These days, it’s hard to be a sensible eater. Thanks to new research coming out every week informing us what we should and should not be eating, it’s difficult to separate science from silliness. Though many of the grocery store’s biggest misconceptions have already been dismissed, there are still some food myths that continue to circulate, sticking better than others regardless of their inaccuracies, and they still haunt the minds of even the most conscious modern-day shoppers.
Whether you’re in the market for a new diet, are concerned about feeding your kids right, or simply are trying to be the best eater you can be, it’s easy to fall back on these myths that are inaccurate but are easy to believe. The explanations behind them seem relatively sound, earning them supporters, but science is what debunks them. Before you put you or your kids on a low-carb, high-protein regimen, check out these seven myths that deserve to be busted. Your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents might have believed them, but that doesn’t make them any more true.
1. The fewer carbs, the better
First up is the carb conundrum. It’s a fallacy that has been around since the popularity of the Atkins Diet: The fewer carbs you consume, the healthier you are. False. Carbs are our primary source of energy, and they provide the necessary satiation to keep our diets on track. If you don’t consume carbs, your body will begin to find alternate sources of energy, and not in ways that you may like.
Carbs are more than just pasta and bread — they are fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts. Consumers are instructed to eat fruit two times a day and vegetables three times a day, along with whole grains at least three times per day. Depriving yourself of those carbs and nutrients will not make you any thinner. As Jean Harvey-Berino points out via Eating Well, it’s not carbs that make you fat, “It’s eating too many calories, period, that makes you fat.”
The secret to healthy carb consumption is making sure you’re eating the right kind of carbs, not the processed, refined, carbohydrate-rich foods that are stripped of all nutrients. Eating Well reports that you can do without white bread, pasta, and doughnuts, but that good carb foods such as whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables, should not be left out of your diet because they contain vital nutrients and fiber.
2. Your diet probably needs more protein
Grams of protein: It’s a metric we all seek to find as we examine the ingredient labels on our favorite products. Seventeen grams in Greek yogurt? Score! Three-point-six grams in egg whites? Not bad, not bad. Protein content is forever the number we’re trying to top because we’ve been conditioned to believe that the highest-protein diet is best and that you can never get too much protein.
But that’s false. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says that with the traditional Western diet, the average American consumes about double the protein his or her body needs. The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein for the average adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, and most individuals are surprised to learn that protein needs are actually much less than what they have been consuming.
High-protein diets are supported by little scientific research, and studies have proven that the healthiest diet is one that is high in carbohydrates, low in fat, and adequate in protein. Sufficient intake of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables is recommended for weight control and preventing diseases such as cancer and heart disease. What’s more, the Physicians Committee says that a diet high in protein can actually contribute to disease and other health problems, including cancer, osteoporosis, impaired kidney function, and heart disease.
Instead of sticking to a high-protein diet devoid of carbs, the best strategy for permanent weight loss involves lifestyle changes that feature a low-fat diet of grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables combined with regular physical activity.
3. Fat-free food is always better for you
Along those same lines are consumers constantly feel the tug to give in to fat-free food. Because why buy 2 percent milk when you can buy skim, and why buy regular peanut butter when the reduced fat version is staring right at you? The answer: Because a lot of the time, natural full-fat products are better than their chemical-laden, fat-free substitutes.
According to the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “fat-free” foods must have less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving to use that label, but many of those same foods can be higher in carbs than the full-fat versions and contain almost as many calories. When food manufacturers take away the fat, they tend to add other fillers and chemical ingredients — like sugar, flour, thickeners, and salt — to make up for the lack of taste and palatability. And although your body already knows how to digest fat, it doesn’t know how to break down those substitutes.
Reader’s Digest says that when it comes to meat and some dairy products, it’s generally true that the less fat, the better, but with packaged and processed foods, you’re better off avoiding artificially fat-free versions and instead opting for whole foods with healthy fats.
4. You shouldn’t eat after a certain time at night
Midnight snack? No bueno, according to this myth that says healthy eaters should never eat after 6 p.m., 7 p.m., or (gasp!) 8 p.m. Somehow, many of us have let the misconception of night eating convince us that calories consumed after a certain time at night are actually more destructive than those consumed earlier in the day. But the verdict? False.
The myth is based off a misunderstanding of how digestion works. Many believe that if you eat too late and go to bed on a full stomach, your body’s metabolism will slow down, and instead of burning the food you just ate, will turn it all into fat and cause you to gain weight. That is not true. Although your metabolism slows down when you go to sleep, it doesn’t stop, and you still churn through the food in your stomach — just at a slower pace. Fit Day points out that when we’re sleeping, our bodies still burn calories to circulate blood, assist with lung functions, and fuel our brains. Thus, our metabolism never really shuts off.
