What’s the Truth about the Foods We Eat?

elderly woman eating with husband and laughing

March is National Nutrition Month, so we thought it would be worthwhile to explore some of the “conventional wisdom” about the food we eat. Is coffee good for you or bad? What about red meat? It’s hard to know what to believe when it comes to healthy eating these days as the research seems to be all over the map. But there are a few things on which most scientists can agree. Here are just a few of some commonly held beliefs that may not be as true as we thought they were.

Myth #1: “Low fat” is synonymous with “healthy”

Fats have gotten a lot of bad press, but not all fats are created equal. Many low-fat or nonfat foods are loaded with sugar, which can be more harmful to health than fats. This added sugar also adds lots of calories. Many foods high in fat – avocados, olive oil, wild salmon, walnuts – have numerous benefits and can actually help improve health. There are fats you should always avoid – trans fats (or partially hydrogenated oils) being the main culprit. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned partially hydrogenated oils from foods.

Myth #2:  Carbohydrates make you fat

In 1972, Dr. Robert Atkins introduced the Atkins diet to the world. This low-carb diet proved to be highly popular and effective for many – at least in the beginning. After 1-3 years, weight loss among diets tends to be very similar. What most researchers have finally agreed on is this: Weight gain occurs when you take in more calories than you burn – where those calories come from make little difference when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight. While loading up on refined carbohydrates (white bread, pasta, doughnuts) can raise your risk of diabetes and heart disease and should be avoided, whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables are essential to both overall nutrition and providing satisfying meals.

Myth #3: All fish is good for you

While much fish is good for you – especially wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, and herring (all rich in brain-healthy Omega-3s) – many fish are high in mercury and PCBs, both of which have been found to be harmful to human health. Shark, swordfish and orange roughy have high mercury levels; PCB content often depends on where the fish come from, so it’s best to do some research on fish in your area. Imported shrimp, which is nearly 80 percent of what Americans consume, have been shown, in some cases, to contain high levels of antibiotics and pesticides.

Myth #4: Eggs are bad for your heart

Eggs are high in dietary cholesterol. That much is true. But there is no evidence that shows that eating eggs raises your serum cholesterol (the number you get from your doctor after a blood test). The Framingham Heart Study examined the serum cholesterol in high versus low egg consumption and found no significant difference in either men or women. In fact, eggs are extremely nutrient-rich and are a source of high-quality protein. According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, regular consumption of eggs may help prevent blood clots, stroke, and heart attacks.

Myth #5: Dairy products are necessary for healthy bones

This is one of the most persistent myths about food, but research shows that it simply isn’t true. Milk is high in calcium and calcium is necessary for bone health – but in its natural state, it’s also high in saturated fat. Dark leafy greens – such as kale, watercress, collards and arugula – are also high in calcium and provide numerous other health benefits as well.  Other good sources of calcium include broccoli, almonds, white beans and sardines, all of which provide numerous nutritional benefits. Additionally, greens have vitamin K, another nutrient necessary for bone health. Milk doesn’t. Harvard pediatrician David Ludwig noted that bone fracture rates tend to be lower in countries that do not consume milk, compared with those that do. In a study he published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, Ludwig notes that humans have no nutritional need for animal milk and that “milk consumption does not protect against fractures in adults.”

Myth #6: Foods that are “all natural” are necessarily good for you

The label “all natural” is popping up everywhere these days. There are numerous problems with foods labeled “all natural.” First, the FDA doesn’t regulate the term, meaning virtually anyone can use it without substantiating the claim. Second, many “natural” ingredients are harmful to human health – processed sugar, nicotine, and mercury, just to name a few. The bottom line is that virtually anything can be called “natural,” making the term meaningless when it’s found on a food label.

This article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Speak to your doctor and/or a registered dietitian if you have questions about your nutritional needs.

Categories: Nutrition