13 Healthy Eating Food Myths You Still Believe & Science-Backed Truths to Break Free

Food myths are rampant in our healthy eating culture. But do carbs really get stored as fat? And should you try intermittent fasting to boost your metabolism?

13 Healthy Eating Food Myths You Still Believe & Science-Backed Truths to Break Free

Here are 13 food myths of supposedly healthy eating that you’ve likely fallen for and 13 science-backed truths to set you free. 

  1. Earn Your Food! Calories In Equals Calories Out
  2. Carbs Make You Store Body Fat and Gain Weight
  3. Take Probiotics and Drink Kombucha for a Healthy Gut
  4. Choose Whole Grains
  5. Go Gluten Free
  6. Replace Sugar with Artificial Sweeteners (Especially Stevia)
  7. Meat Causes Cancer
  8. Eating Fat Makes You Fat
  9. Don’t Eat After 8 p.m.
  10. Intermittent Fast to Boost Your Metabolism and Control Appetite
  11. Eat Lots of Fruits and Vegetables
  12. Eat Five to Six Small Meals Each Day
  13. Save Up for Cheat Meals to Keep Yourself Sane

#1. Earn Your Food! Calories In Equals Calories Out

food myths - Calories In Equals Calories Out

“Eat less and move” has been a long-time message in American culture as the way to lose weight. Although a drastic reduction in calories may help you see initial results, this is often short lived. Eventually, the metabolism slows down. This happens because a fast metabolism requires more nutrients and calories, not less. Low-calorie diets lead your body into thinking it’s in starvation mode. When it doesn’t know where it’s next meal is coming from, your metabolism slows to divert energy to only your most essential bodily functions—like breathing and keeping your heart beating—in order to help you survive. It may even turn to drawing energy from your muscles, inhibiting your ability to tone them. Calorie restriction also alters your hunger-fullness hormones and gut bacteria, making you crave and obsess over food more often—your body in general and your gut bugs in particular are hungry (1-3).

Evolving research shows that your metabolism is not necessarily related to the number of calories, carbs, or fats you eat, but instead is related to the amount and diversity of healthy gut bacteria in your microbiome. This explains why 99% of diets work at first, only to fail. Diet success is not about willpower alone. As we will discuss at length in this book, your gut bacteria are key in determining how well your body metabolizes and digests the protein bars, chicken, and broccoli, or Chinese takeout you eat. Studies in human twins exploring why one twin is heavier and the other is leaner find that, even if the twins are fed the same foods during the study, the twins’ gut bacteria influence whether they lose or gain weight. Moreover, when researchers switch the twins’ gut bacteria, the lean twin gains weight and the heavier twin loses weight (4, 5). And the DIETFITS (Diet Intervention Examining the Factors Interacting with Treatment Success) study that’s made news headlines finally put the low fat versus low-carb weight loss debate to rest, finding that regardless of which diet the 600 overweight subjects adopted, their gut microbiome’s ability to digest and metabolize the carbs or fats made the bigger difference in weight loss success (6, 7). 

#2. Carbs Make You Store Body Fat and Gain Weight

Ask almost anyone what they need to do to lose a few pounds, and they’ll probably say: “Cut back on the carbs.”

While the low-carb movement has risen and fallen in popularity since the Atkins diet of the late 90s, most people now assume that carbohydrates are inherently fattening and inflammatory. It’s true, as a short term weight loss strategy, cutting carbs clearly can work well for some people. Many people who try low-carb dieting are initially pleased by an immediate weight loss because most of it is water and glycogen. But here’s the thing: It’s temporary. Generally speaking, most of us will look, feel, and perform our best when we balance a reasonable amount of protein, quality carbs, and healthy fats.

