You can’t believe everything you hear. That truth is particularly true when it comes to nutrition lies. Each week, it seems as if a new fad or health solution is reported. These reports typically include information on a food now considered “unhealthy” or a better, faster way to lose weight. Many of the claims are often discredited, upon further research, yet their impacts on dietary choices remain.
Studies from the 1950s and 1960s transformed the way we ate, the foods we ate and the amount we ate. The result? Detrimental effects on our health because the nutrition lies proved faulty.
Nutrition lies in the media are common; studies subsidized by pharmaceutical companies, food manufacturers and food associations are often tilted to make the public believe that one food is healthier than another to spur sales and increase visibility.
Here are the facts, based on true medical research, to debunk common nutrition misconceptions. I consider these to be the top nutrition lies circulating today.
The 11 Largest Nutrition Lies in the Media
Lie #1: Saturated fat is bad for you.
Saturated fat has been demonized for the better part of five decades for its supposed dangers to the heart. This is largely the result of studies that seemed to follow the “gold standard” of scientific research — it’s only been in the last few years that scientists uncovered the truth: that the premise of the low-fat diet craze was little more than falsified. (1, 2)
Instead, new research has shown that eliminating saturated fat from the diet actually doesn’t lessen the risk for heart disease at all!
Truth: Saturated fats are good for you and critical to your body’s function!
The sugar industry scandal left many thinking saturated fat, not sugar, was the enemy. The results have been devastating. Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils have replaced saturated oils in the standard Western diet, in large part due to these misleading studies. Unfortunately, these oils are high in omega-6 fats and can cause your omega-6:omega-3 ratio to get out of whack, leading to chronic inflammation.
Colorectal cancer is often said to be associated with diets high in saturated fats. However, that is simply not true. The Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial studied postmenopausal women for more than 8 years and found that a low-fat diet did not reduce the risk for colorectal cancer. (4)
In addition, a study of nearly 50,000 postmenopausal women found that a low-fat diet did not result in a significant reduction in breast cancer risk. (5)
Plus, eating a Mediterranean diet high in good fats reduces the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, which has gone from a nearly negligible cause of death in the 1980s to the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. for individuals 65 and older (as of 2015). (6, 1)
Solution: Incorporate healthy saturated fats into your diet.
Coconut oil is one of the healthiest foods on the planet, no matter what the American Heart Association says. This extremely versatile, once-vilified oil is a medium-chain fatty acid that is easily digested and packed with anti-microbial properties, including lauric acid. Unlike some other healthy fats, coconut oil is more resistant to heat damage.
Ghee is another healthy fat with a high smoke point. It’s also packed with fat soluble vitamins A, D and E. Both ghee and coconut oil are actually associated with weight loss, as the energy from medium-chain fatty acids helps to burn other fats in our system.
For raw applications, use olive oil, almond oil or avocado oil. They are all terrific for adding nutrients and great flavor.
Lie #2: The keto diet is dangerous.
It may seem like just the latest fad, but the high-fat, low-carb keto diet is about 100 years old. Can you lose significant amounts of weight on keto? Absolutely! Was that its original purpose?
In reality, one of the major benefits of ketosis is the way it impacts brain function — this diet’s initial studied benefit (which has stood the test of time), is for reducing symptoms of epilepsy. And, no, ketosis is not the same as diabetic ketoacidosis, a dangerous condition experienced by some diabetic patients.
The ketogenic diet is a completely different approach to dietary choices than calorie-counting, extreme willpower to make impossible sacrifices or even just a generally healthy diet full of whole foods. Instead, people on keto eat lots of healthy fats and limit all carbohydrate intake.
By making these choices, the body transitions to a fat-burning state (ketosis) which utilizes ketones (produced by the liver, as well as consumed in certain foods) for energy instead of glucose.
Truth: Going keto can help you lose weight, reverse some disease symptoms and is safe when done properly.
There are a lot of keto diet myths out there, which I debunk in-depth in another article. However, the science is there: The ketogenic diet is great for exercise, maintaining and building muscle mass, improving energy levels and beating brain fog. (Oh, and you’ll lose weight, too!)
