Despite years of research and top-quality science, the world of nutrition is still riddled with flawed thinking. Most people feel that because they eat, they must be experts in nutrition. However, it’s not really their fault if their reasoning is wrong. Most people get their nutrition beliefs from the news and it seems that reporters change their minds almost as often as people change their socks, which is mostly true. One day you read that eggs give you heart disease, the next day you hear that this was wrong and they’re actually good for you. What’s a person to believe? Well, the best thing to do is to think like your grandparents when it comes to food. What do I mean by that? Well, if your grandparents wouldn’t recognize the food or nutrition advice, then it’s probably not good for you. Also, if you didn’t actually witness a food or animal produce being grown or raised, there most likely is something unhealthy about it – whether it is pesticides, hormones or antibiotics unnecessarily added. You just can’t be too sure anymore.
In recognition of March’s National Nutrition Month, this article is going to help you weed through and differentiate the nutrition facts from fiction. We’ll comb through the top 5 nutrition myths and explain why they deserve busting.
#1. Saturated fat causes heart disease
Over the past 40 years butter has become the poster child for saturated fat and has gained a reputation as a deadly food. Vilified and condemned to an unhealthy fate, butter not only will cause your heart to stop beating spontaneously, but it will increase the size of your love handles faster than a bag of Twizzlers (they’re fat free, so, they must be better for you, right?). .
However, just last month, a meta-analysis of 21 unique studies, including almost 350,000 people, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that there is no relationship between intake of saturated fat and the incidence of heart disease or stroke. Yes, you read it right: None.
This study was published by some of the top lipid researchers in this country, who at one time themselves also thought saturated fat was to blame for our high heart disease rates. In this meta-analysis, 11,000 of the 350,000 of the people studied developed cardiovascular disease (CVD), over a time period of 14 years. By combining these different studies into one investigation, the authors were able to see if there was really any association between saturated fat intake and risk of heart attacks and stroke – which in fact, there was none. They found that there was a weak association only in studies involving smaller number of cases, but not larger ones. Smaller studies are usually subject to publication bias, so it’s unclear if these were actually valid or not.
If this publication is now the talk of the nutrition community, how did saturated fat get its bad reputation? Well, it all started in the 50’s when a physiologist named Ancel Keys, Ph.D. compared fat intake and heart disease deaths in six countries, including the U.S. and found that saturated fat was connected to heart disease. In hindsight, the truth was that the countries he used to prove this statistic were cherry-picked to show this result because that’s what he believed. While Dr. Keys used data from six countries, he actually had statistics from 22 countries available. And when scientists analyzed those statistics, the apparent link between eating saturated fat and heart disease disappeared. Yet, the public was never made fully aware of these findings.
In this new investigation, the authors wrote the following: “Our results suggested publication bias, such that studies with significant associations tended to be received more favorably for publication. If unpublished studies with null associations were included in the current analysis, the pooled relative risk estimate for CVD could be even closer to null.”
So, what’s the bottom line? Butter is not the heart killer that we once thought. In fact, your grandparents would probably tell you to eat butter, and not margarine, because it’s healthier. But we’ve been lead to believe a different line of thinking, and because of it we ended up consuming tubs of hydrogenated margarine, which, due to their high trans fat content, increased our risk of heart disease more than butter possibly could have ever achieved. And, even the non-hydrogenated margarines are not playing out to be the heart saviors we thought they would be. Thus, go ahead an enjoy butter, a natural food not tampered with by modern man.
#2. Diet soda is healthier than regular soda
Many people dislike the taste of plain water, so they turn to carbonated beverages and other sweetened drinks to satisfy their fluid needs. Since 1950, our consumption of carbonated beverages has climbed from 10 gallons per person per year, to more than 50. Of this, diet soda makes up 30% of the total volume – that’s a lot of pop!
The reason for the increased popularity of diet beverages, including soda and juice drinks, is the association of sugar with the development of obesity, diabetes and many other chronic conditions, which is true. But, our obsession with sweet drinks has not led us down the right path by replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners. Instead of reducing our sugar intake, we replaced it with something even sweeter, but with no caloric value: artificial sweeteners.
Recently, researchers have found that artificially sweetened beverages we drink to lose weight and reduce our risk of diabetes are actually associated with weight gain and an increased incidence of diabetes and insulin-resistance. But how is this possible? Weren’t these sweeteners supposed to be better for us? Apparently not.
Several different large epidemiological studies in humans have indicated a direct correlation between frequent diet beverage consumption to double the risk of diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome. Other human data indicate that substitution of sugar with artificial sweeteners doesn’t actually reduce appetite, but stimulates it even more!
