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?

Foods for a Beautiful Brain

beau·ti·ful/ˈbyo͞otəfəl/

  1. Pleasing the senses or mind aesthetically.
  2. Of a very high standard; excellent.                                        —Dictionary.com

Based on our recent discussion, many of us value our inner-beauty over external, but agree that both are important. Well guess what. Eating well promotes both in our brains. Consider this example:

A growing body of research shows that a healthy dietary lifestyle guards against Alzheimer’s disease, other forms of dementia and cognitive decline, while boosting overall mental sharpness—in some cases, immediately. (Woo hoo, right???)

To increase your odds of sharp, long-lasting brain function, eat a balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats. When you indulge in sweets, fried foods or other low-nutrient fare, enjoy it and practice moderation. As I suggested in my Dodge Dieting post, the 80/20 rule works well—aiming for about 80 percent nutritious foods and 20 percent “play” foods.

Ten Brain-Boosting Super Stars:
Fortunately, there are loads of brain-beautifying foods. Here are some of my favorites. ;)

1. Berries Numerous studies have linked berry consumption with brain health. Berries provide valuable amounts of water and fiber, both of which promote positive energy levels between meals, and potent antioxidants, which support strong immune and brain function. Tip: Stock up on whatever berries are in season and keep unsweetened frozen berries on hand year round. They make awesome additions to oatmeal, baked goods and smoothies.

2. Broccoli Broccoli appears on countless superfoods lists, and for good reason. It’s one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, rich in antioxidants and a chemical that may enhance brain healing, according to a Journal of Neuroscience report. Tip: Steam, rather than microwave or boil, broccoli to retain nutrients.

3. Leafy Greens Diets high in folate are linked with a lowered risk for cognitive decline. Leafy greens, like kale, Swiss chard, spinach, mustard greens, are high in folate. They also provide ample fiber. Tip: Buy dark, leafy greens with every shopping trip. If you fear you won’t finish them before they spoil, chop remaining leaves up and freeze them in air-tight containers for use in soups, stews, pasta dishes and more.

4. Potatoes Yes, that’s right. I said potatoes. Our beloved spuds have gained a bad reputation, both due to the way many people prepare them and the risky low-carb diet craze. But potatoes, whether russet or sweet, provide complex carbohydrates—your brain’s and body’s main fuel source. Potatoes are also rich in potassium—an electrolyte important for brain function, fiber and tryptophan—an amino acid that helps your brain create the feel-good brain chemical, serotonin. (Nope, turkey isn’t the only source.) Tip: For healthy “fries,” coat sliced potato into rounds with canola or olive oil cooking spray then bake them at 350 deg. until they appear golden.

5. Popcorn As one of the most nutritious whole grains, popcorn provides valuable amounts of fiber, which helps keep our blood sugar and energy level, B-vitamins, which promote positive energy levels, and antioxidants that help stave off infections and disease. Tip: Season air-popped popcorn with natural herbs or try it dessert-style, sprinkled lightly with cinnamon and stevia or cane sugar.

6. Salmon The healthy omega-3 fatty acids in salmon, and other fatty fish, don’t simply promote more positive heart-health. They play a key role in brain function. And because our bodies can’t produce them, they way they produce other fats, we must get them through food. Consuming too few omega-3s can cause lethargy, fatigue, memory problems and depressive moods. (Blech.) Tip: The American Heart Association recommends eating 3.5 oz of fatty fish (about the size of a deck of cards) at least twice per week.

7. Flaxseeds Flaxseeds are top plant sources of omega-3s. They also contain ample fiber, protein and antioxidants. If you don’t eat fatty fish routinely, incorporate flaxseeds into your diet. Even if you do eat fish, flaxseeds can enhance your diet. Tip: Add ground flaxseeds to other healthy foods, like smoothies, whole grain cereal, bran muffins and yogurt. For freshness, keep ground seed in your refrigerator.

