with Director of Nutrition Education, Geri Brewster
Why do nutrition myths exist? Why is so much information flawed, misinterpreted, or flat-out false?
Some reasons relate to who is putting the nutrition information out there. Many writers or bloggers do not have relevant educational and professional backgrounds. They can be motivated by the need for a catchy message to get likes, build web traffic, and/or stand to profit from a diet program or food product.
Other reasons relate to the messages themselves and how we share them. The core elements of evidence-based nutrition are not appealing or seductive; for example, “eat your fruits and vegetables” is well-documented to improve health, but such a statement may lead to a myth about the “power” of eating a certain vegetable, as in the promotion of celery juice.
Like in all sciences, we continually learn more about nutrition through research. There is still a lot we don’t know, but we do know that a “diet rich in vegetables and fruits can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent some types of cancer, lower risk of eye and digestive problems, and have a positive effect upon blood sugar, which can help keep appetite in check” (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health).
Lastly, what we choose to put on our plates is rarely simple.
How do we choose what to eat?
What we choose to eat is complex. Factors that affect what we eat include our tastes and preferences, our family’s tastes and preferences, cultural traditions, budgets, values, accessibility, convenience, time, social pressures, and yes, nutrition myths.
There is no single way of eating that works for everyone, because we are navigating all of these factors when we choose what to eat. Then, we need to layer on our own medical-nutritional profile and genetic predispositions along with all the habits that are created from the aforementioned factors. Phew! That’s a lot to take into consideration!
Some nutrition myths persist because of how some people draw on their personal experiences and the experiences of those around them. For example, if my friends and I try a diet and it works for all of us, then our human bias might lead us to believe that this diet works for everyone. We might want to share it on our Instagram pages in an attempt to help other people. While well-intentioned, this is a flawed way of interpreting nutrition science and sharing advice.
There are many reasons why we choose what to eat. However, we should leave nutrition myths out of this decision. Let’s look to credentialed health professionals to separate myths from facts.
Myth: Eating fat makes you fat.
Fact: Quality of fat is more important than quantity.
Weight gain is complex and cannot be attributed to just one food or food group. In general, weight gain will result when we consume calories in excess of what our body needs to maintain body weight. However, there are other factors that affect body weight.
A diet for optimal health should include fat, but minimize saturated fats. “After decades of focus on low-fat diets, many consumers, food manufacturers, and restaurateurs remain confused about the role of dietary fats on disease risk and sources of healthy fats” (Lui et al). However, research has demonstrated that substituting refined carbs for fats has only exacerbated weight gain and obesity trends.
Fats are critical for optimal health and provide essential fatty acids like Omega-3s as well as fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, and E. In particular, unsaturated fats from plant sources have been shown to help reduce risk for cardiovascular and related chronic diseases.
So there’s no need to fear fat, just be sure to limit saturated fat from animal products and minimize or avoid trans-fats from highly processed foods altogether. Focus on good quality fats found in nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and their oils.
Myth: Carbohydrates cause weight gain.
Fact: No one nutrient, food, or food group causes weight gain.
Just like fat, quality is more important than quantity.
A diet for optimal health includes many foods with carbohydrates and, just like with fats, consider the quality. Choose carbohydrates that include fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Complex carbohydrates with fiber will digest and absorb more slowly than simple carbohydrates, which leads to less impact on blood sugar levels and improved insulin sensitivity.
Examples of high-quality carbohydrates include whole grains, fruit, vegetables, beans, and lentils.
Myth: Foods with gluten are unhealthy.
Fact: Only some people need to have a gluten-free diet.
Gluten is a group of proteins found in cereal grains such as wheat, barley, spelt and rye. People who are diagnosed by a doctor with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity should avoid foods with gluten. Celiac Disease is an autoimmune condition in which eating gluten results in damage to the small intestine. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is an intolerance to gluten that results in similar symptoms to Celiac Disease but is not diagnosed as Celiac Disease.
With both conditions, a gluten-free diet will help manage symptoms. There are also individuals with allergies to wheat and or gluten that should avoid either or both. Allergies to wheat and gluten are different from Celiac Disease. Because wheat and other gluten containing grains contain fermentable carbohydrates, some individuals with GI inflammation may be recommended to follow a low FODMAPs (fermentable carbohydrates) diet which would exclude them. So, while there may be many different reasons for individuals to avoid gluten containing grains, for others without these conditions, consuming clean, whole grain gluten containing products as part of a well rounded diet can be part of an overall healthy diet.
Emphasize foods in your diet that offer more nutrition and fiber, such as whole grains over refined grains. Whole grains with gluten include wheat, barley, and farro, and those naturally gluten-free include quinoa, oats, buckwheat, corn and brown rice.
Myth: A vegetarian or vegan diet does not provide enough protein.
Fact: Many vegetarian foods have protein.
Vegetarians and vegans can meet protein needs through careful planning.
There are many types of vegetarianism. Some vegetarians eat eggs, dairy and/or fish. Vegans choose all plant floods, excluding eggs, dairy and/or fish. Fish and plant eaters are often referred to as pescatarians. Vegans may need supplemental sources of iron, iodine and B12.
Plant food sources of protein include beans, lentils, soy products (tofu, edamame, tempeh), nuts, and seeds. Whole grains and vegetables also have protein, although they typically aren’t considered a high source of protein or a protein food.
Vegetarians should choose sources of protein at each meal and snack. Consult your doctor, nutritionist, or registered dietitian about your protein needs.
Myth: Snacking is unhealthy.
Fact: Snacking can be part of healthy eating, even when weight loss is a goal.
Depending on your needs and meal size and composition, a meal with carbohydrates, protein, and fat will keep you full for an average of 3-4 hours. In general, most people have a greater time window than 3-4 hours in between meals.
Snacking can help curb hunger while providing fuel to have energy throughout the day. Choose a balanced snack with both protein and a fruit or vegetable. Examples include peanut butter and apple slices, a hard-boiled egg and berries, roasted edamame and carrot sticks, or hummus and celery sticks.
A snack with just carbohydrates, like pretzels, will be digested quickly. This may result in the quick return of hunger and may potentially lead to overeating at the next meal or snack. A balanced snack with protein, carbohydrates, and fiber are digested more slowly, keeping us full for longer.
Another reason to include fruits and veggies in snacks is because many people may have trouble fitting them into mealtime. Snacks are an easy way to have an additional serving of fruits and veggies, plus their high-fiber content helps increase your sense of fullness and satiety and they are full of healthful antioxidants.
Myth: Juicing or cleansing is required to “detox” your body.
Fact: Our body has natural mechanisms through which to detox.
Juicing or cleanses tend to claim to aid in weight loss, improve skin health, and detox the body by removing toxins, etc. However, there is no one food or diet that can deliver on these promises. In fact, some extreme cleanses, diets, and supplements may be harmful. Talk to your doctor, nutritionist, or registered dietitian before taking supplements or following a severely limited diet.
We do not need specific foods, drinks, or diets to detox because our body does that for us, but eating veggies, drinking veggie juices and eating fruits do support our intrinsic detox abilities. Specifically, our liver and kidneys remove waste from our bodies, help maintain hydration, and process medicine and alcohol, among other functions. The lungs and skin are also involved in detoxification, so exercise-induced breathing and sweating can help eliminate toxins. As well, high-fiber diets that improve daily evacuation and support gut health also help eliminate toxins. And we can help our body by being conscious of keeping our toxic body burden lower by avoiding heavily processed and chemically laden foods.
The best way of eating to promote overall health is a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, healthy fats, whole grains, and high-quality lean protein. This way of eating can include other foods too - but eaten in smaller amounts and less often.