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Top 6 Nutrition Misunderstandings

Every day it seems we run into a hundred different nutrition recommendations.

Whether they’re the packaging claims for foods we see on the supermarket shelves or the magazine covers at the checkout, the health features on the nightly news or the Facebook articles that show up in our daily feed, we’re inundated.

Some of these claims offer us good food for thought, while others have more agenda than truth behind them.

With our exposure to media stories, food industry advertisements as well as shifting medical messages, it can be difficult to identify the misleading claims and debunked truths. Below I’ve ranked what I consider the top six nutrition misunderstandings. See how many you’ve heard, believed or even practiced at one point in the past.

The healthiest foods actually tell you they’re healthy.

Shiny packages and entertaining commercials certainly do their job to burn brand images and health claims into our psyches, but the low fat, low calorie, low sodium, cholesterol free, and various “made with” claims are often nothing more than tactical health marketing.

It can be downright misleading if you’re not careful.

The truth is, the healthiest foods for vitality and weight loss generally don’t come in boxes or packaging that has space to make such claims. Just glance around the produce section next time you shop for groceries. Most of those wholesome foods have nothing more than a twist-tie or sticker identifying them.

It’s quite a difference from the inner aisles lined with foods that weren’t available 50-100 years ago but boast of their enrichments and engineered goodness with loud, eye-catching fonts. How nourishing can a “weight loss plan” be if it merely requires you to replace two real food meals with ½ cup servings of cereal and skim milk? While there may be 40,000+ items in the average supermarket, be sure to fill your cart with basic whole foods you seldom see advertised.

It’s impossible to maintain good eating habits when you’re busy or have to eat out a lot.

Eating right when you’re busy is difficult. Frankly, it’s a pain. Good nutrition habits, after all, require dedication, sacrifice, and (oftentimes) special requests.

Sure, available food choices may not be as ideal when time is tight or you’re unable to be at home with access to your kitchen. That said, you can run some decent damage control if you’re up for it.

Make a point to plan ahead or anticipate your meals with a doable strategy for the circumstances.

Run your calendar so it doesn’t run you. This means allowing enough time to enjoy a sit-down meal instead of eating over your steering wheel or mouse pad. Eat meals that require utensils instead of handheld wrappers. Then practice setting down the utensils between each bite. Chew your food thoroughly, and even have a conversation with a real person to help slow down your pace and help you recognize when you’re getting satisfied (that actually takes about 20 minutes, you know).

If you find yourself in a restaurant environment with seemingly little control over the food quality or preparation methods, be politely clear as you order your meal how you want it. For example, I always ask for salads without croutons, or I ask to double the veggies in place of fries or starch with my entrée. It’s not an odd request, as self-conscious as you might feel if you aren’t used to doing it. If you’re courteous, the staff will gladly help you keep your plate healthier with colorful and fibrous veggies. You’ll get more nourishment out of your meals and more satisfaction from your dining experience this way.

You should aim for no more than 2000mg of sodium per day in your diet.

We’ve likely all heard the call for sodium reduction as a necessary health strategy for decades – most commonly for those with blood pressure concerns or progressing heart disease.

When I worked as a clinical dietitian in a hospital setting, many of the patients I worked with were placed on “No Added Salt” diets, which meant they didn’t get an extra salt packet on their tray but ate the same food as the general diet patients. The "General Diet" was designed to be about 4000mg of sodium.

While some people do see a significant reduction in blood pressure when sodium is restricted to 2000mg or below, others may actually elevate their overall mortality risk as researchers found a slight increase in cardiovascular events in groups restricting sodium below the 2000mg World Health Organization guidelines.

Don’t get me wrong. The majority of Americans eat too much salt, especially from processed foods. However, when I see people try to lose weight by eating more veggies, fruits and lean meats while banishing processed, convenience food, they often act like the sea salt grinder is going to kill them.

When you’re 1) eating fewer processed foods and more potassium-rich veggies, 2) working out more consistently (as in sweating out more sodium daily), and 3) cutting back on refined grains or starches, the demand for dietary sodium actually rises slightly.

You see, sodium and water retention are heavily influenced by sodium-potassium balance and total insulin load.

When insulin demand is high and potassium intake is low, as it is with the typical high-carbohydrate/low-activity American lifestyle, sodium and water retention is put into high gear. Under these circumstances, the kidneys have a tough time shedding extra fluid and sodium, leading to higher blood pressure.

