The Top 10 Food Myths
If the last time you ate fried anything was at the state fair three years ago, we have news for you. No, funnel cake hasn't become the diet food du jour. But fried foods — as well as burgers and beer — can have a place in a healthy diet. Surprised? No wonder. "With all the misinformation and exaggerated health headlines out there, it's easy to get fooled," says Robert J. Davis, PhD, an adjunct professor at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health and the author of Coffee Is Good for You. To help you figure out which truths to swallow, we asked the experts to debunk the top 10 food myths. Read on to find out what's standing between you and better health, not to mention that basket of chicken fingers.
Myth: Red wine is tops for your ticker.
The real deal: When it comes to heart health, red wine gets all the glory. But that glass of Syrah may not be so superior: University of Texas researchers found that although moderate drinkers lived longer than those who abstained, wine drinkers weren't better off than those who preferred beer or liquor.
"Reports of red wine's antioxidant powers were probably overblown," says Arthur Klatsky, MD, the senior cardiology consultant for Kaiser Permanente, a nonprofit health plan based in Oakland, California. The alcohol itself is what boosts levels of HDL, or "good," cholesterol. "The molecules act like Drano in your blood vessels, sweeping away plaque," Dr. Klatsky says. "This lowers your risk of developing blood clots, which can lead to strokes and heart attacks." Whether you prefer Pinot or pilsner, raise a glass to your health — and then switch to water. Tossing back more than two drinks a day does your heart more harm than good, Dr. Klatsky says.
Myth: Organic produce packs more nutrients than the conventional kind.
The real deal: Although buying organic fruits and veggies helps protect the environment, research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that they have no nutritional advantage over their conventionally grown counterparts. And while the latter contain more chemical residue, no studies have definitively proven that the amount of chemicals we ingest causes any harm: Much of the research linking pesticides with disease was done on farmers who had been exposed to huge quantities, Davis says. Still prefer organic? Spend the extra money on produce that has a peel you eat, such as apples and peaches.
Myth: A grilled-chicken sandwich beats a burger.
The real deal: This seemingly healthy favorite not only contains more calories — roughly 350 versus 250 — than a plain hamburger, but it can also be a sodium bomb. "Many restaurants use chicken that has been injected with a saltwater solution to keep it moist," says Stephen Sinatra, MD, a cardiologist in Saint Petersburg, Florida, and a coauthor of The Fast Food Diet. Even a no-frills chicken sandwich with just lettuce, tomato, and mayo can pack more than 1,300 milligrams of sodium. That's more than double the amount in a burger and more than half of your daily quota.
Worried about a burger's toll on your heart? Don't be. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who ate about five ounces of lean beef daily as part of a healthy diet lowered their cholesterol level by the same amount as those who ate less beef.
Myth: Wheat is wicked.
The real deal: With celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Lady Gaga praising gluten-free diets, it comes as no surprise that sales of products made without gluten — a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye — have nearly tripled since 2006. But unless you're one of the estimated 7 percent of people in the United States with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, there's no need to avoid the stuff.
"Wheat is packed with important nutrients, including folate," says Jessica Crandall, RD, a dietitian in Denver and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Few gluten-free breads, cereals, or pastas, meanwhile, are a good source of folate, a B vitamin. "Shun whole grains completely and you may even wind up gaining weight," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, the author of Read It Before You Eat It. That's because they boost the level of the feel-good chemical serotonin in your brain, so if you skip them, chances are you'll feel unsatisfied and wind up snacking unnecessarily.
Myth: Sprinkling on less salt keeps sodium in check.
The real deal: Nine in 10 Americans consume more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium, the recommended daily threshold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Laying off the shaker can help a little, but 90 percent of the sodium in our diets comes from processed and restaurant foods. "Manufacturers use it as a preservative, so it's found in items that don't even taste salty, like bread," says CDC epidemiologist Elena Kuklina, MD, PhD. The first step toward cutting back: reading labels. Go for breads with fewer than 100 milligrams a slice and soups with no more than 140 milligrams per serving.
Myth: Raw veggies rule.
The real deal: There's no need to crunch through another plate of crudités in the name of nutrition. "Besides making vegetables more palatable, cooking can also increase their nutritional value," says Tammy Roberts, RD, a nutrition and health-education specialist at the University of Missouri Extension. In fact, Cornell University scientists found that stewing tomatoes for a half hour increased their cancer-fighting lycopene content by 35 percent. Cooking also unlocks another nutrient, beta-carotene, in corn and carrots. "Heat breaks down the fibrous cell walls, releasing more of these antioxidants," Roberts explains.
On the other hand, water-soluble vitamins, including vitamin C, are usually destroyed by heat. "To cover all your bases, eat a variety of vegetables," Roberts says. If you dig into a salad at lunch, consider serving roasted broccoli or carrots as a side dish at dinner.
Myth: Brown eggs are better than white.
The real deal: Despite their higher price tag (they can cost up to 20 percent more), brown eggs aren't all they're cracked up to be. "Although they look more wholesome, they have the same nutritional breakdown as the white kind," Crandall says. "They simply come from a different breed of hen."
Instead, put your extra dollars toward omega-3-enriched eggs, which can deliver more than 600 milligrams of these heart-healthy fats, compared with the 30 milligrams provided by the regular kind. Researchers found that people who ate fortified eggs daily experienced a 32 percent decrease in their triglyceride level. For the biggest benefit, look for brands that contain both EPA and DHA, two easy-to-absorb omega-3s.
Myth: High-fructose corn syrup is worse for you than sugar.
The real deal: It's been blamed for America's obesity crisis, but experts say that high-fructose corn syrup doesn't pave the way for weight gain any more than other sweeteners do. "From a biochemical standpoint, it's no different from sucrose, or table sugar," says Marion Nestle, PhD, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and a coauthor of Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics. "It has the same number of calories, and the body processes both of them the same way."
The problem is that high-fructose corn syrup is extremely cheap, so manufacturers add it to countless products. As a result, Americans are consuming more of the sweet stuff than ever before. The bottom line: Limit your consumption of all added sugar, which can appear on labels as "dextrose," "maltose," "beet sugar," and "fruit juice concentrate."
Myth: Fried food makes you fat.
The real deal: "Deep-frying can be just as healthy as sautéing," says Harold McGee, a food-science writer and the author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. "When properly deep-fried, food soaks up minimal oil." Case in point: A chicken leg contains only 16 calories more when fried than it does when roasted. That's because the intense heat causes moisture inside the food to evaporate, creating steam pressure that blocks oil — and calories — from entering. To create this effect, the oil needs to be between 325 and 350 degrees for larger pieces of food, like chicken, and 375 to 400 degrees for smaller items, such as potato wedges. To know when the proper temperature has been hit, use a deep-frying or candy thermometer.
Myth: Loading up on fruit helps you slim down.
The real deal: Some weight-loss plans consider fruit a freebie that dieters don't have to factor into their daily tally. But just because grapes are loaded with nutrients doesn't mean you should graze on them all day. "Fruit is high in vitamins and fiber," Taub-Dix says. "But it still contains calories and sugar." A banana, for instance, has roughly the same number of calories — around 100 — as two chocolate-chip cookies.
If you're trying to slim down, Taub-Dix recommends that you stick with four servings (a half cup or a piece of fruit counts as one) a day and pair each serving with some protein. "A handful of nuts or a cup of Greek yogurt will slow down digestion and keep your blood sugar levels steady," she says.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, January 2013.