The reason that the weight loss ideology of not eating at night has worked for so many dieters is because nighttime is when consumers tend to snack or binge, and take in more calories than they need in a day. Those excessive calories result in weight gain, but the end result will be the same whether you take them in during the morning, afternoon, or night. According to Fit Day, the American Dietetic Association agrees, saying that it’s not the timing but the amount being eaten that causes weight gain.
Your body will store any extra calories as fat if you take in more calories than you burn in a day, regardless of the time of day in which you consume those excess calories.
5. You must combine foods if you eat a plant-based diet
Proteins are made up of different combinations of 20 amino acids. Our bodies can make only 11 of these amino acids and we must get the other nine from food. Animal-based, protein-rich foods like eggs and meat provide all nine of these “essential” amino acids, but nearly all plant foods are low in at least one.
According to Eating Well, experts used to say that to get what your body needs to make proteins, you needed to pair plant-based foods with complementary sets of amino acids like rice and beans. That myth was perpetuated by the 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet, in which author Frances Moore Lappe stated that plant foods do not contain all the essential amino acids, so in order to be a healthy vegetarian, you need to eat a combination of certain plant foods in order to get all of the essential amino acids.
Now, experts including Lapp understand that consumers don’t have to eat those foods at the same meal. Lappe went on to correct her mistakes in later editions of her book. Beans and legumes do boast rich nutritional profiles high in protein, fiber, B vitamins, iron, potassium, and other minerals while being low in fat; however, they don’t only benefit you when they are eaten together. Winston J. Craig explained via Eating Well, “ If you get a variety of foods throughout the day, they all go into the ‘basket’ of amino acids that are available for the body to use.”
Experts from Homeostatis Labs agreed, saying that today, if you calculate the amount of each essential amino acid provided by unprocessed plant foods, you will find that any single one or combination of these whole natural plant foods provides all of the essential amino acids. So whole natural plant foods not only provide the “minimum requirements” but also amounts far greater than the “recommended requirements.”
6. Gluten-free products are healthier than those with gluten
Poor gluten, the protein that consumers love to hate. These days, going gluten-free is all the rage. Why, exactly, experts still don’t know. According to WebMD, only 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease, the condition in which an abnormal immune response to gluten can damage the lining of the small intestine and prevent important nutrients from being absorbed. However, many Americans have still sworn off the protein. That’s an issue, as according to Peter H.R. Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, “unless people are very careful, a gluten-free diet can lack vitamins, minerals, and fiber.”
Many consumers wrongly associate gluten with carbohydrates, and therefore, they see a gluten-free lifestyle as akin to one that is carb-free. False. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. That doesn’t cover all the carbohydrate bases, plus, gluten is found in many whole-grain foods that have a host of vitamins, minerals, and fiber — all of which are vital to a healthy diet. Because so many foods now come in gluten-free versions, consumers are tricked into thinking that these foods are better alternatives, which would be wrong.
According to Toby Amidor, via U.S. News & World Report, those who eat the right mix of healthy carbohydrates like whole-grain products are most likely to adequately control their blood sugar and avoid diabetes, because those foods keep consumers full throughout the day. What’s more, gluten-free foods are not only more expensive, they are typically more caloric than their gluten-laden counterparts because they are full of extra sugars that compensate for taste and texture when alternative products are used.
Bottom line: Don’t go gluten-free unless you have a proper diagnosis or are looking to spend more without losing more.
7. Eating eggs increases your cholesterol
Last but not least is eggs and the myth that eating them hikes up your cholesterol. Verdict? False, because dietary cholesterol found in eggs has little to do with the amount of cholesterol in your body. Now the question is this: What came first, the myth or the egg?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, a 2011 study in the journal Food Chemistry found that regular egg consumption may be associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer thanks to eggs’ high levels of antioxidants. Several studies, including one in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, also have found that eggs may help lower blood pressure, as well.
As for cholesterol, there is a common misconception about the distinction between cholesterol and dietary cholesterol. Cooking Light says this: “dietary cholesterol, the fat-like molecules in animal-based foods like eggs, doesn’t greatly affect the amount of cholesterol circulating in your bloodstream. Your body makes its own cholesterol, so it doesn’t need much of the kind you eat. Instead, what fuels your body’s cholesterol-making machine is certain saturated and trans fats.”
To be fair, eggs do contain small amounts of saturated fat, so enjoying eggs in moderation is encouraged for those with with high cholesterol. However, cutting eggs out of a diet entirely also isn’t always a good idea, because they’re rich in 13 vitamins and minerals. And don’t forget, one large egg contains about 1.5 grams of saturated fat, only a fraction of the amount in the tablespoon of butter many cooks use to cook that egg in — so maybe you should consider cutting back on your butter rather than cutting back on your eggs.