There’s no shortage of health myths out there, but I believe the truth about mainstream nutrition is slowly but surely starting to seep out there and get a larger audience. For example, two recent articles actually hit the nail right on the head in terms of good nutrition advice.
These health topics are all essential to get “right” if you want to protect your health, and the health of your loved ones, which is why I was delighted to see both of these sources disseminating spot-on advice. I highly recommend reading through both of them.
Here, I will review my own top 10 lies and misconceptions of mainstream nutrition — some of which are included in the two featured sources, plus a few additional ones I believe are important.
Lie No. 1: ‘Saturated Fat Causes Heart Disease’
As recently as 2002, the “expert” Food & Nutrition Board issued the following misguided statement, which epitomizes this myth:
“Saturated fats and dietary cholesterol have no known beneficial role in preventing chronic disease and are not required at any level in the diet.”
Similarly, the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine recommends adults to get 45 to 65 percent of their calories from carbohydrates, 20 to 35 percent from fat, and 10 to 35 percent from protein. This is an inverse ideal fat-to-carb ratio that is virtually guaranteed to lead you astray, and result in a heightened risk of chronic disease.
Most people benefit from 50 to 70 percent healthful fats in their diet for optimal health, whereas you need very few, if any, carbohydrates to maintain good health. Although that may seem like a lot, fat is much denser and consumes a much smaller portion of your meal plate.
This dangerous recommendation, which arose from an unproven hypothesis from the mid-1950s, has been harming your health and that of your loved ones for about 40 years now.
The truth is, saturated fats from animal and vegetable sources provide the building blocks for cell membranes and a variety of hormones and hormone-like substances, without which your body cannot function optimally. They also act as carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Dietary fats are also needed for the conversion of carotene to vitamin A, for mineral absorption, and for a host of other biological processes.
In fact, saturated is the preferred fuel for your heart! For more information about saturated fats and the essential role they play in maintaining your health, please read my previous article, “The Truth About Saturated Fat.”
Lie No. 2: ‘Eating Fat Makes You Gain Weight’
The low-fat myth may have done more harm to the health of millions than any other dietary recommendation as the resulting low-fat craze led to increased consumption of trans-fats, which we now know increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease — the very health problems wrongfully attributed to saturated fats.
To end the confusion, it’s very important to realize that eating fat will not make you fat!
The primary cause of excess weight and all the chronic diseases associated with it, is actually the consumption of too much sugar — especially fructose, but also all sorts of grains, which rapidly convert to sugar in your body. If only the low-fat craze had been a low-sugar craze, then we wouldn’t have nearly as much chronic disease as we have today. For an explanation of why and how a low-fat diet can create the very health problems it’s claimed to prevent, please see this previous article.
Lie No. 3: ‘Artificial Sweeteners Are Safe Sugar-Replacements For Diabetics And Help Promote Weight Loss’
Most people use artificial sweeteners to lose weight and/or because they’re diabetic and need to avoid sugar. The amazing irony is that nearly all the studies that have carefully analyzed their effectiveness show that those who use artificial sweeteners actually gain more weight than those who consume caloric sweeteners. Studies have also revealed that artificial sweeteners can be worse than sugar for diabetics.
In 2005, data gathered from the 25-year-long San Antonio Heart Study showed that drinking diet soft drinks increased the likelihood of serious weight gain, far more so than regular soda. On average, each diet soft drink the participants consumed per day increased their risk of becoming overweight by 65 percent within the next seven to eight years, and made them 41 percent more likely to become obese. There are several potential causes for this, including:
- Sweet taste alone appears to increase hunger, regardless of caloric content.
- Artificial sweeteners appear to simply perpetuate a craving for sweets, and overall sugar consumption is therefore not reduced, leading to further problems controlling your weight.
- Artificial sweeteners may disrupt your body’s natural ability to “count calories,” as evidenced in studies such as this 2004 study at Purdue University, which found that rats fed artificially sweetened liquids ate more high-calorie food than rats fed high-caloric sweetened liquids.
