Here are three of the biggest lies about nutrition I was fed as a kid:
Low-fat foods are always better for you than high-fat options. Drinking more milk makes your bones stronger. And you’re only properly hydrated once your pee comes out clear.
Nope, nope, and nope.
I didn’t know this at the time, but some of the “facts” about healthy eating that I absorbed as a youngster were clever marketing tactics dressed up as expert guidance about what to eat. Other pieces of advice have since been debunked by scientific research.
Here are a few dozen nutrition myths many of us were told as tots that simply aren’t true.
MYTH: Low-fat products are better for your waistline than high-fat versions of the same foods.
It may seem counterintuitive, but eating less fat can actually make your body fatter.
“Fat consumption does not cause weight gain,” doctor Aaron Carroll wrote in his book “The Bad Food Bible.” “To the contrary, it might actually help us shed a few pounds.”
This is because people who skimp on fat (something our bodies need to function properly) are more likely to fill up on sugar and refined carbohydrates instead, and that can lead to measurable weight gain over time. Studies of people around the globe show this to be true time and again.
Fat molecules help our body’s cells stay healthy, and they aid us in absorbing nutrients in the other foods we eat. So if you prefer whole milk to skim, there’s no reason to feel guilty about that.
MYTH: You should “refuel” with electrolytes after a workout.
Sorry, Gatorade-lovers, but electrolytes and performance drinks don’t do anything special for your body.
“Athletes who lose the most body mass during marathons, ultramarathons, and Ironman triathlons are usually the most successful, which suggests that fluid losses are not as tightly linked to performance as sports drink makers claim,” science journalist Christie Aschwanden writes in her 2019 book, “Good to go: What the athlete in all of us can learn from the strange science of recovery.”
Aschwanden explains that your brain is perfectly capable of regulating electrolytes like salt in the body on its own.
“You need enough fluid and electrolytes in your blood for your cells to function properly, and this balance is tightly regulated by a feedback loop,” she said.
MYTH: Your pee should be clear, and you should drink eight glasses of water per day.
If your pee is clear, you’ll probably need to find a toilet soon, because you’re over-hydrated.
The truth is, the body has a “thirst center” in the brain that helps regulate how much fluid we need, and it’s impressively tuned (though it tends to become less effective as we move into old age). So the most important way to stay hydrated is to listen to your thirst and drink when you feel like it.
Don’t ignore itchings for water or confuse them with hunger, and you’ll generally be fine. And don’t worry too much about the color of your urine, either. A light yellow or straw-like color can indicate you’re well hydrated, but darker urine isn’t necessarily a reason to panic.
“Dark pee might mean that you’re running low on fluid, but it could also mean that your kidneys are keeping your plasma osmolality in check by conserving water,” Aschwanden said.
MYTH: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Some cereal companies have made a lot of cash off that catchy phrase.
“Many — if not most — studies demonstrating that breakfast eaters are healthier and manage weight better than non-breakfast eaters were sponsored by Kellogg or other breakfast cereal companies whose businesses depend on people believing that breakfast means ready-to-eat cereal,” nutrition expert Marion Nestle wrote on her Food Politics blog in 2015. “Independently-funded studies tend to show that any eating pattern can promote health if it provides vegetables and fruits, balances calories, and does not include much junk food.”
Nestle keeps her own breakfast advice short and sweet: “If you wake up starving, by all means eat an early breakfast. If not, eat when you are hungry and don’t worry about it.”
In fact, studies have shown that people who work out in the morning on an empty stomach can burn up to 20% more body fat during their workouts.
Of course, studies still pop up suggesting that skipping breakfast is linked with early death. But personal trainer Max Lowery recently told Insider that such research may not consider every factor.
“People who are more health-conscious overall tend to eat breakfast because they are following health guidelines,” Lowery pointed out, “whereas people who skip breakfast are usually unhealthier overall because they are ignoring guidelines”
Still, nutritionists often suggest eating something in the first two to three waking hours of the day to avoid getting cranky and hangry.
MYTH: Cereal is a great breakfast food.
