Top 10 Diet and Nutrition Myths
When did eating become so complicated? Here, we debunk 10 common diet and nutrition myths.
Today we have access to more diet and nutrition information than ever before. The bad news? A lot of the information is out of date, lacking in evidence, conflicting and sometimes downright confusing.
We all know some of the basics of healthful eating, but some not-so-good advice has a habit of sticking around. Here, we debunk 10 common diet and nutrition myths.
Low-carb diets are trendy, but they aren’t for everyone. In addition to side effects like constipation, avoiding whole grains, fruits, starchy vegetables and legumes could leave you short on the nutrients and fibre these foods provide. True, some studies show that cutting carbs may help shed unwanted weight, but other research warns people who lose weight on restrictive diets have a slim chance of keeping it off permanently.
Some experts also argue that low carb diets haven’t been around long enough for us to understand their long-term effects. Dieticians generally agree that grains can be part of our daily diets — provided we don’t over-do it, of course.
They sound similar, but there’s a big difference. “Whole grain” refers to products that use all three parts of the seed or kernel — the bran, the endosperm and the germ, each containing healthful nutrients and fibre. “Refined grains” have the bran and germ removed, so they’re lower in fibre and nutrients even when they are enriched. In contrast, “multi-grain” means that a product contains more than one grain, like a mixture of wheat, spelt and oats, for example. These grains can be refined or whole — you’ll have to read the ingredients list to find out.
Another label to watch: “100 per cent whole wheat” doesn’t mean “whole grain”, warns Health Canada. In its whole grain fact sheet, it notes that whole wheat flour can have up to 5 per cent of the kernel removed to prevent it from going rancid. Better than white flour? Yes. Whole grain? Not necessarily.
Gluten-free diets are a necessity for people who are intolerant to gluten — a type of protein found in grains like wheat and rye — but it’s only recently they’ve been elevated to fad status. Any food intolerance or allergy can cause unwanted symptoms, and people who didn’t know they had issues with gluten or certain grains do find relief when they stop consuming them. However, it isn’t necessary to avoid foods to which you aren’t allergic, intolerant or sensitive.
Gluten-free grains like quinoa, corn, oats, amaranth, buckwheat, rice and millet can add variety to your diet, but remember experts still recommend going for whole grain forms most of the time. Many gluten-free foods and mixes use refined flours and can be high on calories and low on fibre.
Superfoods will supercharge your health and weight loss
No shortcuts here — “superfood” is more marketing buzzword than scientific label. Superfoods do offer high levels of good things like fibre and antioxidants, but experts still warn that consuming them and excluding other foods can leave gaps in your diet. (Not to mention your wallet.) There’s nothing wrong with enjoying “superfoods” as part of your diet, but experts say enjoying a variety of healthful foods is the best way to get the essentials.
What about foods that supposedly “burn fat”? That’s another questionable health claim, say experts. While some choices like green tea are thought to boost the metabolism temporarily, research has yet to uncover any food that burns fat and leads to ongoing and permanent weight loss.
No one disputes the fact we need to stay well-hydrated, but how we do it is still up for debate. How much fluid each person needs depends on a number of factors including sex, physical size, the amount of physical activity and the environment (temperature and humidity play a role too). While water is still the go-to beverage because it’s calorie-free, other beverages do count towards our fluid intake — including fruit juices, soft drinks, milk, coffee and tea, according to dieticians.
How can you tell if you’re getting enough? Pay attention to the colour of your urine — if it’s light yellow, it’s a sign you’re on the right track.
We need some sodium in our diets for good health, but Canadians generally consume too much of it. We’re constantly reminded to cut back and aim for under 2300 mg of sodium per day (one teaspoon of salt) or less if your doctor recommends it. However, shunning the salt shaker won’t cut it, say experts. The real culprit is restaurant fare and pre-packaged or processed foods — they’re the source of 75-80 per cent of the sodium in the average North American diet. (The rest is roughly split between what we add and what naturally occurs in foods.)
It’s no surprise the best strategy to reduce your sodium intake is to cook more food at home and rely less on ready-to-eat foods and eating out. You don’t necessarily have to cut out your favourite store bought foods, but do read the labels and look for low-sodium versions. (See Shake your addiction to salt for more tips and information.)
When it comes to how your body metabolizes sugar, most experts agree: no particular type reigns supreme. Added sugars are called “empty calories” for a reason: they offer energy but little else. Some analyses suggest that sugars like honey, agave syrup and maple syrup have antioxidants and vitamins, but experts say the amounts are so small it’s not a good excuse to over-indulge.
Regardless of what type of added sugar you’re using, experts advise to enjoy it in moderation. So far, no organization has set daily limits, but experts say sugars should make up no more than 10 per cent of our daily calorie intake — including naturally occurring and added sugars. What about the claim that high sugar consumption leads to diabetes? That’s another myth, say dieticians. Currently, there isn’t any evidence of a direct cause-and-effect relationship between sugar and type 2 diabetes. However, excess calorie consumption — partly due to sugar — can lead to obesity, which is a risk factor for a variety of chronic conditions.
Low-fat and fat-free foods are better for you
In recent years, fat has been fighting back against its reputation as a dietary no-no. While we used to hear that all fat was bad, now we hear about the benefits of “good” fats in foods like olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds and salmon.
What about those low-fat and non-fat foods we still see on store shelves? Dieticians say to look beyond the label when deciding if they’re a better choice or not. Some foods like low-fat dairy can be good alternatives to their higher fat cousins. However, many low-fat or fat-free foods aren’t what we would consider healthful choices — like candy, low-fat cookies and soft drinks.
In addition, many low- and non-fat processed foods can be high in calories and sodium. Like it or not, fat makes things taste good — and manufacturers have compensated for its loss by adding more sugar and salt. Experts say we have to weigh all the factors — like calories, sodium and fat — when making choices.
In an ideal world, we would have our pick of fresh, locally grown produce all year round — it’s the best source of nutrients. However, frozen fruits and vegetables have an undeserved bad reputation as being inferior to their fresh counterparts. Dieticians note they can be just as nutritious.
Why? Most of us aren’t actually eating freshly picked produce. The “fresh” produce in our stores often travels for days across long distances to sit on store shelves — losing nutrients along the way. Produce that is destined for freezers and cans is usually packaged shortly after it’s picked. Also, certain nutrients like lycopene and betacarotene are easier for the body to absorb after cooking and processing — making canned pumpkin, tomatoes and carrots more than a convenience.
If you’re not a fan of frozen vegetables on their own, try using them in dishes like shepherd’s pie or stir fry, and tossing them in soups and stews to up the veggie ante. If you’re opting for canned, watch out for preservatives — including added sodium and sugars.
Remember when eggs were bad and chocolate was a no-no, not a superfood? You’ve likely noticed the rules keep changing. Despite the hype about the latest research, experts still say there isn’t a single food proven to prevent (or cause) disease or make you lose weight. It’s overall diet that makes a difference, though it’s just one of many factors that can reduce the risk of disease.
Unfortunately, experts can’t agree on diet either. Should you go vegetarian or vegan? Cut out the dairy and the wheat? Go sugar-free or gluten-free? Load up on vitamin supplements? There’s no such thing as a diet everyone should follow — a lot depends on individual factors like our genes, health, allergies or intolerances and our tastes. As always, more research is needed into health and nutrition.
Confusing? You bet. There’s a lot of information and a lot of debate — and don’t expect that to change anytime soon. When in doubt, talk to your doctor or seek advice from a dietician about what’s right for you.
Additional sources: CBC News, The Globe and Mail, Eat Right Ontario, MayoClinic.com, MedicalNewsToday.com, WebMD.