9 nutrition myths that are making us sick

  1. You shouldn’t exclude any type of food, as long as you use it in moderation. Well, this is true in theory. But in practice a number of issues can arise. First, what does a moderate amount of daily sugar intake entail? 50 grams? 100? 200? And are we talking about all carbohydrates or just added sugar? Is there a difference between simple and complex carbohydrates? What about glucose versus fructose? That alone is enough to make your head spin. Second, our bodies are not macronutrient and calorie counting machines. We eat when we are hungry and we eat until we are full. Some foods, like carbohydrates, make us hungry faster and others, like protein and fats, satiate us for longer periods of time. Until we make a conscious choice to habitually go for satiating foods, we will be at mercy of our hunger hormones, perpetually riding the hunger hormones roller coaster. And lastly, there are definitely foods you should NEVER eat. Namely, all processed foods, but especially refined and hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup. Those are toxins. You wouldn’t ingest arsenic in small doses, so why would you poison yourself with these? Just because everybody else is doing it and it is convenient, it doesn’t mean you have to do it.
  2. You should eat six small meals a day. By eating six small meals per day, the thinking goes, you’re ensuring that blood glucose is steady at all times. And, at the same time, I presume, you are keeping your insulin levels steady. Main reason being to prevent blood sugar from fluctuating too much and causing those infamous crashes and peaks. Makes sense, right? Except that it actually doesn’t. Your insulin levels are not supposed to be steady. Or to be more accurate, they are not supposed to be equally elevated throughout the day. Chronic high levels of insulin eventually lead to insulin resistance which further leads to a plethora of metabolic diseases. So, if you wanna become type 2 diabetic, by all means, munch all day long. And you don’t even have to eat pure carbs to get insulin resistance. Any type of food (except for pure fats) will trigger insulin response. So restrict yourself to 2 or 3 meals a day, cut out snacks and be mindful of sugary beverages you are having in between meals, those can be particularly sneaky when it comes to raising insulin levels.
  3. Food pyramid. We all saw the famous food pyramid and later MyPlate program with general recommendations that the majority of our daily caloric intake (60–75%) comes from carbohydrates. That means that an average person should eat somewhere between 300–400 grams of carbohydrates per day. Combine that with the recommendation to eat those throughout the day in six smaller meals and snacks and voila, you got yourself some type 2 diabetes and chronic illnesses on the side! But seriously, think about it. We all know we have essential fatty acids and essential amino acids and that means our body cannot survive without those, nor can it produce them on it’s own. We have to ingest them. On the other side, there are no such things as essential carbohydrates. Your body is perfectly capable of producing the little glucose it needs through a process called gluconeogenesis. So, theoretically, one can survive on protein and fats only. There are a lot of people adopting a carnivore style and not dropping dead in the process of doing so. Now, I’m not suggesting you go carnivore, I’m just saying this to make a point. I believe humans are omnivores and that we should eat carbohydrates, namely in the form of vegetables (abundantly) and seasonal fruits (sparingly). So, what should you do to replace the missing calories if you are eating only small amounts of carbohydrates? Healthy fats! I’m emphasizing the healthy part because not all fats are created equal. Don’t eat refined, hydrogenated oils, eat extra virgin coconut and olive oil and animal fats and, of course, the mighty avocado and you will be healthy as a horse! If you’re skeptical about animal fats, keep reading! As far as protein goes, I think the body has a pretty good way of assessing the amounts of protein it needs, especially when you go on a low carbohydrate diet. Just cut the carbs as much as possible, conquer your fat phobia and the rest will sort itself out.
  4. Calories in calories out model. This is one more principle that sounds pretty straightforward. You just have to burn the calories that you eat, right? So if you are gaining weight, just eat less and exercise more. Well, how’s that been working for ya? The main issue with this model, even though it makes sense theoretically, is that it omits the most important part of the story and that is insulin. You cannot understand how food affects your body if you don’t understand insulin. It is that simple. So, I will try to give you the basics in a nutshell. When you eat, blood sugar rises. Insulin then rises in response and is assigned a role of transporting glucose to the cells that need it. So far so good. After it’s done transporting sugar, it can drop and wait for another meal. We all know this. But what most of us don’t know is that it also does other things. It signals the body not to use fats because glucose is present. Glucose is a fuel that the body prefers to use because it is more energy efficient (it is readily available in its original form, as opposed to fats that have to be converted into ketones and ketone bodies to be used). But not only that, insulin also stores the fat. That is why it is often called the fat storing hormone. Any excess calories you ingest, but don’t immediately use will be stored as fat. Why does the body do that? Because throughout our evolutionary history we didn’t have steady access to food, we had frequent starvation periods. When we ate, the body stored fat for those unfortunate periods when we had to miss a meal (or twenty of them). What Mother Nature didn’t account for is domestication of animals, agriculture, refrigerators and convenient stores. So, the fat storing mechanism that enabled us to survive for millennia is now slowly killing us. Back to insulin. So, it transports sugar, it