The way we think about nutrition changes all the time. You wouldn’t believe some of the myths people used to believe about healthy eating. But what about the beliefs we still hold today? Some myths about nutrition have, unfortunately, stuck around. And you probably still believe a few of them.
Is the newest diet trend really healthy? How many carbs should you be eating, anyway? And should you be eliminating dairy? You might think you know the answers to these popular questions. But there are a lot of myths circulating about these health and nutrition topics — these are the ones you need to stop believing.
Is butter a carb? Most people know that it’s not, but many still think that carbs should be avoided at all costs. Pasta, pizza, macaroni and cheese — so many carbs! But that approach is actually really misguided. “Carbohydrates provide essential energy to fuel your brain and central nervous system,” says registered dietitian Jillian Greaves. “They give you energy to move your body and also provide a wide variety of important nutrients.” In fact, a slice of whole-wheat bread contains essential nutrients including fiber, selenium, manganese, and folate. Cutting out carbs can have consequences including low energy levels, sugar and carbohydrate cravings, and often an unhealthy relationship with food. “Instead of restricting or cutting out carbohydrates, I recommend including good quality carbohydrates on a consistent basis for stable blood sugar and energy levels — eat them as part of a well-balanced meal alongside protein and fat,” Greaves says.
Many people choose to eliminate dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese, from their diet due to a belief that dairy causes damaging inflammation. However, this may not be entirely accurate. “Research has shown that dairy, particularly fermented dairy like yogurt and kefir, may actually have anti-inflammatory properties,” Greaves explains. “Dairy products can be a rich source of protein, potassium, calcium, and vitamin D.” And you really do need vitamin D — here are some signs you might not be getting enough of it.
There’s been a long-running debate over which is a healthier choice: almond milk or cow’s milk? Due to the fact that it often has fewer calories and omits dairy, many believe that almond milk is always the better option. However, that really depends on how you’re defining “healthier.” Registered dietitian Jillian Greaves points out that milk has a great deal of nutritional value that’s missing from almond milk, such as protein and calcium. And, she says, “Most conventional almond milks are actually made with very few almonds and are often full of processed fillers and added sugars.” Greaves recommends choosing good-quality dairy products if you enjoy them and are not lactose intolerant. Those with a milk allergy (yes, there’s a difference between an allergy and an intolerance) should also avoid consuming it. But otherwise, Greaves says, there’s no reason to avoid cow’s milk if that’s the taste you prefer.
For those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, eating products that contain gluten can be caustic or even deadly. So, as a result, people with these medical conditions have reason to avoid the plant protein. But others have no cause for fear when it comes to consuming gluten. “If you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten-free products are a great way for you to enjoy some typically gluten-containing foods (pizza, crackers, breads, pretzels),” says Greaves. “However, gluten-free products are often more processed, higher in sugar, and lower in fiber than their gluten-containing equivalents. Just because something says ‘gluten-free’ does not mean it is healthier.”
Sugar seems scarier and scarier these days; some people go so far as to claim that sugar is toxic. But, registered dietitian Suzanne Dixon explains, “Sugar is not toxic. In fact, our bodies use sugar, in the form of blood glucose, to power nearly every activity going on in our cells.” So then where did this myth come from? Not all sugars are necessarily the same. And added sugars can sometimes be found in greater quantities in processed foods. “If you eat a lot of ultra-processed foods where added sugar is high on the ingredient list, this can harm health,” Dixon says. It takes an excess of these added sugars to cause harm. And even “added sugar isn’t exactly toxic,” she says. Rather, “your body will pay the price if you eat a lot of it on a regular basis.” The key, she says, is to focus on eating a variety of foods, including those that contain naturally-occurring sugars: fruit, some vegetables, starchy potatoes and squash included. “These are the foods with sugar that also pack vitamins, minerals, and healthy phytonutrients. The low-carb craze has made many people shun all sugar, but that’s a mistake.” It may be a good idea to limit added sugar if excess consumption is a health concern, she says. “But the occasional indulgence of added sugar (cakes, cookies, a piece of pie)? That’s something we can enjoy.”