Just like a plant that requires water, sunlight, and soil to thrive, we humans require protein, fat, and carbs to thrive too. If we don’t have carbs or have enough carbs in our diet, our body backfires. Restricting your carb intake too drastically (8-10) can lead to:

  • decreased thyroid output
  • increased cortisol output
  • decreased testosterone
  • impaired mood and cognitive function
  • muscle catabolism
  • suppressed immune function
  • decreased healthy gut bacteria 

Carbs—namely prebiotics and soluble fibers found in veggies and starchy plants—are the number one fuel source of healthy gut bacteria, which dictate your body fat, weight, metabolism, blood sugar balance, and control insulin. Without carbs to fuel beneficial gut bugs, your metabolism might slow, your stress hormones go up, and your muscle-building hormones go down. 

#3. Take Probiotics and Drink Kombucha for a Healthy Gut

Probiotics are often marketed as the cure-all for all gut woes. But not all probiotics are created equal. Upwards of 90 to 95% of supplemental probiotics sold on store shelves do not contain the probiotics they claim, due to their poor delivery abilities (11-16). This is because many commercial probiotics may not survive stomach acid—making it from your mouth to your colon, where the majority of probiotic-rich bacteria should reside. Additionally, manufacturing and shipping processes can be an issue. Probiotic bacteria are sensitive creatures and they can easily die in harsh conditions. In other words: Just because the label says “rich source of probiotics” doesn’t mean it’s true. As with “all natural” chicken or “real fruit” gummies, the phrase “a good source of probiotics” is part of the Wild, Wild West of food marketing. One study of commercial yogurts found that you’d have to eat 25 total servings to get the baseline of probiotics promoted on the label. A study of kombucha revealed similar findings.

Also, buyer beware: If you have an underlying gut issue, probiotics and fermented foods may not make you feel good. Probiotic foods, and supplements, are not for everyone. There are several reasons why gut symptoms such as bloating, gas, constipation or otherwise altered bowel movements may happen when you take or eat probiotics. One, the formula contains strains of bacteria that you already have enough of (that is, you may even have an overgrowth of bacteria in your gut already). Two, the formula is not a quality supplement or does not bypass your stomach or small intestine—where lots of bacteria don’t belong. Three, you may have an initial healing reaction as you introduce probiotics to your system and your gut microbiota shift. And four, you have an underlying autoimmunity or histamine intolerance, shortchanging your body’s foundational enzymes and gut bacteria that can aid in the breakdown of histamine. Grabbing any random bottle of probiotics or kombucha off the shelf is one of the biggest mistakes you can make if you’re histamine intolerant, even if you’ve heard a particular product is the best on the market. All fermented foods are rich in histamine and certain probiotic species and strains are richer in histamine than others, for example Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus delbrueckii, and Lactobacillus helveticus. Look for the following species instead: Bifidobacterium infantis, Bifidobacterium breve, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium lactis, Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus gasseri, and Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG. 

#4. Choose Whole Grains 

Wheat bread over white. Brown rice, whole wheat pasta, granola, steel cut oats—these are heart-healthy right? Not necessarily. Ever since the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s and the adoption of the Food Guide Pyramid in the 1900s, the U.S. has experienced a steady decline in our state of health. What changed? The consumption of more grains and processed foods as the bulk of our diets. Seventy percent of foods sold on grocery store shelves are ultra-processed, whole grains included. A vast majority of grains also contain phytates, or phytic acid—an anti-nutrient that binds to minerals like zinc, copper, iron, magnesium, niacin, and calcium, preventing them from being absorbed.  Phytic acid also inhibits pepsin, the enzyme needed to properly break down protein, as well as amylase, the enzyme needed to break down carbs in the first place. So not only does phytic acid prevent nutrient absorption, it interferes with proper digestion.

One caveat: Whole grains can be an excellent source of prebiotics, such as rice and oats, especially when properly prepared—soaked and dried before cooking, then served cooled. 

#5. Go Gluten Free

While sometimes a gluten-free diet is necessary to treat particular health conditions such as Celiac disease, within recent years following a gluten-free diet has become incredibly popular for other reasons, including individuals self-reporting feeling much better upon elimination of the gluten-containing grains and flours (for example, wheat, rye, and barley). With the elimination of such grains, gluten-conscious consumers frequently turn to non-gluten-containing grains with the mistaken belief that they’re easy to digest, only to find their symptoms don’t improve.