In fact, studies have shown that the ketogenic diet can be useful for helping reverse or treat :
- Diabetes (7)
- Abnormal cholesterol levels (8, 9)
- Epilepsy (11, 12)
- Schizophrenia (13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18)
- Anxiety (20)
- Depression (21, 22)
- Manic depression (23)
- Autism (24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30)
- PCOS (31, 32)
- Cancer (especially brain cancers) (33)
There is no upper limit to the length of time you can technically do keto, particularly if you’re doing it right. By “doing it right,” I mean not eating pork all the time or loading up on unhealthy fats like canola oil; This diet should be all about filling your body with the healthiest fats you can, as well as a moderate amount of good protein and a limit amount of healthy carbs (like those found in veggies).
The longest study done on patients following a ketogenic diet lasted 10 years and no significant risk factors were noted in any blood test or disease occurrence. (34)
Solution: Try the keto diet for 30 days.
Because it is somewhat restrictive and limits the benefits you can get from healthy foods such as sweet potatoes and most fruits (which are higher in carbohydrates), I suggest cycling the keto diet on and off, particularly if you are trying to lose weight or if you may benefit from its disease-banishing benefits.
I think it’s a great idea to start this diet for as little as 30 days or up to three months at a time.
Just remember — not every diet is right for every person. If you are maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle and have no issues with brain fog, energy levels or potential diseases mentioned above, this might not be the diet for you.
In addition, the way keto impacts blood sugar means that if you are diabetic, you should undergo this diet with the supervision of your healthcare provider, particularly if you’re on blood sugar-lowering medications.
Lie #3: Buying organic isn’t worth the cost.
I get it: Eating all organic foods is just not possible for some budgets. But I have good news! There is a way to determine how to replace the most dangerous non-organic foods with better options.
Each year, the Environmental Working Group releases the Dirty Dozen list, which details the pesticide content of non-organic produce. They also include the “Clean 15,” which are the produce items least likely to be contaminated. (35)
When it comes to meat, the question is a little more complex. Organic meat is not the same thing as grass-fed or free-range, although those types of meats are important for other health reasons.
Truth: Buying organic may help you save thousands of dollars in medical bills later in life.
Unfortunately, the pesticides used for produce and the hormones and antibiotics given to animals raised for meat have a number of detrimental effects on your health.
- Chlorpyrifos is an insecticide found on apples, bell peppers, peaches and nectarines that may negatively impact a child’s behavior and brain function. (36)
- Another neurotoxic chemical, permethrin, used on spinach, may cause seizures or tremors at high levels and are even linked to ADHD symptoms in children. (37)
- Pesticides consumption via produce is linked to infertility problems in both men and women. (38, 39)
- Processed meats (salami, hot dogs, etc.) and conventional red meat increase the risk of certain cancers. (40)
- Processed meats may also be bad for heart disease risk. (41)
These are just a few of the potential harms of contaminated produce and meats; We may not even be aware of the far-reaching dangers. However, it seems true that it may be best to avoid the worst options in order to save yourself early disease and medical bills.
Solution: Buy organic when possible (and most risky).
Particularly for produce, try to buy organic anytime you get anything from the Dirty Dozen list. The top five offenders are strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples and peaches.
On the other hand, the top five clean produce items for 2018 are avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage and onions. (35)
When it comes to meat, I recommend avoiding all processed meat. If you can’t purchase organic meats, at least purchase grass-fed and free-range options, as these types of meats are more nutrient-dense and have less chances of being contaminated by medications.
Lie #4: Too much protein is hard on the kidneys and liver.
This nutrition lie seems to be a result of the high-protein diets popular a couple of decades ago. The myth is that high levels of protein in the diet contribute to decreased kidney and liver function, as well as osteoporosis. These claims are simply not true.
While there is incidental evidence that individuals with kidney or liver disease may need to curb their protein intake, even researchers studying kidney disease state “The long-term effects of animal protein on normal kidney function are not known.” (42)
Truth: Proteins are critical for hormone building, cells and bone health.
The truth is that protein contributes to every living cell and process in our body. Essential amino acids found in high-quality protein are associated with improved bone health, and a lower risk of fracture. The protein actually helps bone metabolism and improves calcium retention, and it is potentially dangerous to consume inadequate protein. (43)
The senior population that is at an increased risk for osteoporosis, falls and broken bones are particularly in need of high-quality animal protein. A study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research indicates that animal protein does not adversely affect the skeletal system, as some have reported.
In fact, they found out that protein is essential in helping the body repair, and vital to preventing fatty buildup and damage to the liver. (44)
Solution: Add healthy proteins to your diet.
Adding in a healthy range of proteins into your diet is the key to health!
