We’ve all read the articles or heard from a friend about the transformational powers of choosing certain foods over others. With all the hype, it can be hard to determine what’s true and what’s not.
This article, written in honour of Nutrition Month, takes a critical look at seven popular myths. Read on for the real facts on everything from whether you should avoid fats entirely to whether white sugar really is worse than alternative sweeteners.
Disclaimer – The information in this feature is meant to encourage you to think critically about the information we are bombarded with. It is not meant to cause worry or make you revamp your diet. At the end of the day, we all need to make the food choices that make the most sense to us at the time.
Food for thought: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. – Michael Pollan
Myth 1: Avoid all fats for overall health.
Fat, often villainized, is a necessary macronutrient that each of us needs to consume. It’s true that not all fats are equal and that some are important for overall health while others should be limited.
There are four different types of fats: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans fats.
Unsaturated fats (both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) are liquid at room temperature and are considered “healthy” fats because they improve blood cholesterol levels, offer cardiovascular health benefits and play other positive roles. They are mainly found in foods from plants, such as vegetable oils, nuts and seeds. Foods with high concentrations of monounsaturated fats include olive, peanut, and canola oils; avocados; nuts like almonds, hazelnuts and pecans; and seeds (such as pumpkin and sesame). Foods with high concentrations of polyunsaturated fats include sunflower, corn, soybean, canola and flaxseed oils; walnuts; flax seeds; and fish.
Saturated fat is mainly found in foods from animals (such as fatty cuts of meat and poultry) and full-fat dairy products. However, a few plant foods are also high in saturated fats, such as coconut, coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil.
Trans fats are made from liquid oil that is transformed into a solid fat, adding texture and flavour to food. They are found in commercially baked goods, fried foods and processed foods. Some meats, milk and butter naturally contain small amounts of trans fat.
To lower your risk of heart disease, it is best to limit saturated fats and aim to have no manufactured trans fats in your diet.
Myth 2: It’s impossible to make sense of the nutrition facts table on packaged foods.
Actually, it is possible to make an informed decision on the foods you should limit, based on the nutrition facts table included on all packaged foot. Don’t let the nutrition claims on the front of packages sway your decision: head to the back of the package and get the facts.
Start by finding out the serving size right under the header “Nutrition Facts”. For a quick check, use the % Daily Value on the right side to determine if there is a little or a lot of a particular nutrient. If it says “5% Daily Value” or less, that’s considered a little, and 15% or higher is a lot.
You may want to look for low amounts of nutrients like saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugar. You may want a lot of fibre, vitamin A, calcium and iron. To take it one step further, look at the weight of each nutrient and make an informed decision based on your preference, nutritional status and health goals.
Myth 3: You need to stick to the perimeter of the grocery store to get healthy foods and avoid the not-so-healthy options in the middle aisles.
While each grocery store is designed differently, in general, most of the fresh items that are minimally processed (like produce and meat) are placed on the perimeter of the store. But you’ll also find many highly processed and less nutritional foods, such as those in the bakery and deli meat sections.
Don’t ignore the inner aisles, as that’s where you’ll often find dried items (nuts, seeds, legumes), grains (rice, barley, farro, quinoa), oils, vinegars, and frozen fruits and vegetables. Avoiding these sections may limit your purchase of healthy items.
Did you ever notice that the common food staples like produce, meat, dairy and bread are at completely opposite ends of the store? Store designers do this on purpose to make us spend more time in the grocery store and perhaps add a few more unplanned items to our shopping baskets. Developing a meal plan ahead of time and preparing a grocery list can help you limit your purchases to what you actually need.
Myth 4: Alternative or other forms of sugar are better for you than refined white sugar.
Nutritionally speaking, all sugars are pretty much the same. While some people consider brown sugar, honey or agave syrup to be more natural, they are still sugars. All are concentrated sources of calories with very few other nutrients. Your body can’t tell the difference between white sugar and any other type of sugar.
In fact, your body handles naturally occurring sugar in food or processed sugars and syrups in the same way. If you are looking for the least-processed options, then yes, stick to small amounts of honey and maple syrup.
Myth 5: Organic foods are better than non-organic foods.
Bottom line: there is not enough scientific evidence to conclude that organic food is more nutritious than non-organic food. Regardless of being organic or non-organic, foods usually have a similar amount of nutrients. Some studies have found slight differences in nutrient content, although the results have not been significant. The factors that do affect the nutritional content of food are soil quality, growing conditions, harvesting methods and timing, and the species of the animal and what it ate.
The real difference between organic and non-organic foods is in the farming practices. Organic foods are grown under strict regulations and requirements laid out by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Organic foods must be produced without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified organisms. Organic farmers also use crop rotation, plant compost and composted manure to enrich the soil. Animals raised organically are fed only organic feed that is free of antibiotics, growth hormones and insecticides.
In Canada, both organic and non-organic foods follow strict guidelines and are safe to eat. As with any purchase, it’s a personal choice and often comes down to financial realities.
Myth 6: Sea salt is better than table salt.
Sea salt, just like kosher and gourmet salt, has about the same amount of sodium as table salt. One is not necessarily healthier than the other, and too much sodium can be harmful to your health. The differences between sea salt and table salt are taste, texture and processing.
Table salt is mined from dried-up ancient salt lakes. Some table salts include iodine, a nutrient that helps prevent thyroid disease. Sea salt is made by evaporating seawater and usually involves less processing. Depending on the water source and the trace minerals, different sea salts can have varying flavours and colours.
Myth 7: A raw food diet provides enzymes that are essential to healthy digestion.
The major claim made to promote the raw food diet is that heating food destroys its nutrients and natural enzymes and that enzymes are needed to boost digestion and fight chronic disease.
It is true that cooking inactivates plant enzymes since they are proteins and proteins denature with heat. However, the acids in our stomachs denature those proteins, even when eaten raw. A completely raw food diet is often difficult to follow and can lead to inadequate intake of many essential nutrients, such as protein, iron, calcium and vitamin B12.
Uncooked and unpasteurized foods have been linked to foodborne illness and when foods are cooked, this risk is significantly decreased. Cooking also allows for the transformation of foods and is often needed to allow for proper digestion and nutrient absorption.
If you have questions or concerns about your diet, consider getting nutritional support – see the March 2017 article in the Healthy UBC Newsletter for information on using UBC’s Extended Health Benefits and EFAP services.