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5 Food Myths Making You Less Healthy

Cornucopia of food
November 20, 2017 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Food myths pop quiz time! Agree or disagree?

You’re trying to shed some pounds, so:

True False
 ▢ You shun all fat, because fat is what makes you fat, and causes heart attacks
 ▢ Instead, when it says low-fat, no-fat, or fat-free! on the label, you buy it and eat it
 ▢ No fatty butter or cream cheese on that bagel
 ▢ No fatty nuts, peanut butter, seeds, meat, avocado
 ▢ About the bagel—it’s good because it’s all carbs
 ▢ Because a calorie is a calorie, no matter where it comes from, you count each one, and you try to exercise to burn off more of them than you
 ▢ You’re overweight because you eat too much and exercise too little

How did you do?

Did you get that all of the statements above are false—unless you’ve time-traveled back to the mid-1990s, when all of the statements above were considered conventional wisdom?

How times have changed.

Abandon food myths about fats

We now know that fats are not your implacable enemies. Those poor, unfairly shunned, natural fats, especially those found in nuts, seeds, olive oil, fish, and avocado, are not only your best cardiovascular and weight control friends, they can also help reduce your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Think of them as both gasoline, an essential fuel to keep your engine running, and oil, essential to keep all of your moving parts working together smoothly.  Keep your tank full by including healthy fats in your daily diet.

Food myths about fructose

Another regrettable blast from the past assured diabetics that natural fruit sugar (fructose) was better for them than refined (white) sugar.

Well, there’s a grain of truth to that. Yes, white sugar may be the most evil, legal, ingestible substance you’ll come across in this world.  More on that later.

And yes, of course, fructose occurs naturally in fruit, and it’s fine in small, fruit-sized doses. But in the 1990s, Big Food came up with ways to make a super-fructose—super-adulterated, artificial, high-fructose corn syrup—to replace refined sugar in their over-processed, non-nutritious, disease-making non-foods.

We know now that overdoing fructose is linked to insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.  Exactly what you don’t want if you’re diabetic.  Fructose overdose is also associated with metabolic syndrome, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

So be modern! Steer clear! Run away! If you want something that tastes deliciously fruity-sweet, stick to the way nature packaged it: whole, organic, raw fruit, best for healthy and diabetic people alike.

Counting calories?

A fellow health writer recalls her mid-1990s nutrition professor saying, “It doesn’t matter if you eat 300 calories from apples or from chocolate—a calorie is a calorie.”


It’s now a given, and a very well appreciated one, that all calories are not created equal.  Different sources provide vastly different nutrients—and too often, no nutrients at all.

Soda, candy, and other sugary bad actors, for example, deliver what?

Sugar.  Period.  Nutritional value?  None.  In fact, moments after it’s down the hatch, it’s off through your bloodstream to mess up your blood sugar.

Calories from real foods—fruits and veggies, legumes, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, meat, and fish, come beautifully packaged with vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and other essential nutrients that keep you healthy.  Different kinds of calories are like different kinds of firewood.  Hardwoods are slow to burn, lighter woods go up instantly in smoke. Same number of calories.

If you’re a counter of calories without considering nutrient content, you’re not doing yourself a favor.

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Now, back to sugar

Well into the 1990s, sugar, in all its forms, had not yet been inextricably linked to the numerous health threats we know it drags us into today.  Most people thought the worst outcome was just tooth decay and cavities.

But more recent studies link excess sugar consumption, especially from sweetened beverages, to an increased risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, dementia, and heart disease. Sugar is not the harmless treat we thought back in the day.

Indeed, The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day for women and 9 teaspoons for men. For reference, a single 16-ounce bottle of Snapple has 10 teaspoons.

Losing weight?

“Overweight means you overeat and under-exercise, so it’s your fault.” That was the simplistic formula common until recently. To lose weight, just work off more calories than you consume.

That’s not just over-simplified—it’s a cruel blow to anyone struggling to lose weight, especially people who are obese.

I’m certainly not saying that lack of exercise is a problem only for the obese and overweight.  Exercise, in fact, is the healthiest thing there is, even for healthy people.  But neither exercising more nor consuming less are the whole solution.

Life would be simpler and kinder for overweight and obese people if that were the case. Because then, the common, cruel misconception—that obesity is self-inflicted by overeating and laziness—would be true, making it a much easier fix.

Of course, we now know that obesity is far more complex than that. It’s about genes, physiology, activity level, environment, diet, and socioeconomic status—a real piling on.

It’s also about, we suspect, a couple of hormones, leptin and ghrelin, that we didn’t even know existed in the mid-90s.  There’s a lot of research currently looking into their roles in metabolism, in regulating the “I’m hungry” and the “I’m full ” messages from the digestive system to the brain—which could be a monumental aid in helping people eat less, and lose weight.

To put it most simply, we see obesity as a disease, not the result of personal shortcomings.

Forget food myths about gum and chocolate

I remember when I was a teenager being warned that chewing gum was considered not a sign of a low socioeconomic status, but a threat to dental health. “You’re just grinding sugar into your teeth!”

Today?  Chewing gum—redeemed.  Chewing activates your salivary glands, which not only help clean your teeth and gums, but also release a flood of food processing enzymes into your stomach, helping your digestive system absorb your food’s nutrients more efficiently.

Another myth from those anxious teenage days? “No chocolate, it causes adolescent acne and makes you fat.”

We know now that good quality, dark, non-milk chocolate is an antioxidant champion. And it doesn’t cause adolescent acne—hormones, which are elevated in adolescence, do.

Processed high carbohydrate food low in healthy nutrients

Food Friends Healthy Fat for your heart and to fight inflammation
Gum to protect your teeth and boost digestion
Whole Fruit with fiber and nutrients and satisfying sweetness that doesn’t spike your blood sugar
Food Foes Sugar hurts your liver, heart, brain, blood
Processed carbohydrates without nutrients which pack on calories and turn straight into sugar

Looking back helps us move forward

As long as we face threats to our health, whether self-inflicted or from external forces, we must continue to revisit and reconsider what we believe is known and effective—because it might be just the opposite.

I’m confident we’ll keep at it, and we’ll keep getting smarter as we do it.

Make sure you keep up with the latest in taking good care.


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