Wild salmon is rich with omega–3s, vitamins D, B3, B5, B6, and B12, protein, and potassium. This nutrient-dense fish contributes to healthy bones and joints, supports healthy neurological function, improves heart health, and much more. Also try sardines, anchovies and other wild-caught fish.
Stay away from conventional meats, and select only organic, grass-fed beef and lamb and free-range organic chicken. Enjoy eggs, sprouted nuts, nut butters and seeds to take advantage of the fat and nutrition of these great protein sources.
Lie #5: All fish is healthy.
Sure, getting plenty of omega-3s from fish is important. However, did you know that the way fish are sourced can greatly affect how healthy (or very unhealthy) they are for you?
No joke, I believe that eating tilapia is worse than eating bacon. It’s associated with inflammation and has a very poor balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, which is especially problematic for people with arthritis, heart disease, arthritis, asthma, allergies and autoimmune disease symptoms. (45, 46)
Truth: The type of seafood you get matters a lot.
Mercury poisoning and unhealthy fats aren’t the only problems with these fish, though. Other issues include major sustainability problems which are permanently changing the way fish can live and reproduce. Some of the fish you should never eat include:
- Atlantic cod
- Atlantic flatfish (Atlantic halibut, flounder and sole)
- Chilean seabass
- Farmed salmon (Atlantic or wild-caught)
- Imported basa/swai/tra/striped catfish (often labeled “catfish”)
- Imported farmed shrimp
- Imported king crab
- Orange roughy
- Atlantic bluefin tuna
- King mackerel
Solution: Only purchase sustainable, uncontaminated fish products.
These types of seafood will be high in omega-3s as well as good for the environment (and your health). (47) Instead of unhealthy fish, stick to choices like:
- Wild-caught Alaskan salmon
- Pacific sardines
- Atlantic mackerel
- Albacore tuna (troll- or pole-caught, from the US or British Columbia)
- Sablefish/black cod (from Alaska and Canadian Pacific)
Lie #6: Cholesterol is bad and eggs are unhealthy.
For decades, it has been widely believed that eggs, and specifically their saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease. This is simply untrue. While there are studies dating back to the 1980s that refute this claim, it is still widely held and believed.
In fact, there is no relationship between egg consumption and coronary heart disease, and egg consumption is unrelated to blood cholesterol levels.(48)
Unfortunately, the study correction to right the misinformation published in the 1970s only came out in 2016. (49)
Truth: You need cholesterol to survive. Plus, eggs are not the enemy.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that egg consumption does not influence the risk of cardiovascular disease in men, while another study shows that dietary cholesterol is not related to coronary heart disease incidences or mortality. (50, 51)
Egg yolks, which have often been the source of repeated nutrition lies because of their saturated fat. However, eggs have been proven to help to increase lutein and zeaxanthin levels, without elevating cholesterol levels. Lutein and zeaxanthin are associated a reduction in incidence of age-related macular degeneration and good eye health. (52)
And cholesterol, unlike you may have been told, is actually an extremely important substance that aids your body in a number of vital processes. Instead of worrying about your total cholesterol numbers, you should be more aware of your ratio of HDL to LDL cholesterol (and your overall triglycerides).
Solution: Enjoy free-range or local farm eggs and monitor cholesterol ratios.
Of course, what you need to know is there are good eggs and bad eggs; The way they are raised and what they eat are contributing factors. So, get free range, farm eggs, or locally farmed eggs whenever possible. Eggs are a versatile food, which is packed with high-quality protein, healthy fats, vitamins A, B5, and B12, folate, phosphorus, and selenium. It is low in calories, and can be enjoyed in a wide array of egg recipes.
As far as your cholesterol goes, don’t worry too much about eating nutritious high cholesterol foods (no, I don’t mean you should start eating processed foods). These healthier options, such as grass-fed beef, dark chocolate and eggs, provide nutrients that your body will enjoy.
I think a good ratio of HDL to LDL particles is 1:2.5 or less. Multiply your HDL number by 2.5; If the rest is higher or equal to your LDL cholesterol number, you’re in a healthy range.
Lie #7: Eating five to six small meals a day stimulates metabolism.
Frequent snacking or small meals throughout the day has grown in popularity with some people. The idea is that eating stimulates the metabolism, as you get a metabolic boost while digesting foods, that can result in weight and fat loss. But, the truth is that it is the total amount of food you eat in a day that impacts your metabolism, and intermittent fasting may be better for most individuals.
Truth: Eating constantly does not help your metabolism and may interfere with burning fat.
