Drowning in ‘healthy’ media messages? Take a breath. We sort through the flood of online nutrition advice to debunk some common myths.
All it takes is the click of a mouse or the swipe of a smart phone to get ‘expert’ advice about what you should (or shouldn’t) be eating.
Down comes an avalanche of claims about superfoods and ‘toxic’ ingredients and before you know it you’re accepting ideas that are just plain wrong. Add to the mix, the spectacle of celebrity ‘experts’ bickering over who’s right, and it’s no wonder the mixed messages and information overload can leave you baffled about where the truth really lies.
Everything we share with you on the pages of Healthy Food Guide is based on the latest scientific evidence, not fads. We even have some of the world’s leading nutrition scientists and dietitians on our Editorial Advisory Board who help keep us up-to-date on the most recent health discoveries.
So in order to work out what to back and what to turn your back on, we highlight the most popular nutrition myths of the past twelve months. Our findings may surprise you!
Detoxing is a must
Heading into summer, you’ve probably been bombarded by detoxing mania. The theory is, you have to ditch alcohol, sugar, meat, coffee, dairy and processed foods for a short period to ‘flush out’ toxins. The result: You eat more fruit and vegies, drink a lot more water and then, apparently, benefit from clearer skin, better digestion, improved immunity, more energy and weight loss.
Fact or fiction?
We don’t need help to detox! In a normal-functioning body, it’s the job of your liver and kidneys to remove all toxins. So the very idea of a detoxing diet is based around faulty science. However, some aspects of detoxing can be valuable such as reducing sugar, processed foods, fat, alcohol and caffeine. Eating more fresh fruit and veg is great for your health too. And while drinking plenty of water doesn’t miraculously flush your system of toxins like a detox diet claims, replacing caffeine or sugary drinks for water is better for your bowels and muscles.
When detoxing, there are some red flags you should know about. Most of these diets recommend you lay-off a huge range of foods. While this can certainly shave off kilojoules, it does limit nutrients and fuel to function properly. This leaves you at risk of deficiencies down the track. Side effects of detoxing such as headaches, dizziness, nausea and irritability are supposedly caused by toxins leaving the body. But in reality, they are more likely to be the body’s response to being really hungry, lethargic and in desperate need of sustenance — these are not healthy signs!
Superfoods are superior
Every year the media honours one or two new ‘superfoods’ — ingredients meant to possess extra-special, health-boosting properties. Foods that are dubbed with the ‘super’ tag include goji berries, acai berries, chia seeds, ancient grains, coconut oil and cacao. Then there’s our favourite food of the moment — kale — which your grandma would’ve known as ‘Depression lettuce’ for its ability to grow almost anywhere during tough times.
Fact or fiction?
Savvy marketers know if a food has a good range of nutrients or exceptional amounts of a particular vitamin, the tag ‘superfood’ will spark media coverage. That’s not to say some of these foods don’t have a high nutritional value. But often the benefits they claim — such as being good for your heart or having ‘cleansing’ properties — aren’t backed up by quality research, if any at all. Or the ‘proof’ is actually a study done on a tiny number of people, so the results shouldn’t be taken seriously.
The best thing to remember is there’s no such thing as a superfood — just a super diet. Scientists all over the world have proven the best diet entails eating five serves of veg and two serves of fruit a day; choosing whole grains over refined carbs; and adding two to three portions of oily fish a week.
Sugar is a killer
Sugar has become Public Health Enemy Number One, thanks to the media and the swelling ranks of friends, colleagues and celebrities who stop eating sugar and urge us to do the same. Spend a few minutes on the net and you’ll be cautioned that the sweet stuff causes everything from obesity to cancer, with some ‘experts’ saying it’s as bad for our health as smoking. Really?
Fact or fiction?
Doughnuts, biscuits, ice cream and cakes all have lashings of sugar. They also come loaded with fat — mainly saturated fat. This combination of sugar and fat means these foods tend to be overflowing with kilojoules, and if you eat more kilojoules than needed, chances are you’ll put on weight, putting you at risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In other words, it’s not sugar itself that will kill you, but an excessive intake of kilojoules. So slash the sugar and you will automatically avoid these unhealthy foods. And if you replace these foods with healthier ones, you’ll likely lose weight, and have better concentration.
