Carbs make you fat. Dark chocolate is good for your heart. A glass of red wine each day will make you live longer. If the popular press is to be believed, staying fit and healthy is as easy as sticking to a few key health slogans.
However, much of what we presume to know about healthy eating is wrong. Swinging from one diet to the next is likely to have a rollercoaster effect on your mood, not to mention your weight.
Senior dietician Amanda Clark, from the Great Ideas in Nutrition clinic, says most food myths are linked to losing weight.
Many people come into Amanda’s Gold Coast clinic worried that the food they are eating is making them sick or fat. Overcoming an irritable bowel, bloating or weight issues can be much more complex than cutting out gluten, dairy or carbs.
Five popular food myths she often hears are:
Myth 1 – Carbs make you fat: Much of the world’s population lives on high-carb diets, without the obesity problems of the West. “It’s not the carbs that are the problem,” says Amanda. “It’s the amount and the types of carbs.” Cutting out carbs after 5pm is bogus, too: “Eating regular meals makes your metabolism work better.”
Myth 2 – Gluten-free foods are better for you: Many people follow gluten-free diets to overcome irritable bowel symptoms, but Clark says evidence suggests it may not be gluten causing the problem. Rather, carbohydrates called FODMAPs (which stands for Fermentable Oligo-saccharides, Disaccharides, Mono-saccharides and Polyols) are the culprits. High-FODMAP foods include garlic and onions, high-fructose fruits such as apples and pears, wheat, dairy and honey. “Following a gluten-free diet may be cutting out a whole lot more than you need to,” says Amanda. “A diagnosis will tell you what is going on.”
Myth 3 – Organic foods are healthier: The weight of evidence shows organics do not have a higher nutritional value and they do reduce exposure to pesticides and chemical residues. “There is definite value in organic food,” Amanda says. If you can’t afford to fill your basket with organic vegetables, then supplement with non-organic vegetables that you peel because peeling reduces pesticide and chemical residue exposure. “So go for organic broccoli but not necessarily organic potatoes.”
Myth 4 – Dairy is the enemy: We’ve all experimented with cutting out dairy when health problems arise. Cow’s milk is blamed for lactose intolerance and milk-protein allergies. But unless soy, rice and almond milks are fortified, they are much lower in calcium and protein. Check with your doctor or dietician first. “Dairy might not necessarily be causing an irritable bowel or bloating.”
Myth 5 – Superfoods are best for antioxidants: While blueberries, Brazil nuts, kale, salmon and lentils are higher in antioxidants than other foods, our intake of these “superfoods” is comparatively low. “They are good to include in your diet but everyday fruit and vegetables make up the bulk of our antioxidant food.”
Portion control is essential to any balanced diet.
“It doesn’t really matter what kind of diet you follow, as long as it’s practical, lower in calories and you can stick to it long-term,” Amanda says.
Serving sizes have increased dramatically over the past 30 years in the West. Time-poor families make misinformed decisions, often while on the run. However, simply using smaller plates can reduce calorie intake by one quarter.
“We’ve lost the plot when it comes to knowing how much should be on our plate and how much should be in our children’s lunch boxes.”
If you’re wondering about the positive effects of dark chocolate and red wine, think again. Recent studies show the health benefits may not be due to their inherent antioxidant value but rather, the way the nutrients in them interact with certain people’s genetic make-up. As Amanda explains, this means “chocolate can be beneficial to some people and not others”.
While we all might not fall into the group who benefit from eating chocolate, we think everyone should celebrate life and enjoy a portioned piece.
Amanda is the author of Portion Perfection: A Visual Weight Control Plan. She has also designed a range of plates and bowls that apportion recommended serving sizes.