As an educational organization that looks only at the evidence, we’ve taken the time to identify the top 19 nutrition myths that just won’t die. At the end of each section, you’ll find a link to pages that further explore the section’s topic with extensive references.
For decades, fat was the enemy; today, there’s a new scapegoat: carbs. Vilifying carbs and insulin seems to get more popular by the year.
Many people believe that the popular glycemic index and the lesser-known insulin index rank foods by their “unhealthiness”. Yet, available research on low-glycemic diets have seen results ranging from neutral to modest improvements, even for diabetics. Furthermore, a low-glycemic diet doesn’t universally perform better than other diet patterns.
Similarly, the carbohydrate-insulin model of obesity, which theorizes that obesity is caused by carbs and the insulin response they evoke, is not well-supported by the evidence. In 2017, a meta-analysis of 32 controlled feeding studies was published. Some of those studies were metabolic ward studies and some were free-living studies, but in each case, meals were provided by the researchers, who wished to ensure that each diet would provide specific amounts of calories and nutrients (within each study, the diets were equal in calories and protein but not in fat and carbs). So what were the results? These studies help us understand the mechanism of weight loss, more so than a diets real-world effectiveness. Low-fat diets resulted in greater fat loss (by an average of 16 grams per day) and greater energy expenditure (by an average of 26 Calories per day). This would give low-fat diets a fat-loss advantage, though one “so small as to be physiologically meaningless”.
These results are consistent with long-term free-living studies of low-carb or keto diets that test a diets real-world effectiveness. Meta-analyses of RCTs of show that neither provide clinically relevant weight loss differences when compared to higher-carb diets.
Eat fat, gain fat, right? For many decades, the traditional way to lose weight has been to subject oneself to a low-fat diet, yet current evidence suggests that, given the same caloric deficit and protein intake, low-fat and low-carb diets produce similar weight losses.
Another issue is the source of all that salt. The average North American eats an incredible amount of salty processed foods — which means that people who consume a lot of salt tend to consume a lot of foods that are generally unhealthy. That makes it hard to tease apart sodium’s effects from overall dietary effects. Except for individuals with salt-sensitive hypertension, the evidence in support of low sodium intakes is less conclusive than most people would imagine. As it stands, both very high and very low intakes are associated with cardiovascular disease.
Bread has taken a beating over the past few years (especially white bread). The bread detractors generally make two arguments against its consumption:
Bread will make you fat.
Bread contains lots of gluten, which is bad for you.
Bread will not inherently make you fat, but it tends to be dense in calories and therefore easy to overeat. And of course, most people will eat bread with other high-calorie foods, such as butter, peanut butter, jam, or honey. This can lead to a caloric surplus and thus to weight gain over time. Moreover, while bread can be part of a healthful diet, a bread-centric diet can crowd out more nutrient-rich foods, notably fruits and vegetables.
Also, some people choose to avoid bread entirely because of its gluten content. Gluten critics claim that any amount of gluten (a protein, ironically, not a carb) is a danger to all. While “all” is an exaggeration, it is indeed possible to suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity. However, it is also possible for your wheat sensitivity to be caused by other compounds, such as FODMAPS (short-chain carbohydrates known to promote intestinal distress by fermenting and producing gas).
White bread vs. whole-wheat bread
You may have heard that eating bread is all right as long as it’s whole-wheat bread. While white bread (made from wheat flour) and whole-wheat bread provide a similar number of calories, whole-wheat bread has a lower glycemic index and insulin index, and so its consumption results in a lower insulin release. For that reason, and because of its higher fiber and micronutrient content, whole-wheat bread is claimed to be healthier than white bread.
What the media frequently fails to mention is that the actual differences between white bread and whole-wheat bread are relatively small. Yes, whole-wheat bread has a higher fiber content — but this content pales compared to that of many fruits and vegetables. You most definitely don’t have to eat whole-wheat products to get enough fiber in your diet! And yes, white bread does lose more micronutrients during processing — but those micronutrients are often reintroduced later (the bread is then called “enriched”).
Myth no.5 Fresh is more nutritious than frozen
Fresh produce has a natural appeal to many people. It just sounds better than “canned” or “frozen” fruits and vegetables. But just because a food is “fresh” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more nutritious.
Fresh produce is defined as anything that is “postharvest ripened” (if it ripens during transport) or “vine-ripened” (if it is picked and sold ripe: at a farmer’s fresh market or at a farmer’s roadside fruit stand, for instance).
Frozen produce is generally vine-ripened before undergoing minimal processing prior to freezing. Most vegetables and some fruits undergo blanching in hot water for a few minutes before freezing, in order to inactivate enzymes that may cause unfavorable changes in color, smell, flavor, and nutritional value.
While there are some differences between fresh and frozen for select nutrients in select fruits and veggies, overall they have very similar nutritional content.
Myth no6: Food nutrients are always superior to supplemental nutrients
How often have you heard the claim that natural, whole foods are always better than synthetic supplements? In general, the word “natural” has a positive connotation whereas “synthetic” or “chemical” has a negative one.
The truth, of course, isn’t so clear-cut. Some compounds are more effective in supplemental form. One example is the curcumin in turmeric. On its own, your body cannot absorb it well; but taken in liposomal form or supplemented with piperine, a black pepper extract, curcumin sees its bioavailability increase dramatically.
