One of the most challenging (and fun) aspects of my job is dispelling all the nonsense we’ve been fed about nutrition over the years. Most of my new clients are confused because there’s so much information out there. It’s understandably hard to know what to believe since so much of it is conflicting. Here are some of the most common nutrition myths we’ve been fed over the years
Nutrition Myths Exposed
1) I think the biggest myth of our time is that fat is harmful, especially saturated fat: that it causes high cholesterol and heart disease. So many people still have fat phobia, but where have our fat free diets taken us? To bigger waistlines and higher rates of diabetes, since we now snack on fat free refined carbs high in sugar or processed flours that break down into sugars. Think pretzels, pasta, frozen yogurt, Snackwell cookies. Remember those? Gross.
It’s actually sugar and refined, processed foods that cause the inflammation that contributes to heart disease. (source) AND the man-made hydrogenated fats and highly refined vegetable and seed oils— all relatively new foods, processed to be cheap. Excess sugars are converted to lipids by the liver, driving up triglycerides, which can increase inflammation and atherosclerosis. Click here to read why eating fat doesn’t raise cholesterol levels.
The short answer is that the body uses cholesterol for repair, so high levels indicate some kind of inflammatory response to arterial damage or atherosclerosis, and that’s what needs to be addressed rather than taking a statin to force levels down without determining the underlying cause. In the case of hydrogenated fats, which are unsaturated fats altered to be solid at room temp to improve shelf life of products, the body mistakes them for the saturated fats it uses for cell membrane permeability (and overall repair), making cells impermeable and rigid so nutrients can’t get in. Same hardening happens to artery walls.
2) Does red meat cause cancer?
Moving along, remember when everyone freaked out when this study was released saying red meat causes cancer? Couple issues here: what types of meat were the participants eating? McDonald’s feedlot beef filled with antibiotics and toxins? Any conventionally raised beef is high in inflammation-causing omega6 and low in the omega 3s. Grass fed organic beef is high in the anti-inflammatory omega 3s. Click here to read my take on the issue. If you’re eating conventionally raised beef and junk food, yes, you have a higher risk of death via diet. If you’re eating a plant based diet with organic animal proteins, you’re eating an anti-inflammatory, health-supporting diet.
3) What about Eggs?
Remember when this study said that eggs were as dangerous to your heart as smoking? Again, some flaws here. It is very difficult to conduct nutrition studies on human subjects because you cannot lock them up in a lab and control for lifestyle and other dietary habits. In this study, the subjects were all middle aged or elderly patients quizzed about their egg-eating habits. On the one hand, if you’re middle aged or elderly, of course your risk for CVD goes up, especially if you’ve smoked or eaten a poor diet along with your eggs. According to Mark’s Daily Apple, 2 of the researchers in this study had ties to the statin industry. Hmmmm. Anyhow, check out his article for the nuts and bolts, but the take-away from any of these studies demonizing any natural food (e.g. unprocessed or altered) is that it depends on the age, lifestyle and memory of the participants, who are often asked to recall what they ate not only yesterday but years ago. Also, what are their diets like otherwise? If you eat fast food and processed food or drink soda and eat eggs, your risk of heart disease is greater than if you eat eggs along with a diet rich in plant foods. And what about exercise and stress levels?
There has never been a single study that indeed proves eggs cause heart disease. Click here to read it for yourself. Approach each study you read carefully and remember than correlation does not equal causation!
4) Let’s talk about those healthy whole grains:
Wheat is a health food! Oats prevent diabetes! Not really. I’ve written here about how humans are not designed for a grain-based diet, and many people have trouble digesting grains, which can cause inflammation. Click here to read why inflammation is bad. The truth is, wheat in particular is a government subsidized crop, usually genetically modified in this country, and is a source of lectins, phytic acid. and typically, gluten. The wheat genome has been altered in this country to increase the protein content so it can grow heartily. The result is a product that jacks blood sugar, causes inflammation, and is likely genetically modified, and we’re not even sure what the impact of GMOs is yet.
If you read this site, you know I don’t think gluten should be the staple of anyone’s diet. Some people are intolerant of gluten (which is getting worse over time the more we hybridize and alter the wheat plant); some people may be fine with it, but we should be eating vegetables primarily over grains. Gluten intolerance is on the rise, but most people just feel better when they don’t eat it. Many of my clients have chronic health conditions that are worsened by gluten consumption: autoimmune conditions, hypothyroid, IBS, Crohn’s, arthritis, inability to lose weight, the list goes on. Check out Wheat Belly by William Davis for more compelling info, or better yet, try cutting it out and see if you feel better.
5) So Long to Soy
One final rant: soy is not a health food! Click here to read my manifesto. Unprocessed and fermented forms of soy such as natto, tempeh, and miso are fine choices, but processed soy proteins and isolates have the potential to cause hormonal and digestive issues.
Wading through info about health and nutrition can be dizzying and frustrating. There’s conflicting info all the time. Keep it simple: In the words of Michael Pollan, “Eat (real) food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Eat organic protein. Eat a good variety of proteins, veggies, and fats. Don’t eat too much sugar; avoid refined flour and processed grains. Stick to this model and your food will nourish you, not kill you.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. In addition to her coaching practice, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and kick nagging digestive issues for good. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.