by Sharon Palmer, R.D.
Should I eliminate gluten from my diet? Which “superfoods” should I eat? Are “natural” foods any better for me? These are the questions on the minds of thousands of consumers today. Yet the information presented on the Internet and in many magazine articles is not always accurate, giving rise to many myths and urban legends about which foods you should eat to achieve optimal health. Our nutrition experts weigh in on some of today’s top nutrition myths.
1. Going gluten-free is the best way to lose weight.
Eliminating gluten is one of today’s hottest diet trends–the gluten-free food business is set to reap $7 billion this year, and more than half of these foods will be purchased by people with no clear medical reason to avoid gluten. “While individuals with diagnosed celiac disease and gluten sensitivity must go gluten-free, scores of others are also shunning this protein found in wheat and barley. They do so with misguided hopes of getting healthier, dropping pounds, improving sports performance and more. There are healthier ways to lose weight,” says Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., Virginia-based dietitian and author of “Diabetes Weight Loss – Week by Week.” She reports that this fad diet can lead you to miss out on important nutrients found in whole grains, which have been linked with less heart disease, obesity and some types of cancer.
2. You need to focus on superfoods for health.
You’ve seen “superfoods” touted in the media, but the message that some plant foods are better than others may not be entirely accurate. “Often fruits or vegetables are declared ‘superfoods’ on the basis of their antioxidant content,” says Karen Collins, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., nutrition advisor for the American Institute for Cancer Research. However, she explains that the antioxidant levels of foods determined in a test tube may not mean much to the human body. “When you hear about superfoods, it’s easy to assume that eating ‘regular’ vegetables and fruits doesn’t matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. Studies suggest that we get maximum health benefits from eating a wide variety. Synergistic effects of the different nutrients and phytochemicals they contain seem to add up to provide more health-protective effects than any single superfood can provide,” says Collins.
3. Only salt-sensitive people need to cut sodium.
The U.S. Department of Health reiterated the importance of cutting sodium in the Dietary Guidelines, suggesting that you limit it to 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day for healthy people, and even lower, to 1,500 mg if you’re at high risk for hypertension. However, many people believe that this rule only applies to people who are “salt-sensitive.” “The fact is, we are all salt sensitive to some degree – and the large majority of us are vulnerable to the risks of a high-salt diet. Ninety percent of us will develop high blood pressure – a silent killer – at some point in our lives, and most cases are a reaction to the outrageous amount of salt that taints our food supply. Lowering sodium in our diet is a public health necessity, one that would benefit all of us,” says Janet Bond Brill, PhD., R.D., L.D.N, heart disease expert and author of “Blood Pressure Down.”
4. Sugar is Toxic.
While most Americans are certainly eating more sugar than is healthful – 16 percent of our total calories come from the sweet stuff – it doesn’t justify the paranoia that many attach to sugar. “Although some people vilify sugar as the cause of everything under the sun, including obesity and type 2 diabetes, there’s not enough evidence from long-term studies to say that sugar is, in and of itself, toxic and causes disease and other adverse health effects,” says Elisa Zied, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., dietitian and author of “Nutrition at Your Fingertips.” However, she adds that consuming too much added sugar from sugary beverages, candy and desserts at the expense of foods that provide invaluable nutrients – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, low fat dairy foods, fish, lean meats and poultry – is certainly not a recipe for optimal health.
5. Fresh produce is always best.
Many don’t consider preserved produce, such as canned, frozen or dried, to count as a serving of fruits or vegetables, according to surveys. However, the USDA doesn’t differentiate among the form eaten. “Picked at the peak of freshness, frozen and canned produce offers a comparable, and in some cases more favorable, nutrition contribution,” says Barbara Ruhs, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., supermarket dietitian for Bashas’ Family of Stores in Arizona. In fact, some nutrients, such as the antioxidant lycopene in tomatoes, are more bioavailable to your body when they are heat-processed during canning. Preserved produce is a more sustainable choice when fresh produce is out of season.
6. You must give up your favorite foods.
Some popular diets would have you think you can never enjoy a slice of cake on your birthday or a handful of chips at a backyard barbeque. However, the Academy of Nutrition and Dizetetics recently announced that it’s your total diet – what you eat day in and day out – that really matters. “You don’t have to give up your favorite foods to gain health benefits. Simply focusing on adding extra servings of fruits and vegetables offers more payoff than completely gutting your diet,” suggests David Grotto, R.D., L.D.N, dietitian and author of “The Best Things You Can Eat.” Creating an environment of healthy food choices every day – focusing on lean meats, fish, whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables – can help you afford modest servings of treats.
7. Organic is healthier.
Time and time again, surveys find that consumers rate organic foods as “healthier” than their conventional counterparts, but studies don’t always support this. “Just because a food is labeled ‘organic’ doesn’t mean it’s more nutritious. Stanford researchers analyzed 240 studies and concluded that organic foods are not more nutritious than conventional foods. However, choosing organic can reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” says Zied. Remember that organic junk foods – cookies, snack foods, chips – are definitely no healthier than conventional junk foods.
8. Soy is Dangerous.
Urban legends abound on soy, purporting that it causes everything from feminizing effects on men (not true) to breast cancer. “At one time there was concern that compounds in soy known as phytoestrogens could promote estrogen-sensitive cancers, such as the most common form of breast cancer. Now we have more studies in people, which show that soy may reduce risk of breast cancer if consumed in youth or adolescence. Although it may not reduce risk in women who begin eating it later in life, there’s no sign of an increase in risk. Moderate consumption – one to two servings a day – is now considered safe, even for women who had estrogen receptor positive breast cancer,” says Collins.
9. Natural means Nutritious.
Food marketers have learned that “natural” on the food label really sells. It conjures up images of wholesome ingredients plucked straight from nature, but this term is deceiving. “There is not a true definition for ‘natural’ on food labels,” says Jessica Crandall, R.D., Certified Diabetes Educator at Sodexo Wellness and Nutrition, and National Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration has yet to develop a definition for use of this term on food labels.
10. Farm-raised fish is Not healthy or sustainable.
Misperceptions about farm-raised fish are plentiful, from the addition of artificial coloring to inferior nutritional quality. Ruhs reports, “The latest technology in aquaculture is actually a solution for sustaining fish populations into the future. And farm-raised fish provides an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids with reduced risk of mercury contamination. Modern aquaculture has reduced the use of antibiotics in farm-raised fish. There is also no added coloring, contrary to popular opinion; astaxanthin, a naturally occurring and essential antioxidant added to the diet of farm-raised fish, provides the pigmentation in salmon.”