In honor of National Nutrition Month
I thought it would be appropriate to talk about some of the most common food and weight loss myths that refuse to fade away. There are hundreds of nutrition myths that exist outside of this list and some myths may seem much more believable than others. However, there are two powerful tools that one must have at all times when choosing to believe (or not believe) nutrition advice. The first tool involves understanding how nutrition “works” and how food is used in the body.
Scientific jargon and explanations aside, the key to weight (both loss and gain) is ultimately: the amount of energy that you put in your body plus the amount of energy that goes out of your body will equal your weight and/or any changes to your weight. In other words, if you are eating roughly 3,000 calories worth of meals, snacks, and drinks yet your body is only using about 1,500 calories for its daily functions, then there are 1,500 unused calories lying around in your system. Chances are that these unused calories will be converted into stored fat in your body.
Conversely, if your energy intake is smaller than your energy output (which could happen from decreasing your caloric intake or from increasing physical activity), then the probability of losing weight is relatively high. This explanation of nutrition and weight is a little too overly simplistic to truly comprehend how food affects your health and weight, however, this simple explanation is enough knowledge to debunk many nutrition myths flying around in the world, as will be seen in the following list.
The second tool that will be useful for healthier eating is to understand how to read nutrition labels. Again, many food myths are easily debunked when people learned how to adequately read nutrition labels. By “adequately”, I mean that it is not enough to simply look at a single number from the nutrition label (e.g. it is not enough to just read the amount of calories that a particular food contains). A holistic approach to reading labels must be undertaken and the FDA has a user-friendly guide for how to do this.
After acquiring these tools, certain food and weight loss myths may be easier to debunk on one’s own, but in the meantime, here are some of the most common myths around today divided into common food myths and common weight loss myths:
Common Food Myths
Myth #1: Only eating “low-fat” or “low sugar” foods will guarantee weight-loss.
First of all, fat is actually an essential part to your body’s functioning. Therefore, attempting to live off of no fats is very implausible. Even living off of just a “low-fat” diet may also not be as healthy as one thinks. The key is to understand the difference between the good fats and the bad fats. Good fats are monosaturated fats (avocados, olives, nuts) and omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, flax seeds, walnuts). Bad fats are trans fats and saturated fats. Many food products claiming to be “low fat” are actually lower in the good fats, but have the same amount of bad fats as the regular version of the product. Moreover, many of these foods tend to have the same amount of calories (or even more) than the regular version because flour, salt, starch or sugar may be added to improve flavor and texture.
Bottom Line: Be suspicious of products claiming to be “low fat” or “low sugar”, as companies may have added many unhealthy ingredients to replace the smaller amounts of fat and sugar.
Myth #2: Dairy is fattening, but it’s the best thing for healthy bones.
This myth is really a two-part myth: 1) Dairy is fattening and 2) Dairy is the best thing for healthy bones. There is some truth to the first myth in that dairy can be fattening, but the truth is that it doesn’t have to be. In reality, there are many fat-free and low-fat dairy products that are just as nutritious as the whole-milk products, without the extra fat (Here is an example of when a “fat-free” product does not have to be unhealthy. Still, it is necessary to read nutrition labels to verify this).
Secondly, many people confuse dairy with calcium, which is what is actually beneficial for bone health (in addition to magnesium, vitamin K, and vitamin D). There are many foods that contain high levels of calcium and are not dairy products. Dark, leafy greens, for example, are not only an excellent source of calcium but also have high levels of vitamin K. Foods like oatmeal, almonds, and cashews contain high levels of magnesium.
Bottom Line: Dairy products do not have to be unhealthy if you know which type to look for and bone health depends on a plethora of vitamins, some of which may not be found in dairy products.
Myth #3: Canned fruits and veggies are unhealthy and fresh produce is always a healthier choice.
This myth probably emerged because it just seems like common sense and many canned produce contain added salt and sugars. However, this myth is very untrue. In cases where there are no added sugars or salt, canned produce can actually be healthier than the fresh versions. Degradation of vitamins and nutrients does occur when canning produce, however, this also occurs throughout the shipping process and for however long the produce waits before it reaches your dinner table. While canning fruits and vegetables greatly diminishes the degradation process, fresh produce generally sit on shelves for days all the while diminishing their nutritious stores.
Bottom Line: There are cases when canned produce may actually contain higher stores of nutrients than fresh produce, however, you really cannot go wrong when choosing between these two as they are both healthy options.
Common Weight-Loss Myths
Myth #1: Don’t eat after 6/7/8 PM
Like many of the previously mentioned food myths, there is also some grain of truth to this. People do tend to overeat at night with less-than-healthy foods. Nevertheless, instead of ignoring the urge to eat at night, a much healthier alternative is to attempt to understand why you are getting these urges. Often, late-night hunger is indicative of eating poorly during the day and so late-night bingeing is easily avoided by eating enough satisfying and healthy foods throughout the day. Lastly, if you are going to sleep past midnight, not eating after 6 PM could be more equivalent to skipping a meal than overeating. It is important to remember that your stomach does not really have a concept of time, therefore, 6 PM is not a magical time in which everything one eats after that suddenly turns to fat. Much like the day, weight gain at night depends on portion control and food choice.
The Bottom Line: There is no evidence suggesting the not eating after a certain time will result in weight gain or that stopping eating by a certain time in the evening will result in weight loss.
Myth #2: You need to exercise in order to lose weight.
This myth is a little more difficult to break down in that exercise is extremely beneficial for one’s health; however, it is not necessary to lose weight. Simply cutting back on caloric intake can achieve this. That being said, exercise does significantly aid in the weight loss process and becomes much more important for weight as you get older (as will be addressed in the next myth).
The Bottom Line: Exercise is not necessary for weight loss, but should definitely be a supplement to one’s diet in order to lead a healthy lifestyle.
Myth #3: Your metabolism inevitably gets slower with age.
One of the most important things to remember is that metabolic rate is always changeable no matter one’s age. It is typical for people to gain weight as they get older; however, this is mostly due to a decrease in lean muscle tissue and not a decrease in metabolic rate. Muscle mass aids in burning calories and also determines resting metabolic rate. As we age, we lose muscle mass and thus slow down our metabolic rate. Along these same lines, when we exercise, we are increasing our muscle mass which then revs up our metabolic rate.
The Bottom Line: Weight gain is typical as we get older, however, metabolic rate can always be changed.
What are some of the nutrition and weight loss myths you continue to hear? Enter them in the comments below.
More Articles by Dr. Nicole Avena.