Discerning Fact from Fiction: Food and Nutrition Myths

In today’s popular media, there is nearly a daily bombardment of nutrition information. A new fix, a new fad, a new idea to help you be the best you in no time flat! This constant stream of information can be confusing, and unfortunately very misleading. It is important to understand the science of nutrition to help distinguish fact from fiction. Let’s take some time and look at the facts to help clear up a few of the following prevailing nutrition myths:

It’s easy to burn off calories with exercise
While there are numerous health benefits associated with regular exercise, the reality is that exercise does not burn a great deal of calories. It is much easier (and faster) to consume excess calories than it is to burn them off. Energy needs vary based on age, gender, body weight, body composition, and physical fitness. Evidence continues to support that a balanced diet paired with regular exercise is the best way to both lose and maintain weight (Williams, Wood, Collins, & Callister).

Carbohydrates cause weight gain
Macronutrients – carbohydrate, protein, and fat – are nutrients that contain calories. Consumption of any macronutrient in excess of daily needs will lead to weight gain. However, there is no evidence to suggest that carbohydrates are more likely to cause weight gain in an energy balanced diet than either of the other two macronutrients (van Dam & Seidell, 2007). While some sources of carbohydrate, such as fruits and whole grains, are healthier options than others such as chips and crackers, weight gain is dependent on calorie consumption. The takeaway: moderation in nutrients within calorie needs supports weight stability.

Skipping meals is a good way to lose weight
Our bodies function similarly to a car that runs on gasoline, only for us, food is the fuel. When fuel levels are low, functioning is sub-optimal, and we need more fuel to function at a high capacity. Meal skipping causes harmful metabolic changes that can make us more susceptible to insulin resistance and inflammation (Carlson et al., 2007). Additionally, skipping meals may result in a response similar to starvation, in which the body will subsequently hold on to future intake more fervently. This impact of this will be the opposite of the intended effect!

I can’t eat nuts, they’re full of fat!
It’s true that nuts have a high fat content, with approximately 80% of the calories in a nut coming from fat (Mayo Clinic, 2014). However, just like the type of carbohydrate consumed is important, the type of fat we eat is also important for health. The good news? Nuts contain a high amount of the good fats – polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. So while being energy dense, they are nutrient dense as well! This means that you can still enjoy nuts, but it is important to do so in moderation because they are high in calories per serving. Enjoy your favorite nuts and nut butters in a mindful, portion-controlled manner.

Frozen and canned vegetables are less healthy than their fresh alternatives
We all know that fruits and vegetables are an important part of a balanced, healthy diet. However, they are often more costly than other foods, and may spoil quickly. It is a common misconception that if you are unable to consume fresh fruits and vegetables, you should not bother with canned or frozen because they are not as healthy. This is not the case! Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are an excellent alternative, and may even have a higher nutrient content than fresh varieties depending on season of picking and the distance traveled (Rickman, Barret & Bruhn, 2007a, 2007b). Be sure to choose options that are unseasoned and do not have added salt, and you are well on your way to a balanced diet.

You need to ‘cleanse’ or ‘detox’
The body is a finely tuned machine, more than capable of clearing away the waste products produced on a daily basis. The role of the liver in the body is to breakdown harmful substances, and clear them through excretion into blood or bile which ultimately exits the body through feces (Anatomy and Function of the Liver (n.d.)). The kidneys also serve a ‘cleansing role’ and filter 120-150 quarts of blood daily to produce urine, which contains the filtered waste products (NIDDK). This action by the kidneys prevents the buildup of waste products. Together, the kidneys and the liver serve as a natural cleanse that is working your body all the time. This is great news! No more expensive cleanses or detoxes necessary!

Eating fat makes you fat
Weight gain is a result of calories consumed in excess of requirements. This means that if we eat more than our body needs, we are going to store it as fat. This is true regardless of the sources of calories! Calories come from fat, carbohydrate, and protein, and any excess is stored. The reason that this myth is often believed is because fat contains 9 calories/gram, while carbohydrate and protein each only contain 4 calories/gram. By weight then, fat contains more calories. However, it is most important to consume all three macronutrients from healthy sources, within your specific calorie needs.

To lose weight you must follow the _______ diet (insert any diet name here)
Diet is a four-letter word. In order to reach and maintain a healthy weight, the best thing to do is to adopt a healthy lifestyle. This includes being physically active, and eating the right foods, in the right amounts, most of the time. Balance and moderation are critical not only to your physical health, but to mental health as well. Restrictive diets may be effective for a short period of time, but the word ‘diet’ indicates an end-point. The most effective way to lose weight and keep it off is to adopt sustainable habits that improve your health.

Eating after 7PM will make you gain weight
This is a common misconception. The reason that eating after 7 pm (or 6 or any other random time) may be problematic is because often late-night eating is not out of hunger, and typically the foods selected are not the healthiest. If you work late, or maybe 2nd or 3rd shift, do not fear that dinner at 8 pm will result in automatic weight gain. So long as healthy choices are made, and again remain within your specific calorie needs, weight gain will not occur.

Resources
Williams, R.L., Wood, L.G., Collins, C.E., & Callister, R. (2015). Effectiveness of weight loss interventions – is there a difference between men and women: a systematic review. Obesity Reviews, 16(2), 171-86. doi: 10.1111/obr.12241

van Dam, R.M., & Seidell, J.C. (2007). Carbohydrate intake and obesity. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61(suppl 1), S79-S99. doi: 10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602939

Clarson, O., Martin, B., Stote, K.S., Golden, E., Maudsley, S., Najjar, S.S., …Mattson, M.P. (2007). Impact of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction on glucose regulation in healthy, normal-weight middle-aged men and women. Metabolism, 56(12), 1729-34. doi: 10.1016/j.metabol.2007.07.018 Diseases and Conditions: Heart Disease (February 19, 2014). In Mayo Clinic. Retrieved http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/nuts/art-20046635?pg=2

Rickman, J.C., Barrett, D.M., & Bruhn, C.M. (2007). Nutritional comparison of fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Part 1. Vitamins C and B and phenolic compounds. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 87(6, 930-44. DOI: 10.1002/jsfa.2825

Rickman, J.C., Bruhn, C.M., & Barrett, D.M. (2007). Nutritional comparison of fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables II. Vitamin A and carotenoids, vitamin E, minerals and fiber. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 87(7), 1185-96. DOI: 10.1002/jsfa.2824

Anatomy and Function of the Liver. (n.d.) In Stanford Children’s Health. Retrieved from http://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=anatomy-and-function-of-the-liver-90-P03069.

The Kidneys and How They Work. (May 21, 2014). In National Institutes of Health: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Retrieved from http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/Anatomy/kidneys-how-they-work/Pages/anatomy.aspx.

About the Author
Dr. Dara Ford is a registered and licensed dietitian with research interests broadly related to health related quality of life, obesity prevention and diet quality. She is particularly interested in dietary patterns throughout the lifetime and potential impacts for length and quality of life. She is also interested in lifestyle changes to improve health and well-being. Prior to coming to American, Dr. Ford was a doctoral student and adjunct faculty at Pennsylvania State University, participating in research examining the impact of diet quality on mortality, health-related quality of life and healthcare resource use in an aging population. Dr. Ford earned her PhD in Nutrition and her BS in Nutrition from Pennsylvania State University.

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