It’s no wonder you feel confused about nutrition. Food and nutrition myths are commonly spread on social media, and even sometimes, mainstream media. Nutrition is a popular topic, and an eye-catching headline might not give you all the context or details, and therefore, perpetuate a food myth. Plus, nutrition is a relatively new science, and as new information emerges, recommendations may change, but the outdated info can linger and become a nutrition myth. Here are some common food myths, and why you shouldn’t believe them.
You have to cut carbs to lose weight
This is a food myth that won’t quit! You don’t have to cut carbs to lose weight. Carbs are very misunderstood. Yes, it’s true that bread and pasta contain carbs, but it’s also true that fruit, pulses, vegetables, whole grains, yogurt, and to a lesser extent, nuts and seeds supply you with carbs, and these are arguably the most healthful foods on the planet.
The scientific evidence suggests that while the initial weight loss is more drastic on a low-carb keto diet, over time, the results are similar on a more moderate plan. In fact, a Scientific Statement from the National Lipid Association concluded that low-carb and very low-carb diets are not superior to other weight loss approaches.
Here’s more proof. A very recently published, tightly-controlled study looked at this, comparing a high-carb, plant-based diet to a low-carb diet. 20 people followed one diet for two weeks, and the alternate diet for another two weeks. Throughout the study, they were allowed to eat as much as they wanted. Over the two-week period, both groups lost a similar amount of weight, and unsurprisingly, the low-carb dieters lost more at first. However, the high carb dieters ate an average of about 700 fewer calories per day compared to the low carb dieters, and if this pattern carried out over time, it would result in more weight loss than the low carb diet. Plus, it’s an indication that the high carb diet was filling, so people were naturally inclined to eat less.
I’m not going to discount that a very low carb diet might be helpful for some people, but at the same time, it’s untrue to say you have to cut carbs to lose weight. (Here’s what you need to know to decide if the keto diet is right for you. Here’s a full article on why you don’t have to cut carbs to lose weight.)
Fruit has too much sugar
This nutrition myth is so misguided! Let’s review. There’s a big difference between added sugars--the ones manufacturers add to food to make it taste a little sweeter and better--and natural sugars found in fruit. Fruit is naturally sweet and it provides fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other protective bioactive compounds. The fiber in fruit helps slow the absorption of sugar, thereby preventing the spikes that can occur when you eat something high in added sugar. (Here are 12 healthier sweet snacks.)
Plus, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, about 75 percent of our population doesn’t meet targets for fruit, veggies, and dairy foods.
Most people need between two to four servings of fruit each day. Where you might run into trouble is with too much juice. For adults, it’s okay to have one cup of 100 percent fruit juice each day, but the rest of your fruit intake should ideally come from fresh, frozen, and dried forms. (For more, read Can you eat too much fruit?)
You should exercise to lose weight
When you push yourself during a workout, you feel challenged and sweaty, and it would make sense to think that burning calories would lead to weight loss. So I get why you’d believe this weight loss myth. However, the reality is that it doesn’t make as much of a dent as you’d think.
One 2004 study among moderately active women revealed that after an intense workout, they ate more--enough to outdo the calories burned during the workout. Another 2019 study found that women who were classified as overweight or obese ate more after both low and higher intensity sessions. They also reported being hungrier and having higher cravings for sweets.
Results from a 2020 study suggest that people compensate by eating about 1,000 extra calories per week regardless of whether they participate in extended workouts a couple of times a week or 40 to 60-minute sessions six times per week. Therefore, they had to burn a lot of calories through exercise to promote weight loss, which isn’t necessarily enjoyable or practical for many people. The study concluded you’d need to work out for about six hours each week. Yet it’s not necessary to exercise this much to promote other benefits of exercise, like better memory as you age, better sleep, and less anxiety.
Instead of working out to burn off what you ate, my advice is to work out because it’s a gift to move your body. Find activities that honor this intention, whether it’s yoga, pilates, dance, walking, running, spinning, gardening, or any other form of movement. When it feels like you’re doing it out of appreciation for your body, rather than punishment for what you ate, you won’t find it a struggle to stay motivated to exercise.
You need to combine plant proteins since they aren’t complete proteins
If you’re moving toward more plant-focused eating, this is a food myth you don’t need to worry about. It’s true that most plant proteins don’t contain all of the essential amino acids, but your body is capable of storing amino acids in your liver for later use. Instead of worrying about combining foods, like rice and beans, think about the variety of protein sources you’re getting throughout the day, and aim to get enough protein at each meal. For example, it’s common to skimp on protein at breakfast in favor of carbs, like oatmeal, cereal, bagels, and muffins. Instead, balance out your meal with more protein, which will help you maintain your muscle tissue. (Here are some high protein breakfast foods and here’s where you can learn about plant proteins.)
You crave foods because your body needs them
I’m all for mindfully honoring your cravings, however, the idea that your body needs foods you crave is a complete food myth! Cravings are complicated and can be driven by stress, a lack of sleep, and the desire to soothe our emotions with something that’s instantly pleasurable. Foods high in sugar as well as those high in carbs and fat (think: French fries and ice cream) have been shown to activate reward areas of the brain, so these foods are more enticing than, say, spinach.
There’s also evidence that if you restrict something you love, it could lead to more intense cravings and a preoccupation with that food, at least initially. However, a 2020 study found that if you’re reducing your intake of certain foods as part of a weight loss plan, over time, those cravings might diminish, especially if you develop other ways to handle the craving, like making a healthier swap.
(Here are the best ways to reduce sugar cravings.)
Eating numerous smaller meals throughout the day is better than three bigger meals.
This food myth is based on the idea that you get a small metabolic boost after eating, so eating more would result in an increased calorie burn. But there are several reasons why you shouldn’t fall for this. For one, the metabolic boost you get from eating represents just 10 percent of the calories you burn; fidgeting and other non-sport activities (like cleaning) have the potential to burn more calories than those burned during food digestion.
A 2019 review concluded that a lower meal frequency (i.e., two or three meals per day) that are regularly timed may decrease the risk of weight gain. The researchers also suggest there may be an increased risk of certain diseases when eating six or more meals per day. They also discuss research showing that the metabolic boost is stronger in the morning than it is at dinner time. One 2020 study found you burn twice as many calories after breakfast than after dinner.
In my experience, I’ve also found that people who practice this grazing approach tend to eat more overall. A light meal isn’t as filling as a bigger meal, so you might unintentionally nibble here and there to quell hunger. These extra snacks and bites add up. Plus, digestion is usually better when you eat bigger meals and space them by three to five hours, snacking as needed if a meal is further away.
The bottom line on food myths
While food myths persist for a number of reasons, it’s best to get your info from a qualified expert who’s looking at all of the latest evidence. Sometimes nutrition myths were considered facts at one point, but later research proved them untrue. For a healthy diet, focus on eating a mix of nutritious whole foods and including a variety of plant foods, even if you’re not eating them exclusively. At the same time, try to limit added sugars and refined grains that are found in heavily processed foods. And try to eat regular meals. If you’re looking for some easy balanced meal and snack ideas, you can download my FREE recipe booklet here. If you’d like extra help developing balanced eating habits, schedule a FREE consultation to see if we’re a good fit. You can also find more about my services under the Get Started section.