Nutrition Myths

Nutritional research has come a long way in the last few years. Despite this, however, a lot of people still give credence to outdated theories and ideas. For example, that fat is bad for you, eating eggs raises cholesterol and that gluten should be avoided.

Many of these have come about due to simple misconceptions. Others are due to a deliberate policy of misinformation by food manufacturers. Then there’s the Internet – the first port of call for many people when they decide to alter their diet. Unfortunately, a lot of what they read here is pure myth.

So we’ll take a look at the most common of these theories and see what’s true and what’s not. In no particular order, we have:

Fresh fruit & vegetables are healthier than frozen
Not necessarily – fresh fruit and vegetables can be less healthy. This is because of a process known as respiration, whereby all fruits and vegetables continue to breathe after being harvested. This breaks down their fat, carbohydrate and protein content, which leads to loss of both flavor and nutrients. It also causes their sugar levels to rise.

However, when they are frozen, the respiration process stops and the sugar and nutrients are preserved at the existing level – sugar low, nutrients high. So, if they are eaten immediately after having been harvested, they are definitely healthier. However, the longer they are left before being eaten, the less healthier they become. In this case, freezing them is the healthier option.

Gluten-free diets are healthier
No, they’re not. Assuming you don’t have an intolerance to gluten, or have Coeliac disease, there is absolutely no reason to remove gluten from your diet. Gluten is found in wheat, barley and rye, which means it’s in many carbohydrate-based foods such as biscuits, pies, cakes and pastries. These are all foods we shouldn’t be eating anyway, but the presence of gluten is not the reason.

Saturated fat is bad for you
Most health authorities are still making this claim with regard to heart disease. However, recent studies have demonstrated that it’s not true at all. In fact, not only is saturated fat actually good for us, it is absolutely essential. Consider this simple fact – human breast milk is 54 percent saturated fat. Would nature give babies saturated fat if it was bad for them? It is only bad when eaten in excessive quantities – something that applies to all foods!

The studies show that it’s actually the trans-fats made from vegetable oils, excessive carbohydrate intake, and sedentary lifestyles – all of which cause obesity and high blood pressure – that are really behind the heart disease epidemic.

Egg yolks are bad for you
Eggs have been castigated for years because of the high level of cholesterol and saturated fat in the yolks. However, what the health agencies who propagate this nonsense don’t tell you (or perhaps aren’t even aware of) is that cholesterol is extremely beneficial to our health.

So much so, in fact, the liver actually makes it as very few people get enough through their diet. The more cholesterol we eat, the less has to be made by the liver, and vice versa. In other words, the body always keeps its cholesterol level in balance.

A very large recent study found no association between egg consumption and heart disease or stroke. Other, earlier, studies have reached the same conclusion. Quite clearly, the cholesterol and saturated fat content of eggs isn’t an issue.

Carbohydrates are bad for us
This one has been around for a while now and is due to the popularity of low-carbohydrate diets such as the Atkins. The ‘carbs are bad’ theory from Dr Atkins and co has led to many people being confused about this foodstuff and its role in our health.

The answer is yes and no. It all depends on the type, quality and quantity of carbohydrate being eaten. Carbohydrates that are highly processed, such as those used in biscuits, cereals, breads, cakes, pasta, crackers and so on, have had most, if not all, of the nutrients refined out of them. These foods also have a very high sugar content, which is bad for people as it makes them put on excessive amounts of weight with the all attendant health issues this brings.

The carbohydrates that are good for us are the ones that have either not been processed at all, or just minimally. These do contain nutrients and include all vegetables (particularly root), fruit, nuts, seeds and legumes.

Salt is bad for us
Not only is salt supposed to be bad for us in general, it can also contribute to cardiovascular disease apparently. However, years of scientific research has failed to show any evidence of this.

Salt is actually an essential nutrient – we simply cannot live without it. A diet too low in salt can cause a dangerous condition known as hyponatremia – when the level of sodium in the blood is abnormally low.