stores fat and prevents it from being used for fuel. It also stops growth hormone, which is a very cool hormone that seems redundant once you stop growing, but is actually very beneficial. It is called longevity hormone. But for our intents and purposes, it is important because it tells the body to preserve the muscle and to burn fat. Very important information if you want to lose weight, but you don’t want to lose muscle in the process. One other thing I will mention is that it downregulates melatonin. So, if you wanna have quality sleep at night, don’t eat past 6 or 7 PM. High insulin seriously messes with your sleep. Now, how all of this relates to calories in calories out model? Well, the calorie model doesn’t distinguish between types of calories, and the difference between them is huge and so is the effect they have on our body. It’s well known that carbohydrates raise blood sugar, and consequently insulin levels, the most and the fastest. It also causes sudden drops of both, hence the infamous sugar crash. Protein raises insulin levels to a lesser degree and keeps it slightly elevated for longer periods, compared to carbs. Fats alone barely have an impact on insulin but it is not often that you eat like a bowl of olive oil, right? In fact, fats should be eaten with protein, as Mother Nature intended (like fatty cuts of meat, eggs, dairy and nuts, to mention a few). Those kinds of meals are super nutritious and satiating. But, if you combine simple carbohydrates and fats (especially saturated fats) you get insulin response that is through the roof! Another thing with high carb food is that it keeps you craving more sugar. A doughnut will not keep hunger at bay for hours, it will cause you to eat more sugary food and off you go on a blood sugar roller coaster. You eat first in the morning, you are constantly hungry, you eat before bed (because god forbid you go to sleep hungry!) and your insulin is elevated all day long. It is causing you to overeat, it causes hunger and cravings and despite that you are undernourished because your body becomes insulin resistant. Insulin resistance occurs when your insulin levels are chronically elevated and insulin is trying to transport glucose to cells, but cells don’t need that much glucose so they kind of start ignoring insulin and resisting it, but then when they need that glucose, they can’t use it because they became insulin resistant. In the meanwhile, the cells signal the body that they need sugar, so the body produces more insulin to transport the sugar and that in turn causes the cells to become more resistant. What a vicious cycle, right? Even worse, something that goes hand in hand with insulin resistance is leptin resistance. When you eat all the time, your fat cells release leptin to tell your brain you are full, but in time those leptin receptors become overwhelmed and resistant. So leptin is no longer a viable messenger that tells your body you should stop eating so your body relies on stretch receptors in your stomach. But the bigger your meals are, the more your stomach stretches and those stretch receptors stop working properly. So you eat not until you ingest enough macronutrients, but until your stomach stretches beyond its usual capacities. Yikes! The good news is that this is completely reversible, and the only thing you have to do is to reduce the amount of insulin you are producing and the best way to do that is to reduce the intake of carbohydrates and to practice intermittent fasting. So, stop with the calorie counting and take control of your insulin instead. It will not only help you lose weight, but it could potentially save your life.
  5. Saturated fats are bad. OK, so I already stated that saturated fats are horrendous when paired with refined carbohydrates, which kind of confirms this myth. But, that is only a caveat. Or, like people tend to say, an exception that proves the rule. Now, with that out the way, let’s get some justice for saturated fat. People have been eating saturated fats since the dawn of time. Unfortunately, prior to early 1900 we didn’t have much reliable data on coronary vascular disease. From the work of Dr Eades on paleopathology we know ancient Egyptians suffered from CVD to a significant degree and strangely enough, their nutrition was, like ours, based predominantly on grains. In the beginning of the previous century, very few cases of CVD or diabetes were recorded. Once polyunsaturated oils and refined grains entered the scene, both CVD and diabetes started to grow exponentially. Yet, virtually everyone believes that saturated fats are to blame for these prevailing illnesses, starting with physicians. If you are interested in details about the emergence of vegetable oils and how they started being considered heart healthy, check out the work of Nina Teicholz. First study that posited this idea that saturated fats cause heart disease was the famous Seven Countries Study in 1958 by Ancel Keys and it has been one of the most cited studies in CVD research since. That is when the process of demonizing animal fats started and sadly, it never stopped, despite there being absolutely no control studies proving causation or correlation between saturated fats consumption and CVD death occurrence. Not to mention the biggest shortcoming of this study, which was an absence of differentiation between animal sourced saturated fats from man made trans fats. They were all lumped together and therefore, it was impossible to discern which type caused the damage. Moreover, WHO and FAO statistics on the average intake of saturated fat in 41 European countries in 1998 show that countries with higher saturated fats intake have lower heart disease deaths numbers than those with lower saturated fat intake. These results have been dubbed the European paradox. Maybe the only paradox that exists is the one where we still believe in this myth that saturated fats are to blame for heart disease despite overwhelming data that suggests otherwise. If you still can’t decide where you stand on this, just take a few hours to investigate the topic. I’m sure you’ll reach the same conclusion as I have.
