Research debunks these misleading nutrition myths

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published September 2, 2020

Key Takeaways

The information age is a mixed blessing. There are tons of evidence-based medical insights that are advancing healthcare. But fake medical news and medical myths also persist, and when heeded, these falsehoods can thwart efforts to remain healthy.

“In the present-day digital world, it is challenging to function comprehensively, given our increasing reliance on the internet, which has touched every aspect of our lives, including healthcare. We are constantly inundated by false information, including medical information—purposefully deployed—that spreads so quickly and persuades so effectively,” wrote the authors of an opinion piece published in Family Medicine and Community Health. 

“Some of this online health information includes interactive websites, internet-based games, online health press rooms, disease symptoms simulations, opinion polls, Twitter feeds, and doctor–patient online consultations,” they added.

So, there’s an increasing need to check and evaluate data sources, particularly for health and disease topics. Nutrition is a tricky topic in particular, with seemingly intuitive advice often apocryphal. For instance, here are five high-profile nutrition myths highlighted by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Myth #1: Avoid tasty or ‘unhealthy’ foods

A diet with generous portions of fruits and veggies is ideal, but does that mean that ice cream, nachos, and other tasty treats are always off limits? Heck no! Small amounts of high-calorie foods make life enjoyable and can be part of a weight-loss journey. Just remember to burn off more calories than you consume. 

The Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020 site provides a breakdown of calorie recommendations based on age, sex, and activity level (sedentary, moderately active, and active). Keep in mind that even those afforded the highest calorie intakes—active boys aged 16-18 years—are limited to 3,200 calories daily.

Myth #2: Eliminating gluten is healthier

In people without celiac disease, eliminating dietary gluten isn’t helpful and could be detrimental. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye grains, and remember that proteins are healthy.  

“If you don’t have these health problems but avoid gluten anyway, you may not get the vitamins, fiber, and minerals you need. A gluten-free diet is not a weight-loss diet and is not intended to help you lose weight,” the NIDDK writes.

Myth #3: Vegetarian diets are better than omnivorous diets

Per the NIH, research has shown that avoiding meat, poultry, and seafood can lower the risk of heart disease, obesity, and hypertension. Moreover, vegetarians tend to consume fewer calories and less fat, as well as take in more fiber, potassium, and vitamin C. 

But keep in mind that plenty of unhealthy foods are also vegetarian—including some types of potato chips and chocolate. And eating lots of junk food is always unhealthy!

Besides, meat eaters can maintain a healthy diet, according to Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. “Strong evidence from mostly prospective cohort studies but also randomized controlled trials has shown that eating patterns that include lower intake of meats as well as processed meats and processed poultry are associated with reduced risk of CVD in adults. Moderate evidence indicates that these eating patterns are associated with reduced risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer in adults,” they wrote.

However, “[m]uch of this research on eating patterns has grouped together all meats and poultry, regardless of fat content or processing, though some evidence has identified lean meats and lean poultry in healthy eating patterns. In separate analyses, food pattern modeling has demonstrated that lean meats and lean poultry can contribute important nutrients within limits for sodium, calories from saturated fats and added sugars, and total calories when consumed in recommended amounts in healthy eating patterns, such as the Healthy U.S.-Style and Mediterranean-Style Eating Patterns,” the authors advised.

Myth #4: Bread, rice, and pasta are off limits if you want to lose weight

The key to consuming grains is to substitute refined-grain products for whole-grain alternatives. The USDA recommends that whole grains constitute half of a person’s grain intake. The USDA also offers these meal-time tips:

  • Switch white rice with brown rice and white bread with whole wheat

  • Use whole grains like barley in mixed dishes like vegetable soup or stews and bulgur wheat in casseroles

  • Cut up to half the flour used in muffins, pancakes, and other baked goods with oat flour or whole-wheat flour

  • Substitute croutons in salad or crackers in soup with ready-to-eat, whole-grain cereal.

  • When making meatloaf, use whole-grain crackers or bread crumbs

Myth #5: Dairy is fattening and unhealthy

Dairy is a wonderful source of calcium and protein, as well as vitamin D, which helps with calcium metabolism. Fat-free or low-fat milk and dairy products are lower in calories than whole-milk alternatives, and adults should eat about 3 servings daily of fat-free or low-fat dairy.

For those who are lactose intolerant, fortified soy products, lactose-free, or low-lactose dairy alternatives can do the trick.

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