There are two types of salt – natural salt as found in lakes and the seas, and table salt – highly processed and so far less healthy. The latter is created by super-heating natural salt, the act of which destroys virtually all its nutrients. The salt is then bleached and cleaned with a chemical solution to make it pure white. Finally, compounds, such as moisture absorbents and anti-caking agents, are added to make it easy to sprinkle and pour.

While refined table salt in sensible quantities won’t cause a stroke or heart attack, neither does it do us any good due to its lack of nutrients. Natural salt, however, is very good for us.

A calorie is a calorie is a calorie
It’s not, far from it actually. The body stores and uses calories in various ways that are dependant on the nutrients in the food. As an example, lets compare eating oats and eating fish. Oats contain a type of starch known as ‘resistant starch’, which is resistant to digestion. Fish, however, doesn’t. As a result, the body is unable to absorb and use as many calories from the oats as it can from the fish.

It’s a similar story with high-protein foods like poultry. Protein is a high-thermogenic food which requires an expenditure of energy to digest, absorb and transport its nutrients to the body’s cells. Carbohydrates and fats, on the other hand, are low-thermogenic foods that don’t require energy to be used.

Everything else being equal, calories from fats and carbohydrates will make you gain more weight than an equivalent amount of calories from protein.

Brown bread is better than white bread
This one actually is not a myth, assuming you can find some that is actually made with whole grain! Unfortunately, much of the brown bread sold is simply white bread that has been colored with caramel or molasses to give the appearance of a brown loaf. Nutritionally, it will be no better.

To ensure you don’t fall for this con, check the loaf’s packaging for the words ‘whole grain’ or ‘100% whole wheat’. Also, the first ingredient listed should be a grain of some type, i.e. oats wheat, rye, barley, etc. If it is, you have the genuine article and it will indeed be healthier.

Dairy produce is unhealthy
Another myth perpetuated by the ‘saturated fat is bad for you’ brigade. Dairy products, such as cheese and butter, do contain high levels of saturated fat but it has now been established that they contain a type called omega-3 that is actually very good for us.

Their fat content apart, dairy products are also full of essential nutrients, such as protein, zinc, B vitamins and calcium. Furthermore, weight-loss diets that include dairy produce have been shown to be more effective than diets that omit them.

Organic produce is more nutritious
This one is true but only to a degree. The fact is, the nutritional difference between organically grown and conventionally grown produce is not that great. For most people, it is not enough to justify the expense of organic food. That said, for people who take their health seriously, it is, although maybe only just.

Another consideration is that organic food is much less likely to be polluted with pesticides and so may be worth the extra expense for this reason alone.

We need to drink eight glasses of water a day
Eight glasses is a lot of water and, together with our water intake from the food we eat and other liquids, is far more than the average person needs. When we need water, our bodies will tell us – we’ll suddenly be thirsty. It’s as simple as that.

This is a myth propagated by the bottled water industry. When you read this claim, you’re reading a marketing stratagem – take no notice.

Eating at night makes us put on weight
Eating at night has long been associated with weight gain. However, this is complete rubbish. What makes us put on weight is eating more calories than we actually use.

It doesn’t matter what time of day we eat. It is what and how much we eat, and how much physical activity we do during the day, that determines whether we gain, lose or maintain weight.

Red wine is good for us
There is no question about this – red wine is indeed good for us as it has a high content of antioxidants, such as resveratrol. These fight free radicals (rogue cells that can cause enormous damage) and so reduce the risk of conditions like cancer and heart disease. What’s not to like then?

Well, maybe the fact that red wine is, like all alcohol, actually a neurotoxin – a poison. It may be that the benefits of drinking small amounts (one small glass daily is the suggested limit) outweigh the poisonous effects on the brain. On the other hand, they may not!

As these benefits can also be had by simply eating less and exercising more, why take the risk? If the thought of not drinking alcohol at all bothers you, remember why you’re reading this article!

Eat many small meals throughout the day
The theory behind this claim is that by eating more frequently than normal but eating less when we do, our metabolism will remain high. This stops us getting hungry, and also controls our blood sugar level. As a result, we eat less overall and so lose weight.

It’s a nice theory but unfortunately it doesn’t work in practice. It might raise our metabolism slightly but it’s the amount of food eaten that controls hunger levels, not the number of meals. In fact, research has shown that eating many small meals a day actually makes people want to eat more – not less.

