Nutrition Myths and Facts

Written by Laura DeWitt, RD, Extension Assistant

Eat this, don’t eat that. . .Each day we receive many – often conflicting – messages about healthy eating from the media and each other, which can make separating fact from fiction a challenge.

Many common nutrition myths are based partly on facts that have been distorted, which can confuse the consumer.  Here are a few:

Myth #1: Grain foods are fattening and addictive.

pasta

The claim that grain foods are fattening and addictive is an example of a distorted fact.

Put most simply, over time, if we eat or drink more calories than our bodies need, we will store the extra calories as fat.  That goes for calories from all food sources, not just grain foods.

True, many folks find that grain foods like pasta, breads, and cereals are easy to over-eat.  Desirable foods tend to be high in carbohydrates and fat (think doughnuts or pie).  Research tells us that our brains react differently to these kinds of foods.  However, the concept of food addiction is often debated and needs further study.

Researchers are looking at how our bodies might be affected differently by whole grain and refined grain foods.  For example, a 2015 study found that whole grain and white (refined) bread may affect body weight differently, but more research is needed.

The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans were released in January.  The Guidelines are updated every 5 years by the USDA and the DHHS with the most current science.  The government agencies that create the Guidelines are required by the Data Quality Act to ensure the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity of the science behind them.  The Dietary Guidelines can be trusted to help us make healthy food and beverage choices.

The guidelines state that healthy eating patterns include whole grains and limit the intake of refined grains.  They also recommend that we eat within the right calorie level and choose refined grains with limited amounts of saturated fats, added sugars, and sodium.

Whole grains (e.g., brown rice, quinoa, and oats) contain the entire kernel, including the endosperm, bran, and germ.  Refined grains have been processed to remove the bran and germ, which removes dietary fiber, iron, and other nutrients.  Products made with refined grains such as croissants, cookies, cake and some snack foods are also high in nutrients we should get less of, like saturated fats, added sugars and sodium.

Here are some tips to help you follow the Dietary Guidelines:
  • In the ingredient list, the word “whole” followed by a type of grain or grain flour as the first ingredient ensures that you are buying a whole grain.
  • There are many kinds of whole-grain foods, such as brown rice, whole wheat bread, corn tortillas, and oatmeal. You might try brown rice instead of white rice or mix them together the next time you have rice.
  • Add whole grains gradually and drink plenty of water to avoid painful abdominal bloating from the increase in fiber intake.
  • Use the Nutrition Facts on the food label to select breads, cereals, rice and pasta products lower in added fats and sugars and higher in dietary fiber.
  • Try using less butter or margarine than recipes call for when making rice or pasta dishes.
  • Limit added fats like mayonnaise, cheese sauce and gravy to cut back on added calories.
  • Portion sizes are key. MyPlate reminds us to eat ¼ plate grains, plus ½ plate vegetables and fruits, and ¼ plate protein foods.

Myth #2: Carbs are bad. No carb/low-carb diets are a good way to lose weight.

granola

Weight-loss diets that restrict carbohydrates (“carbs”) tend to work (for a while) and are very popular.  Although popular, these diets are not recommended for long-term health.

It may help to know some background on carbohydrates, which are often distorted by the media to be “bad.”  Carbohydrates are a major nutrient that provide calories. Carbohydrates are found naturally in many foods such as grains, fruit, vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and in dairy products such as milk and yogurt. Restricting carbohydrate foods cuts out a large segment of healthy food choices.  Removing these foods also removes the calories they provide.  In effect, we lose weight not because we’re eating less carbs per se but because we’re eating fewer calories overall.

Our bodies prefer to run off carbohydrates for fuel to function at their best.

The Dietary Guidelines emphasize that our patterns of eating — the combinations of foods and drinks we consume over time– are more important to focus on than individual nutrients. The guidelines recommend vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, protein foods, and oils.  Examples of how to put this guidance into practice are provided by the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern and its two variations, a Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern and a Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern.

For a calorie level that’s right for you, visit www.choosemyplate.gov.

Restrictive diets are often difficult to maintain long-term.  Weight re-gain is common. For health benefits and to help achieve and maintain a healthy weight, choose a healthy eating pattern at an appropriate calorie level. Healthy eating patterns that can be sustained over time plus increased levels of physical activity are the key to managing a healthy weight.

Myth #3: Gluten-free diets are healthier.

bread

A diet that removes all sources of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and oats, has grown in popularity over the past decade among consumers with and without medical reasons.

There is a perception that gluten-free food products are healthier.  A 2014 report showed that almost half of consumers purchased gluten-free foods due to positive health associations rather than for medical reasons.

Despite the health claims for gluten-free eating, current research on gluten’s effect on weight loss and autism is lacking.  The evidence does not suggest that the general population would benefit from avoiding gluten.  A gluten-free diet may be prescribed by a health care provider to treat medical conditions such as celiac disease, in which the body’s immune system attacks itself in response to the presence of gluten in the intestine.

For the rest of us, a gluten-free diet may be unnecessary and can even be harmful for some.  A gluten-free diet can lack folate, a B vitamin found in fortified breads and cereals. This is worrying for pregnant women as an adequate intake of folate, or folic acid is necessary to prevent birth defects.

Myth #4: Coconut oil is a miracle food.

coconut

Coconut oil is a popular product. It is used for skin and hair and is sometimes called a “miracle” food, with many health benefits. At this time, limited evidence exists to support these claims.  Foods with “miracle” benefits simply do not exist.

For health, amount and type of fat are important to consider.  According to the Dietary Guidelines, intake of saturated fats should be limited to less than 10 percent of calories, or about 22 grams a day.  That includes tropical oils like coconut oil.  Other foods high in saturated fat include butter, whole milk, and meats that are not labeled as lean. The Nutrition Facts label can be used to check for saturated fats.

Plant oils, such as olive and peanut oils, and fat from avocado and olives are better for you. Use these in place of solid fats like butter, stick margarine, shortening, lard, or coconut oil.  You can also eat foods that naturally contain oils, such as seafood and nuts, in place of meat and poultry. Choose other foods, such as salad dressings and spreads, made with oils instead of solid fats.

Saturated fats from different foods and forms of the same foods may affect health in different ways. For example, some animal studies have shown that virgin (first press) and refined coconut oils may have different effects. But not enough data is available yet in humans.

In Closing…

Did you notice any themes in the discussion of these nutrition myths?  Distorted claims, use of black and white terms like “good/bad” or sensationalized language are tip-offs that the information source isn’t credible.  Claims that sound too good to be true often are.

The bottom line is everyone can be a smart information seeker.

  • Look for research-based information that is unbiased and up-to-date. Our understanding of the relationships between nutrition and human health continues to evolve.
  • If you use the Internet, look to see if there is an Editorial Board for the site that will peer-review information before it is posted.
  • Credible websites will often end in .edu or .gov

This article was researched using the literature search engine www.pubmed.gov and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015 accessed at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/.

This post was reviewed by Carrie Miller, MS, RD, Extension Educator, and Morgan Hartline MS, RD, LMNT, SNAP-Ed Program Coordinator.

 

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