With the help of Kim Hofmann, Jordana Ventzke and Elienne Horwitz, three registered dieticians from Cape Town, we dispel some of the most common food myths – some of which could be sabotaging your health.
Much of what we believe about healthy eating is nothing more than hearsay. And, with all the diet and nutrition information out there, it’s not always clear how to distinguish fact from fiction.
Myth 1: Eggs are harmful to your health
Eggs contain a significant amount of cholesterol (about 211mg per large egg) and were regarded as unhealthy for many years. But while they may be high in cholesterol, their effect on our cholesterol levels is limited.
Studies have shown that foods high in cholesterol don’t seem to affect our blood-cholesterol levels; instead, foods containing saturated and trans fats are the ones that seem to have the most significant impact. What’s more, the body compensates for increased cholesterol levels from food by producing less cholesterol. Whole eggs are also among the most nutritious foods in the world, containing high-quality protein and healthy fats. They also contain high levels of lutein and zeaxanthine – two antioxidants that protect the eyes. In addition, they’re packed with choline, an important nutrient utilised by the brain.
Read: Cholesterol confusion
It’s therefore safe to say that eggs are an acceptable and healthy food choice. You can safely eat one or two eggs several times a week (one a day or two every second day) – it will help keep you full and thereby help you to keep your weight in check.
Myth 2: Carbohydrates make you fat
Cutting carbohydrates in an effort to lose weight is currently all the rage. While eating less starchy foods is one way of reducing your overall kilojoule intake, you don’t have to limit all carbohydrates to lose weight. Carbohydrates are after all a great source of energy.
Dieticians and health authorities worldwide agree that we should add complex carbohydrates, e.g. whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, to our meals. Cutting these foods out of your diet means you’ll be missing out on a healthy supply of fibre, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. In fact, cutting out a food group can be detrimental to your health as you risk missing out on vital nutrients, notes Dr Magda Robinson in Eat Carbohydrates: Get Thin (And Healthy).
Foods that consist primarily of refined carbohydrates, e.g. white bread, cake, sweets, cookies and sugar-sweetened desserts and drinks (including alcoholic drinks), are usually high in kilojoules, but low in nutrients. These “empty” kilojoules could contribute to weight gain: the foods don’t keep you full and satisfied for long and, as a result, you may consume more kilojoules than you need. To control your weight, it’s best to avoid refined carbohydrates and to have good, fibre-rich carbohydrates with some protein (e.g. an egg) or a healthy fat (e.g. peanut butter). This will keep those cravings in check.
Read: Watch those carbs!
Keep in mind, however, that no single food is truly fattening: overindulging in any of the three macronutrients – fat, protein or carbohydrates – can lead to weight gain. So, watch those portion sizes – even if you’re eating complex carbohydrates!
Myth 3: As long as it’s healthy, you can eat as much as you want
Many of us tend to forget that most healthy foods still contribute a significant number of kilojoules to the diet. For example, olive oil, avocados and nuts are wonderfully good for us – after all, they’re rich in healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – but they’re also high in kilojoules. If consumed in excess, they can lead to weight gain.
The same goes for most other foods, including the complex carbohydrates mentioned above and healthy protein foods such as fish, chicken, lean meat and eggs. Remember: choosing healthy foods is just the first step; the second important step is to keep an eye on your portion sizes.
Myth 4: Fruit is bad for you because it contains too much sugar
It’s true, fruit is high in sugar, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t good for you.
Firstly, the sugar in fruit is fructose – a simple sugar that occurs naturally in plant foods. What makes fructose different from table sugar (glucose plus fructose) is that fructose breaks down in the liver, which means it doesn’t lead to a spike in insulin levels. Secondly, fruit is high in fibre, which slows down the digestive process, keeping you fuller and more satisfied for longer. But this doesn’t mean you should overindulge in fruit. If you eat more than 2-3 servings of fresh fruit per day (i.e. what’s recommended), you could be setting yourself up for weight gain.