There is also a large number of health dangers associated with artificial sweeteners and aspartame in particular. I’ve compiled an ever-growing list of studies pertaining to health problems associated with aspartame, which you can find here. If you’re still on the fence, I highly recommend reviewing these studies for yourself so that you can make an educated decision. For more information on aspartame, the worst artificial sweetener, please see my aspartame video.
Lie No. 4: ‘Your Body Cannot Tell The Difference Between Sugar And Fructose’
Of the many health-harming ingredients listed in the featured article by Shape Magazine — all of which you’re bound to get in excess if you consume processed foods — fructose is perhaps the greatest threat to your health. Mounting evidence testifies to the fact that excess fructose, primarily in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, is a primary factor causing not just obesity, but also chronic and lethal disease. In fact, I am convinced that fructose is one of the leading causes of a great deal of needless suffering from poor health and premature death.
Many conventional health “experts,” contend that sugar and fructose in moderation is perfectly okay and part of a normal “healthy” diet, and the corn industry vehemently denies any evidence showing that fructose is metabolically more harmful than regular sugar (sucrose). This widespread denial and sweeping the evidence under the carpet poses a massive threat to your health, unless you do your own research.
As a standard recommendation, I advise keeping your total fructose consumption below 25 grams per day. For most people it would also be wise to limit your fructose from fruit to 15 grams or less. Unfortunately, while this is theoretically possible, precious few people are actually doing that.
Cutting out a few desserts will not make a big difference if you’re still eating a “standard American diet” — in fact, I’ve previously written about how various foods and beverages contain far more sugar than a glazed doughnut. Because of the prevalence of HFCS in foods and beverages, the average person now consumes a third a pound of sugar every day, which is five ounces or 150 grams, half of which is fructose.
That’s 300 percent more than the amount that will trigger biochemical havoc. Remember that is the average; many actually consume more than twice that amount. For more details about the health dangers of fructose and my recommendations, please see my recent article “Confirmed — Fructose Can Increase Your Hunger And Lead To Overeating.”
Lie No. 5: ‘Soy Is A Health Food’
The meteoric rise of soy as a “health food” is a perfect example of how a brilliant marketing strategy can fool millions. But make no mistake about it, unfermented soy products are not healthful additions to your diet, and can be equally troublesome for men and women of all ages. If you find this recommendation startling, then I would encourage you to review some of the many articles listed on my Soy Index Page.
Contrary to popular belief, thousands of studies have actually linked unfermented soy to malnutrition, digestive distress, immune-system breakdown, thyroid dysfunction, cognitive decline, reproductive disorders, and infertility — even cancer and heart disease. Not only that, but more than 90 percent of American soy crops are genetically modified, which carries its own set of health risks.
I am not opposed to all soy, however. Organic and, most importantly, properly fermented soy does have great health benefits. Examples of such healthful fermented soy products include tempeh, miso, and natto. Here is a small sampling of the detrimental health effects linked to unfermented soy consumption:
- Breast cancer
- Brain damage
- Infant abnormalities
- Thyroid disorders
- Kidney stones
- Immune system impairment
- Severe, potentially fatal food allergies
- Impaired fertility
- Danger during pregnancy and breastfeeding
Lie No. 6: ‘Eggs Are A Source of Unhealthy Cholesterol’
Eggs are probably one of the most demonized foods in the United States, mainly because of the misguided idea implied by the lipid hypothesis that eating egg yolk increases the cholesterol levels in your body. You can forget about such concerns, because contrary to popular belief, eggs are one of the healthiest foods you can eat, and they do not have a detrimental impact on cholesterol levels. Numerous nutritional studies have dispelled the myth that you should avoid eating eggs, so this recommendation is really hanging on by a very bare thread.
One such study, conducted by the Yale Prevention Research Center and published in 2010, showed that egg consumption did not have a negative effect on endothelial function — a measure of cardiac risk — and did not cause a spike on cholesterol levels. The participants of the Yale study ate two eggs per day for a period of six weeks. There are many benefits associated with eggs, including:
- One egg contains six grams of high-quality protein and all nine essential amino acids.
