If you have turned on a computer, watched television, or opened a magazine in the past several years, you’ve likely seen one of those health headlines trying to make you believe that doing a few simple things can easily solve all of your ills. In reality, the truth is much more complicated and nuanced. But those controversial headlines generate clicks and sell millions of newspapers and magazines every year.
And even if you do read past the headline, which many of us don’t, you may not be getting the full story. Experts’ interpretations of the same data can differ wildly.
While it’s natural to want to believe in a quick, easy fix, that just isn’t realistic. Your body, along with its nutritional needs, is extremely complex. The body’s needs may vary from person to person, season to season, and throughout the course of your lifetime. A simple, catchy headline isn’t going to give you the knowledge or tools to live your healthiest life.
Here are six catchy health headlines that may just be ruining your health:
“Fat Does Not Make You Fat"
First, for the record, the low-fat craze that began in the 1970s did not leave Americans eating less fat. According to the Centers for Science in the Public Interest, we are eating 20 percent more fat than we did in 1970. This notion we collectively went on a low-fat diet and all got fat as a result is simply not true.
However, nowadays most nutrition experts do agree fat was unfairly vilified the past. Some fat in our diet is necessary for optimal health. Your body needs dietary fats like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Fat also allows your body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Also, your brain is made up of 60 percent fat and needs fat to survive and thrive.
But can we eat as much as we want without gaining weight, as these headlines imply?
The good news is, eating fat will not cause your body to add fat stores simply because it is fat per se. However, if you eat more of it than your body needs for energy, you’re going to gain weight. It’s as simple as that.
This wishful thinking that we can eat as much fat as we want, without consequences, is apparent in the recent popularity of bulletproof coffee – touted by many as a weight loss drink. This concoction consists of coffee blended with around two tablespoons each of butter and coconut oil, and clocks in at almost 450 calories. If you drink this without either removing these calories from your diet elsewhere or burning them through exercise, these calories won’t magically disappear. They will end up on your thighs.
In the past year, many of the articles claiming fat doesn’t make you fat and saturated fat is good for you cite as proof a 2010 meta-analysis published in March 2014 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. According to this study, saturated fat has been largely exonerated of any negative health implications. However, many experts disagree with this conclusion.
Back to that bulletproof coffee. In addition to it’s almost 450 calories, it also contains a whopping 38 grams of saturated fat. At the very least, all this conflicting data means it might not be prudent to consume that much saturated fat until we know more.
It is true that not every calorie is created equal.
When it comes to overall health, one hundred calories of broccoli has a very different effect than a 100-calorie pack of peanut butter cups. The former keeps your blood sugar stable and nourishes your body with crucial vitamins and minerals; the latter dangerously spikes your blood sugar and offers no nutrients whatsoever.
Another key way in which calories are not created equal is how easy is it to eat too many calories of hyper-palatable, processed junk food vs. real food. For instance, it’s virtually impossible to eat 500 calories of broccoli (about 16 cups, chopped). Yet, you probably know far too well how easy it is to eat 500 calories of junk food over the course of one commercial break.
To the dismay or holistic nutritionists everywhere, one controversial experiment showed simply cutting calories could indeed lead to weight loss, even when what the person was eating was junk food. In 2010, a nutrition professor from Kansas State University lost 27 pounds in 10 weeks on a “convenience store diet” consisting primarily of items such as Twinkies, powdered donuts, Doritos, sugary cereals, and other convenience foods. The reason – he only consumed 1,800 calories per day vs. his normal average of 2,600.
While neither the professor (nor anyone else with an ounce of common sense) would recommend such a diet in the long run, it did show that calories do matter when it comes to weight loss.
And even with real, nutritious foods, you can still gain weight if you eat more than your body needs for fuel. Again, calories don’t just magically disappear. The key to remember is – you are far less likely to overindulge when eating real, nutrient-dense foods.
What typically follows “calories don’t matter” is that exercise doesn’t help you lose weight. If you eat more than your body needs for fuel, you’ll gain weight. If calories are not burned, they are stored. And one way to increase your body’s need for fuel is to exercise.
Many such articles argue that exercise doesn’t help you lose weight because people tend to reward themselves with food after exercising, sometimes consuming many times over the amount of calories burned. In other words, if you read a magazine while casually bouncing up and down on the elliptical machine for 20 minutes, you don’t deserve a Venti Frapp as a reward. That’s just common sense.
When it comes to the benefits of regular physical activity, it’s hard to argue with the statistics for the State of Colorado. While the obesity rate has climbed over the past few decades, along with the rest of the nation, Colorado is still the slimmest state in the U.S. Why? Perhaps because Colorado is known for its year-round sports – skiing, snowboarding, hiking, biking, mountain climbing, and more.
The fact that Colorado is one of the most active state in the U.S. and also the slimmest is not coincidental. Movement matters.
