5 of the Biggest Nutrition Myths

5 of the Biggest Nutrition Myths, health, vitamins, water, hydration, raw food

I think nutrition should be a simple thing, eat good food and live well because of it.  So it truly is a shame that there is so much confusion surrounding what we eat.  In this era of over-thinking it is more important than ever that we let go of the outdated notions that no longer serve us.

Over the years I have worked in laboratories, vitamin stores, restaurants, juice bars, acupuncture clinics and herbal pharmacies, my chemist parents even used to manufacture their own vitamin line.  I feel like I’ve been talking about nutrition with people my whole life and these are just 5 of the most widely accepted yet potentially hazardous myths that I have noticed.  I hope they can help you to navigate the murky waters of misinformation out there.

 

Myth #1: Eat a low-fat diet to lose weight

butter, fat, nutrition, health, low-fat

Low-fat and low-cholesterol diets were all the rage in the 80s and 90s.  While we’ve been moving away from the idea that fat is bad in the past few years, the bleed over is still surprisingly influential.

I can follow the logic here, the less fat we take in through our diet, the less we will retain in our bodies…right?  WRONG!  Our metabolisms simply don’t work that way.

Fats and proteins are both used functionally and structurally in the body, so our bodies can put them to good use and they aren’t often stored.  Carbohydrates, on the other hand, are mainly used for energy so we need a surprisingly scant amount to get through the day.  When we take in large amounts of carbohydrates they give the body way too much energy and are stored away as fat.

There have been many studies done on fat in the diet, but I think an experiment performed by Kekwick and Pawan in 1956 is the most interesting.  Different groups consumed 1000-calorie per day diets (which is low compared to the 2000-calorie standard) consisting of 90% fat, 90% protein and 90% carbohydrates.  The high-fat group lost the most weight while the carbohydrate group gained weight.  Even with a low calorie and low fat diet, the high number of carbohydrates in the diet cause the body to store fat, go figure!

And this is only concerning body weight, keep in mind that low fat diets aren’t good for your overall health either.

 

Myth #2:  Everyone needs a multivitamin

Multivitamin, Nutrition, Health, Nutrition Myths, vitamin, supplements

The definition of vitamin includes “various organic substances that are essential in minute quantities to the nutrition of most animals…”  I know we like to think more is often better, especially when it comes to vitamins which we’re constantly being told to load up on, but I think that the in minute quantities part of that definition gets sadly overlooked.

Vitamins are meant to come from the food we eat, mixed in with all everything else that makes up the food like fiber, fat, protein, starches, enzymes and water.  Being a bit diluted in the food we eat actually helps us to absorb vitamins better because it slows down how fast they move through the gut.  Before vitamins began to be discovered about 100 years ago everyone got them through the food they ate.

Once vitamins were discovered in a lab, they started to be manufactured in labs as well.  These chemically created versions of vitamins turn out to be less easily absorbed into the body, less biologically effective than their natural alternatives and may even be hazardous to our health.

For example, there is deep misunderstanding about folic acid vs. folate.  Many health professionals often claim they are the same thing, alternate names for vitamin B9, but they are quite different.

Folic acid is the oxidized form of folate found in vitamin supplements, it must be synthesized in a lab as it is not found in nature.  Folate is a variety of naturally occurring compounds found in foods like kale, broccoli and animal liver, just to name a few.  In order for the body to use either folic acid or folate, both must first be converted to THF, which is the active form of folate that is essential to our metabolism.  We need plenty of THF in our systems to build new red blood cells, support the nervous system and women need it to prevent birth defects early on in pregnancy.

Folate is converted to THF right in the intestines and then is absorbed directly into the body.  Folic acid, however, must be transported to the liver where an enzyme called DHFR converts it.  The problem is, the body doesn’t usually have enough DHFR to process the large doses of folic acid found in supplements.  This forces un-metabolized folic acid into the system, which is now believed to be responsible for increased incidences of cancer.

While many people worry that the standard American diet has depleted their bodies of nutrients, studies still show many negative side effects of taking synthetic vitamins.  It is best to figure out what your specific needs are before self medicating and use the least processed supplements possible.  Instead of multivitamins I usually recommend whole foods supplements like Juice Plus, I suggest fermented cod liver oil rather than synthetic vitamin A or D, bee pollen is an amazing source of the B complex and calcium supplements are easily swapped out for daily bone broth.

 

Myth #3:  Drink 8 cups of water every day

water, nutrition, hydration, 8 cups per day, 8x8 myth, bottled water

The suggestion of drinking at least 8 cups (8oz each) of water every day is called 8×8 for short.  I believe it is one of the most ubiquitous and seemingly harmless of these myths, however it turns out to be not only invalid but also potentially dangerous.

I have known ever since starting acupuncture school that the idea of forcing yourself to drink water in excess every day is not a balanced practice.  Just like all other animals, under normal circumstances our thirst kicks in long before we ever become dehydrated.

An extensive paper on the invalidity of 8×8 was published in 2002 by Heinz Valtin, a professor from Dartmouth.  He found no clear origin of the 8×8 theory and no scientific proof of it.  There is, however, extensive research on how well the thirst reflex controls hydration and how drinking water in excess can cause potentially harmful side effects and in a few incidences has actually been deadly. Here’s an excerpt from the paper:

Despite an extensive search of the literature and many personal inquiries and discussions with nutritionists and colleagues, I have found no scientific reports concluding that we all must drink at least eight glasses of water a day.  On the contrary, there are publications that state the opposite, and skepticism about 8×8 has begun to appear in the lay press. Not only is there no scientific evidence that we need to drink that much, but the recommendation could be harmful, both in precipitating potentially dangerous hyponatremia and exposure to pollutants and also in making many people feel guilty for not drinking enough.
 

