Just when you think you have a handle on the best way to nourish your body, a new study comes out that upends what you thought. Yesterday coffee was linked to hypertension; today it staves off heart disease. Is butter okay or the enemy these days? What’s worse, the internet makes it easy for these half-baked suggestions and nutrition myths to spread like wildfire through social media, blogs, and other forums. No wonder people are left scratching their heads.
While the results of a single study can certainly snag a headline, sometimes the research isn’t well designed. Nutrition recommendations you can trust are based not on one study, but a whole body of research showing similar outcomes. That’s why the basic dietary guidelines haven’t changed much over the past few decades. The focus has always been on eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, choosing lean meat and dairy over more fatty varieties, and limiting sugar, salt and saturated and trans fats.
No matter what your health goals are, it’s important to separate fact from fiction with regard to nutrition. Here are 10 common nutrition misconceptions that may be tripping up your goal of healthier eating.
- Does eating a late-night snack packs on pounds? Not necessarily. A calorie is a calorie when it comes to providing energy, no matter what time it’s consumed. While studies show that people who eat most of their calories in the evening tend to be more overweight, it’s most likely because those folks routinely overindulge after dinner, and that’s what’s sabotaging their weight loss efforts. The goal is to balance your calories throughout the day, not scarf them down in one late-night sitting.
- Can eating extra protein build muscle? No, stressing the muscle through workouts is what leads to more muscle. To feed that growth, the body requires calories and protein. But most people already get far more protein than they need. And that can be a problem, too, as your heart and kidneys have to work harder to flush out the extra protein. If you’re at a healthy weight, multiply your weight by 0.45 to get your weight in kilograms and then multiply that number by 0.8 to determine how many grams of protein you need each day.
- Are carbohydrates a dietary evil? Carbs are actually a necessity. They not only provide the energy your muscles need to move, but also the glucose your brain needs to function. The key to effective carbohydrate eating: Avoid refined varieties, such as sugar, processed snacks and white bread. Fiber-rich carbohydrates, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains supply vital nutrients while also filling you up so you’re less likely to overeat.
- Are cravings a sign of a nutrient deficiency? People are most likely to be deficient in calcium, fiber, potassium and vitamin D, yet those nutrients are rarely present in frequently craved foods. Instead, people report craving rich fare like pizza, ice cream and wine, which fill an emotional rather than physiological need. Ever soothe yourself with ice cream? Therein lies the craving!
- Do you need eight glasses of water a day to stay hydrated? Hydration requirements vary based on your activity level and environment. So an athlete who is shooting hoops in the hot Arizona desert will require more H2O than someone who is sitting on their back porch on a cool day. Another variable: Food! If you munch on water-rich foods all day (think melons, cucumbers and other produce), you may meet much of your fluid needs that way.
- Can fasting cleanse the body of toxins and reduce inflammation? Your liver works every day at detoxing while your kidneys, colon and lungs work on releasing those toxins. Fasting, especially if you have any liver or kidney disease, can actually further damage these organs. Instead avoid things that might damage your liver (too much fat, alcohol, medications) and keep it healthy with a healthy diet and plenty of water.
- Should you eat several small meals rather than three squares? While experts often suggest eating 5-6 small meals each day, studies show 2-3 meals per day are A-OK, too. The caveat: If you tend to overeat when you eat fewer meals, you might be better off with smaller meals throughout the day. The goal is to keep blood sugar levels steady (so you’re not tempted to overindulge) and to only consume the amount of calories your body needs each day. A small healthy snack during the day may help accomplish this too.
- Are egg yolks bad for you? Eggs are often demonized for their cholesterol-heavy yolks. In reality, the incredible egg (yolk included) is a high-quality protein source chock full of important nutrients including vitamins A, D, K, B6, iron, zinc and copper. So while you shouldn’t eat a three-egg omelet daily, indulging in whole eggs a few times a week can be part of a healthy diet.
- Does drinking coffee boost blood pressure? The caffeine in coffee can temporarily hike your blood pressure, but only if you’re sensitive to it. The way to check: test your blood pressure level within 30-60 minutes of drinking a cup of joe. If it spiked – even a few points – you should probably restrict your intake. For everyone else, coffee may have important health benefits. Studies show coffee drinkers have a lower risk of conditions ranging from depression to Parkinson’s disease, but even with these perks, it’s a good idea to limit intake to no more than two cups daily.
- Are all calories created equal? A calorie is a calorie in terms of energy, but the nutrients that come with those calories vary. So while it’s true that a 3-ounce skinless chicken breast has the same amount of calories as two slices of white bread (both have about 140 calories), those calories are not equal in terms of how your body uses them. The protein in chicken requires more energy to digest and also supplies more nutrients.
Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN, is director of the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. She enjoys communicating with people about healthy living and eating and was a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for 9 years. Beth is the president of the Michigan Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which also named her as the Outstanding Dietitian of the Year in 2012.