Soy is one of the most controversial topics in nutrition. Breast cancer survivors are frequently told to avoid it. But is it really dangerous?
Many believe soy should be avoided because it contains phytoestrogens (naturally occurring plant estrogens), which behave like a weak estrogen in the body. At first glance, this appears troubling because when estrogen meets an estrogen receptor in a breast cell, breast cancer can occur.
However, these phytoestrogens are nowhere nearly as strong as human estrogen. That means when these weak estrogens bind to an estrogen receptor, they block more potent natural estrogens. That’s a good thing.
Some very large studies have shown that a moderate amount of soy in your diet can actually protect you from breast cancer. One 2010 Chinese study showed women with a particular type of breast cancer who ate more than 42 mg per day (the equivalent of one-half cup of tofu) of soy isoflavones had a 33 percent lower chance of recurrence than those who ate less than 15 mg per day.
However, not all soy is created equal. Since approximately 90 percent of the soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified and conventional soy is high in pesticide residue, organic is definitely best. Also, soy can be difficult for some to digest and is one of the most common food sensitivities.
Fermented soy products such as tempeh, miso, natto, and naturally fermented soy sauce are easier to digest, making them a good choice. Also, avoid soy supplements and foods that contain isolated soy proteins. These do not have the same protective qualities as whole soy foods and may actually be dangerous.
5. Meat & Eggs
Our cancer, heart disease, and diabetes rates started to skyrocket after World War II when food companies decided Americans no longer needed to “waste time” cooking and that they could do it better. In fact, heart attacks were virtually unheard of in the U.S. before the early 1900s.
Books like "The China Study" offer seemingly indisputable evidence that dairy products, eggs, meat, and even fish are strongly linked to cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. However, many experts, including Dr. William Davis – author of the best-selling book "Wheat Belly" – have disputed that evidence.
So, what’s going on?
First, humans are all different and what keeps one person healthy may harm another. Your bioindividuality, age, ancestry, and where you live all matter. In addition, nutrition science is in its infancy. In his book "Food Rules" Michael Pollan stated that current nutrition science is “sort of like where surgery was in 1690”. Do you want the equivalent of a 17th century surgeon telling you what to eat?
So how should you determine which diet is best? Start by looking at the places in the world where people live the longest. Author Dan Buettner documented these in his book, "The Blue Zones." In small pockets in California, Costa Rica, Greece, Italy, and Japan, people routinely live long, vibrant lives – often well into their 90s and beyond – relatively free from cancer, heart disease, diabetes and dementia. None, with exception of the Seventh Day Adventist population in Loma Linda, CA, are strictly vegan, nor do they eat the massive amounts of animal protein and processed foods that most Americans do.
Instead, the diet in these places is largely plant-based – best described as semi-vegetarian and filled with vegetables, fruits, and true whole grains. The people in most of the Blue Zones also eat moderate amounts of high-quality (i.e., grass-fed or wild) dairy, eggs, meat, and fish. Follow their lead – eat real food.
Not surprisingly, many articles of this nature are written by advocates of high animal protein diets, such as Paleo. The Paleo community squarely places the blame for most of our obesity and disease problems on the beginning of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago. In reality, grains weren’t harming us for about 9,940 of those years.
The real problem lies in what the food industry has done to grains in the past few generations – stripping them of all their nutrients and pulverizing them beyond recognition into a high-glycemic substance they glue together into various shapes and sizes using fat, sugar, sodium and chemicals.
Grains are actually an important source of many beneficial and essential nutrients (meaning you need them but your body cannot produce them on its own), including B vitamins, vitamins C and D, and minerals such as iron, magnesium and potassium. Whole grains have also been linked to reduced risk of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, colon cancer and other conditions.
It is true that grains can be difficult for some people to digest. And they contain substances called phytates—anti-nutrients that can block the absorption of certain important minerals. For better digestion and absorption of nutrients, sprout, soak or ferment grains before eating them. Soaking is easiest; if possible, soak grains overnight or at least several hours before cooking or eating them.
The bottom line is that many traditional diets around the world, such as those of most Asian and African cultures, have been grain-based. Until Western influences set in, these populations enjoyed low obesity and disease rates. The key is to eat the real thing – not processed and packaged foods labeled “made with whole grains.” Buy organic whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, faro, amaranth, and others from the bulk section of your local health food store and enjoy in moderation. One or two half-cup (cooked) servings per day will round out a healthy diet.
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Kristina Sampson is a breast cancer survivor and Certified Health Coach who focuses on the effects of nutrition, exercise, environment, and mindfulness on our health. She believes in a balanced approach to health and wellness. Kristina runs the website The Vail Diet and is the author of "Leave Cancer in the Dust: 50 Tips to Prevent Breast Cancer and Supercharge Your Health."
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