Read: Shopping for fruit
Fruit also differs from sugary sweets and table sugar in that it’s an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – all of which help to keep you healthy. Eating fruit is also a great way to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Myth 5: Frozen vegetables are not as healthy as fresh vegetables
Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious – if not more nutrient-dense – than fresh vegetables. This is because they’re picked and packaged at their peak, when they’ve just been harvested – the point at which nutrient levels are at their highest. They’re then frozen almost immediately, locking in all that wholesome goodness. Fresh produce, on the other hand, loses some of its nutrients during the journey from farm to fork.
Frozen vegetables are also incredibly convenient, allowing you to have vegetables in your fridge at all times. Nevertheless, whether you opt for frozen or fresh veggies, it’s best to not overcook the vegetables as this can further lower nutrient levels.
Myth 6: Potatoes are unhealthy
Think “potatoes”, and the first thing that, for most people, springs to mind is greasy, deep-fried fries or creamy mash with butter and cheese. The result is that potatoes are often associated with weight gain, diabetes and a myriad of other health woes.
But, contrary to popular belief, potatoes are actually a perfectly healthy food choice. When prepared the correct way (baked and not fried or drenched in oil or butter), they’re a good source of fibre, potassium and vitamin C.
Note, however, that potatoes do have a high glycaemic index (GI), which means that they cause a significant spike in blood glucose and insulin levels. For this reason, they should be eaten with a bit of lean meat or fibre-rich vegetables – both of which will lower the GI of the meal. And do eat your potatoes with their skins – a source of fibre and nutrients.
Myth 7: Kilojoules eaten at night are more fattening
Kilojoules are kilojoules (and calories are calories), whether eaten at night or during the day. If your total food intake is too high, you’ll gain weight, regardless of the time of day you eat. However, if you eat too little during the day, the tendency is to eat too much at night, leading to weight gain.
The key here is to manage your meals throughout the day. Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner (with a healthy snack or two in between), and make sure you’re eating a balance of low-GI carbohydrates (e.g. legumes, whole-wheat bread, brown rice), lean protein (e.g. fish, chicken, lean meat, eggs), healthy fats, dairy, fruit and vegetables. The bottom line? You don’t have to skimp on dinner – just watch those portion sizes and don’t overindulge.
Myth 8: When eating out, it’s best to order salad
It may sound like the healthiest option on the menu, but sometimes salads contain as many or more kilojoules than a hamburger. They may be laced with high-fat ingredients such as croutons, bacon and cheese, and often come with very kilojoule-dense dressings.
Choose wisely when eating out. Check the ingredients before you order, and make sure the salad you order contains lots of fresh vegetables, a lean protein source (e.g. eggs or chicken) and only one or two healthy fats (e.g. avocado or olives).
Myth 9: Certain foods can burn fat and make you lose weight faster than others
People often believe that foods like grapefruit, celery or cabbage soup will help them shed weight quickly.
Yes, these are healthy food choices, which you could definitely incorporate into your daily diet, but they don’t contain magic ingredients that burn fat and help you lose weight overnight. Studies have shown that some of these foods temporarily boost metabolic rates, but the lift isn’t enough to offset consuming too many kilojoules. The path to weight loss, experts say, comes in the form of a balanced diet filled with nutrient-rich foods, cutting back on the number of kilojoules you eat by managing your portion sizes, and being more active. There are NO quick fixes.
Myth 10: Health bars are better than a bar of chocolate
It’s a “health” bar, so it must be healthy, right? As much as we like to think cereal, protein, energy and yoghurt bars are healthy, this isn’t always the case. In fact, many of these products contain just as many kilojoules as a bar of chocolate.
While they may include more nutrients, they’re also often loaded with high-kilojoule ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, honey and fat.
If you’re grabbing a snack on the run, go for bars with a short ingredient list. Make sure they include lots of nuts, seeds, dried fruit, protein and/or fibre, and very little sugar, salt and saturated fat. Steer clear of anything that contains trans fats.
If all else fails, make your own granola bars. This way, you have control over what goes into them.
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- IDEA Health & Fitness Association. 2006. The Professionals’ Guide to Diet, Nutrition and Healthy Eating
- Marber, I., & Corr, L. (2014). Eat Your Way To Lower Cholesterol: Recipes to reduce cholesterol by up to 20% in Under 3 Months. Hachette UK.
- Robinson, M. 2013. Eat Carbohydrates: Get Thin (And Healthy). Lulu. com