8. Green Tea Some researchers believe that moderate amounts of caffeine can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and boost mental sharpness. Green tea provides caffeine and lots of other perks, such as plentiful antioxidants. An animal study published in Biogerontology in 2006 linked daily green tea consumption with better sustained memory capabilities. Tip: Brew a pot of green tea to enjoy hot or chilled. For added flavor and nutrients, add lemon or apple slices. (YUM!) If you’re sensitive to caffeine or drink tea late in the day, opt for caffeine-free.

9. Peanut Butter While all nuts are nutritious, peanuts provide more healthy fats than most. Peanut butter is also filling, convenient and rich in satiating fiber. Researchers at Harvard Medical School discovered that eating peanut butter five days per week does a lot to prevent heart attacks. Snacking on peanut butter, instead of other snack foods, has also been linked with better weight and appetite control. Tip: If you don’t like or tolerate peanuts, substitute almond butter, which is particularly rich in calcium.

10. Dark Chocolate (I repeat, YUM!!!) In addition to deliciousness, dark chocolate provides protective plant chemicals called flavanols. Research headed up by Ian MacDonald, a professor at the University of Nottingham, found that consuming cocoa rich in flavanols boosts blood flow to important brain areas for up to three hours. Tip: Feeling low, yet work calls? Eat several squares of dark chocolate. If you have difficulty sticking to modest portions, keep chocolate in your freezer or buy single portions.

Fabulous Foodie Fun:
Violets and Cardamom’s recipe for Oatmeal Breakfast Bars and Muffins provides a fun, tasty way to get brain-boosting nutrients from whole grains, flaxseeds and almond butter at breakfast.
Write On, Jana! brings us nutritious, Egg-Free, Dairy-Free Cinnamon Rolls. I’m salivating over these babies!
For more chocolate-loving fun, check out Tameri Etherton‘s Chocolate, the Language of LOVE.

Do you consider brain-health when approaching your diet? Are you a fan of these foods? Feel free to share your nutrition questions or challenges. I LOVE hearing from you and am eager to offer support.

LSR #2: Dodging Diets

An estimated 75 million Americans diet each year, contributing to an over $70 billion industry.  - U.S. Weight Loss & Diet Control Market

Dieting first gained mass appeal in 1829 when Reverend Sylvester Graham launched the Graham diet. By limiting caffeine and meat and snacking on graham crackers, the plan promised to stave off added pounds and masturbation. (Yes, you read that right.) Since then, the weight loss industry has grown into a $70 billion-per-year industry, with an estimated 75 million Americans dieting at any given time. And the methods are no less whacky.

Regardless of the plan, more than 95 percent of dieters gain lost weight back (and usually more) within five years. Many of us have heard a rendition of this statistic. So why are more people dieting than ever before?? So glad you asked!!! ;)

Some of the reasons:

1) We’re bombarded with images of “perfect” bodies—physiques unattainable to most of us, including the models and celebrities depicted.
2) The diet industry invests millions of dollars into research on consumer palatability. (What will make us buy, and keep buying, particular plans and products?)
3) We live in an instant gratification society. We want results and want them NOW.
4) Food is more available and flavorful than ever before. Most low-nutrient foods are cheap. And many of us are sedentary. Overeating and inactivity lead to weight gain, which leads to dieting, which leads to MORE weight gain…
6) Diets seem exciting, and a balanced diet paired with exercise, bo-ring.
7) Dieting can seem like a solution not only to our weight problems, but ALL of our problems. (“I’d be happy/beautiful/successful if I just lose __ pounds…”)
8) Many diets are disguised as “lifestyle plans.” So even when we know the risks and failure rate of DIETS, we can be led astray.

