There’s probably nothing more contentious in health than nutrition and dieting. Part of this is due to the lack of certainty in nutrition science. For example, you can find just as many studies saying eggs are bad for you than ones saying they’re fine (which they are and eggs can be part of a healthy diet). But there are also many fad diets promoted and influencers pushing poor, or blatantly wrong, information to sell products or build up a following on social media. Resulting in a long list of nutrition myths. Here are just six of the top ones busted to help you with your diet.
Breakfast is the Most Important Meal of the Day
Breakfast has been called the most important meal of the day for decades. It’s the only meal that has foods particularly marketed for it, such as cereals. Even still, it might make sense as most of us wake up after not eating for at least 12 hours. And up to 85% of adults eat breakfast on all or most days. At the same time, breakfast is the most missed meal of the day.
Having breakfast has been associated with greater school performance in kids. Conversely, skipping breakfast has been linked to poor sleep, mood disorders, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. But what really stoked the fire of breakfast being important were studies showing breakfast eaters lost more weight and were better able to keep it off.
However, these studies are far from conclusive. For example, kids who skip breakfast tend to be from poorer families, who have more health and developmental challenges. And breakfast eaters may also be more health conscious. In randomized trials, there was essentially no difference in short-term weight loss between breakfast skippers and non-skippers. While breakfast certainly can be part of healthy eating habits, there’s no conclusive evidence to suggest it’s the most important meal of the day. The one thing we do know, it’s the most studied meal of the day.
Fresh is Always Better than Frozen
It’s a commonly held belief eating fresh fruits and vegetables is better for you than frozen. This likely stems from the notion frozen fruits and vegetables are processed. And it probably doesn’t help they’re in the supermarket frozen section alongside many highly processed foods.
But with advances in farming and processing, fruits and vegetables are commonly frozen at the source during peak harvest. This allows them to retain many of their nutrients, while fresh foods are harvested earlier to allow them to ripen during transit. In a lab study comparing fresh fruit and vegetables stored in a refrigerator for up to 10 days, frozen fruits and vegetables stored for three months had similar or higher values in vitamins.
We Know What Our Ancestors Ate
Advocates of Paleo and Carnivore diets say our cavepeople ancestors ate meat for hundreds of thousands of years, so humans are meant to eat meat. On the other hand, plant-based advocates say as we’ve descended from apes, our diets should be almost all plants. The reality is, we don’t really know exactly what human ancestors ate. Certainly not enough to know whether it was healthy for them or not.
Evidence on what early humans ate comes from fossilized bones of humans and animals found around the world, scattered across millions of years. For example, marks on animal bones may be from tools used to cut meat from bone. Or dental studies suggesting a plant-based diet. The earliest evidence of ancient humans eating meat comes from more than 2 million years ago. But it wasn’t for another 1.5 million years the first evidence of hunting tools appeared. But that doesn’t mean hunting was easy. And because of that, hunter and gatherer societies are believed to be more gatherer than hunter.
Looking at the diets of the few remaining hunter and gatherer communities around the world can help us learn what our ancestors ate. Both the Tsimane in Bolivia and the Hadza in Tanzania have a predominantly plant diet. And while both populations eat meat, their intake fluctuates as the hunting season changes. During the wet season in Tanzania, meat may comprise <15% of the Hadza diet. This is despite using relatively modern hunting equipment such as bows and arrows. And like today, diets of early humans likely differed based on where they lived and the climate. So the notion of a single diet for millions of years across the globe is unlikely.
All Fat is Bad for You
Fat started getting a bad rap over 40 years ago with studies linking it to heart disease. This led to a flood of processed foods with low-fat or no-fat labels. Many of which were filled with sugar instead of fat. Since then, these early studies have been criticized, but the fear of fat in our diet continues, even though we need fat for energy and for many functions in the human body.
Fats are commonly divided into three groups: unsaturated, saturated and trans fats. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and come from plants (nuts, avocados and seeds) and fish. These fats are key foods in the Mediterranean Diet, making up 35% of daily calories. Hardly low fat and yet the Mediterranean Diet has been shown to prevent heart disease and reduce heart attacks in those with heart disease.
Saturated fats are predominantly from animals, solid at room temperature and guidelines caution us on saturated fats. These fats have been associated with heart disease and early death in some but not all studies. Saturated fat is common in many ultra-processed foods, and health concerns may be related to what else is in those foods as opposed to the fat itself. Also, cutting out saturated fats and replacing them with sugars and refined carbohydrates, this may actually increase your chances of heart disease and early death.
Where there’s consensus is on trans fats. Trans fats are commonly found in commercial foods as they’re created during processing. Hard margarine and baked goods are examples. Trans fats comprise a small amount in our diet but pack an unhealthy punch by raising the bad cholesterol (LDL) and lowering the good cholesterol (HDL). As a result, if you eat a high amount of trans fats, it increases your chances for early death and disease.
Eating Carbs will Make You Fat
With the rise in popularity of diets such as Atkins, Keto and other meat-based diets, carbohydrates have been thoroughly demonized. No more than when it comes to weight loss. It’s believed foods that are predominantly carbohydrate based aren’t filling and can lead to more eating compared to high fat or high protein foods.
Carbohydrate foods come in many forms, from table sugar to broccoli. The three broad categories are simple, complex and fibre. At the foundation of carbohydrates are sugar molecules such as glucose and fructose. Fibre and complex carbohydrates are composed of long strands of sugar molecules together (think grains, fruits and vegetables). Simple sugars, such as table sugar, are comprised of one or two sugar molecules together. It’s this latter type that has been associated with diseases from type 2 diabetes to certain cancers.
But when it comes to complex carbohydrates, they’ve consistently been found to be part of healthy eating. From the DASH to the Mediterranean diets, carbohydrates such as grains, fruits and vegetables are key ingredients. And when it comes to weight loss, high carbohydrate diets fair just as well as low carbohydrate diets. Based on this, and other studies, for weight loss it seems more important how much you eat, as opposed to what you eat.
Organic Food is Better for You
In most grocery stores’ produce section, you’ll likely find an area that contains “organic” food. Similarly, you might see organic labels on meat and dairy products. The name itself is a bit misleading as all plant and animal-based foods are organic, which literally means coming from living matter. But when labelled on food, it means the food was produced with natural fertilizers, minimal use of chemical pesticides, organic livestock feed and no genetic engineering. Most countries have their own organic certification and share reciprocal agreements among each other.
It’s the lack of pesticides and chemicals used in farming that has led to the belief organic foods are healthier. And with that, the belief organic foods must be more nutritious. But that’s not always the case. Some studies have reported organic foods to have more vitamins and other nutrients. However, just as many have found no difference in nutrients, and comprehensive reviews have concluded there is no apparent health benefit of organic food.
However, there’s a lack of long-term studies looking at health and disease outcomes. One study reported people eating organic food had lower chances of being overweight or obese after three years. But people eating organic food are likely to have higher education and income and be more health conscious. This makes it difficult to determine the true effect of organic food. And depending on where you live, organic food can travel much further than locally grown food. The longer travel time can result in a decrease in nutrients.
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