But giving up sugar altogether isn’t always the healthiest choice. Sugar comes in many forms and can be found naturally in fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). Keep in mind, ruling out these foods means overlooking vitamins and fibre from fruit; and protein and calcium from dairy products. So ‘quitting sugar’ can mean missing out on important nutrients!
The World Health Organisation recommends limiting your sugar intake to about six teaspoons per day. (To put this in perspective, a 600ml bottle of Coke has 14 teaspoons.) The healthiest way to curb your sugar intake is to nix the sweet biscuits at morning tea; the sugar in coffee, tea or soft drinks; and those sweetened snack bars. Make your target restricting the amounts of processed foods and sweets you eat, not healthy fruit and vegetables that your body actually needs. Your dentist will thank you too!
Butter is better
There’s been lots of controversy over the link between saturated fat and cholesterol. Some blogs and news stories claim butter is now a smarter choice than table spread or margarine. The theory is: Butter is more natural and the level of sat fat isn’t as harmful as the additives in other spreads.
Fact or fiction?
Butter is made up of around 50 per cent saturated fat and 4 per cent trans fat. And despite recent headlines, many health experts agree you should be aware of saturated fat and its impact on your cholesterol.
The fact remains that fat is the highest kilojoule ingredient in our food, making it one of the biggest contributors to obesity. Trim the fat and you’ll reduce the number of kilojoules in your diet, whereas eating lots of buttery foods will put you in danger of being overweight and the health risks associated with that.
If you’ve got a penchant for butter, it’s worthwhile making small changes to your diet. According to the Heart Foundation, replacing butter with reduced-fat table spread will remove a hefty three kilos of fat from your diet per year. In the nineties, margarine’s reputation was sullied by manufacturers using trans fat to keep it solid at room temperature. When it was discovered how bad this is, the process changed. Now in Australia the average margarine has 28 per cent sat fat and less than 1 per cent trans fat — much healthier!
There are other tasty substitutes to butter. Spread toast with avocado or one of the expanding range of nut butters — there are many more varieties than peanut butter! And make sure to use olive oil when baking or roasting.
All of these alternatives will help you towards a healthier kilojoule intake and reduce your risk of cardiovascular problems and high cholesterol. You have to heart that!
Bread is bad
Bread — especially white bread — is the devil, or that’s the claim anyway. It’s high in carbs and so rejected by followers of a low-carb diet. And there’s also the view that it can cause bloating.
Fact or fiction?
Bread isn’t actually the kilojoule-rich baddie it’s often portrayed to be. In fact, an average slice has just 300kJ (72cal). Also, bread itself tends to be low in fat. But make sure you choose grainy, fibre-rich varieties — they’ll supply your body with long-lasting fuel. Another popular myth is bread causes bloating. A study by the British Nutrition Foundation failed to find a link between regularly eating bread and bloating or abdominal discomfort.
Instead of worrying about bread itself, watch what goes on it. Smothering it with butter and jam, piling on mayo, or loading it with grilled cheese can seriously ramp up the kilojoules, fat and/or sugar content.
It’s also easy to default to bread too often without realising: toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and even bread with our evening meal. Bread needs salt to help it rise, so eating too much bread means you could be overconsuming sodium. Relying on large amounts of bread to sustain you could also get in the way of making more nutritious choices.
If you need to lose weight, try other carb-based foods with a low glycaemic index such as brown or basmati rice, wholemeal pasta, potatoes with their skins, or sweet potatoes. And when you do want bread, choose wholegrain varieties over white. For many people, bread is the ideal comfort food, but if you eat a balanced diet, there’s no need to forego the foods you enjoy!
Google is not a doctor
When faced with a health or nutrition question, it’s pretty common to go online and self-diagnose. But the internet is full of conflicting health warnings with no censorship to stamp out the wrong advice and some is downright dangerous!
Also, search engines rank results by popularity rather than accuracy, so solid facts can be tricky to find.
It’s worthwhile checking if the writer of an online piece is properly qualified as an expert. Anyone can label themselves as a ‘diet expert’, ‘nutritionist’ and even a ‘doctor’ — given it could refer to qualifications like a PhD. But remember, only accredited practising dietitians as well as medical doctors have degrees in dispensing clinical advice.
So if you’re unsure and still wondering whether that chocolate diet really does work, then it pays to make an appointment with an accredited practising dietitian or GP. The truth is out there, you just need to look in the right place!