Myth #4: Organic is always best

organic bananas, is organic best?, nutrition, health, grassfed, pastured

When talking about fruits, veggies, herbs and spices, yes it is safe to say that organic is usually best, because it means no pesticides or added chemicals and that’s great!  But the case is very different when talking about meat and dairy.

The quality of animal products is completely dependent on the quality of those animals’ diets and lifestyles.  If cows eat grass and chickens eat garden scraps (greens, weeds, bugs, grubs and berries) like they have been raised to for countless generations, then they are usually pretty healthy and produce quality milk, eggs and meat.

Factory-farmed animals, on the other hand, are usually sustained on feed made purely from grains and legumes like wheat, corn or soy (often GMO.)  A foreign diet that is high in starch and low in nutrients, plus overcrowding and the use of growth hormones leaves most of these animals overweight and sick.  This is why they are often treated with antibiotics, which breads antibiotic resistance.

Being that the term “organic” is a legal term, and seeks to identify food that has no unnatural ingredients – like pesticides, hormones or antibiotics – it would seem that the term organic is what differentiates these farm and factory practices, but that’s not exactly the case.  There are countless big-name factory farms which feed their animals an organic version of wheat, corn or soy and call them organic, because legally they are.  In my opinion, just because they don’t contain added hormones or antibiotics does not mean these factory farmed animals are necessarily healthy.

Small farms, however, might not be certified as organic but grass-fed and pasture-raised animals are inherently healthier.  When the cows are grazing on grass that keeps regrowing on its own and chickens pick at weeds and grubs in the garden, pesticides and chemicals aren’t necessary, the animals are simply part of the ecosystem of the farm.  And because the animals are eating nutrient-dense diets they are used to and getting plenty of room and fresh air, they are healthier and pass those health benefits on to us.  You are much better off getting animal products from smaller farm sources that raise animals on open pasture rather than exclusively looking for that “organic” label.

 

Myth #5: Vegetables are healthiest when raw

broccoli, nutrition, health, raw, vegetables

I think that this is one of the biggest misconceptions we have to overcome in America.  For the past few decades, it seems that salad has reigned king of all health foods, and recently that has developed into an all out raw food fad – and yes, it is a fad.  Even though most other cultures seem to have figured out long ago that cooking or fermenting vegetables is needed to help digest them, Americans easily get caught up in extremist ideas when it comes to health.

Again, I can follow the logic here, raw vegetables are some of the least processed foods so they must be the best thing ever!   Right?  Well, yes and no…

Raw vegetables do have more vitamins, enzymes and fiber than cooked vegetables, but let’s take a look at each of those to see if raw veggies truly are the best source.

In terms of vitamins, cooking does reduce the vitamin content of vegetables but it is proportional to heat and cooking time, so lightly steaming or sautéing saves many more nutrients than deep frying.  While light cooking does destroy a fraction of the vitamins, it actually makes the remaining ones more easily absorbed or bioavailable, especially beta-carotene and lycopene.

Enzymes are present in raw vegetables, but a healthy body should produce its own enzymes, so not everyone needs them in large amounts.  Those with low levels of digestive enzymes usually have a hard time digesting raw foods, so eating them for the enzymes wouldn’t help much.  If you are looking to boost your enzyme intake then you should actually look to sprouted and fermented foods which are powerhouses of enzymatic activity and much easier to digest.

As for fiber, this is similar to the vitamin dilemma, it is broken down by cooking but lightly cooked foods still contains plenty.  A whole foods diet, even of cooked foods, should supply sufficient fiber for most people, but 1-2 servings of raw vegetables or fruit per day can offer an extra boost to those worried about fiber intake.

While there are some raw vegetables that are tolerable in small amounts, keep in mind that some really aren’t made for us to digest at all when raw.  Cruciferous vegetables, for example, is a family of plants made up of cabbage, turnips, broccoli, collards, kale and more.  It is well known that cruciferous veggies have high levels of thiocyanates which inhibit thyroid function, in other words they slow down metabolism.  But by cooking these foods the thiocyanates are reduced to a level that is harmless.

Spinach is also a culprit, along with chard, parsley and beet greens they contain high levels of oxalic acid.  High levels of oxalic acid can irritate the digestive tract, cause kidney stones and inhibit absorption of calcium and iron.  The ironic part is that many people consume spinach for its iron, but unless you are cooking it a little you won’t be absorbing much of it.

So while I believe in cooked veggies, the take home lesson here is balance, balance, balance!  Trust your gut and you’ll do fine.

Comments

5 Responses to “5 of the Biggest Nutrition Myths”
  1. Derek Lotts says:

    When it comes to vegetables, I actually prefer most of them raw.

  2. anne says:

    Just a note: the label “organic” does NOT mean that pesticides were not used – it means that organically approved pesticides were not used. One example is apples. I worked at Cornell University for ten years doing tree fruit disease research; many of my studies were using organic management of pests and diseases. I sprayed a lot of copper and sulfur (in addition to a plethora of other experimental organic products), and generally had to spray more often to achieve marketable fruit using organic compounds. This means I was on the tractor more often, so if you’re also concerned with the use of fossil fuels, that’s an issue as well. It is difficult in general to produce marketable pome and stone fruit organically, especially in the more humid eastern United States. I appreciate your blog and your expertise; it just bothers me when people believe organic = no chemical inputs.

    Thank you for listening!

  3. anne says:

    Correction!! (this is what happens when you hit “publish” too quickly!) “…it means that organically approved pesticides were used.” Apologies!

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