Many dieters find themselves attempting diet after diet, eventually failing every attempt. But you know what they say about trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Registered dietitian Adee Levinstein says it’s time to stop the cycle. “Diets can be tempting to try, especially when they promise that ‘with these simple steps, you can lose X amount of weight and be X times happier!’” she says. “Think keto, paleo, Whole30, etc.… While these diets may seem appealing, and tout some ‘success’ stories, anything that asks you to cut out multiple foods, especially whole food groups, is setting you up for failure (unless you have a food sensitivity or allergy). The more restrictive your intake, the more likely you are to encounter nutritional deficiencies and binge urges.” Such urges tend to eventually win out, leaving the dieter feeling like he or she has failed. “Diets don’t work because our body is designed to get the nutrients it needs. So, next time a diet fails, take a pause before rushing to the next one,” Levinstein advises. “It’s not you, it’s the diet!”
Many products and diet plans advertise their ability to “detox” your body from toxins. But doing a cleanse or trying to detox can actually be a really bad idea. “In reality, running the course of a cleanse can cause serious harm to the body, as it eliminates multiple macronutrients and deprives the body of the nutrients and energy it needs to run through its internal processes,” says Levinstein. “Furthermore, the liver and kidneys are the body’s built-in ‘detoxers’ that filter our blood and ensure the body retains what it needs and gets rid of the rest. Voila — free detox!”
It might feel like you’re addicted to sugar — but the science on sugar addiction is pretty shaky. Though the studies advocating for the legitimacy of sugar addiction point to symptoms similar to those of drug addiction (cravings, withdrawal, tolerance and neurochemical response), other scientific reviews show that there is little evidence to support the concept. Addiction-like behaviors only tended to happen when there was limited or intermittent access to sugar; whereas other chemical addictions occur just as strongly when there is limitless access to the drug. By trying to limit or eliminate sugar consumption, you may be further enabling the symptoms of so-called “sugar addiction,” rather than fighting them. Additionally, while you can cut out toxic and addictive substances such as alcohol or cocaine, you can’t exactly cut out sugar risk-free. “Sugar, called glucose in its simplest form in the body, plays a crucial role in our body’s functioning,” Levinstein explains. “Everything in your body, from your muscles to your brain, depends on a supply of glucose to fuel activities of daily living and beyond. It’s the body’s main source of energy — so eliminating sugar can lead to decreased concentration, alertness, and performance.”
Calories in, calories out is a myth. And focusing on burning more calories than you consume with the goal of losing weight can be really harmful. “This is quite a detrimental myth,” says Greaves, “and would likely leave someone not feeling very well!” Greaves explains that your body uses significant daily energy simply to support its daily functioning; things such as breathing, maintaining body temperature, circulation, and organ function all require calories at different rates each day. Limiting your calories can mess with your body’s ability to support these processes. “Depriving your body of calories or trying to ‘burn more than you consume’ can be harmful both physically and mentally,” she says. “Our society as a whole needs to stop viewing calories as something we need less of. Calories provide the body with the energy it needs to thrive!”
In-season fruits and vegetables probably taste the best and can be better quality for cooking. “But don’t dismiss frozen, canned, and dried fruits and vegetables,” says registered dietitian Isabel Maples. “They can be great nutrition choices, too.” Frozen, canned, and dried produce is packed at peak freshness — and these options are convenient. “If your meal planning is sporadic, having frozen and canned vegetables and beans that are ready when you are helps put a nutritious meal on the table,” Maples says, “often faster than take out or delivery.” Maples recommends rinsing your canned items before using them, which can reduce the sodium content by up to 38 percent.
You might have noticed that there are many different types of salt at the grocery store. Some salts, such as Himalayan salt, can be more expensive than just regular table salt. But do these pricey salts make a difference? Maples says they might not be worth the hype. “Some claim that salts other than table salt contain more minerals, like magnesium. However, the amount of additional minerals is too small to make a difference,” she says. “All these salts contain sodium, however — a mineral that Americans eat too much of. Populations that consume more sodium have higher blood pressures and prevalence of heart disease. In a practical sense, salt is salt — and all of it should be moderated for better health.”
There are some things you can do to speed up your metabolism — and there are things (many of which are out of your control) that slow it down. However, the frequency of your meals is not going to make much of a difference. Multiple studies have shown that frequent smaller meals do not result in a faster metabolism or weight loss. Weight science on the whole is probably a lot more complex than you think it is. If you’re trying to lose weight, there are a number of reasons why you might not be seeing any success.
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