6 Health Food Myths Debunked

Don't fall victim to health food myths. Credit: Stiftelsen Elektronikkbransjen

Don’t fall victim to health food myths. Credit: Stiftelsen Elektronikkbransjen

Do you ever feel confused about what you should eat to be healthy or to drop a few pounds? With so much misinformation on the Internet and passed on by self-professed experts, it can be hard to decipher fact from fiction when it comes to nutrition. In my first published article on Verily, I debunk six of the most trendy health food myths.

 

“Oh, I don’t eat carrots,” she said to me. “They’re starchy carbohydrates, and I heard they will make me gain weight.”

I looked down at the floor and cleared my throat to hide the grin and laughter bubbling up from my stomach. It wasn’t professional to laugh at a client during a nutritional counseling session.

Was she serious? This seemingly intelligent middle-aged woman really thought eating carrots would derail her weight-loss goals?

Unfortunately, she’s not a unique case. Too many people fall victim to diet myths that lack any scientific evidence to back them up. Some of these myths become so pervasive that some enterprising person even turns them into cringe-worthy diet trends.

It’s hard to place blame on the average consumer for believing in diet myths because of the suffocating amount of misinformation on the Internet. A tiny spark of fallacy can transform into a wildfire of lies in a matter of minutes. Before you know it, “low carb” dieters are turning down nutrient-rich carrots because their friend’s blog said they’re “bad.”

In an effort to help people make truly healthy choices, I’ve tackled six of the myths-turned-diet trends that dietitians hate most. 

To find out what they are, click here.

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Hold The Gluten

Gluten-free labels don't equate to healthy foods.

Gluten-free labels on foods doesn’t mean they are healthy.

In the 1960s, the link between saturated fats and heart disease resulted in a low-fat diet craze with a corresponding spike in carbohydrate consumption. Although originally introduced in the 1970s, the Atkins diet hit its peak at the end of the century, telling people to put down bread and pick up bacon. Today, the gluten-free diet—which focuses on avoiding foods that contain the grain protein—has taken the diet community by storm.

Gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye and spelt, making most bread, pasta and tortillas off limits for gluten-free dieters. Because of gluten’s stabilizing characteristic (meaning it helps hold food products together), it’s also found in unexpected foods—soy sauce, salad dressings, and beer, to name a few. Although more and more gluten-free products are a popping up on grocery store shelves, it can be hard to completely avoid gluten in your diet.

Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity

For people with celiac disease, avoiding gluten is not a choice; it’s a necessity. Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder that effects about 1 percent of the population (1). If a person with celiac disease eats gluten, the body sees it as a foreign invader and attacks, resulting in a destroyed intestinal tract and decreased absorption of essential nutrients. A range of symptoms can arise from the disease including digestive problems, migraines, rashes, fatigue, ulcers, and muscle cramps.

This array of symptoms can make diagnosis of celiac disease difficult. Additionally, antibody testing or genetic testing results can suggest the prevalence of celiac disease, but cannot confirm it. If the screening tests come back positive, an invasive biopsy of the small intestine is need to diagnose a patient.

Because symptoms are not black and white, many people with celiac disease undergo years of discomfort and illness before being diagnosed. In fact, the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center estimates that 97 percent of people with symptoms don’t know they have the disease (2). Additionally, some people may have gluten sensitivity, meaning they have negative reactions when they eat gluten—bloating, constipation, headaches, and joint pain—but don’t test positive for celiac disease or a wheat allergy.

Cut gluten to lose weight

While a gluten-free diet is very effective for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities, it has turned into a fad weight-loss diet. A survey found that 30 percent of adults find a gluten-free diet appealing because it’s considered to be “healthy” (3).

Similar to the low-fat diet craze or the Adkin’s diet revolution, the gluten-free diet acts as an elimination diet. If you cut out a large portion of foods that you commonly consume—whether that be carbohydrates, fats, or foods with gluten—you are likely to lose weight.

Think of it this way: You’re at a work potluck and avoiding all things gluten. The pasta dish with Italian sausage and mozzarella cheese is off limits. Don’t even reach for one of Susie’s famous butter-baked rolls. Keep walking past the gluten-filled cake topped with frosting.

By avoiding these foods that you would normally indulge in, you’re cutting back on calories consumed, which supports weight loss.

The ideal situation would be for you to replace foods with gluten (plus excess fat, sodium, and sugar) with healthier options—fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and healthy fats. Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case.

Even special gluten-free foods you find at the grocery store have added fat to make up for flavor and texture and many times are higher in calories than version with gluten. Food companies are cashing in on the gluten-free hype by slapping GF labels on foods like cookies, chips, and candy. A gluten-free label doesn’t always equate to healthy.

Should you go gluten-free?

With so many undiagnosed people with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease, should you go gluten-free? If you experience extreme symptoms like those mentioned above, it may be worth it to do a little trial and error. Commit to cutting out gluten for a week and see how you feel. (Remember celiac disease only affects 1 percent of healthy people or 1 out of 133 people.)