The primary ingredient missing from many conventional gluten-free products? Gluten. Otherwise the same sugars, additives, artificial ingredients, dyes, and other chemicals are often still there (that is, they are processed foods). Additionally, many gluten-free foods also contain similar proteins as those found in gluten, which can be just as inflammatory, if not more, for gluten-sensitive individuals. These are called gluten cross-reactive foods, and include corn, rice, soy, casein, oats, sorghum, tapioca, instant coffee, coconut, and nuts. No, you will probably not be intolerant to all of these compounds, but it is definitely something to be aware of if you don’t feel better on a gluten-free diet, especially if you have an underlying genetic predisposition for autoimmunity or reduced oral tolerance (food sensitivities) from an unhealthy gut microbiome.

#6. Replace Sugar with Artificial Sweeteners (Especially Stevia) 

Everyone knows too much sugar is bad for us. The maximum suggested dose of added sugar for humans is about 25 grams per day. However the average American consumes at least three times the recommended amount of sugar every day and three pounds of sugar every week. This is a huge contrast from the 10 pounds Americans consumed every year in 1900!

Most of America’s sugar consumption is not in the form of candy bars or ice cream. Instead, it’s hidden in packaged and processed foods—from deli meat and sausage to crackers, pasta, cereals, bars, protein powders, protein bars, peanut butter, sports drinks, and yogurt. Side effects from this excess sugar consumption include cortisol and hormone imbalances, sugar crashes and brain fog, sugar addiction (sugar is eight times more addicting than cocaine), and inflammation.

Sugar-free alternatives and artificial sweeteners to the rescue!  After all, sugar-free alternatives are obviously healthier, right?

Not quite.

Artificial sweeteners are highly refined sugar alcohols that may be harder on our health than sugar itself. Artificial sweeteners can cause the same glycemic response in blood sugar levels that sugar does. Other side effects from artificial sweeteners include digestive distress (constipation, bloating, stomach pain), heart palpitations, blurred vision, shortness of breath, metabolic and hormone imbalances, and even cancerous tumors. Even stevia. Most commercially stevia-sweetened products contain only about 2 to 4% of natural stevia leaf component (Stevia rebaudiana).  The other 96 to 98%? An artificially synthesized sugar-like product—perhaps less offensive than other sweeteners (like Splenda and Equal), but still processed.

Even though the FDA technically calls stevia natural on any food label, it’s important to know that stevia sweeteners are processed by extracting steviol glycosides from the leaves of the stevia plant. The FDA’s own definition of the word “natural” does not take into account the way a food is processed. In this case, “natural” means nothing at all. That Hershey’s candy bar? Natural chocolate. RITZ Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers? Natural peanuts and wheat (before processing). Ben & Jerry’s? Natural dairy. You get the picture.

Although the side effects from stevia appear to be much less than some of the other sweeteners out there, the biggest red flags for stevia are how it impacts the gut microbiota—stevia results in similar alterations to the gut microbiota as other sweeteners such as saccharin. This may explain why other studies indicate elevated glucose intolerances from sweeteners, due to changes in gut microbiota (17-19). 

#7. Meat Causes Cancer 

Comparing bacon to cigarettes is far-fetched, and not strongly supported in the literature at all (20-27). A meta analysis of 73 studies concluded, “there have been no reports showing significant correlation between various factors that directly or indirectly affect colorectal cancer incidence, including processed meat products types, raw meat types, or cooking methods.” Another cohort study (16) that evaluated the gallbladder and liver cancer risk in 607,757 men and 728,820 women, who ate both meat and fish between 1995 and 2012, found no evidence of increased cancer. In fact, cancer risk was actually lower among men who consumed more meat, particularly red meat. If meat really did cause cancer, you’d expect to see a linear (that is, a continuous) increase in cancer rates as meat consumption increased.

