Don't Buy Into These Diet Myths
Nearly every day, a new scientific study about diet and health makes headlines. Keeping up with the latest nutrition research -- not to mention the coffee break chatter -- can be daunting. You may be tempted to throw up your hands in frustration and go back to your old eating habits. But don't let nutrition confusion keep you from your goals.
Here are some popular myths about diet and nutrition – and the truths behind them.
Diet Myth No. 1: Carbohydrates make you fat.
Fact: Carbs have gotten a bad reputation ever since Dr. Atkins told his followers to avoid them back in the '70s. The fact is that carbohydrates don't cause weight gain any more than proteins or fats do. If you eat too many calories -- which can only come from carbs, protein, fat, or alcohol -- you gain weight. It is true that refined carbs (like sugar and white flour) tend to be quickly digested, leaving you hungry again soon after you eat them. But instead of swearing off all carbs, choose smart carbs, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Diet Myth No. 2: Dairy foods have too many calories, and once you have stopped growing, who needs dairy products anyway?
Fact: You do need more bone-building calcium during active growth. However, adults continue to need calcium, along with Vitamin D, throughout their lives -- to maintain bone structure and to prevent diseases such as osteoporosis. And dairy products are generally the best source of calcium in the diet. It's best to choose fat-free and low-fat dairy products, to control calories, cholesterol, and saturated fat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommend three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy each day for adults.
Diet Myth No. 3: Eating eggs on a regular basis leads to high cholesterol levels.
Fact: The egg has been redeemed. The American Heart Association's dietary guidelines no longer make any recommendation about how many egg yolks you should eat in a week. Eggs are an excellent source of protein, B vitamins, iron, and other minerals --- all essential to health. One large egg has only 80 calories and 5 grams, yet is filling enough to keep you satisfied for hours. Eggs are versatile, inexpensive, and can be eaten for any meal of the day. If you're a healthy adult, you can enjoy an egg a day without concern.
Diet Myth No. 4: Artificial sweeteners curb your sweet tooth.
Fact: The benefit of using artificial sweeteners is that you get the sweet taste without any extra calories. Unfortunately, eating and drinking artificially sweetened foods only perpetuates our innate desire for sweetness. Try satisfying your sweet tooth with the natural sweetness of fruit (frozen fruit, like grapes, is especially satisfying). Or, sprinkle cinnamon or another flavorful spice on yogurt for a twist on sweetness. The goal is to slowly reduce your desire for sweet foods and drinks instead of simply substituting those made with artificial sweeteners. If you do enjoy foods and beverages sweetened with artificial sweeteners, do so in moderation.
Diet Myth No. 5: If you eat most of your calories late at night, you'll gain weight.
Fact: The old saying, 'Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper" was based on the idea that since you're more active throughout the day, you should eat more when you're most likely to burn it off. But the bottom line for managing weight is the total number of calories you consume during the day. Regardless of when you eat them, if you take in more than you burn, you will gain weight, and if you take in less, you'll lose.
That said, keep in mind that nighttime eating does tend to be centered on sedentary activities, often taking the form of mindless munching in front of the television. And calories consumed during the evening tend to be "extra" calories, rather than needed ones. That's why many diet experts recommend shutting down the kitchen after dinner.
Diet Myth No. 6: You can eat all the fat-free foods you like without gaining weight.
Fact: Fat-free foods are not calorie-free foods, and they count as part of your day's calorie allotment. When fat-free foods were introduced, many people forgot about controlling portion size and ate as much of these foods as they wanted -- then wondered why they weren't losing weight! Read the labels and check the listed portion size to determine how fat-free foods can fit into your eating plan.
Likewise, foods that are labeled as being "trans fats free" are not free of calories. They might even contain some trans fats; manufacturers are allowed to label a food "trans fat free" when it has up to 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving. Your best bet is to check the list of ingredients to see if there are any partially hydrogenated fats in the food. Sometimes, manufacturers have replaced trans fats with saturated fats or other less-than-healthy ingredients.
Diet Myth No. 7: It's a bad idea to snack between meals.
Fact: Snacks can be part of any healthy diet, as long as you choose them wisely. Most people don't have all that many discretionary calories to spare in their diets, so go for snacks that provide some healthy nutrients, like fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and low-fat popcorn. And watch portion sizes -- a reasonable snack is one that's less than 200 calories.
Diet Myth No. 8: Peanut butter is not a healthy food.
Fact: Peanut butter is high in fat and often high in sodium, but it also contains a lot more healthy unsaturated fats than saturated fats. When you eat saturated fats in moderation, and mostly choose unsaturated fats, you can help lower LDL "bad" cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease.
Peanut butter is also good source of fiber (especially chunky peanut butter), and potassium, which is lacking in many American diets. It even has a place in weight loss diets; studies have shown that a small portion can keep you feeling full for hours.
Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.