Nutrition is an essential part of a healthy life, and something we should all have a good understanding of. However, thanks to the food world filling up with trends, fads, and stacks of misinformation, it’s become increasingly hard to know what’s what.
So, as we launch our beautiful new nutrition section, I’m going to break down nine of the most common myths, so you don’t have to be confused any longer.
1. A gluten-free diet is healthier
In a word, no. It’s not. Unless you have a legitimate reason to be avoiding gluten – if you have coeliac disease, for example – there is no reason to remove gluten from your diet. Due to its presence in wheat, barley and rye, gluten is present in many carbohydrate-based foods, some of which can be unhealthy (think biscuits, cakes, pies, and pastries). This may be the reason it’s gained such a reputation, but gluten itself isn’t unhealthy. For more information, read our in-depth article on going gluten free.
2. No sugar has a place in my diet
Sugar is sugar and, ultimately, all sugar is broken down in our bodies into glucose, which our cells use for energy. However, the difference between that teaspoon of sugar you add to your tea and the natural sugar in a piece of fruit is the presence of vitamins and minerals.
The same can be said of lactose, the sugar found in milk and dairy products. Although it’s still a form of sugar, lactose comes with a healthy dose of the vitamins and minerals that dairy has to offer, such as calcium.
Honey, maple syrup, and agave syrup are all still natural forms of sugar – however, they are similar to refined sugar, in that their actual nutrient content is quite poor.
Stick to the rule that sugar should always be accompanied by as many nutrients as possible, and remember that added sugar should always be avoided.
3. Low fat = healthy
Contrary to deeply entrenched opinion, a low-fat diet is not a necessarily a healthy one. The important thing is not cut out fat entirely, but to make sure that you’re eating the right kind. Unsaturated fats are the ones our bodies need and use. They have been associated with lower blood cholesterol, and are found in foods such as oils, nuts, seeds, avocado, and oily fish.
Low-fat products are only useful when they are helping you to reduce your intake of saturated fat, the type of fat associated with high cholesterol and heart disease risk. If you do choose these kind of products, make sure you read the label to make sure they’re free from added sugar.
For more information, read up on saturated fat.
4. Eating carbs will make me fat
Negative. Apply the same theory here as you do with fat and focus on the type of carbohydrate you are eating, rather than cutting it out completely. Starchy carbohydrates come in two forms: refined and whole. The latter are the ones to go for – higher in fibre and full of other essential vitamins and minerals. In fact, far from making you gain weight, eating high-fibre foods will help to keep you feeling full, which means you are less likely to overeat.
We need starchy carbohydrates to give us energy, and they should make up one third of our diet. Instead of cutting them out, make some smart switches and cut down on the more unhealthy carbs, like highly refined flour products.
5. Fresh produce is healthier than frozen
On the contrary – frozen foods can sometimes be healthier than fresh! As fruits and vegetables ripen, their sugar content rises and their nutrient content deteriorates. Often, fruits and vegetables are frozen quickly after harvest, which prevents all of this, and actively preserves the nutrients.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are great and when eaten at their freshest and most nutritious, but using frozen instead will do you no harm. It can also be a super-easy and reliable way of getting more veg into your cooking. See below for Michela Chiappa’s handy tip for homemade “kale powder”, and read our freezer tips for more ideas.
6. Coconut oil is incredibly good for me
Sadly, coconut oil is a saturated fat – the type of fat associated with high cholesterol. Recent research has suggested, however, that the type of saturated fat present in coconut oil may be metabolised differently to other saturated fats, meaning it may not have the same adverse effect on blood cholesterol and general cardiovascular health. What is missed out by eating coconut oil, though, is the essential fatty acids found in unsaturated fats. These are the fats that help to keep our cholesterol healthy, as well as the fats that our bodies generally need, so while research is showing that the saturated fatty acids in coconut oil may not be as bad as we think, we may as well be eating the fat that we know is good for us!
Refer back to the article about saturated fat in point #1 for more information.
7. If I exercise, I need to take a protein shake or supplement
It’s true that if you are exercising you need protein. Our muscles need protein to grow and repair, and if you are undertaking exercise – particularly anything of high intensity – then you do need to make sure your protein intake is sufficient.
What is more important, though, is the timing of that protein intake, which should ideally be within an hour of exercising. Your body can only metabolise a certain amount of protein at a time, so overloading on the protein shakes is completely pointless. In the UK, most of us actually get more than enough protein through our regular diets. The goal should be to limit our protein intake to shortly after exercise so that our bodies can use it to help our muscles build and repair, rather than overdoing it on the protein shakes!
If, however, you do need to up your protein intake around intense exercise, don’t go for questionable powders – go homemade with this beautiful homemade protein shake recipe.
8. Snacking is bad
If understood properly, it’s also a myth that we shouldn’t snack. Eating little and often is actually much better than eating three huge meals every day. Snacking is a good way to achieve this, and also helps to prevent energy crashes between meals.
The key is what you are snacking on – and here you can utilise all that info about fats and sugars. If your 4pm-slump go-to is a slice of cake or a sugar-packed processed number then the health benefits of snacking will be lost on you. Choose wisely, and go for something dense in nutrients that will help to fill you up – think a handful of granola, a slice of apple and peanut butter, or a natural yoghurt with some fruit. For more ideas, read up on healthy snacking with the Happy Pear.
9. Vegetarian and vegan diets are healthier
A vegetarian or vegan diet being healthy completely depends on what vegetarian or vegan foods are being eaten. For example, a diet of ready-salted crisps would technically be vegan, and a diet of cheese and chocolate would technically be vegetarian, but neither could ever be called healthy!
Avoiding meat and dairy products means avoiding the saturated fat and adverse health effects that come with the over-consumption of fatty cuts of meat and high-fat dairy products. However, vegan and vegetarian diets are only healthier if you replace these foods with worthwhile alternatives. Replacing the meat and dairy in your diet with refined carbohydrates and sweets will not make the switch to vegetarianism or veganism a healthy one.
Something that is generally true of vegetarian and vegan diets, though, is that they’re very environmentally friendly, and a lot more sustainable than a meat-heavy diet. If you can get it right, or even stick to it for a day or two each week, then it really will make a difference – both for the planet and for you!
Read up on how to eat a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet for more ideas.
What other questions about nutrition have you always wanted answering? Let us know in the box below, and we’ll answer it in our brand new nutrition FAQ section.