Intermittent fasting (IMF) allows the body to burn fat easier and more efficiently because insulin levels in the body are low. We don’t enter a fasting state until 12 hours or so after eating a meal. So, by eating 5-6 meals throughout the day, you are actually postponing the fat burning! A 2010 study found that increasing the number of meals eaten throughout the day actually doesn’t help you lose more weight. (53)
Intermittent fasting can be accomplished by eating all meals within one 8-hour period each day, and fasting the remaining 16 hours, or through an alternate-day fast. For most people, alternate-day fasting is difficult, but research shows that body weight and fat loss increase in this model. (54)
Solution: Be intentional about how much you eat each day and give intermittent fasting a try.
An intermittent fast is easy to incorporate into your routine. For most people, skipping breakfast, and starting the eating portion of the day around noon, and ending around 8:00 p.m. is best. While it is tempting to believe that hunger will rule the 16 hours of fasting, actually, the reverse is often true.
People actually feel fuller with fewer, higher protein meals than with frequent meals. This study also found that in general, higher protein intake promotes satiety, while challenging the concept that increasing the meals per day is more satisfying. (55)
One word of caution: Intermittent fasting for women is a slightly different story. It’s possible that many women may experience a disruption or upswing in hormone production when practicing fasting every day. (56) Instead, I suggest women practice IMF every other day at the most to avoid these problems and to discuss all dietary changes with your healthcare provider (especially if you begin to experience hormonal changes while fasting).
Lie #8: Sodium is always bad for you.
Sodium, or salt, has been quite the scapegoat for heart disease for a long time. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend Americans consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day (preferably no more than 1,500), which is equal to 5.75 grams or just under 1.25 teaspoons of salt.
For many westerners, that’s not exactly a challenge. Many people on a standard American diet get a ton of sodium from packaged and processed foods in addition to table salt. Unfortunately, these types of foods (including table salt) have many other concerning health risks associated with them.
I stopped eating table salt years ago whenever I could because of some of the unsavory ingredients it often is found to contain, such as iodine, aluminum derivatives, MSG and processed sugar.
Plus, sodium can be good for you — and your heart needs more of it than you may realize.
Truth: You need more salt than dietary guidelines suggest, but you don’t need too much.
Research seems to suggest the “salty spot” for avoiding heart disease and other complications is 8-15 grams of salt per day (1.5-3 tsp/3,200-6,000 mg sodium). That’s more than the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) recommends, but it’s true!
Lowering your salt intake can marginally lower blood pressure. But taking in too little sodium has been linked to:
- Depression-like behavior in animals (57)
- Insulin resistance (58)
- Increased risk factors for heart disease (59, 60)
- Increased mortality rate with diabetes (61)
- Higher risk of falling in the elderly (62)
Solution: Choose your salt wisely, and rethink your salt intake based on research.
Instead of iodized table salt, I always recommend going for healthy sodium options like Celtic sea salt or pink Himalayan salt. These will provide you with healthy sodium that protects your body as its designed, rather than filling you with overwhelming amounts of salt used to preserve processed foods that, let’s be honest, provide no nutritional value.
Like I said, 8-15 grams per day seems to work best according to available research. The top healthy sources of sodium include:
- Sea/pink Himalayan salt (2.3 grams per teaspoon)
- Pickles (1.9 grams per serving)
- Canned peppers (1.9 grams per serving)
- Bone broth (.6 grams per serving)
- Sauerkraut (.4 grams per serving)
Lie #9: All sugar is bad.
Let’s set the record straight — all sugar is not bad. Refined sugars, on the other hand…
Truth: Natural sugars can provide many health benefits.
Our bodies need a balance of nutrients, including sugars, to thrive.
Just because refined sugars are bad, it does not mean we should rush out and start using artificial sweeteners, either! (More on that below.)
If you have been lured into believing that all natural sugars are bad, and you are consuming artificial sweeteners, please stop immediately!
Solution: Use natural sweeteners in moderation.
Coconut sugar, raw stevia, dates, monk fruit, blackstrap molasses and honey are just a few of the naturally sweet, yet nutritious, sweeteners available.
One of my top natural sweeteners is raw honey. It is packed with therapeutic benefits including boosting immune system function, supporting restful sleep and may help you lose or manage your weight. (71, 72, 73) It is rich with amino acids, the B vitamins, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and other essential minerals. Or try manuka honey for even more healing benefits!
