Nutrition can be a hotly contested topic, but health experts agree that eating well is actually simple. “No matter which way you slice and dice the information, the conclusion is you should mostly eat a whole, minimally processed diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and water. If you can do that, you can’t go wrong,” says preventive medicine specialist David L. Katz, MD, coauthor, along with Mark Bittman, of How to Eat: All Your Food and Diet Questions Answered. Dr. Katz is also the founding director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, Connecticut.
In essence, says Katz, there shouldn’t be a need for another nutrition book (like his!), and yet nutrition confusion remains. Here, we cut through some of the bigger myths out there to help you eat better starting today.
Table of Contents
1. “Low-Carb” Means “Grain-Free”
Carbohydrates include highly processed foods, like crackers, chips, bread, and breakfast cereal. But the category also includes berries, spinach, beans, lentils, and plant-based foods that contain fiber and a variety of health-promoting nutrients, says Katz.
2. Carbs Are Bad (and Should Be Avoided)
Consuming high-fiber, unrefined carbohydrates — whole grains, legumes, fruit, and vegetables — is linked to a reduced risk of chronic disease, says Abbey Sharp, a registered dietitian in Toronto and the author of The Mindful Glow Cookbook. A series of meta-analyses and reviews published in January 2019 in The Lancet backs up this notion. “Stop fearing all carbs,” Sharp says.
3. Breakfast Is the Most Important Meal of the Day
“There’s nothing special about breakfast,” says Katz. The first food you eat during the day is technically breakfast, but it doesn’t need to be consumed early or include certain types of foods. If you’re not hungry in the morning, you can skip this meal and move right into lunch.
4. Snacking Is Bad for You
Snacking takes the edge off your hunger and can work for or against you depending on what you’re eating. Katz recommends apples, walnuts, bananas, carrots, hummus, and bean dip as nutritious snacks. Skip highly processed vending machine food that will spike (and then crash) your blood sugar.
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5. Always Eat Fresh Produce
“Sometimes, frozen produce may be healthier than fresh,” says Sharp. “Frozen produce is often flash frozen at the peak of ripeness, while some fresh produce is picked before it’s ripe.” The nutrition in fresh produce may degrade as it’s shipped to stores, according to a study published in June 2017 in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis.
6. Always Eat Local Food
Eating locally produced food is a worthy aim. However, the most important goal is to eat more fruits and vegetables — even if they were grown far away, says Katz.
7. Organic Produce Is Better Than Conventional
If you can afford organic, eat organic, advises Katz, since organic produce contains fewer potentially harmful chemical residues, according to a review published in September 2014 in The British Journal of Nutrition. But if it’s out of your budget, buy conventional and rinse it off before eating to reduce the amount of pesticide residue. The most important thing is eating more fruits and vegetables.
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8. You Need to Detox or Reset
The beauty of having organs, such as lungs, skin, kidneys, and a liver, is that your body relies on them to detox your body naturally, says Sharp: “You don’t need to buy an expensive detox program to improve your health.”
9. You Should Avoid Gluten
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. About 90 percent of people are gluten tolerant and consume these foods just fine, Katz writes. What’s more, research published in May 2015 in the journal Digestion shows that among people who believed they were sensitive to gluten, 86 percent could eat it just fine. Unless you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, you can continue to cook foods with gluten, such as whole grains.
10. Low-Fat Versions of Foods Are Better for You
Skip fat and you’re skipping out on the most satiating nutrient. Plus, low-fat foods often backfire: “These alternatives are often higher in sodium and sugar to make up for the lack of mouthfeel [from removing the fat], so they’re not necessarily healthier,” says Sharp.
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11. Green Juice Is Good for You
Turning produce into juice strips away the fiber, making juice a more concentrated source of sugar. The end result is a higher glycemic load, which means your blood sugar will surge after drinking the juice, according to How to Eat. Better to consume whole fruits and vegetables.
12. Sweet Potatoes Are Healthier Than White Potatoes
The humble white potato gets the short stick but shouldn’t. “People demonize potatoes over sweet potatoes, but the nutrient composition is quite similar,” says Sharp. Sweet potatoes have more vitamin A and an additional gram of fiber, but white potatoes have more potassium (essential for helping regulate blood sugar), she says. Nutrition info from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on sweet and white potatoes backs up these details. The verdict: Include a combination of sweet and white taters in your diet.
13. Beans Are Toxic
This hinges on the idea that beans contain lectins, which are supposedly poisonous — it’s how the fad diet called the lectin-free diet came about. Lectins are most abundant in raw, dried beans (canned beans tend to be low in lectins). But because you cook beans before you eat them, that process reduces some of the lectin content, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Also, beans are one of the healthiest foods you can eat, says Katz. “Beans are a mainstay of all five Blue Zone diets. Every study that has looked at beans has found that a higher intake is connected to better health outcomes, in areas like weight, heart disease, and dementia,” he says.
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14. A Glass of Red Wine Is Needed for a Healthy Heart
Most people wouldn’t actually derive a benefit from a nightly glass of vino. If you enjoy wine, can stick to moderate drinking recommendations, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and have a family history of cardiovascular disease, you may benefit, says Katz. Otherwise, there’s no reason to start drinking in the hope of protecting your heart.
15. Eggs Will Kill You
It’s not as dramatic as it sounds. “Eggs have been unnecessarily demonized because they contain dietary cholesterol,” says Sharp. However, more recent research shows that saturated and trans fats in your diet stimulate the liver to make cholesterol, says Harvard Health Publishing. And so, the bigger concern when it comes to unhealthy levels of cholesterol in your body is saturated-fat-rich foods, not necessarily foods higher in cholesterol. And eggs are a food that’s lower in sat fat. The American Heart Association recommends sticking with about one egg per day. (If you have a couple of eggs twice a week, you’re still under an appropriate limit.)
16. Nuts Will Make You Gain Weight
They may be rich in fat and calories, but they also contain a good amount of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Research published in July 2017 in the European Journal of Nutrition concluded that nut eaters have less of a risk of gaining weight and becoming overweight or obese compared with those who avoid the food. Of course, overeating anything, including nuts, can lead to weight gain. Stick to a handful of nuts a day, or about 1 ounce. Opt for something like plain almonds over honey-roasted almonds, says Katz.
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17. There Is One Perfect Diet Plan for Everyone
Every diet wants its followers to believe it is the tops, but “there is no such thing as a perfect diet,” says Sharp. “The best diet is the one that promotes variety in nutrients, adds enjoyment, and can easily be sustained without a sense of deprivation.”
18. Calories In, Calories Out Is All That Matters
Folks looking to lose weight have heard this rallying cry, but diet quality matters when it comes to your health and ability to lose weight, says Sharp. A study published in February 2018 in JAMA shows that as long as you’re eating a high-quality diet, you can lose weight temporarily on a low-fat or low-carb diet.
19. Meat Is Needed to Have a Balanced Diet
In the world’s healthiest eating patterns (such as the Mediterranean and DASH diets), meat is consumed in small amounts or not at all, according to How to Eat. Bottom line: Meat is an optional part of your diet; though for the health of the planet, you should probably eat less of it, Katz writes.
20. Fatty Foods Will Make You Fat
“Diets that are higher in fat tend to be just as effective at encouraging weight loss as diets that are low in fat,” says Sharp. For instance: A study published in November 2017 in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism found that of the 41 overweight dieters who participated, those assigned to 12 weeks of a low-carb, high-fat diet saw bigger reductions in weight, triglycerides, insulin, and glucose levels compared with those who followed a low-fat, high-carb control diet.