- Eggs are good for your eyes because they contain lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants found in your lens and retina. These two compounds help protect your eyes from damage caused by free radicals and avoid eye diseases like macular degeneration and cataracts.
- Eggs are a good source of choline (one egg contains about 300 micrograms), a member of the vitamin B family essential for the normal function of human cells and which helps regulate the nervous and cardiovascular systems. Choline is especially beneficial for pregnant mothers, as it is influences normal brain development of the unborn child.
- Eggs are one of the few foods that contain naturally occurring vitamin D (24.5 grams).
- Eggs may help promote healthy hair and nails due to their high sulphur content.
- Eggs also contain biotin, calcium, copper, folate, iodine, iron, manganese, magnesium, niacin, potassium, selenium, sodium, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B2, vitamin B12, vitamin E, and zinc.
Choose free-range organic eggs, and avoid “omega-3 eggs” as this is not the proper way to optimize your omega-3 levels. To produce these omega-3 eggs, the hens are usually fed poor-quality sources of omega-3 fats that are already oxidized. Omega-3 eggs are more perishable than non-omega-3 eggs.
Lie No. 7: ‘Whole Grains Are Good For Everyone’
The use of whole grains is an easy subject to get confused on, especially for those who have a passion for nutrition, as for the longest time we were told the fiber in whole grains is highly beneficial. Unfortunately, all grains, including whole grain and organic varieties, can elevate your insulin levels, which can increase your risk of disease. They also contain gluten, which many are sensitive to, if not outright allergic. It has been my experience that more than 85 percent of Americans have trouble controlling their insulin levels — especially those who have the following conditions:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Protein metabolic types
In addition, sub-clinical gluten intolerance is far more common than you might think, which can also wreak havoc with your health. As a general rule, I strongly recommend eliminating or at least restricting grains as well as sugars/fructose from your diet, especially if you have any of the above conditions that are related to insulin resistance. The higher your insulin levels and the more prominent your signs of insulin overload are, the more ambitious your grain elimination needs to be.
If you are one of the fortunate ones without insulin resistance and of normal body weight, than grains are fine, especially whole grains — as long as you don’t have any issues with gluten and select organic and unrefined forms. It is wise to continue to monitor your grain consumption and your health as life is dynamic and constantly changing. What might be fine when you are 25 or 30 could become a major problem at 40 when your growth hormone and level of exercise is different.
Lie No. 8: ‘Milk Does Your Body Good’
Unfortunately, the myth that conventional pasteurized milk has health benefits is a persistent one, even though it’s far from true. Conventional health agencies also refuse to address the real dangers of the growth hormones and antibiotics found in conventional milk. I do not recommend drinking pasteurized milk of any kind, including organic, because once milk has been pasteurized its physical structure is changed in a way that can actually cause allergies and immune problems.
Important enzymes like lactase are destroyed during the pasteurization process, which causes many people to not be able to digest milk. Additionally, vitamins (such as A, C, B6, and B12) are diminished, and fragile milk proteins are radically transformed from health nurturing to unnatural amino acid configurations that can actually worsen your health. The eradication of beneficial bacteria through the pasteurization process also ends up promoting pathogens rather than protecting you from them.
The healthy alternative to pasteurized milk is raw milk, which is an outstanding source of nutrients, including beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus acidophilus, vitamins, and enzymes, and it is, in my estimation, one of the finest sources of calcium available. For more details, please watch the interview I did with Mark McAfee, who is the owner of Organic Pastures, the largest organic dairy in the United States.
However, again, if you have insulin issues and are struggling with weight issues, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, or high cholesterol, it would be best to restrict your dairy to organic butter as the carbohydrate content, lactose, could be contribute to insulin and leptin resistance. Fermented organic raw dairy would eliminate the lactose issue and would be better tolerated. But if you are sensitive to dairy it might be best to avoid these too.
