All of us are profoundly concerned with what constitutes a healthy diet. Unfortunately, many of our long-held beliefs about nutrition are actually myths, refuted by scientific studies.
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), a healthy eating plan emphasizes ample fruits and vegetables, low-fat or fat-free milk products, and whole grains. Proteins should include lean meats and poultry, seafood, eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt, and added sugars should be limited.
“An eating plan that helps manage your weight includes a variety of healthy foods. Add an array of colors to your plate and think of it as eating the rainbow,” writes the CDC. “Dark, leafy greens, oranges, and tomatoes—even fresh herbs—are loaded with vitamins, fiber, and minerals.”
Much of this advice seems like common knowledge by now. But the field of nutrition is rapidly evolving. New research has disabused us of some of our previous perceptions, and these days, counter-intuitive stances—such as the benefits of consuming whole compared with reduced dairy—are emerging.
The following are several common food myths that have been debunked by the evidence.
Myth #1: Whole milk is bad for you
In recent years, saturated fats have gotten a bum rap. Epidemiological research published in the British Medical Journal, however, points to the health benefits of whole vs reduced-fat milks in terms of the cardiovascular risk profile. In the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study, researchers followed 147,812 adults for a median of 9.1 years to determine the link between dairy intake and risk profile, hypertension, and diabetes. Their results were eye-opening. Previous studies had shown that the increased intake of dairy was linked to a lower chance of developing diabetes, a major risk for cardiovascular diseases. In the current study, however, whole-fat dairy—and not reduced fat—was associated with lower prevalence of risk markers, as well as a lower incidence of hypertension and diabetes. Possible pathways for metabolic benefits of dairy include multiple factors, including inflammation. Other components produced through yogurt or cheese fermentation improve insulin sensitivity, favorably reducing risk of developing diabetes. The authors suggested that their findings on whole-fat dairy should be evaluated in large randomized trials.
Myth #2: Eggs are unhealthy
Eggs are chock-full of essential nutrients. Many people believe, however, that because of their high cholesterol content, eggs are unhealthy. Nevertheless, it remains to be elucidated the exact impact that the different components of eggs have on heart health, with recent research indicating that some egg components may increase the risk of heart disease while others likely protect against it.
According to the authors of a review published in Cholesterol, current research has tended to show that the consumption of eggs is not a risk factor of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in healthy people. “However, people who are at high risk of CVD such as those with diabetes or hypertension need to have caution with dietary cholesterol intake, especially egg intake. Also, some people seem to be more sensitive to dietary cholesterol whose blood cholesterol level is highly correlated to dietary intake,” the authors wrote. “Therefore, even though the recommendation of restricting cholesterol and egg consumption in AHA (American Heart Association) has been eliminated, we still need to have caution with them based on the health status of people.”
Myth #3: Avoid midnight snacking
A common misconception is that nobody should eat after midnight for fear of weight gain and so forth. But it depends on what is driving you to snack and what you are eating. According to MIT Medical, if you find yourself wanting to snack after midnight, try evaluating your hunger using the acronym HALT.
- Are you eating out of Habit?
- Are you feeling Anxious, Angry, or overwhelmed?
- Are you feeling depressed or Lonely?
- Are you feeling Tired?
If you answer “yes” to any of these screening questions, you may want to lay off midnight snacking and find a way to address what’s really driving you to eat in the wee hours. Keep in mind that many late-night eating options are unhealthy, such as food from the vending machine, fast food, or gas-station fare. Instead, plan out your late-night eating and look at this option as a meal rather than snack. Foods high in protein are good choices, such as half a turkey or tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread. Other good options include whole-grain cereal, low-fat cottage cheese, and nuts.
But one possible disadvantage: Late-night snacking can adversely affect the quality of your slumber.
Myth #4: Protein supplements are good for you
In recent years, protein supplements have become popular, especially among athletes who wish to enhance muscle and fitness. Although the scientific community generally recommends moderate protein intake, these levels may be inadequate for athletes, the elderly, or in those who wish to maintain or reduce weight, according to the authors of a review published in Nutrients.