Blackstrap molasses offers a rich warm sweetness while being high in iron, potassium, calcium, copper and manganese.
Instead of the refined white sugar that has zero nutritional value, try one of my recommended natural sweeteners.
Lie #10: You can make up for a bad diet with supplements.
This is simply one of the largest nutrition lies out there!
A diet of processed foods, refined sugar, whole grains, and other foods that are not nutrient dense cannot be counteracted with supplements, no matter how many you take.
Healthy foods contain tens of thousands of phytochemicals, fibers, proteins and fats that simply cannot be replicated into pill or supplement form.
Eating a well-balanced diet rich with fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and high-quality proteins gives you the majority of the nutrients you need. High-quality supplements are good as a supplement, and are not designed to replace the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you get from your diet.
In essence, supplements can help to close a nutritional gap, but should never be used in place of a well-balanced and healthy diet.
Truth: The majority of your nutrition should come from nutrient-dense, whole foods.
Certain vitamin or mineral deficiencies can be supplemented effectively, namely vitamin B-12, calcium, probiotics and magnesium. There are also a number of supplements that have been found, in high doses, to impact the outcome or development of certain diseases.
However, the point of supplements is to fill in gaps and/or get excessive amounts of nutrients that you may not be able to achieve with a healthy diet alone (such as high amounts of fish oil for heart health, collagen for an aging body or inositol to treat PCOS).
When you take any supplements, make sure they are food-based and are formulated for absorbability. You body was made to digest food, and it needs your nutrients in a form that it can recognize and digest!
Solution: Eat whole, healthy foods!
Focus on foods that are rich in B12, vitamin C, folate, potassium, magnesium, vitamin D and vitamin K (which builds bones better than calcium).
Nutrients directly from food are easier to digest, and have greater bioavailability than those in the majority of supplements on the market today. Use supplements if you believe you have a deficiency, but be sure to partner it with foods that support reversing the deficiency as well.
Lie #11: To control your weight, the only effective method is counting calories.
Maintaining a healthy weight is one important way to reduce your risk of disease and slow the internal aging process. However, many of us have heard before that following a calories-in, calories-out diet (CICO) is the only way to successfully lose or manage weight.
It’s true that diet and exercise are vital to a healthy life. Unfortunately, the rise in obesity has only been hampered by this notion that it’s only a relationship between calories and weight that matters. Did you know that most people who follow a diet and exercise program based on CICO have weight that fluctuates back up, regardless of how well they stick to their diet? (74)
On the other hand, the models of a modified Paleo diet, Mediterranean diet or the ketogenic diet all help support a healthy weight and also reduce your risk of disease and early death.
Truth: Calories-in, calories-out isn’t the only (or even best) way to lose weight.
Let’s be honest: If a piece of cake and the caloric equivalent of nuts sits before you — and they are supposedly equal — what is the harm in the piece of cake?
The harm here lies in your long-term health. Those nuts (or extra-virgin olive oil) can actually cause a major drop in your risk of heart disease. (75) Sugar, on the other hand, actually increases your risk of heart disease (by up to 38 percent!) and has no real nutritional value. (76)
A detailed editorial published in Open Heart in 2015 covers the science behind weight management for disease prevention (specifically for heart disease, but also on additional matters such as diabetes). They review the potential for a low-carbohydrate, high fat diet (keto) for reversing symptoms of diabetes, as well as the introduction of healthy fats to reduce heart disease risk and the instance of metabolic syndrome.
One interesting fact they uncovered was that a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet does not change markers of heart disease (triglycerides, cholesterol or HDL cholesterol) to a different degree than a low-fat diet — but that high-fat diets do reduce the risk of death from heart disease. (77)
The bottom line? As the author states:
Shifting focus away from calories and emphasizing a dietary pattern that focuses on food quality rather than quantity will help to rapidly reduce obesity, related diseases and cardiovascular risk.
Solution: Focus on quality of food, not quantity.
Your daily calorie intake can matter to some degree. Far too low, and you run the risk of starving your body and shutting down important processes you need to live. Excessively consume calories and you will probably gain weight.
But the best way to lose weight (best, because it also reduces disease and death risks!) is to reduce your carbohydrate intake (particularly refined carbohydrates) while introducing healthy fats into your routine. This means ridding your pantry of processed foods and eating whole foods as often as possible.
Couple your food quality improvements with behavioral modification, such as increasing your physical activity or learning to eat mindfully, and you’ll be on the path to long-term weight loss and management. (78)