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5 Nutrition Myths Disguised as Healthy-Eating Tips
We'd love to be friends with Athena right now. As the Greek goddess of wisdom, she could take one look at this year's nutrition trends and tell us in two seconds whether we should believe the buzz on things like gluten, coconut oil and kale. Alas, Mount Olympus did not respond to our interview (or friend) requests, so FITNESS talked to top nutrition pros for the lowdown on today's biggest food fads. As it turns out, some have more to do with hype than health. Greek to you? Not anymore.
Russ and Reyn
The Myth: You Need to Eat More Protein If You Work Out Regularly
You know that protein helps your body repair and build muscle tissue, so it seems sensible to add a heaping scoop of whey to your smoothie and double up on the chicken in your burrito bowl after a tough WOD or a long run. But chances are, you're getting enough of the nutrient already. "Active women need about 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight a day," explains Katie Cavuto, R.D., a sports nutritionist in Philadelphia. If you weigh 135 pounds, that's 81 to 108 grams daily—and the average young person consumes 91 grams a day. Simply loading up on protein won't do your body any good, says Vandana Sheth, R.D., a Los Angeles–based dietitian and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In fact, the additional calories may get stored as fat.
Instead of adding more protein to your diet, change how and when you eat it. We tend to get most of our protein at dinner, but divvying it up evenly throughout the day may increase the benefits. A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition found that people who ate about 30 grams of protein at each meal had a 25 percent higher rate of muscle protein synthesis—a marker of recovery and growth—than those who got all 90 grams at dinner.
"Our muscles have a peak capacity of how much they can absorb at any one sitting, which is about 20 to 30 grams max," Sheth says. Aim for that range at each meal. Make a quick breakfast burrito with two eggs (six grams of protein each), a half cup of black beans (eight grams) and one ounce of grated cheddar (seven grams), or spoon up fat-free plain Greek yogurt (17 grams in a six-ounce serving) and top it with almond granola (four grams in a quarter cup). At lunch and dinner, opt for lean sources like quinoa (four grams per half cup) or tuna (22 grams in a four-ounce serving). Just finished a workout? "For optimal muscle repair and growth, you need 10 to 20 grams of protein within 30 minutes after exercise," Cavuto says. She suggests pairing a high-protein snack, like shelled edamame (11 grams per half cup) or sliced turkey (19 grams per three-ounce serving), with a fast-digesting carb such as crackers to refuel your tank.
Russ and Reyn
The Myth: Eating More Fruits and Vegetables Will Help You Lose Weight
It seems like a no-brainer equation: Low-calorie fruits plus veggies equal pounds dropped. But new research suggests that the math doesn't quite add up. In an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition review, dieters who increased their fruit and vegetable intake didn't lose weight. What's more, British researchers found that people who ate six servings of produce a day for two months shed no more pounds than those who consumed only one.
The reason: Instead of swapping out less-healthy fare for fruits and veggies, people may have been eating the same foods plus the produce, says lead review author Kathryn Kaiser, Ph.D., an instructor of biostatistics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. Or they may have felt so virtuous about having a salad for dinner that they indulged in a sundae for dessert.
"We know that replacing high-calorie foods with low-calorie ones is effective," Kaiser says. So, rather than simply tacking veggies onto your meal, also scale back on fatty dishes. For instance, have roasted cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes. And make produce the star. Fill half your plate with colorful nonstarchy vegetables, such as broccoli, carrots and bell peppers, or fruit; one-quarter with whole grains, such as brown rice; and the rest with lean protein, like fish, chicken or beans, Sheth says.
The Myth: Coconut Oil Is a Cure-All
Today, coconut oil is everywhere, and the health claims about it have gotten kind of, well, nuts. It's purported to make your body burn fat faster, rev up your immune system and even sharpen your memory because it's one of the richest sources of lauric acid, a fatty acid that the body processes more easily than the type in butter and other fats. However, "there's no credible research to prove that any of these health benefits are real," Sheth says. (The same goes for oil pulling, a trendy practice of swishing oil in your mouth for 20 minutes to whiten your teeth and supposedly pull toxins from the body.)
Still, there's no harm in using a little virgin coconut oil to sauté veggies or perk up your morning toast if you enjoy the taste. A recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that the saturated fat in coconut oil, butter, red meat and full-fat cheese doesn't raise your risk of heart disease as experts once thought it did. "Using coconut oil in place of other fats is fine," Sheth says. But at 117 calories per tablespoon, pour it sparingly.
The Myth: Gluten Is the Major Cause of Belly Bloat
If your stomach often feels like a balloon, you may have tried cutting out wheat. But for the millions of adults who have bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea and don't have celiac disease—a disorder that affects 1 percent of Americans—avoiding the grain-based protein gluten may not completely solve the problem.
Researchers at Monash University in Australia may have figured out what to skip: FODMAPs, a group of carbohydrates that create gastrointestinal distress. These carbs are found in wheat, which explains why going gluten-free can ease symptoms, but they're also in other foods, including onions, garlics and legumes. Experts think that certain people may have an unexplained inability to absorb FODMAPs, which leads to discomfort.
In the Monash study, people who had chronic digestive upset despite going gluten-free went on a low-FODMAP diet. Within two weeks, all of the volunteers felt better, with 78 percent reporting significant improvement.
The majority of people who believe that they have gluten sensitivity may actually be reacting to FODMAPs, says study author Jane Muir, Ph.D., the head of translational nutrition science at the university. A sign that you're one of them: Foods like apples, pears, pasta, bread, garlic and onions make you bloated, gassy or crampy.
Because FODMAPs are found in so many foods, it's almost impossible to know which ones to avoid. If you've been struggling with symptoms for several months, see your primary care physician or a gastroenterologist to rule out diseases linked to bloating, including ovarian cancer. She may perform a breath test to determine if you're digesting common sources of FODMAPs. If FODMAPs are the culprit, your physician can refer you to a dietitian for a personalized food plan.
The Myth: Natural Sweetners Are Better Than Sugar
Fans of honey, agave nectar and maple syrup believe that these sweeteners don't cause blood sugar levels to spike as much as white sugar does because they undergo less processing, which results in steadier energy levels, fewer sugar cravings and thus less weight gain. But these claims may not be as sweet as they sound. The glycemic index (GI), which measures our blood glucose reaction to food, isn't a reliable barometer for appetite or weight gain, Cavuto says. "It doesn't take into consideration what food the sweetener is being consumed with, the quantity being eaten or other nutritional factors, like carbs or calories," she explains. Case in point: Honey has a lower GI value than sugar but packs 16 more calories (64 total) and about five more grams of carbs per tablespoon.
Natural sweeteners do contain trace nutrients, such as potassium and zinc, which aren't found in refined sugar. "But they don't have enough to count as healthy foods," Cavuto says. So your best bet is to choose the sweetener that you like most and use it in moderation.