On the other hand, consider foods with ingredients like the following. Soy protein concentrate; natural flavors; 2% or less of potato protein, methylcellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, food starch modified, soy leghemoglobin, salt, mixed tocopherols (antioxidant), soy protein isolate. These are all ingredients in the meat alternative and ultra-processed Beyond Burger. While fermented soy food intake shows no association with cancer, higher intake of non-fermented soy foods do show an increased cancer risk. Soy aside, many vegetarian and vegan friendly foods are filled with other processed fillers and preservatives that have a shelf-life to last a century.

Likewise, one of the main reasons that people may falsely believe that meat causes cancer is because the Westernized high-meat diet is also associated with a highly processed, low-fiber diet; a sedentary lifestyle; and sleep deprivation. All of which are risk factors for increased cancer.

#8. Eating Fat Makes You Fat 

Although it may seem like the ketogenic diet movement debunked this myth—eating fat is good for you!—for some people it still seems too good to be true. This is especially the case for the many of us who now have PTSD from all the years we were told fat was bad for us. Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, health experts and the media beat it into our brains to ban the butter, ditch the yolks and replace red meat with more lean chicken and turkey, only to eventually discover that American’s obesity and diabetes epidemic only continued to increase.

Simply put: The body requires fat to run properly. It’s a major source of energy. It helps you absorb some vitamins and minerals. Fat is needed to build cell membranes, the vital exterior of each cell, and the sheaths surrounding nerves. It is essential for blood clotting, muscle movement, and to quell inflammation.

Fat is also needed to help your gallbladder function. Your gallbladder is the organ responsible for digesting fats as well as clearing out wastes, excess hormones, and cholesterol. Your gall bladder needs fat to get its workout on, otherwise inflammation and cholesterol goes up, not down.

That said, not all fats are created equal. Just as you need a variety of fruits and vegetables (you can’t just eat apples or broccoli if you want a range of nutrients), you need a variety of healthy fats. You also need to avoid trans-fats—partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. These are the fats that give fat a bad name. Ironically, they’re also the most common fats likely to be present in many low-fat, sugar free, or other processed diet foods on shelves. On the other hand, reach for monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, macadamia nuts, and avocados; polyunsaturated fats such as other raw nuts and seeds; and omega 3 fatty acids such as wild-caught fatty fish such as salmon, halibut and sardines, as well as flaxseeds, pastured egg yolks, walnuts, and extra virgin cod liver oil; and lastly some saturated fats sprinkled in there such as coconut and coconut oil, whole milk dairy from grass-fed cows if tolerated, meat from grass-fed animals,  and traditional fats including tallow, duck fat, and lard or high quality organic bacon. 

#9. Dont Eat After 8 p.m.

Nothing magical happens to your body’s ability to digest food when the clock strikes 8 p.m. Your body still knows how to metabolize food. You won’t gain weight or slow down your body’s metabolism by merely eating later, as long as you eat within your daily energy needs. If this wasn’t the case, people living in Spain—one of the healthiest countries in the world and where people usually eat their last meal between 8:30 and 11 p.m.—would be unhealthily overweight. Instead, it’s the opposite. A major reason for this is that Spaniards are less stressed. They don’t rush their meals or scarf down their lunch in the car. They don’t stare at blue-lit computer screens late at night. They eat unprocessed, nutrient-dense whole foods based upon a Mediterranean diet—including real cheese, not processed Kraft cheese, and drink low-sulfite and low-pesticide laden wine. They move their bodies regularly and know how to rest, taking naps in the middle of the day. Compare any one of these markers to the American way, and you can see we are under more than just a little stress.

There is a significant reason why late night eating may not be advised, but this has nothing to do with weight. Instead it has to do with your gut biome. In accordance with your body’s biological clock, the night time hours are for resting and digesting. This is the reason why eating your last main meal two to three hours before bed can be helpful, so you don’t feel so full when you lie down. 