Interestingly, when subjects replace some starchy food with monounsaturated fat (such as avocados or olive products) or protein (thus, reducing total insulin demand), blood pressure and other cardiovascular disease indicators improve more than they do in those following standard dietary advice.

How can you put this into practice if you’re concerned about blood pressure? Just like the DASH diet suggests, cut down your processed food intake, and replace much of it with colorful veggies and fruits. Limit artificially processed fats, and instead use olive oil (as long as you control how much heat it’s exposed to). Finally, choose mostly lean meats (unless you’re able to select meats from pasture-raised or wild-caught animals, which are healthier sources of fat).

After a few weeks of the processed food reduction, try dusting off your sea salt grinder and cranking a few turns of sea salt onto your meals as you prepare them. You’ll notice a nice lift in your energy and may even reduce your risk of insulin resistance by adding salt.

Eating fat makes you fat, and saturated fat clogs your arteries.

Have you ever seen a stick of butter at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit? Does it look like a solid, artery-clogging mass or a liquid?

Have you ever followed a guy eating 5000 calories per day of mostly fat to see what happens?

Contrary to conventional belief, there’s not a strong amount of causal evidence that saturated fat or cholesterol is to blame for heart disease or obesity rates that we’ve seen rise over the past few decades. Actually, a systematic review of the evidence calls into question the very logic that set the tone for the fat related health claims I touched on above.

In fact, there have been a number of well-controlled studies pitting lower-fat against lower-carb (higher fat) dietary patterns that show not only better health outcomes and chronic disease management (e.g. positive changes in blood lipid profiles, waist circumference, glycemic control, and blood pressure) but better overall body fat loss from the higher dietary fat strategies. (You can read up on them here).

Full disclosure: eating butter, lard, and any other type of fat in conjunction with processed carbohydrates or with inflammation will likely cause excessive weight gain and accelerate any arterial damage you have.

Low carb diets are just fads.

A fad is defined as a behavior that catches on when a large portion of the population enthusiastically follows along for a period of time until its novelty wears off.

The first low-carb diet guidelines and interventions were actually published in 1863, and some form of carbohydrate restriction has been used within medical dietary intervention or consumer strategy ever since.

While the term “low-carb” lacks any clear definition, “lower-carbohydrate” interventions are part of almost every popular and effective weight loss diet book in the last several decades. Every time you’re instructed to reduce sugar intake and eat more veggies – as in the South Beach Diet, Mediterranean Diet, American Diabetes Association Diet, American Heart Association Diet or DASH Diet (to name a few) – you’re most likely following a lower carbohydrate dietary lifestyle.

By definition, I would call lower-carbohydrate (in comparison to the Standard American Diet) a keystone strategy, not a fad. To be fair, there are some terrible things you can do by following a so-low-it’s-almost-no-carb approach, but perhaps that’s fodder for a future post.

The "Paleo Diet" is the worst of them all.

Each year US News & World Report tries to play health journal and releases its list of best and worst diets.

This past year the DASH diet took top spot, and the Mediterranean Diet also placed in the top five for its emphasis on “fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and flavorful herbs and spices; eating fish and seafood at least a couple of times a week; enjoying poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt in moderation; and saving sweets and red meat for special occasions.”

Rounding out the #31 spot at the bottom of the list was the most-searched diet of 2014, according to Google: The Paleo Diet.

What makes Paleo so different from those on the top of the list? Not as much as you might think. There’s a bit more to eating Paleo than simply gnawing on a hunk of meat the size of your forearm and grunting your approval of the latest kill as the more melodramatic critics would contend.

Paleo emphasizes foods that could have been foraged for or hunted by our Paleolithic ancestors (who didn’t necessarily farm for food). This means you focus on eating produce such as wild greens, tubers, and seasonal fruit, and - when lucky enough – wild (or closest to wild in nutritional profile) animal foods.

Meat here doesn’t just mean muscle meats either but includes the gamut of so-called “nose-to tail” parts. It’s safe to say most people who claim to eat Paleo are actually only doing it partially and that a genuine Paleo approach has more in common with the DASH and Mediterranean diets (as well as other higher-ranked approaches) than it has differences.

Many critics say this type of eating has no research to back it up, when in fact there are a few small studies that have done a decent job showing initial validity and efficacy to at least investigate further with larger studies. Given the trend away from demonizing natural, stable fat sources, we'll see how these ratings look in the next few years as more research comes out.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Would you like to learn more about these and other nutrition misunderstandings? Talk with one of our club dietitians today. 

In health, Paul Kriegler - Corporate Registered Dietitian           

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.



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