Artificial sweeteners actually act almost exactly the same in the body as sugar despite their minimal caloric value. They activate sweet receptors in the brain and endocrine cells in the gut making you think you had sugar, but because there are no calories associated with them, the brain realizes something isn’t right. Tricking the body in this way disrupts our normal energy regulation such that we end up seeking out more food to replace the nutrients we should have received from the non-nutritive sweet foods (namely carbohydrates and more sugar).
So what’s a person to do? Should you just eat regularly-sweetened foods? Or continue to use artificially-sweetened substitutions? Well, in a perfect world we’d do neither. The American food supply has become sickly sweet and because of this, we’re one of the more obese nations in the world – and your grandparents would agree. The only way to reduce our intake of all these sweet items is to read food labels carefully and watch out for unnecessarily added sugars.
As far as artificial sweeteners go, the best bet is just to cut them out completely. This includes Saccharine, Sucralose/Splenda, Acesulfame-K, Cyclamate and Aspartame. Even Stevia and Agave sweeteners don’t seem to have any benefit. A sweetener is a sweetener, no matter the type. Over time your palate will learn to appreciate unsweetened tea or coffee, and will recognize a good, unsweetened slice of bread (such as sprouted grain bread) compared to the overly-sweet breads commonly found on grocery shelves. As Henry Feilding once said, “Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea”, his words could not be any closer to the truth.
#3 Coffee is bad for your health
Whenever a person begins a “cleansing” diet, one of the first things they’re supposed to eliminate is coffee. Sure, perhaps giving your body a break from stimulants is a good idea, but is coffee actually a toxic and unhealthy substance? Well, let’s look at the facts.
Now, more than ever, studies are popping up actually touting the hefty list of health benefits from your favorite brew. From cancer risk to liver disease to type 2 diabetes coffee has been shown to have beneficial effects.
One of the reasons for coffee’s ability to improve risks of disease is its high content of antioxidants, namely polyphenols. These compounds protect body cells from free radical ions and reactive atoms that can disrupt normal function and lead to diseases like cancer and diabetes. In two separate human investigations, individuals who consumed 2 or more cups of coffee a day had half the risk and rate of liver disease and cancer as those who consumed no coffee at all. In a recent January 2010 publication, Harvard epidemiologists found that consumption of 5 or more cups of coffee or tea daily compared to no consumption was associated with a decreased risk of glioma (brain cancer).
For reduction of diabetes, Australian researchers recently combined data from 18 studies including over 457 000 participants and found that for every additional cup of coffee consumed each day, there was a 7% reduction in risk in this widespread disease. Similar inverse associations were found for decaffeinated coffee and tea and risk of incident diabetes indicating that the effects are likely due to the polyphenol content of these beverages and perhaps not caffeine itself.
Now that you know coffee can actually benefit your health, there two important factors to consider. First, coffee is not a substitute for a balanced breakfast, not matter how busy you are in the morning. Skipping breakfast leads to greater hunger later in the day, so ensure you compliment your morning cup ‘o Joe with something as simple as scrambled eggs and fruit. Second, coffee loaded with artificial whiteners or excess sweeteners (sugar or artificial), may negate the benefits of this healthy drink. As pointed out above, excess sweetness and artificial anything is most likely a bad health move. Instead, learn to enjoy your coffee black, or with a small amount of cream (or milk) and sugar in the raw. Just be careful to enjoy your hot coffee slowly so you don’t burn your tongue!
#4 High protein diets are “bad to the bone”
One of the knocks against high protein diets is their suspected negative effect on bone health. Part of the reason for this supposed detrimental outcome is that protein decreases your body’s natural pH balance, resulting in an acid overload that must be buffered by the bone. This was thought to release calcium from the skeleton, which would weaken bone strength. However, protein also has beneficial effects on bone by increasing bone growth factors, enhancing calcium absorption (in addition to often supplying calcium), and increasing muscle mass and strength.
In a recent meta-analysis of 61 studies from late 2009, researchers found little to no evidence that dietary protein had a negative effect on bone health – whether it be from animal or vegetable sources. In fact, there was a slight positive effect of increased protein intakes on bone strength which accounted for 1-2% of total bone mineral density. Despite slight decreases in body pH levels from increased protein intake, there is apparently no detrimental effect on bone strength and density.
Currently, researchers at the University of Connecticut and Yale are also conducting a large multi-center study to investigate this observation of protein on bone health even further. Their study: “Supplemental Protein to Outsmart Osteoporosis Now (SPOON)” is providing increased protein to the normal low-protein diets of mature men and women with the aim of determining if it does indeed improve bone health and possibly prevent bone fractures.