Most cereals are ultra-processed. That means they’re infused with preservatives, packaged in plastic bags, and sprinkled with sugar.
Scientists are beginning to zero in on the dangers of processed foods like this: People who rely on these types of convenience foods tend to eat more (about 500 extra calories a day) and gain more weight than people who stick to unprocessed fruits, vegetables, grains, and other edible plants.
Instead of starting the day with cereal, many dietitians and nutrition experts suggest having a cup of plain Greek yogurt topped with nuts and berries. That will give your body healthy fats, protein, and fiber to keep you full.
MYTH: 100% real fruit juice is a healthy choice.
Scientists recently looked at the health records of more than 13,400 US adults, and concluded that each additional 12-ounce serving of juice people drank per day was associated with a 24% higher risk of death.
Nutrition experts who study sugary drinks were not surprised by this result, because the way our bodies process the sugar in fruit juice is almost identical to the way we take in sugar from a can of soda. Juice just doesn’t satisfy our bellies like a piece of fibrous fruit does.
“It’s basically sugar and water, and no protein or fat to counteract that metabolism,” Jean Welsh, a nutrition professor at Emory University, previously told Business Insider.
In the same vein, smoothies— which are often loaded with sugar and may not contain all the fiber available in whole fruits — are not a health food, either.
MYTH: Snacking is healthy.
Snacking can be a healthful habit, since it keeps people from overeating at meals. But research shows that inserting snacks into your daily routine isn’t necessarily better for your health than eating three square meals a day.
“When you eat real, wholesome, healthy foods, you feel full sooner,” Ocean Robbins, grandson of ice cream magnate Irvine Robins (a Baskin-Robbins co-founder) recently told Business Insider. “Your body feels nourished. You actually have the nutrients you need and in time you can have less cravings.”
MYTH: Fasting is bad for your health.
Taking an occasional break from eating is becoming a popular Silicon Valley trend, and there’s a surprising amount of evidence supporting it.
Intermittent fasting can help people ward off diseases like diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity. The practice can also boost the production of a protein that strengthens connections in the brain and can serve as an antidepressant. Scientists even think fasting can lengthen our lifespans by keeping cells healthy and youthful longer.
In general, it’s good to give your gut a break for at least 12 hours a day, biologist and circadian rhythm researcher Satchidananda Panda told the New York Times in 2015.
Just don’t overdo it.
MYTH: You’re probably not getting enough protein.
Just because something has lots of protein doesn’t make it healthy.
“Most Americans get more than enough protein from their diet,” public-health experts at the University of California, Berkeley wrote recently in Berkeley Wellness. (Adults over 65 are a notable exception to that rule, though.)
A long-term study of over 131,300 people in the US found that the more animal protein people ate, the more likely they were to die of a heart attack, suggesting that it may be best to favor plant proteins like those from nuts and beans, rather than relying on meat.
MYTH: The food pyramid should be your go-to guide.
Let’s get one thing straight: This is a picture of a food triangle on the side of a pyramid.
The “pyramid” above was released by the USDA in 1992, and it suggests there is one ideal strategy for healthy eating that everyone can follow. That strategy, it suggested, was to load up on breads and pastas, eat ample servings of fruits and vegetables (three to five per day), and round out one’s diet with some dairy and protein from sources like meats, nuts, and beans.
But researchers are discovering in study after study that what works for one person may not be right for everyone else. Different bodies respond differently to ingested fats and carbohydrates, so a stable energy source for one person could lead another’s blood sugar to skyrocket then crash.
Nutrition experts generally agree, however, that everyone can benefit from eating more unprocessed foods, like leafy greens, seafood, nuts, and brown rice, while cutting out the processed white bread and crackers found on the bottom of this triangle.
MYTH: Carob chips are healthier than chocolate.
Health-conscious dessert-lovers for years bought carob chips instead of chocolate. Carob is made from the dried fruit of Mediterranean carob trees (whereas chocolate comes from cacao). But they might have been better off sticking to chocolate.