Dieting contributes depression, stress, binge eating, a slowed metabolism, weight gain, obesity, nutrient deficiencies, bone loss, memory loss, insomnia, low self esteem, heart problems and more. Why is dieting so harmful? Yet another GREAT question. ;)

Some of the reasons:

1) Dieting forces the body into starvation mode—a state in which calories—units of energy reaped from food—are stored.
2) Our bodies are designed to run and thrive on sufficient amounts of calories and nutrients. This is why eating too few carbohydrates, our body and brain’s main energy source, causes fatigue, depression, constipation and food cravings. Extremely low-fat diets interfere with brain function, appetite control, nutrient absorption and even hair health. (Dietary supplements, while useful in some cases, are not suitable replacements.)
3) Food and eating are more than nutrition. What would holidays, weddings and other celebrations be without food? Humans are hardwired to enjoy food. Mess around with that and the results aren’t pretty. Depression, for example, befalls most people who lose normal eating capabilities. (Dieting = not eating normally.) Diets are also tough to maintain in social, family and work settings.
4) We aren’t clones. Our taste preferences, personalities, genes, activity level and overall health play important roles in our food choices and eating habits. Most diet plans run on the one-size-fits-all philosophy, which is best limited to stretchy gloves.

I don’t know about you, but I find all of this depressing…

Onto the GOOD stuff!

EAT WELL, STAY WELL STRATEGIES:
(Notice I didn’t say, ‘Weight Loss Strategies.’ Unless you have a genetic condition, such as Prader Willi Syndrome, eating well—mostly healthy foods, not too much and not too little—promotes a healthy body weight and countless other benefits.)

If ‘calorie’ seems like a cuss word and dieting’s become your norm, it’s time to shift gears… Try one or numerous of the following – whichever resonates with you.

1. EAT MORE healthy food. Focusing on what you “shouldn’t” eat is a mainstay of many diets. It’s also one reason they fail. Instead, stock up on healthy foods you enjoy. Seek tasty ways to prepare fruits, vegetables, fish, legumes and whole grains. Check out health food restaurants and grocery stores. Dine with health-minded friends. And begin substituting low-nutrient foods with nutritious. Swap white bread out for 100 percent whole grain bread, for example, and fatty red meat for leaner cuts, legumes or fish.

2. Color your plates. At each meal, load half of your plate or bowl up with colorful produce. Or incorporate fruits and vegetables into conventional dishes, like pastas, soups, pizzas and baked goods. Diets rich in fruits and vegetables promote positive weight control, digestive health and cardiovascular health and a reduced risk for heart attack, stroke, certain forms of cancer and chronic disease. For overall health, the American Dietetic Association suggests aiming for at least 2 cups of fruit an 2.5 cups of veggies per day.

3. Aim for 80/20. Perfect eating doesn’t exist. Eating primarily (80 – 90%) nutritious fare and cutting yourself some slack (10 – 20%) guards against feelings of deprivation and the risk of going off the dietary deep end once your “perfect” eating falls to the wayside. Registered dietitian Robyn Goldberg recommends eating “play foods” daily—foods consumed for pleasure purposes only.

4. Take baby steps. Small, gradual changes are generally the most effective when it comes to reaching and maintaining wellness. Take an inventory of your eating habits. What areas could use improvements? If you currently eat fast food three times per week, cut back to once per week. If you eat less than one serving of whole grains per day—Americans’ overall average—bump it up to two per day. If you avoid your favorite snacks or desserts like the plague only to overeat them later, start eating a single portion daily.

5. Dig deeper. Food and weight concerns often symptomize deeper issues. If you feel desperate to change your weight or appearance, ask yourself why. (Are you happy with your work life? Social life? Relationships?) Addressing the answers may be all you need to jumpstart healthy changes. To read one couple’s weight control success story, check out my article at Bartlett’s Health: The Fulfillment Diet: Pursuing Passion FIRST.

6. Eat mindfully. Remember those mindful driving tips from last week? Similar principles can enhance your dietary lifestyle. Mindful eating is associated with improved appetite and weight control and a low risk for depression, digestive problems and obesity. To invite mindfulness to your meals, dine in a pleasurable atmosphere, free of distraction (no phone, computer or TV). Eat slowly, observing the colors, texture, flavors and aromas of your food and how you feel physically and emotionally. For more pointers, visit The Center for Mindful Eating.

