Food & Nutrition Myths Demistified
Consumers today are bombarded by claims about food during the course of our lives — but nutrition misinformation confuses and frustrates all of us in our pursuit of a healthier lifestyle.
Which of these 10 food myths have caught your attention?
Some myths will be disproved and discarded along the way, but others remain as persistent as a nasty bill collector. Still more myths will surface over time, spreading faster and farther through smart phones, social networks and mass advertising. They affect what food we buy, how we cook and even when we eat. So now is a good time to debunk some of the junk.
1. “Calories eaten at night are more fattening.”
Whether calories are consumed during “Good Morning America” or “The Letterman Show” doesn’t matter because no connection exists between caloric intake and the clock. It’s the quantity of calories and the level of physical activity during a 24-hour period that determines whether weight is gained, lost or maintained. A late-night snack is fine as long as healthy foods are chosen and a healthy weight is maintained. The bottom line is, if more calories are eaten than our bodies need for fuel each day, those extra calories will be stored as fat.
2. “All fats are bad.”
The fact is fats are an essential nutrient, just like carbohydrates and protein. Fats help our body absorb vitamins and minerals, assist with nerve transmission and maintain cell membrane strength. But when fats are consumed in excessive amounts, they contribute to weight gain, heart disease and certain types of cancers.
Fats are not created equal. Some are beneficial and others can cause long-term health problems. The goal is to reduce the consumption of saturated fat found in animal sources like red meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products, and increase monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like those found in vegetable oils such as olive, corn and peanut oil. A rule of thumb to follow: Saturated bad fats are usually solid and the unsaturated good fats are liquid at room temperature.
3. “Low-fat means low in calories.”
This myth can be a bit tricky. Low-fat foods, especially those marketed as fat-free, may have the same number of calories as the regular version of that same product. Fat adds flavor. When a food manufacturer removes fat from a product, it often adds sugar (and salt) to make it taste better. The extra sugar increases calories, sometimes offsetting the calories removed from fat.
Whenever the word “low” appears on the package, it’s a clue to look more closely at the Nutrition Facts label. The bottom line is that low-fat or fat-free foods don’t give us license to eat all we want because the extra sugar can add up to more calories than we might expect.
4. “Sugar causes diabetes.”
It is true diabetes is related to high blood sugar levels, but eating sweets or high-sugar foods does not cause diabetes. This is an important distinction.
Sugar and carbohydrates are closely linked in the body. Carbohydrates get broken down to their simple form, glucose, by stomach acid.
Think of it this way: Glucose acts like gasoline in a car engine. To get the energy we need to survive, our body converts some of the food we eat into sugars, also known as glucose. As blood sugar (glucose) levels rise, our pancreas creates a hormone called insulin. Insulin acts like a key, opening the “gas cap” in every cell wall to allow the cell to absorb that glucose and use it for fuel. But people with diabetes don’t produce enough insulin, or the body has become resistant to it. As a result, the cell gas cap stays locked and the glucose remains in the blood. Too much glucose in the blood damages organs and starves cells of their fuel.
Diabetes develops as a result of being overweight, a combination of genes with diabetic tendencies, inactivity and a diet too high in calories. So, while sugar does not cause diabetes, blood sugar levels do need to be managed carefully as part of a well-thought-out meal plan when diabetes does appear. In truth, a meal plan for a diabetic is not much different from the meal plan that non-diabetics should be eating to remain healthy. The important difference for a diabetic meal plan is to take care not to eat too many carbohydrates at one sitting. This prevents blood sugar levels from rising to an organ-damaging level.
5. “Using honey is healthier than using refined sugar.”
Actually, our bodies can’t tell the difference whether we squirt from the honey bottle or scoop from a sugar bowl. Honey, refined sugar and even high fructose corn syrup get broken down into glucose and fructose in our stomachs. Honey is a little sweeter than refined sugar so people may use less of it and, as a result, consume fewer calories. This may be where the myth got started. Raw sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, invert sugar, turbinado sugar, etc., are basically the same.
6. “Brown eggs are more nutritious than white eggs.”
Eggshell color can vary from white to cream to brown, but the color has nothing to do with the quality, flavor, nutritive value or cooking characteristics of an egg. The color depends only on the breed of the hen. According to the Egg Nutrition Council, “White-shelled eggs are produced by hens with white feathers and white ear lobes, and brown-shelled eggs are produced by hens with red feathers and red ear lobes. There is no difference in taste or nutritional content between white- and brown-colored eggs.”
7. “Eating eggs raises your cholesterol.”
This myth got started because an egg yolk has the most concentrated amount of cholesterol of any food. New research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that eggs contain a lot less cholesterol than they did a decade ago. Today’s egg has about 185 milligrams (mg) cholesterol, down from 213 mg. Numerous other studies have proven that eggs are one of the most nutrient-dense foods available.
Overall, the average American consumes about 317 mg of cholesterol per day from all food sources, a bit higher than the American Heart Association’s daily recommendation of fewer than 300 mg. The goal is to monitor the overall intake of cholesterol, not to eliminate eggs from your diet if you enjoy eating them.
8. “Multigrain breads are whole grain breads.”
No, the terms are not synomymous — even though some food manufacturers might like you to believe otherwise.
All grains start out as whole grains. If, after milling, they still contain all three parts of the original grain — the starchy endosperm, the fiber-rich bran and the germ — in their original proportions, they still qualify as whole grains. The food industry’s term “made with whole grain” can actually mean it contains very little. In fact, a multi-grain bread may have as little as 5 percent whole grains by weight, with the rest being refined grain.
The only way to know for sure if you are eating whole grain is when the word “whole” leads the ingredient list in front of every grain mentioned. If bread, rolls or pasta say “multigrain, made with whole grains” or even “7-grain” in big letters on the front, do not assume the food contains only whole grain flour.
9. “The browner the food, the more whole grains it contains.”
Actually, brown dyes and additives can give foods the deceiving appearance of whole grain. Common color additives, such as molasses or caramel, can make a product appear healthier to the shopper! Some whole-grain foods are actually light in color. Cheerios is a good example.
10. “Fresh vegetables are more nutrutious than frozen.”
To be perfectly honest, just-picked vegetables and fruits do provide more vitamins and minerals — if you are lucky enough to get just-picked produce. The problem is that fresh produce starts losing its nutrients within hours of picking. It is not unusual for produce to take a full week or longer to arrive on a store’s shelves. The beauty of frozen vegetables and fruits is they are flash frozen immediately after picking in order to preserve the nutrients. With bagged frozen fruits and vegetables you can easily remove just the amount you need and store the remainder in the freezer for another meal.
Have you found that what you thought you knew about food and nutrition might need some tweaking? If so, join the crowd. Misperceptions abound in the field of nutrition. As a nutrition educator, I have to continually update my own knowledge about what is true and what is not.
Look a little deeper and do some research when learning a new fact about food or nutrition, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a more informed consumer.
Janice Wade-Miller has a master’s degree in food and nutrition from Florida State University. In her role as a health educator, she has worked with all age groups, from young children to senior citizens. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.