are legitimately intolerant or sensitive to gluten, a gluten-free diet relieves most or all of your symptoms, leading to a comfier life. The diet that seems restrictive to many, brings freedom.
  • While the jury is still out and research mixed, some experts believe that avoiding gluten may benefit children with autism and other brain-related disorders.
  • If a GF diet heightens leads you to eat more nutritious foods in better balance, you’ll reap the benefits of most healthy diets: strong immune, brain and digestive function, improved energy, moods and sleep quality, healthy weight control and more.

What are the gluten-free diet risks?

  • Many people avoiding gluten avoid whole grains and other nutritious foods. This is a major reason many gluten-free diets often lack iron, calcium, B-vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate) and fiber. Many studies support this. Research published by the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, for example, showed that gluten-free diets worsened nutrient deficiencies in teens with and without celiac disease. Nutrient deficiencies* can cause a slew of complications, such as fatigue, muscle weakness, headaches, dizziness, weak bones, depressive moods, sleep problems, foggy thinking, dry skin, brittle hair and digestive problems.
  • If you replace gluten-containing foods with gluten-free substitutes, like GF breads, cakes, flours, cereals, chips and pancakes, you may spend a lot of money on products that are equally or less nutritious than the original. You may also find yourself buying and eating more chips, cakes and breads than you used to, simply because the “gluten-free” label leads you to believe it’s healthier. (Remember the fat-free days? Fat-free ice cream can seem so much healthier. It’s actually higher in sugar than conventional ice cream and more likely to trigger overeating.)
  • If your GF diet is also low in carbohydrates, you hold heightened risks for constipation, gallstones, kidney stones, bad breath, headaches, reduced metabolism, weight gain and ketoacidosis—a dangerous condition in which your body uses fat as energy.
  • Deprivation, frustration and surrender. A GF diet can be difficult to follow, particularly if many of your staple or favorite foods are eliminated and you lack the support of a qualified professional. You may feel deprived and frustrated and fall of the proverbial wagon, all of which increases your risk of binge eating, weight gain, poor body image, increased stress and depression, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

*Dietary supplements are a valuable option if you struggle with nutrient malabsorption, which is common with celiac disease, or can’t eat a healthy diet for other reasons. Otherwise, whole foods are your best bet.

So are gluten-free diets useful or a harmful trend? Both. I believe that GF-diets are a saving grace to people with a medical need and a potentially harmful—or at least needless—trend for others.

If you believe you have a gluten sensitivity, I recommend seeking guidance from a qualified health care professional, such as your physician, dietitian or gastroenterologist, who can conduct medical tests and guide you through an elimination diet, as needed.

I want you all to feel and be as healthy as possible while getting not only nutrients, but joy, from your food. Whether you avoid gluten or not, the following foods can help fill in the nutrient gaps common in GF lifestyles:

Calcium: Canned salmon, tuna and sardines, tofu, yogurt, fortified milk (rice, soy, cow’s, almond), kefir, kale, almonds
B-vitamins:  Fish, seafood, GF fortified corn/rice/oat cereals, eggs, lean meats, enriched long-grain rice, enriched GF breads and tortillas
Iron: Fish, seafood, lean meats, beans, lentils, beans, tofu
Fiber: Beans, lentils, chickpeas, green peas, sweet potatoes, skin-on baked potatoes, kale, broccoli, raspberries, popcorn, GF oatmeal, flaxseeds, prunes, pears

For more information, check out these fantastic resources:
Forbes Magazine: What We’re (Not) Eating: A Potential Danger of Gluten-Free
Today’s Dietitian: Putting the Healthy into Gluten-Free
MayoClinic.com: Food Sensitivity Vs. Intolerance: What’s the Difference?
EatingWell.com: Healthy Gluten-Free Lunch Recipes

Do you avoid gluten? What benefits or challenges have you faced? Do you see gluten-free diet popularity as a trend or progression in the nutritional world? I welcome your thoughts!

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