As for protein supplements, they may carry certain risks, according to the study authors. “When a high-protein diet is recommended, special attention should be paid to the origin of these proteins and the overall quality of the food,” the authors wrote. “The consumption of ultra processed foods has been associated with the higher prevalence of several diseases, possibly due to high content of processed vegetable fats, sugars, salt and artificial sweeteners among other components.” Ingredients present in protein and amino acid supplements may induce adverse effects over the long run, and casual or recreational exercisers might be more susceptible to these than athletes,“ they noted. Rather than adding these supplements to ordinary diets, the authors suggest that “protein should be preferably received from whole foods, such as fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes, and cereals, along with fibers and other food components supporting the well-being of both the host and their gut microbiota. (microbes)”
So how much protein do you really need? The actual amount of dietary protein your body requires depends on a number of factors, including your size, age, sex, activity level, and health status. In the U.S., the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. To determine your recommended grams of protein in pounds, multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36. This comes to roughly 54 grams (approximately 2 oz) of protein a day for someone who weighs 150 pounds, and about 72 grams (approximately 2.7 oz) for a 200-pound person.
In addition to animal sources, dietary protein is found in plants like beans, nuts/seeds, and whole grains. Most Americans regularly consume more than this recommended amount of protein.
Myth #5: Avoid snacks
Many people think that snacks are no good for those trying to maintain or lose weight. Fortunately, this is not the case, according to the US National Library of Medicine.
“They can provide energy in the middle of the day, especially when you exercise. A healthy snack between meals can also decrease your hunger and keep you from overeating at meal time,” they wrote. “There are many snacks to choose from, and certainly not all snacks are healthy or will help you manage your weight. Try to limit the unhealthy snacks you bring into the house. If they are not available, you are more likely to make healthy choices.”
When snacking, watch out for serving size, and select options that are high in fiber, high in water, low in fat, and low in sugar. Good choices include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain options, and lower-fat dairy. Finally, one trick to remaining full involves pairing a protein with a carbohydrate, such as an apple with peanut butter, or celery with hummus.
Don’t get fooled by various circulating dietary myths. “In the present-day digital world, it is challenging to function comprehensively, given our increasing reliance on the internet, which has touched every aspect of our lives, including healthcare. We are constantly inundated by false information, including ‘medical’ information—purposefully deployed—that spreads so quickly and persuades so effectively,” wrote the authors of an opinion piece published in Family Medicine and Community Health. “Some of this online health misinformation includes interactive websites, internet-based games, online health press rooms, disease symptoms simulations, opinion polls, Twitter feeds, and online consultations with so-called authorities,” they added.
So, there’s an increasing need to check and evaluate data sources, particularly for health and disease topics. Nutrition is a tricky topic in particular, with seemingly intuitive advice often apocryphal.
Myth #6: Avoid tasty or ‘unhealthy’ foods
A diet with generous portions of fruits and veggies is ideal, but does that mean that ice cream, nachos, and other tasty treats are always off limits? Heck no! Small amounts of high-calorie foods make life enjoyable and can be part of a weight-loss journey. But just remember to burn off more calories than you consume. Current general Dietary Guidelines provide a breakdown of calorie recommendations based on age, sex, and activity level (sedentary, moderately active, and active). Keep in mind that even those afforded the highest calorie intakes—active boys aged 16-18 years—are limited to 3,200 calories daily.
Myth #7: Eliminating gluten is healthier
In people without celiac disease, eliminating dietary gluten isn’t helpful and could be detrimental. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye grains, and remember that proteins are healthy. If you don’t have these health problems but avoid gluten anyway, you may not get the vitamins, fiber, and minerals you need. A gluten-free diet is not a weight-loss diet and is not intended to help you lose weight..
Myth #8: Vegetarian diets are better than omnivorous diets
Per the NIH, research has shown that avoiding meat, poultry, and seafood can lower the risk of heart disease, obesity, and hypertension. Moreover, vegetarians tend to consume fewer calories and less fat, as well as take in more fiber, potassium, and vitamin C. All this is good, but keep in mind that plenty of unhealthy foods are also vegetarian—including some types of potato chips and milk chocolate. And eating lots of junk food is always unhealthy! Although meat eaters can maintain a healthy diet, according to Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. “Strong evidence from research trials has shown that eating patterns that include lower intake of meats as well as processed meats and processed poultry are associated with reduced risk of CVD in adults. Moderate evidence indicates that these eating patterns are associated with reduced risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer in adults,” they wrote. However, “much of this research on eating patterns has grouped together all meats and poultry, regardless of fat content or processing, though some evidence has identified lean meats and lean poultry in healthy eating patterns. In separate analyses, “studies have demonstrated that lean meats and lean poultry can contribute important nutrients within limits for sodium, calories from saturated fats, and added sugars, when consumed in recommended amounts in healthy eating patterns,” the authors advised.