But beware of the placebo effect—assuming that the intervention is effective when it’s really just in your head. Many times taking control of your diet (and possibly experiencing weight loss) can make you feel like the gluten in your diet was holding you back. If your positive improvements are the result of a placebo effect, it’s likely that your commitment to gluten-free will dwindle away because the benefit isn’t worth the difficulty of the lifestyle change.

If you continue with the gluten-free lifestyle, experience drastic improvements in how you feel, and think you may have an intolerance or sensitivity to gluten, visit your doctor and get the appropriate testing.

Just remember, going gluten-free isn’t as easy as it sounds, doesn’t always mean weight loss, and cuts out a lot of options at your work potluck.

References

  1. Rubio-Tapia A, Ludvigsson JF, Brantner TL, et al. The prevalence of celiac disease in the United States. Am J Gastoenterol 2012; 107(10):1158-44.
  2. University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center. Facts and Figures: http://www.uchospitals.edu/pdf/uch_007937.pdf
  3. NPD Group. Percentage of US adults trying to cut down or avoid gluten in their diets reaches new high in 2013, reports NPD. 2013. https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/press-releases/percentage-of-us-adults-trying-to-cut-down-or-avoid-gluten-in-their-diets-reaches-new-high-in-2013-reports-npd/

The Deal with Protein

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Are you eating enough protein?

The food world has been bustling about protein as a weight loss tool ever since the introduction of the Atkins Diet. The theory behind protein’s weight loss assistance is because it takes more work to digest, metabolize, and use as energy in comparison to simple sugars from carbohydrates. Since it requires more energy to process protein, you burn more calories. Another benefit of protein is that it takes longer for it to leave your stomach so you feel full sooner and for a longer period of time.

Experts advise consuming 0.8 to 1.1 grams of protein per kilogram (pounds divided by 2.2) of body weight. For instance, a 140-pound woman should aim for roughly 50-70 grams of protein per day, on the higher end if she is regularly physically active. However, studies are showing that we may need as much as double the current recommendations.

Caution: Beware of high-fat protein sources. Choose lean meats and always, ALWAYS, read food labels. The packaging of a food item may say it is a great source of protein, but how much fat and sugar is there? A good rule of thumb is that 5% or less of a nutrient is considered low and 20% or more is considered high.

Protein is not as portable as other foods. The best sources—fish, meat, dairy and beans—are not always quick and convenient. Here are some protein-packed snack ideas you can eat when you’re on the go:

  • Turkey Jerky:  It satisfies your cravings and is so flavorful! Perfect to keep in a drawer at your office. (1 ounce = 2.4 grams)
  • Hard-Boiled Eggs:  Boil a dozen eggs on Sunday, stick them in the fridge and grab them throughout the week when you need a high-protein snack. (1 egg = 6 grams)
  • Low-Fat String Cheese:  Pair with an apple or 3-4 crackers for a perfect snack! (1 ounce = 2.4 grams)
  • Energy Bars:  My favorite is the ‘Pure Protein’ bar that is 200 calories with 20 grams of protein and only 3 grams of sugar. (1 bar = 10-20 grams)

Remember to have a balanced diet. Do eat your protein but don’t forget about the other food groups—fruit, vegetables, and grains. Your body needs it all!

 

Is Gluten-Free the Way to Be?

Is Gluten-Free the Way to Be?People who have Celiac disease cannot tolerate ingestion of products containing gluten. Gluten is the protein portion of wheat, rye, barley, and other grains. It is not solely in bread and baked goods; soy sauce, lipstick, and beer are also on the list of products that contain gluten.

Recently, there has been a lot of hype in the media promoting gluten-free diets as an effective method of losing weight. Hollywood A-Listers such as Anne Hathaway and Gwyneth Paltrow swear that by eliminating wheat, rye, and barley from their diets they stay in shape and have more energy. Chelsea Clinton even opted for a gluten-free wedding cake!

So, is the gluten-free diet a reasonable way to shed those pounds? Before you clean out your pantry, consider the “dark side” of the gluten-free diet:

1. Dollars and Cents: Gluten-free foods, on average, cost a whopping 242% more than foods with gluten (Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research, 2008).

2. Lack Nutrients: Gluten-free products are generally not fortified and are low in fiber, folate, and iron. If you suffer from Celiac disease, you should be working with a nutritionist to ensure you are getting adequate vitamins and minerals.

3. Hidden Sugars and Fat: Consumers are choosing gluten-free products because they assume they are a healthier, low-calorie alternative. However, the fact is that gluten-free foods generally contain more fat and sugar to add flavor.

The bottom line is that a gluten-free diet as a means to lose weight works like any other fad diet through calorie restriction. People look for a “villain” to cut out of their eating habits in order to lower their overall calorie consumption; in this case, all gluten products. If you have weight loss goals, save your money, hit the gym, and eat a healthy, balanced diet.

Note: If you believe you suffer from Celiac disease or gluten-sensitivity, see your doctor to get tested.