This is a favored line of thinking by supplement companies and health gurus. One argument is that natural foods fail to provide enough vitamins and minerals, due increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and intensive agriculture leading to less nutrient dense crops. Another argument is that foods are a mess of unknown compounds, in addition to known “poisons” such as the dreaded saturated fat, cholesterol, gluten, and FODMAPs.
Fact is, multis are seldom well formulated. Due to cost and space considerations (people willing to take one pill a day may balk at taking ten), multis are often rich in micronutrients abundant in a healthy diet and poor in others you are more likely to need. Try to focus on what you actually need by tweaking your diet and, in special cases, by supplementing with specific micronutrients — such as vitamin B12 if you are vegan or a senior, or vitamin D if you seldom get enough sun exposure on your skin.
In fact, many foods you’ll find at the supermarket are already fortified with the micronutrients you’re most likely to lack. Milk, for instance, is frequently fortified with vitamin D, whereas salt is iodized, and enough foods are fortified with folic acid that you’re as likely to get too much as not enough.
In that light, it may be tempting to take the next step and live on meal replacements, with all the necessary nutrients added in and none of the aforementioned “poisons”. That could work — if we actually knew all the optimal intakes for nutrients. We learn a little more each day, but there’s still much we don’t understand about food components and their interactions with different systems in our bodies (and with different people). So, until we reach a perfect understanding of the human body and its nutritional needs, you’re safer eating a varied diet of little-processed foods than ingesting the same meal replacement day after day after day. And it’ll taste better.
Myth no.8: You should “detox” regularly
“Detox diets” are the ultimate manifestation of the “clean eating” obsession. Such diets commonly limit foods to plant-based juices, sometimes seasoned with a supplement. After a few days of that regimen, you’re supposed to be cleansed of …
Well, those detox diet companies don’t really know. A 2009 investigation of ten companies found they couldn’t name a single “toxin” eliminated by any of their fifteen products — let alone prove that their products worked. Strictly speaking, toxins are plant- or animal-based substances poisonous to humans; but for many detox gurus, “toxins” also include heavy metals … and everything synthetic: not just toxicants (man-made poisons, such as pollutants or pesticides), but also preservatives, high-fructose corn syrup, etc.
Alas, even when a substance really is noxious, a “detox diet” won’t help. Acute toxicity would likely constitute a medical emergency, whereas chronic toxicity can be handled better by a well-fed body — not one weakened by a severely hypocaloric diet. The liver, kidneys, lungs, and other organs work around the clock to remove harmful substances and excrete the waste products of metabolism. By reducing your intake of the nutrients they need to perform these functions, a detox diet can hinder your body’s natural detoxification process! If you wish to promote this process, your best bet is to load up with various foods that can help these organs work optimally, such as cruciferous and other fibrous veggies.
Detox diets are not necessarily safe, either. Every now and then a case report emerges about potential risks, such as kidney damage from green smoothies or liver failure from detox teas.
But if “detox diets” are more likely to harm than help, what explains their current popularity? One answer is: quick weight loss. Deprive your body from carbs and you can exhaust its glycogen stores in as little as 24 hours. The resulting loss of several pounds can convince you the diet had a positive effect. When the diet ends and you resume your regular eating habits, however, the glycogen and associated water come rushing back in, and with them the pounds you’d shed.
The Truth: Focus on sustainable health habits, such as eating nutritious food on a daily basis. Ample protein, leafy greens, and foods chock-full of vitamins and minerals are not just tastier than anything a “detox diet” has to offer, they’re also way better for you (and your liver detoxification pathways, ironically). A detox diet might make you feel better, but that’s usually because of the increased vegetable and fruit intake, not because any form of detoxification is taking place.
Myth no9: Eat more often to boost your metabolism
It’s easy to trace this myth back to its origin. Digestion does raise your metabolism a little, so many people believe that eating less food more often keeps your metabolism elevated.
But evidence shows that, given an equal amount of daily calories, the number of meals largely makes no difference in fat loss. Moreover, some studies suggest that having smaller meals more often makes it harder to feel full, potentially leading to increased food intake. Your metabolism can fluctuate based on the size of the meal, so fewer but larger meals means a larger spike in metabolism. Over the course of a day or week, given an equal amount of calories, the number of meals doesn’t seem to matter — it all evens out.
Myth no10: You need to eat breakfast
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” is something we have all heard before from parents, health bloggers, doctors, and ad campaigns. But the health advantages of consuming a regular breakfast have been overhyped.
People who are #TeamBreakfast have pointed to observational studies showing a higher BMI in breakfast skippers. However, clinical trials have pointed to personal preference being a critical factor. Some people will subconsciously compensate for all the calories they skipped at breakfast, while others won’t feel cravings of the same magnitude. In one trial, women who didn’t habitually eat breakfast were made to consume it; they gained nearly 2 pounds over a 4-week period. Individual responses do vary, so don’t try to force yourself into an eating pattern that doesn’t sit well with you or that you can’t sustain — it may end up backfiring.
Another popular claim is that skipping breakfast can crash your metabolism. But studies in both lean and overweight individuals have shown that skipping breakfast does not inherently slow your resting metabolic rate (RMR).
One area where the “don’t skip breakfast” mantra might hold true is in people with impaired glucose regulation. These individuals might want to play it safe and avoid skipping breakfast in order to achieve better day-to-day glucose management.
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