“No offense to carob, but it doesn’t taste as good as chocolate,” Robbins said. “It turns out that chocolate’s actually better for you — it’s good for your heart and it’s good for your brain.”
That doesn’t mean you should eat candy bars. But a bit of dark chocolate (70% cacao or higher) here and there could help improve blood flow and protect the heart.
Scientists have found no real link between chocolate consumption and acne breakouts, either.
MYTH: Yogurt is always a healthy choice.
Most prepackaged yogurts in the dairy case are packed with sugar.
If you like yogurt, find a plain one; you can always sprinkle nuts, seeds, berries, or spices like cinnamon and nutmeg on top for flavor.
MYTH: Margarine is better for you than butter, and all oil is bad.
Margarine was a darling toast-topper during the low-fat craze of the 1990s. Made from plant oils like palm oil, canola oil, and soybeans, it was marketed as a “healthier” alternative to animal fats.
But margarine used to include trans fat. Harvard researchers estimate that during the heyday of artificial trans fats in the 1990s, their presence in our food supply led to roughly 50,000 preventable deaths every year in the US. The FDA rolled out a near-universal ban on artificial trans fats in 2018, and most margarines today are trans-fat free.
But butter alternatives are highly processed, and vegetable oils that are lab-heated to prevent spoilage, like those in margarine, can be serious drivers of disease. Often, a key ingredient in margarine is palm oil, which is not nearly as good for our hearts as monounsaturated fats that are in a liquid state at room temperature, like olive oil. Monounsaturated fats can lower bad cholesterol levels and keep our immune systems humming with Vitamin E, making them a healthier choice.
MYTH: Ditch cholesterol-heavy egg yolks and only eat the whites.
For most people, there’s no evidence that the cholesterol in eggs translates to higher blood cholesterol.
There is a lot of cholesterol in a chicken egg yolk: more than 180 milligrams, over half our daily recommended dose. But that doesn’t mean we should be wary of a yellow morning omelette.
“Actually, there’s never been a single study that showed higher egg consumption is related to higher risk of heart disease,” Harvard nutrition researcher Walter Willett told The Cut in 2015.
MYTH: You should eat as few carbs as possible.
Not all carbohydrates are bad.
Quinoa, bananas, apples, beans, and carrots are all relatively high-carb foods, and studies repeatedly show that people who eat a wide variety of these foods, in addition to whole grains, tend to have trimmer waistlines and lower blood-pressure levels.
It’s true, however, that once grains are stripped of their protein-hefty bran and germ, they’re not great at providing key nutrients or satiating us for hours after we eat. That’s why it’s still a good idea to avoid refined carbs, which are used to make items like cookies and white bread.
MYTH: Counting calories is a good weight-loss strategy.
A calorie is a calorie, right? Wrong.
Nutritionists increasingly urge people to evaluate foods holistically, rather than based on individual nutrients or calorie counts.
Take avocados, for example. A cup has 234 calories and 14 grams of monounsaturated fat, along with smaller doses of polyunsaturated (2.7 g) and saturated fat (3.1 g). But an avocado also provides good doses of fiber, protein, and potassium,which can help maintain healthy blood-pressure levels. No one would suggest you’d get the same health benefits or stay as full after eating 234 calories’ worth of potato chips (that’d be about 25 chips).
Recent studies have shown that plants are the best choice for our health, and consuming more processed foods — even with the exact same amount of calories on offer — can lead to weight gain.
MYTH: Orange juice will help you get over a cold.
Orange juice is high in Vitamin C, which helps keep our immune systems strong.
But that doesn’t mean that a glass of OJ will fight a cold you already have, or even that it will make your cold go away more quickly. Instead, try sucking on a zinc lozenge — some studies suggest that taking zinc can lead some people’s colds to end quicker.
MYTH: Getting nutrients from vitamins is the same as eating them in foods, so a multivitamin a day keeps the doctor away.
Scientists have tested the effects of multivitamins again and again, but they just haven’t found good evidence of any real benefits for our health.