#10. Intermittent Fast to Boost Your Metabolism and Control Appetite

Not eating is the new black, particularly Intermittent fasting (IF). This is the practice of not eating for 12-16 hours, followed by a feeding window of typically 8 -12 hours. IF has increased in popularity in recent years. However, it’s nothing new. Intermittent fasting is the very reason why breakfast is called “break fast”—you’re breaking your fast from your last meal to your first meal after sleeping overnight. The 12 hours between your 8 p.m. last meal is followed by breakfast at 8 or 9 a.m. the next morning. Voila! You fasted! While IF definitely has benefits—such as increased cellular autophagy (clearing out dead cells), improved glycemic markers and insulin levels in people with diabetes and pre-diabetes, and reduced inflammation—very little is discussed in popular intermittent fasting circles about the negative impacts of intermittent fasting, particularly for women’s health, affecting hormones, energy levels, and digestion.

Let’s think about the impact of stress. Intermittent fasting is a stressor. As with exercise, stress can be positive or negative, depending on how far you go with it. For example: Exercise is a healthy stressor that pushes your body to work hard, develop muscle, decrease inflammation, and enhance your cardio-respiratory endurance. But if you push your body’s exercise threshold too far (upping your miles, or decreasing your caloric intake for example), this can have an impact on your hormones, metabolism, and digestion.

When females are deprived of food, which is a form of stress, they become infertile, often losing their period or experiencing hormone and cycle irregularities (28-30). Sleep, appetite, and stress levels are also affected due to increased adrenal stress (31). Some people find they don’t feel hungry at all anymore—a sign their metabolism has slowed down and gherkin resistance (hunger hormone resistance) may be in full swing as a survival mechanism. Others discover they are more bloated and constipated than ever. As feeding and digestion slows, stomach acid and enzyme production is suppressed, as well as gut bacteria—leading to insufficiency dysbiosis, the loss of gut bacteria which leads to decreased absorption.

Lastly, while IF can turn down the constant cravings or hunger cues for some, it can also increase the diet mentality and anxiety in others. Under normal conditions, women think about food twice as much as men—every 62 minutes, as opposed to every 38 minutes (32). Couple this with a body that is under-fed, and your brain may make you think more about food, not less—often increasing Dr. Google nutrition searches or obsessive thoughts about healthy eating, no matter how well intended (3). 

#11. Eat Lots of Fruits and Vegetables

We all know fruits and vegetables are good for us. But there are a few caveats to the claim that we should eat lots of them.

If you’re one of the one in three people who experiences glycemic dysregulation on a daily basis—hyper or hypoglycemia—then lots fruit and veggies can exacerbate your symptoms, particularly fatigue and low energy, feeling hangry, shaky or lightheaded if meals are delayed, frequent headaches, frequent urination, insomnia, sugar or caffeine cravings, and unintended weight loss or weight gain.

This happens for several reasons. Next to sugar itself, fruit is the fastest digesting food we consume. In turn, blood glucose levels quickly spike when we eat it, only to fall within 30 to 60 minutes. This is not a bad thing if you have good blood sugar control already. However, if you have unstable glycemic regulation to begin with, high amounts of fruit in the diet can send you on a blood sugar roller coaster throughout the day, often making you feel tired, despite sleeping enough. It can also contribute to broken sleep during the night; and increase hunger or cravings for more fruit, a snack, or something sweet two to three hours later. To mitigate this cycle, balance is key—sticking to one to two fruits per day is appropriate for most people, and reaching for protein or fat-based snacks if you do get a snack hankering will help to balance blood sugar.

As for veggies, the majority of Americans could use more veggies in their life in general—only eating one or two most days in the form of tomatoes, corn, and potatoes. French fries fried in canola oil with tomatoey ketchup, anyone? That said, since you’re reading this book, you’re probably eating your veggies, at least more than the average person—maybe a spinach salad with cucumbers and tomatoes for lunch, broccoli and sweet potatoes with dinner, spinach in your morning smoothie, celery juice or baby carrots for a snack. However, newsflash: That’s still not “lots” of veggies. The average vegan or paleo dieter consumes a mere 15 to 25 grams of fiber per day; this compared to our hunger-gatherer ancestors who ate upwards of 30 different plant species each week, 100 grams of fiber per day, and who were relatively free of disease thanks to a diverse gut microbiome. Although 100 grams of fiber is definitely more than most humans eat today, if you think you’re eating lots of veggies by eating the same five plants every day, think again.