It should also be pointed out that it is unnatural for our bodies to be constantly in the fed state. In years gone by, it was the norm to go without food for long periods of time, i.e. fast. Research has shown that this is actually good for us.

Low-fat foods are healthy
For a long time now, the mantra has been that people concerned about their weight, or eating for a healthy heart, should eat low-fat foods. As a result, sales of high-fat foods, such as dairy produce, have dropped. To counter this, the manufacturers have removed much of the saturated fat from their products in an attempt to make them appear healthier. However, they have chosen to replace the saturated fat with hydrogenated oils, otherwise known as trans-fats.

Furthermore, in order to make this supposedly low-fat food palatable (most of a food’s flavor is in the saturated fat), they have also had to add large amounts of sugar. So, containing unhealthy trans-fats, refined carbohydrates and sugar as they do, these ‘low in saturated fat’ foods can actually be harmful for us rather than good.

Omega-6 fat is bad for us
Omega-6 fat is a polyunsaturated fat – one of a number of fatty acids found in certain foods and virtually all vegetable oils.

As to whether it is bad for you, the answer is both yes and no. Omega-6 fat actually provides a range of  benefits which include keeping blood pressure low, reducing the risk of heart disease, fighting inflammation, stimulating skin and hair growth, maintaining bone health and many others. It is, in fact, essential for good health.

The problems come when it is taken in excess, as it is in most western countries due to it’s prevalence in processed foods. All of a sudden, a fat that can be really good for us becomes the instigator of a number of health issues. These include heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and many more.

The polyunsaturated fat most people should be eating a lot more of is omega-3. The ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats is 1:4, but in the typical western diet it is between 1:20 and 1:50. To achieve this ratio, people need to reduce their consumption of grain-based processed foods and eat more fish, nuts and seeds, all of which are high in omega-3 fats.

Vegetarian diets are healthier
A vegetarian (vegan) diet consists of nothing but plants and foods made from plants. Vegans don’t eat anything that comes from animals. The problem with this is that human beings are omnivores – we are designed to function at our best when eating plants and meat. A lot of important nutrients are omitted in a vegetarian diet. Vitamin B12 is one example – others are protein, vitamin D, iron, zinc and calcium.

There are no studies that show a vegan diet to be healthier than diets that include meat. If a person on a vegan diet is healthy, it’s more likely to be because they are health-conscious generally, i.e. they exercise, don’t smoke or drink, etc. Not eating meat has nothing to do with it.

The lack of animal nutrients (vitamin B12 and protein in particular) actually makes the vegan diet less healthy. For children, it can be positively dangerous.

Sugar should be avoided
Another word for sugar is energy. And as we all need energy to function, it follows that it can’t be bad for us. And indeed, in small amounts, it isn’t. Sugar only becomes a problem when we eat too much of it – as most of us do! This is because our livers can only process a small amount, currently thought to be about six teaspoons a day. Any more is converted into fat.

The problem is exacerbated when we eat refined sugar, such as white table sugar. With nothing to slow its absorption, the liver can be overwhelmed.

When we eat sugar in its natural form – in a piece of fruit for example – we are also eating fiber, minerals and vitamins – these reduce the rate at which the sugar is absorbed in the body, and so ease the load on the liver. Plus, the fiber is satiating and so stops us eating too much of the fruit and, hence, sugar.

A related issue is that sugar can be addictive. A large dose of refined sugar gives an instant high, which is soon followed by a low – this creates an urge to eat more sugar. Do it too many times and you can end up being addicted to the stuff.

So remember, as long as you restrict your intake to no more than about six teaspoons a day, eating sugar – be it natural or refined – won’t cause you any problems.

Bottom Line
People should not rely on unregulated sources, such as gossip, the Internet and social media, when making important decisions on what, and what not, to eat. They can end up doing themselves more harm than good. Making sure we eat the right foods is far too important to be left to chance in this way.

If in any doubt, consult a healthcare professional. Leave the guesswork and assumptions to those gullible enough to listen to them.

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