***Don’t be afraid to seek support from a qualified professional, particularly if you have a long history of dieting, weight problems or disordered eating.***

Whew! That was a mouthful. ;) And a lot to fit into one post. I want to support you all in any way I can, so please speak up! Post your questions, concerns and related topic requests in the comments. If you’re already wellness/nutrition-savvy, what strategies have I missed? Which would you like to learn more about?

Writers’ Gains from Whole Grains

White bread and noodles and chips, OH MY!

Don’t worry. I’m not suggesting that you fear these foods as Dorothy feared wild animals. But upping the ante in your grains department can benefit far more than your cholesterol and blood pressure levels, particularly if you’re a writer.

(Psst! A healthy food pyramid does not look like this.)

Most of us have read a book or watched a movie that lacked substance, right? A predictable plot, blase characters or a seemingly pointless climax or resolution can leave us feeling cheated, wanting for more, hungry for it. (God forbid we ever write one!)

Think of refined grains like disappointing stories. The most nutritious parts have been stripped away, leaving us with something grain-like. They may look or taste good, but what do they provide? “Empty calories”—calories (units of energy reaped from food) that lack nutritional substance, i.e., vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, protein and fiber.

While whole grains promote positive energy levels, brain function and appetite control, refined grains leave us wanting for more. They can offset our blood sugar levels, zap our energy and leave less room in our diets for nutritious fare, making way for nutrient deficiencies.

Whole grains provide significant amounts of B-vitamins, zinc, magnesium, iron, vitamin E and copper. Deficiencies of any one of these nutrients can cause foggy thinking, poor memory, low moods and a slew of other health problems. And Americans as a whole consume less one-third of the minimum daily amount recommended by theU.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (Perhaps that means we’re all foggy. Hmm…)

Here’s the good news: Swapping refined grains out for whole grains takes care of these dilemmas. And it’s not as difficult as it may sound.

In a study published in the “Journal of Nutrition” in Aug. 2009, researchers analyzed the effects of a nutritious diet, rich in whole grains, on the brain function of 3,634 adults age 65 or younger. A strong, positive link was found between nutritious diets and sharp cognitive abilities.

What does all of this mean for us writing-folk? Eating primarily whole grains can help ensure sharp thinking, creativity and revision skills.

Tips to get you started:

  • Most adults need at least three 1-oz servings of whole grains per day for general health. Although math isn’t my strong suit, it seems pretty obvious that one or more servings with each meal cuts it. At breakfast, have whole grain bread or cereal. For lunch, a sandwich on whole grain bread. With dinner, enjoy brown rice or whole wheat spaghetti. Badda bing! Three-plus servings.
  • Look for “100 percent whole grain” labels on prepared breads, pasta, crackers, cereals and rice dishes. If the word “whole” is first on the ingredients list, you’re likely on the right track.
  • Seek substitutes. What’s your favorite refined food? Brownies? Cookies? Chips? All of these foods are available in whole grain form. I make my own whole grain cookies and chips, but I’m on the far end of foodie-ism. If you enjoy baking, use stoneground whole wheat or white whole wheat flour instead of white or add oats in place of half of the flour.
  • Don’t go crazy with it. Not every grain that passes your lips must be whole. The DGA recommends that at least half of your grains derive from whole sources. More is better, but not necessary.
Tasty Ways to Try ‘Em
  • PBJ on 100 percent whole grain bread
  • Scrambled egg and veggies on a whole wheat English muffin
  • Old-fashioned oatmeal topped with fresh berries and yogurt
  • Homemade oatmeal raisin (or “craisin”) cookies
  • Bean burritos served in whole grain tortillas
  • Brown rice pudding…YUM!
  • Whole wheat pasta topped with tomato sauce and seasoned, diced tomatoes
  • Grilled fish, meat or tofu served on brown rice and veggie pilaf
  • Scrambled eggs or tofu, with quinoa mixed in
  • Popcorn seasoned with natural herbs or spices
What about you? Have you noticed the influence whole or refined grains have on your writing capabilities? Any questions? I have years of work and study as a certified nutritionist under my belt — no pun intended. Feel free to put it to use!
As a reminder, one lucky commenter will win a $15 Amazon.com gift card tomorrow. :)
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