Other benefits of high protein diets include improved satiety during weight loss regimes, and retention of lean body mass (muscle). There also does not appear to be any detrimental effect of increased protein intake on kidney or heart health. In fact, because additional protein can help you attain a more optimal body composition, there are only good reasons to include it in your diet today!
What’s the bottom line here? Well, grandpa and grandma also enjoyed protein as part of their healthy daily diets. However, the protein they chose came from local farms, and weren’t covered in breading, high sugar sauces or preserved with carcinogenic chemicals. The same should apply to you – be smart when choosing protein: know where it comes from; ensure it wasn’t injected with unnecessary hormones or antibiotics; and try to eat it in its most natural state possible paired with healthy side dishes.
#5 Low-carb diets are neither practical nor healthy
Dr Atkins’ name is often synonymous with low-carb living. Yet, there are plenty of low-carb diet plans out there today that have similar characteristics. The common theme behind all these nutritional designs is a significant reduction in carbohydrates from the typical American fare with a corresponding increase in protein and dietary fat. Foods usually consumed include leafy greens, berries, meats, fish and poultry, eggs, dairy, oils, nuts and seeds. None of these foods needs to be low in fat (like dairy), and for some people, that’s a source of contention.
As we’ve learned above, high saturated fat in the diet, which is often the case with low-carb living, is not a precursor to heart disease. Then, as we’ve learned last month from Dr Desmond Ebanks, high cholesterol diets also are not detrimental. However most people still do not feel comfortable with all this fat in their diet. I mean, how good can it be to replace your toast at breakfast with an extra egg? Well, in fact, for some people, it is a very good thing.
Then there’s often increased protein intake on a low-carb diet that for some people causes concern. But, as we learned above, this is not actually detrimental for bone health or kidney function. In fact, the higher protein content of these low-carb plans enhances their success for weight loss because protein has the ability to improve satiety and promote fullness faster than many high-carb foods.
Recently, at the University of Connecticut, Jeff Volek, PhD and I conducted one of the first controlled feeding studies of a low-carbohydrate diet. In this investigation, we studied 8 men and fed them everything they needed for two 6-week periods. Our aim was to compare a high saturated fat low-carbohydrate diet with a high unsaturated fat low-carbohydrate diet in the absence of weight loss on markers for heart disease and inflammation, and body composition. This study was a follow-up to a larger study recently conducted in which we found that despite a 3-fold greater intake of saturated fat on a low-carb weight loss diet, the saturated fat content of the blood decreased significantly compared to a low-fat diet.
What we found was that both the high saturated fat and a low-saturated fat low-carb plan actually reduced systemic inflammation, decreased or did not elevate the saturated fat content of the blood, and did not have any negative effects on markers of oxidative stress measured in the urine. Also, despite a lack of weight loss, a few of the participants actually lost body fat while retaining or gaining muscle mass just due to removing carbohydrates from their normal intake.
For many people, a low-carb nutrition plan has many positive benefits: it helps reduce cravings for sugar and sugary foods; it increases consumption of foods rich in calcium, heme iron, vitamin B12, and essential fats; it promotes greater intake of low-carb green-leafy vegetables which are known to reduce cancer risk; all the while reducing risk factors for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, even without weight loss. These statements are all backed up with solid scientific evidence and are being re-validated almost every day.
As far as practicality, some people worry that they will miss out on healthy whole grains, higher carb fruits and several healthy convenience foods. However, the health benefits of a low-carb diet are still seen in the absence of these items. Even despite the potential lack of dietary fiber on a low-carb plan, many people still see an improvement in gut health (oftentimes people will discover their intolerance to gluten or addiction to flour products once they make this switch).
I will say this: A low-carb lifestyle is not for everyone, but it is a very good option for many people, especially those who lead fairly sedentary lifestyles and have no need for excess carbohydrate foods in their diet anyhow. Even for those who are more active, a reduction in carbs from the normal 65% recommended for exercise can help reduce body fat, improve cardiovascular health and calm inflammation in ways never experienced before.
Wise words from grandpa and grandma on this topic: continue to choose fresh, minimally processed foods as often as possible. Just because you’re following a low-carb diet, doesn’t mean you need to over-consume processed meats, hydrogenated margarines or “sugar-free” substitutes for real food. You can find nitrate-free organic bacon more easily than ever before, grass-fed meats, free-range chicken and eggs, and organic berries and olive oils. Just choose wisely as your grandparents would have and a low-carb diet can be one of your greatest health allies.