Confused by the ever-changing, and often conflicting, nutritional advice touted by the media, friends and family, and even your doctor? Here are five of the most commonly believed misconceptions about healthy eating—and the science behind why they are wrong.
Myth #1 Protein and energy bars are a healthy snack
Most protein and energy bars available on the market have the same amount of sugar as a candy bar. It is not unusual for a 250 calorie protein bar to contain 20 to 30 grams of sugar. This is the same amount of sugar found in a 1.5 oz Snickers bar! When purchasing a protein bar, check the first five ingredients for hidden forms of sugar, such as brown rice syrup or tapioca syrup. The best protein and energy bars contain real ingredients that you can recognize such as grass-fed meat, egg whites, nuts, and fruit. Aim to get 10 g protein, 3 to 5 g of fiber and less than 10 g of sugar.
Myth #2 Eating eggs raises your cholesterol
The liver produces LDL (low-density lipoproteins) to transport cholesterol to the cells in the body. If one consumes more dietary cholesterol (from eggs or other source), generally the liver will make less. For years research has demonstrated that eggs have little effect on blood lipids, yet this information has been slow to reach the general public. Fortunately, that may be changing as the American Heart Association recently reversed its restriction on egg consumption.
It’s important to note that total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol are not the full story. A typical lipid panel won’t tell you the size of the cholesterol molecules in your arteries. And when it comes to cholesterol, size matters. When traveling in the blood, small LDL particles are more likely to lodge themselves in inflamed arterial tissue, whereas large LDL particles will float. This means that large particles are less likely to contribute to plaque build-up in the arteries. The dietary factor that has the biggest influences on LDL particle size is not the cholesterol in foods, but rather sugar and refined carbohydrates. For healthy cholesterol levels, focus on whole, minimally processed foods, especially high-fiber fruits and vegetables.
Myth #3 Margarine is better than butter
Margarine has changed over the last 20 to 30 years. In the 1980’s and 90’s, margarine consisted of partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Now that consumers have wizened up about how trans fats contribute to heart disease, these fats were replaced with vegetable oils. While this is an improvement, it is far from ideal. These refined vegetable oils like soy, sunflower, safflower, and canola are high in omega-6 fatty acids. In excess, these fats promote inflammation. Nevertheless, consumption of these vegetable oils has increased more than 250 percent over the past 100 years. Worse yet, these refined vegetable oils aren’t just in margarine. They are in all processed foods, commercial salad dressings, and mayonnaise. This means that a diet high in refined and processed carbohydrates will also be high in the inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids.
Fats can either promote or discourage inflammation. To reduce inflammation, opt for a diet filled with real whole foods that provide anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Focus on wild fish, nuts and seeds, and dark leafy greens. Use a neutral-tasting oil like avocado oil for baking and olive oil for low-heat cooking. Purchase grass-fed meat versus grain-fed meat. Make your own salad dressing using olive oil or avocado oil. Use real butter or coconut oil—or make your own butter using the “Better Butter” recipe below.
Myth #4 Carbohydrates cause weight gain
Not all carbohydrates are created equal. The amount of processing of a carbohydrate undergoes will affect its nutrient density and glycemic load. For instance, fruit juice is highly processed and devoid of fiber. White flour is refined and processed, low in nutrients and high on the glycemic index. Low-quality carbohydrates include processed foods like crackers, chips, pretzels, white bread, white rice, and desserts. These foods can trigger weight gain by promoting inflammation and insulin resistance.
However, when carbohydrates get demonized we seem to forget that vegetables and fruits are carbohydrates too. Vegetables and fruits provide the main source of antioxidants and phytochemicals that fight heart disease and cancer. A recent study from the Imperial College London estimated that 5.6 premature deaths worldwide in 2013 were caused by fruit and vegetable consumption below 500 grams (approximately 2.5 cups). Another key trait of a healthy carbohydrate is the amount of color the food contains—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple all point to different types of antioxidants. Include a rainbow of these antioxidant-rich carbohydrates daily for better overall health.
Myth #5 Zero-calorie sweeteners are good for weight loss
Zero-calorie sweeteners include artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, saccharin, and aspartame, as well as natural sweeteners such as stevia, monk fruit, and xylitol. These sweeteners contain no calories, but rather stimulate sweet receptors on the tongue creating the perception of sweetness. In my clinical practice, I find that these sweeteners are commonly consumed by my overweight clients. I encourage my clients to reduce their use of these nonnutritive sweeteners and find that when they do, they often lose five pounds or more.
Dr. David Ludwig, Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medicinal School also discourages the use of nonnutritive sweeteners. He asserts that the hyper-sweetness may dull our taste buds and reduce our desire for healthy, nutritious foods. Of more concern, as these sweeteners activate the “sweet” taste receptors on the tongue, they also triggers the pancreas to secrete insulin. Over time, this may contribute to the development of diabetes and obesity. The San Antonio Heart Study tracked weight gain in normal weight individuals from 1979 to 1988. The study found that a consumption of 21 or more artificially sweetened beverages a week in normal-weight individuals doubled their risk of obesity.
Aim to get your sweet taste from real, whole foods like bananas, baked sweet potato, nut butters, and caramelized onion. Choose sweets that pack some antioxidant power like dark chocolate. When you reduce artificial sweeteners and super sweet foods from your diet, you will reclaim your taste buds. After just a few weeks, you’ll develop a greater appreciation for the sweetness found naturally in fruits and vegetables.
Better Butter Recipe
½ pound organic butter
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Let butter come to room temperature. Place in a food processor and process until smooth. Add the olive oil and mix together until thoroughly blended. Place in a glass dish and store in the refrigerator. Although the “butter” will harden, it will still be easy to spread.