On the flip side, in their efforts to be healthy some folks go to town on the veggies, only to end up feeling more bloated and constipated. What gives? An important note that the “eat more fruits and veggies” imperative fails to mention is that if you have dysbiosis or impaired digestion, more fruits and veggies may make you feel gut symptoms until you address the underlying gut issue. For example, you might need to boost  your stomach acid and enzyme production or rid your gut of bacterial or fungal overgrowth. This is because some fruits and veggies are higher in FODMAPS—fermentable fibers that gut bacteria love to feast on. Lastly, the way you prep and consume your veggies can make all the difference in the world for eating more and feeling well. Steamed, sautéed, softened, and pureed are ideal for those with digestive issues, as well as preparing some of your veggies in healthy fats such as ghee, or avocado or extra virgin olive oil, to aid digestion.

The bottom line: Lots of different fruits and veggies in the diet do a body good; just understand the nuances of why they can also trigger symptoms of imbalance. 

#12. Eat Five to Six Small Meals Per Day

Proponents of this rule claim we need to eat several mini meals per day in order to rev our metabolism. However the research is not there to support this. Body weight, body composition, and body fat are not affected by the number of meals when diets are prepared with adequate energy restrictions and sufficient and balanced nutrition—whether for six or three meals per day (33).

Perceived hunger and blood glucose levels on the other hand may be influenced by meal frequency (34-37). Our gut bugs are on their own circadian rhythms with ideal times throughout the day for digestion. However, as with adjusting your body to a new bedtime or wakening schedule, we can also train our gut bugs to digest and get hungrier according to our regular eating schedule. This will affect our blood sugar response and let us know when it’s time to eat.

Additionally, the “eat five to six meals per day” philosophy can also make you more mentally hungry, even if you end up eating the same amount that you would if were eating three larger, balanced meals and maybe a snack. This is because our mind tricks us into thinking we are going to be hungry and less satisfied between meals. A study evaluating the expected satiety in people who ate the same three-egg omelet several days in a row, but who thought they were either eating a two-egg omelet, or a four-egg omelet, found that the supposed four-egg omelet people believed they were going to be fuller and were subsequently less hungry during the day. Likewise, if you are on the five to six small meals per day bandwagon and telling yourself you can’t go two to three hours without food, that you’ll experience hunger or a slow metabolism, your thinking is most likely what will bring on this situation. 

#13. Save Up for Cheat Meals to Keep Yourself Sane 

The word “diet” means “a way of life”. Not an ultimatum.

Unfortunately, when hoping to improve their diet, most people focus on subtraction. They might say: “I’m giving up sugar and alcohol” or “I’m cutting out junk food”. The trouble is, there’s often no plan for what they’ll eat instead. This can lead to feelings of deprivation and diet dissatisfaction. Which then leads to labeling foods as good or bad and feeling like they’re “in jail” during the week, until that hit of alcohol, pizza, chocolate, ice cream, or nachos on the weekend.

Does this sound like a sustainable, peaceful lifestyle or relationship with food? As long as we practice the “cheat meal” ritual, many stay stuck in the diet mentality.

What would it be like instead to practice the 80/20 lifestyle? For balance, 80% of the time eat real foods, and for 20% of the time let life happen. Chocolate after dinner, homemade sweet potato fries, or a bite of cake on a week night? Does this really sound so terrible?

Balance 

More confused now? Don’t worry, you’re in good company with the 80% of all Americans who feel the exact same—overwhelmed with all the conflicting information out there (38).

The overarching bottom line is: Balance, balance, balance. No study to date has ever shown that balance was a bad thing.

Want to learn more about food myths or any questions answered? Contact our virtual clinic today to make an appointment with Dr. Lauryn and get help now.

 

Resources 

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