Nutrition can be confusing. There is so much information out there, and much of it is flawed, misinterpreted, or flat-out false. But why do so many nutrition myths exist?
Part of it is who is putting the nutrition information out there. A lot of nutrition writers and bloggers don’t have the relevant educational and professional backgrounds to provide sound nutrition information.
Besides that, evidence-based nutrition isn’t sexy. It can actually be kind of boring. For example, “eat your fruits and vegetables.” This statement might be erroneously re-written as, “cure [insert disease here] by eating [insert vegetable here]” to make it sound more catchy. This can lead to a myth about the “powers” of eating certain vegetables.
Like in all sciences, we’re continually learning more about nutrition through research. There is still a lot we don’t know about food and nutrition. People don’t like uncertainty, so it’s tempting to want to believe concrete information, even if it isn’t based on science.
Common Nutrition Myths
Myth: Carbohydrates make you gain weight
Fact: No one nutrient, food, or food group causes weight gain
Weight gain is complex and cannot be attributed to just one food or food group. In general, weight gain happens when we consume calories in excess of what our body needs to maintain body weight. (If you don’t know how many calories you need to maintain your body weight, an RMR test can give you this information.)
A healthy diet includes many foods carbohydrate-rich foods, which are our body’s preferred source of energy. When it comes to carbohydrates, consider the quality. Choose carbohydrates that offer other nutrition including fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Complex carbohydrates with fiber digest and absorb more slowly than simple carbohydrates.
Examples of high-quality carbohydrates: whole grains, fruit, vegetables, beans, and lentils.
Myth: Gluten is unhealthy
Fact: Only some people need to have a gluten-free diet
Gluten is a group of proteins found in cereal grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. People who are diagnosed by a doctor with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity should avoid foods with gluten.
For a person without these conditions, foods with gluten can be part of an overall healthy diet. Emphasize foods that offer more nutrition, such as choosing whole grains over refined grains.
Whole grains with gluten: wheatberries and farro.
Myth: Vegetarian and vegan diets do not provide enough protein
Fact: Many vegetarian foods have protein. Vegetarians and vegans can meet protein needs through careful planning.
There are many types of vegetarianism. Some vegetarians eat eggs, dairy and/or fish. Vegans and plant-based eaters choose mostly or all plant foods.
Plant food sources of protein: beans, lentils, soy products (tofu, edamame, tempeh), nuts, and seeds, whole grains
Vegetarians should choose sources of protein at each meal and snack. A registered dietitian can help to make sure that you are meeting your protein needs.
Myth: Snacking is unhealthy.
Fact: Snacking is part of healthy eating (even if you want to lose weight!)
Depending on our needs and a meal’s size and composition, a meal with carbohydrates, protein, and fat will keep us full for an average of 3-4 hours. In general, most people have a greater time window than 3-4 hours in between meals.
Snacking can help curb hunger while providing fuel to have energy throughout the day. Choose a balanced snack with both protein and a fruit or vegetable. Examples include peanut butter and apple slices, a hard-boiled egg and berries, roasted edamame and carrot sticks, or hummus and celery sticks.
A snack with just carbohydrates, like pretzels, will be digested quickly. This may result in the quick return of hunger and may potentially lead to overeating at the next meal or snack. A balanced snack with protein, carbohydrates, and fiber digests more slowly, keeping us full for longer.
Another reason to include fruits and veggies in snacks is because many people may have trouble fitting them into mealtime. Snacks are an easy way to have an additional serving of fruits and veggies.
Myth: Juicing or cleansing is required to “detox” your body
Fact: Our body has natural detox mechanisms
Juices or cleanses claim to aid weight loss, improve skin health, and detox the body by removing toxins. However, there is no one food or diet that can deliver on these promises. In fact, some cleanses, diets, and supplements may be harmful. Talk to your doctor and registered dietitian before taking supplements or following a diet.
We do not need specific foods, drinks, or diets to detox because our body does that for us. Specifically, our liver and kidneys remove waste from our bodies while helping maintain hydration and process medicine and alcohol, among other functions. The lungs and skin are also involved in detoxification.
The best way of eating to promote overall health is a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, and lean protein. This way of eating can include other foods too but eaten in smaller amounts less often.
Nutrition Red Flags to Look Out For
The internet and social media are filled with potential land mines of misleading nutrition information. Keep an eye out for these red flags:
- Read “.com” sources with a critical eye. While some may provide credible nutrition information, “.com” indicates a commercial domain, so they intend to make a profit.
- Be wary of a source that does not list an author or a reviewer, or either person does not have listed credentials relevant to the field.
- Look for a date when the article or post was published. An article or post without a published date may not provide the most current information.
- Assess whether the website or social media page sells products, including both food and supplements. Companies that sell products may be pushing their own agenda in conjunction with offering nutrition information.
- Evaluate websites and social media for marketing gimmicks. Gimmicks may include weight loss guarantees, celebrity spokespeople, extremely restrictive diets, exaggerated claims, and greenwashing.
- Listen to friends and family but do your own research. Although friends and family mean well, they may be perpetuating myths by sharing information that’s specific to their personal history or experiences.
How can I find credible nutrition information?
Credible nutrition information can seem hard to find amidst other information sources. Utilize these strategies to find information that you can count on:
- Seek out .org, .edu, and .gov sources. Read articles critically. If the information sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- Look for pieces written by authors and/or reviewers with relevant credentials. Check the date published and peruse the source list.
- Do your own research. Rather than taking what someone else says at face value, read about the topic yourself, seeking several high-quality sources.
- Consider the body of evidence, rather than a single scientific study, to inform thoughts and opinions.
- Follow dietitian bloggers and social media accounts by looking for “RD” and “RDN” after their names.
- Ask a credentialed healthcare professional like a registered dietitian or a medical doctor.
- Be open to new ideas. Like all fields, nutrition evolves. We continually learn from research studies and deepen our knowledge of nutrition science.
It can be difficult to sort nutrition facts from nutrition myths. Use these strategies to find nutrition information and if in doubt, ask a credentialed healthcare professional like a registered dietitian. Keep an open mind but maintain a healthy dose of skepticism.