  6. Eating fats makes you fat. Well, going overboard and eating more than 3000 or 4000 calories a day in fats would definitely make you fatter. But overall, fats are not the macronutrient that directly causes fat storing. Like I already explained, the main player in fat storage is insulin and it is triggered whenever you eat, but different types of foods trigger insulin in different ways. When ingested on their own, carbohydrates raise insulin the most, proteins raise it in moderate amounts and fats barely raise it at all. But this becomes far more interesting when various food combinations come into the story. I already touched on this, but I will repeat it because it is of utmost importance to realise how insulin gets triggered. Even though proteins and fats don’t raise insulin by themselves or even when eaten together, when those two are ingested along with carbohydrates, the insulin response gets amplified. So, if you eat protein with fats, you’re fine, you could even keep your insulin levels so low that you remain in ketosis (fat burning mode) even if you ingest large amount of calories (but again, not above your metabolic needs). However, if you habitually eat them with large amounts of carbohydrates, you’re gonna gain weight and set yourself up for insulin resistance and, along the way, type 2 diabetes. Just eat your fats with proteins and don’t mix them with high carbohydrate foods (with the exception of non starchy vegetables which are fine when mixed with fats).
  7. You must eat carbohydrates because your brain needs sugar. If this was true, then all people on ketogenic diets would be virtually zombies, not able to perform the most basic, let alone complex cognitive operations. Your brain and your red blood cells, as well as testes and kidney medulla, do need glucose indeed, but you do not need to ingest carbohydrates in significant amounts to provide fuel for them. Your liver will take care of providing glucose for them through a process called gluconeogenesis by converting proteins and fats into glucose. The best part is, your body doesn’t even have to produce a lot of glucose because the brain can function great on ketones! That’s right, between 70–80% of the metabolic needs of your brain can be covered by ketones. Again, I’m not suggesting that you should eliminate all carbohydrates from your diet, just pointing out that you could survive and thrive with far less.
  8. You shouldn’t eat more than one egg a day. This myth bugs me as much as the one with saturated fats, because it involves spreading misconceptions about cholesterol and the widespread use of potentially dangerous drugs called statins as a consequence. The reasoning behind not eating more than an egg a day is that it contains cholesterol, and you should keep your cholesterol in check if you wanna avoid heart disease. Cholesterol got a bad rap because it has been noticed, upon performing autopsies on people who died of heart attack, that a significant amount of cholesterol was usually found in the walls of damaged blood vessels. What most people don’t know or simply choose to disregard is the fact that the main reason why cholesterol gets there in significant amounts is that it probably tries to ameliorate the consequences of calcification of the arteries. Without the calcification and inflammatory processes that oxidizes LDL, cholesterol would never be an issue. Aside from that, some studies (like 192 countries study) even suggest that people with higher cholesterol levels have decreased risk of dying from CVD, so there is that. One more reason this advice makes no sense is that your cholesterol levels are not influenced by dietary cholesterol whatsoever. You could ingest zero cholesterol and still have elevated cholesterol levels because your body makes all the cholesterol it needs and, rest assured, it needs cholesterol to function properly. And lastly, one more thing that irks me terribly about this myth is that it restricts you in providing your body one the most nutritious foods on the planet. So, unless you have serious gallbladder or bile issues, go on and enjoy your scrambled eggs guilt free. With bacon on the side.
  9. Gluten harms only people with celiac disease. For hundreds and thousands of years the human population survived (and thrived) hunting animals and collecting mostly vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, tubers and mushrooms. Then, around 10 to 12 thousand years ago, we slowly became sedentary agriculturalists. Anthropological and archaeological data suggests that people living in hunter gatherer societies, compared to their agricultural counterparts, were taller, more robust, had fewer teeth cavities and were overall healthier. The game changer were the grains. Gluten free trend, that’s been fairly popular lately, somewhat is necessary since the celiac disease has been on the steady rise these past several decades, but most nutritionists would advise you not to go gluten free unless you have a proven intolerance to gluten because that would cause some nutritional deficiencies. But the thing is, refined wheat is so depleted in nutrients that wheat manufacturers need to fortify their products with B vitamins and iron so that it would have any nutritional value and keep in mind that they do that with synthetic vitamins. Along with extremely low nutritional values, there are a few other reasons to avoid most grains. One of the main reasons is gluten, of course. Gliadin (a part of gluten) cannot be fully digested by humans so it gets broken down into peptides (as opposed to animal proteins that get broken down into single amino acids that can be used by the body) that act as an opioid and stimulate appetite. Those same peptides can cause or exacerbate various mental disorders such as depression, ADHD, binge-eating etc. Gluten can also initiate autoimmune diseases (the most probable pathway is through damaging intestinal lining and causing leaky gut). Another protein found in wheat, wheat germ agglutinin is a potent bowel toxin, it also damages the intestinal lining and when it comes in contact with blood, it causes blood clotting. It also blocks pancreatic and gallbladder function and it interferes with digestion and food absorption. Furthermore, amylopectin A found in wheat raises blood sugar higher than almost any other food and is therefore one of the main culprits in development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Phytates found in wheat bind minerals and block absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc and other positively charged minerals which consequently leads to various mineral deficiencies. Lastly, many wheat proteins are allergens, especially in modern highly hybridized wheat (hence the recent rise in celiac disease). But other than that, it is perfectly fine.

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Ivana Goronja

Ivana Goronja

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Fat adapted social scientist interested in all things related to well-being optimization. Not a native English speaker, so kindly disregard any mistakes I make.