“Show me a single study ever done saying people who took a multivitamin pill … did better. There’s no study,” Ajay Goel, a biophysicist who researches cancer, recently told Business Insider.
The US Preventative Services Task Force does not recommend that people take vitamins or supplements as a preventive measure for heart disease or cancer, the leading causes of death in the US. In fact, there’s evidence that supplements can do more harm than good.
“Extra vitamin A supplements can lead to dangerous, toxic levels if taken too frequently,” Dr. Clifford Lo, associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health said in a blog post.
Try getting important vitamins and minerals from fresh fruits and vegetables.
MYTH: Salt is bad for you.
There isn’t any compelling evidence that salt on its own raises blood pressure or contributes to more heart attacks or death.
It may be the case that people who eat a lot of salt are at risk of developing health problems for a host of other reasons, mostly because their diets and lifestyles are less healthy overall. For example, salt is a great preservative, which means there is a lot of it in processed food, which we know is not good for us.
MYTH: Eating carrots helps you see better.
This piece of false information may have originated in WWII, according to Snopes, when Britain pretended that its bomber pilots had freakishly good, carrot-fueled eyesight instead of admitting to using radar to track Nazis.
Carrots are good for eye health, but they cannot help you see better than you already do. Carrots are rich in chemicals called carotenoids, as are spinach, kale, collard greens, and sweet potatoes. Our bodies convert these chemicals from plants into nutrients like vitamin A, which is essential for developing healthy embryos, keeping tissues healthy, and ensuring the immune system functions properly. People who have diets rich in the carotenoid beta carotene, for example, have lower instances of cervical cancer and slight reductions in breast cancer risk.
To keep eyes healthy as we age, researchers who study macular degeneration suggest eating a variety of plants rich in Vitamin C, E, zinc, omega-3’s, and other nutrients. In addition to carrots, that list includes fish, broccoli, nuts, and berries.
MYTH: Coffee is dangerous for your health.
A wealth of scientific studies suggest that drinking coffee can help people live long lives. Perhaps the best evidence for this comes from two giant studies: one of more than 400,000 people in the US and another of more than 500,000 Europeans. Both studies found that regular coffee drinkers were less likely to die from any cause than people who don’t sip a daily cup of joe.
Other research has even suggested that drinking somewhere in the neighborhood of four cups of coffee per day may be the best dose for aging hearts.
But coffee is not the perfect drink.
“For some people it is unhelpful, because it makes them jittery, and they get addicted to it, and they get headaches if they don’t drink a lot of it,” Robbins said. “And I think our society is a little high-strung sometimes.”
MYTH: Diet soda is fine.
Zero calories! No problem then, right?
Diet soda can be a good way to wean yourself off of sugary beverages, but scientists still aren’t sure that it’s a harm-free choice. A recent 34-year study of more than 118,000 men and women across the US found that diet soda and sugar substitutes may not be much better for our bodies than sugary beverages when consumed in large doses.
“Diet soda may be used to help frequent consumers of sugary drinks cut back their consumption, but water is the best and healthiest choice,” Vasanti Malik, the study’s lead author and a research scientist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a release.
Malik found that women who drank four or more artificially sweetened beverages per day significantly upped their risk of death (the finding didn’t hold true for men, though). The researchers think the explanation for an observed link between diet drinks and death may just be that people who are already overweight drink more diet beverages. But more research is needed
MYTH: You need to drink a lot of milk to prevent osteoporosis.
Got milk? This was a clever piece of advertising drummed up by the California Milk Processor Board in the 1990s to fight declining milk sales.
Milk-mustached celebrities suggested to us for years that there’s something special about the calcium in milk that helps our bones stay strong. But there’s really no evidence to suggest that milk has advantages over other calcium-rich foods like leafy greens and legumes.
We do need calcium to build strong bones, and there is a good dose of it available in dairy; but we also need Vitamins D and K for adequate bone health. Besides, heavy milk drinkers do not appear to be any less susceptible to bone fractures.
Read next on Business Insider: More evidence that no best diet exists: A study of 1,100 people shows how everyone responds differently to common foods
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