While March is National Nutrition Month, making informed choices about your diet is important for every meal of every day all year long. Despite the many advances in modern medicine, we all know someone who has suffered from heart disease, obesity, or diabetes. With every advance in information comes equal but opposite waves of misinformation and misinterpretation of science and nutrition. As a result, so many people live their lives based on assumptions about nutrition that just aren’t factual. I spoke to registered dietitians and healthcare professionals who debunk their top myths of nutrition.
Myth 1: All Food is Either “Good” or “Bad”
Life doesn’t fall perfectly into shades of black and white, and neither does food. If all food was either 100% healthy or unhealthy, solving the obesity epidemic would be straight forward. Registered dietitian and nationally recognized food and nutrition expert and spokesperson with more than two decades of communications experience, Elana Natker, sets the record straight.
“It drives me nuts when I read articles or hear people talk about foods that are “good” and “bad.” First of all, no one food is perfect, and at the same time, no one food will kill you on the spot (unless, of course, it’s legitimately poisonous). It’s the overall pattern of the way we eat and our lifestyle (getting regular exercise, not smoking) that contributes to whether we’re healthy or not. Heck, even drinking too much water can send you to the hospital!
This type of good/bad language bothers me because it also tends to morph into a value judgment on oneself. Too quickly it goes from “this food is bad” to “I am bad,” or “I’m so good because I avoided [XYZ] food.” It’s true that all foods really do fit within an overall healthy diet. Go ahead and enjoy that plate of pasta, have that dessert, and enjoy every bite. Be sure you’re getting all your fruits, vegetables and calcium-rich foods too. Our bodies are complex machines, and it takes a variety of foods to run this system well.”
Myth 2: Any and All Carbs Make You Fat
Most fad diets are designed to avoid carbohydrates like the plague. There is a misconception that we don’t need them in our diet, when the reality is that your body needs that balance, as Charlotte Martin, registered dietitian and author of The Plant-Forward Solution, explains.
“The decades-long low-carb fad diet craze has made carbohydrate-rich foods public enemy number one, and the more recent popularity of a very low-carb, very high-fat diet (*cough* keto diet *cough*) has only furthered the carb controversy, turning one poor soul after the other into a carbophobe. Put yourself on a low-carb, high-fat diet, and all your ailments will be solved! Easy as pie (but no, you can’t actually have any pie).
Put (very) simply, the theory championed by low-carb advocates suggests that carbohydrates are uniquely fattening because they are the primary driver of insulin, which promotes fat gain and—the theory goes—makes you hungrier, too. But if carbs are inherently fattening and drive appetite, wouldn’t we expect to see significantly greater fat loss from low-carb diets? Ah yes, but alas, we do not.1 Tightly controlled studies in which calories and protein were held constant have upheld that low-carb diets offer no fat loss advantage over higher-carb ones.2,3
Worry not—carbs are our friend, not foe! To be clear, that doesn’t mean you should treat all carbohydrate-rich food sources the same, but by focusing on carb quality, you can stress less over carb quantity. The quality, carbohydrate-rich foods you want to choose most of the time have little to no added sugar and retain their fiber (and may even be a good source of protein), which helps slow digestion and the release of glucose into the bloodstream. Think whole grains, legumes, starchy veggies, and fruit!
Sylvia Klinger, a registered dietitian and Founder of Hispanic Food Communications, successfully lost 15 pounds during 2020’s quarantine, when most found themselves gaining weight, by purposefully not considering any low carb diets. She added, “I really taught myself that I wasn’t going to fall into one of those traps of some of those diets where I don’t eat any bread or I’m on a Keto diet. I knew that wasn’t for me to go on one of those high protein, low carbohydrate diets, or anything like that. I knew those diets are just short term, and I wanted this to be for the long term.”
Myth 3: Gluten Free Pastas and Breads are Healthier than Wheat Products
Pam Cureton, a registered dietitian specializing in the treatment of celiac disease, shared crucial insight on why non-celiac individuals really shouldn’t go gluten free.
“For people diagnosed celiac disease or other gluten related disorders, the gluten free diet (GFD) is essential for good health. Currently the only treatment for celiac disease is a strict gluten free diet. Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye and barley. In those with celiac disease, gluten can damage the intestinal lining leading to malabsorption of nutrients. For those following a GFD it is very important that the diet is carefully planned to avoid missing important nutrient found in wheat products. Several studies have looked at the nutritional composition of gluten free products. The B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin and niacin) folate, iron and dietary fiber where low as most gluten free products are not enriched/fortified with these vitamins/minerals.
Going gluten free and eliminating wheat in otherwise healthy individuals may have several downsides and not without consequences. If not done for the correct reasons and with great attention to nutrition, the GFD not only can lead to nutritional deficiencies but other social and economic implications as well. Wheat products offer great taste, variety, and palatability at a lower cost than their gluten free counterpart. Gluten free products can be up to 5 times more expensive than their wheat counterpart.
Refined wheat-based foods are enriched or fortified with iron, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, folate (this is particularly important for women who are or are capable of becoming pregnant, as folic acid fortification in the United States has been successful in reducing the incidence of neural tube defects during fetal development). Wheat contains fructo-type resistant starches that may help create healthy and beneficial gut bacteria. The gluten in wheat may reduce serum triglyceride levels, uric acid and LDL cholesterol. Wheat also has a positive effect on blood pressure.”
Myth 4: “High Glycemic” Foods Will Increase Your Risk of Obesity
According to Professor Glenn Gaesser, who recently led a study showing the health benefits of a Monty Python walk, sometimes you deserve the chance to enjoy life and not feel shame. Dr. Gaesser shares why glycemic foods aren’t going to make you obese.
“It is widely believed that high glycemic foods, such as bread, pasta, and cereals made from refined grains, are fattening and increase risk for obesity. But a 2021 review in Advances in Nutrition found very little evidence to support this popular view. Data from nearly 2 million participants showed that most studies found no relationship between dietary glycemic index and body weight. Even more noteworthy, meta-analyses of randomized-controlled trials found that low-glycemic index diets were generally no better than high-glycemic index diets for reducing body weight or body fat. The 2021 review concluded that there were scant scientific evidence that low-glycemic index diets are superior to high-glycemic index diets for weight loss and obesity prevention.”
At the end of the day, what we eat becomes part of who we are. We need to strike a balance in our lives that allows us to eat the foods we love in portions that let us manage a healthy lifestyle. With so many people suffering from diseases caused by poor nutrition, there’s no reason to figure out that balance ourselves or let a fad diet force us to create bad habits. Listen to medical experts and registered dietitians and let them help you find the balance of eating that lets you be the real you.