Lie No. 9: ‘Genetically Engineered Foods Are Safe And Comparable To Conventional Foods’
Make no mistake about it: Genetically engineered foods may be one of the absolute most dangerous aspects of our food supply today. I strongly recommend avoiding all GE foods. Since over 90 percent of all corn grown in the United States is GE corn, and over 95 percent all soy is GE soy, this means that virtually every processed food you encounter at your local supermarket that does not bear the “USDA Organic” label likely contains one or more GE components. To avoid GE foods, first memorize the following list of well-known and oft-used GE crops:
- Alfalfa (new GM crop as of 2011)
- Sugar derived from sugar beets
Fresh zucchini, crookneck squash, and Hawaiian papaya are also commonly GE. It’s important to realize that unless you’re buying all organic food, or grow your own veggies and raise your own livestock, or at the very least buy all whole foods (even if conventionally grown), and cook everything from scratch, chances are you’re consuming GE foods every single day. What ultimate impact these foods will have on your health is still unknown, but increased disease, infertility, and birth defects appear to be on the top of the list of most likely side effects. The first-ever lifetime feeding study also showed a dramatic increase in organ damage, cancer, and reduced lifespan.
Lie No. 10: ‘Lunch Meats Make For A Healthy Nutritious Meal’
Lastly, processed meats, which includes everything from hot dogs, deli meats, bacon, and pepperoni are rarely thought of as strict no-no’s, but they really should be, if you’re concerned about your health. Virtually all processed meat products contain dangerous compounds that put them squarely on the list of foods to avoid or eliminate entirely. These compounds include:
- Heterocyclic amines (HCAs): a potent carcinogen, which is created when meat or fish is cooked at high temperatures.
- Sodium nitrite: a commonly used preservative and antimicrobial agent that also adds color and flavor to processed and cured meats.
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs): Many processed meats are smoked as part of the curing process, which causes PAHs to form.
- Advanced glycation end products (AGEs): When food is cooked at high temperatures — including when it is pasteurized or sterilized — it increases the formation of AGEs in your food. AGEs build up in your body over time leading to oxidative stress, inflammation, and an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and kidney disease.
This recommendation is backed up by a report commissioned by the World Cancer Research Fund. The review, which evaluated the findings of more than 7,000 clinical studies, was funded by money raised from the general public, so the findings were not influenced by vested interests. It’s also the biggest review of the evidence ever undertaken, and it confirms previous findings: Processed meats increase your risk of cancer, especially bowel cancer, and no amount of processed meat is “safe.”
A previous analysis by the WCRF found that eating just one sausage a day raises your risk of developing bowel cancer by 20 percent, and other studies have found that processed meats increase your risk of:
- Colon cancer by 50 percent
- Bladder cancer by 59 percent
- Stomach cancer by 38 percent
- Pancreatic cancer by 67 percent
Processed meats may also increase your risk of diabetes by 50 percent, lower your lung function, and increase your risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. If you absolutely want or need a hot dog or other processed meats once in awhile, you can reduce your risk by:
- Looking for “uncured” varieties that contain no nitrates
- Choosing varieties that say 100 percent beef, 100 percent chicken, etc. This is the only way to know that the meat is from a single species and does not include byproducts (like chicken skin or chicken fat or other parts)
- Avoiding any meat that contains MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, artificial flavor, or artificial color
Ideally, purchase sausages and other processed meats from a small, local farmer who can tell you exactly what’s in their products.
These are just some of the health myths and misconceptions out there. There are certainly many more. The ones listed above are some of the most important ones, in my view, simply because they’re so widely misunderstood. They’re also critical to get “right” if you want to protect your health and the health of your loved ones.
Dr. Joseph Mercola is an osteopathic physician, board-certified in family medicine. He has written two New York Times bestsellers and shared his expertise on ABC News, NBC’s The Today Show, CNN, CBS, Fox News, and in TIME and Forbes magazines.
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