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?