Myth #9: Bread, rice, and pasta are off limits if you want to lose weight
The key to dealing with grains is to consume whole-grain items in the place of refined-grain products: The USDA recommends that whole grains constitute half of a person’s grain intake. The USDA also offers these following meal-time tips:
- Eat brown rice instead of white rice and whole wheat bread instead of white bread.
- Use whole grains like barley in mixed dishes like vegetable soup or stews and bulgur wheat in casseroles
- Cut up to half the flour used in muffins, pancakes, and other baked goods with oat flour or whole-wheat flour
- Substitute croutons in salad or crackers in soup with ready-to-eat, whole-grain cereal.
- When making meatloaf, use whole-grain crackers or bread crumbs
Myth 10: Healthy eating is expensive
Yes, eating healthy can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be if you know how to shop and cook. Planning ahead can make a big difference in your food budget (and cut food waste dramatically). Deciding what you want to have on hand for the week’s meals allows you to buy only what you need, take advantage of deals, and avoid using fast food for lunches or as a last-minute answer to the “what’s for dinner tonight” question. Be sure to check your pantry, fridge, and freezer so you can build meals around things you have and avoid duplicating ingredients you already own. If it works for you, cook extra and reheat, re-purpose, or freeze leftovers for another meal (or two). An estimated 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is wasted every year, and food is the single largest component of U.S. landfills. Besides the environmental impact, wasted food is wasted money. So here are a few suggestions:
Shop Smart. There are many ways to keep costs down when shopping. A little planning and minimal effort add up to big savings. Look for sales and store brands: These are often the less expensive option and are generally good quality.
Reduce food waste: When buying perishable foods, have a plan to freeze what you can’t use within a few days of purchase. Look for different stages of ripeness when buying fresh produce (those unripe bananas or avocados will be ready to eat when you’ve finished the ripe ones).
Bulk up: Buying in bulk is a great money saver, as long as it doesn’t lead to waste. Focus on minimally processed and unprocessed items with a long shelf life (like dried beans, or reduced-sodium canned tomatoes, beans, or seafood) along with frozen vegetables, fruits, seafood, poultry, and unprocessed meats.
Favor frozen produce: Frozen vegetables and fruits are at least as nutritious as fresh and can last for up to a year. They are also a great time-saver because they are already washed and cut. Many can be thrown into dishes like stir-fries, soups, and smoothies without even thawing first.
Limit specialty foods: You don’t need fancy foods to eat healthy: Generally there is little need for organic and gluten free foods (see below). Make meats the side: Animal proteins (including beef, pork, poultry, and seafood) are often among the more expensive items we buy. When planning meals, think of these as a side dish, and make foods like veggies, beans, fruits, and whole grains (along with healthy oils and dairy) the main event.
Avoid prepared meals: Meals that are already prepared for you, whether in the freezer or at the deli counter, are often much more expensive than buying the individual ingredients. Prepared meals can be more convenient, but also more costly (and salty).
Cook. Some people are not comfortable cooking from scratch, and some do not feel they have the time, but learning some basic skills and planning ways to fit some simple, home-cooked meals into your schedule is great for your health and your wallet. Meals from restaurants, cafeterias, or food trucks, as not as good a deal as they can seem, are almost always much more expensive (and less healthful) than buying and preparing food.
MYTH 11: Organic foods are more nutritious:
They are not superior for health reasons. Organic processed foods are still processed foods, and organic produce is generally similar in terms of nutrients to conventional foods. Rinse or scrub all fresh commercial produce well before eating
MYTH 12: GLUTEN-FREE FOODS ARE HEALTHIER
Gluten free foods are essential for those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, but they are not more nutritious (and diets based on processed gluten-free foods—as opposed to whole foods—can actually be less nutritious). Only a tiny proportion of our population is afflicted with the maladies noted above.
I hope these tips noted above will provide the reader with a pathway to better health and happiness (unless you are irrevocally addicted to junk foods and the like!