Whether it is the demonising of a certain food group or the power of superfoods being highly exaggerated, nutritional advice has a way of being dramaticised, taken out of context or even completely misguided. After that, hearing the same statement made repeatedly – especially if by different authorities – can make anyone begin to consider them true.
That’s where we come in, with clinical data and evidence-based facts. Here are 5 common nutrition myths that we’re using scientific research in order to bust.
Myth #1: “Saturated fat is bad”
The past few decades have seen a tremendous rise in obesity, and associated conditions like types II diabetes and heart disease; so much so that they were responsible for half the deaths in India during 2010 to 2013, with heart disease topping the list.1 Experts believe that the fear of fats and the consequential adoption of low-fat high-carb diets instigated this occurrence.
What we didn’t realise then is that fat is a friend and not a foe. This is particularly true in the case of saturated fats, which is made out to be a villain even today for purportedly raising cholesterol and causing heart disease.
We now know that saturated fats are not linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. In fact, they raise the “good” HDL cholesterol and change the “bad” LDL particles to its larger form, which is thought to reduce the risk.
Having said this, obesity must still be controlled, and fats provide a whole 9 calories per gram. However, sticking to a reasonable amount of saturated fats, as you would find in a balanced diet, is perfectly safe and very healthy. The next fact will even tell us why they’re also the most suitable for cooking.
Myth #2: “Olive oil is not suitable for cooking”
When heated beyond their threshold, vegetable oils can produce harmful compounds that negatively affect our health over time.
Saturated fats, on the other hand, don’t go rancid easily when exposed to heat. This makes them better for cooking than the refined vegetable oils that are sold as cooking oils.
That’s why olive oil, with only 14% saturated fats, was earlier shunned for cooking, and used only in salads. However, 73% of olive oil has monounsaturated fats, which also have a high resistance to heat, unlike damage-prone polyunsaturated fats that make up the remaining 11%.
Additionally, olive oil, especially the virgin and extra virgin varieties, has a high amount of antioxidants that fight free radical damage. An antioxidant called oleocanthal that’s present in olive oil has even been shown to work like ibuprofen, the anti-inflammatory drug.2
A heat-stable oil that’s full of antioxidants is definitely a good choice for cooking!
Myth #3: “Reduce the amount of salt in your food”
Salt is an important electrolyte in our body, and should not be avoided unnecessarily by people who do not face problems of high blood pressure. Many functions can go terribly wrong with excess salt restriction.3-6 However, if you have a blood pressure problem or are sensitive to salt, here is some information worth knowing:
Salt from home-cooked food makes up only about 11% of our total salt intake. That’s because a whopping 77% of the salt we eat is hidden in processed foods and fast food, added as a preservative to prevent the growth of bacteria that find it difficult to survive in high-salt environments.7
“Hidden” salts are found in snacky foods, canned food and processed meat, as well as in bread, breakfast cereals and cheese. That’s why studies that investigated the relationship between salt in cooked food and blood pressure found only a modest decline in blood pressure.
For those who follow a healthy diet with limited processed and fast foods, adding a little bit of salt to food is not a cause for concern.
Myth #4: “Carbs provide empty calories”
As with fats, carbs are not our enemy when consumed in reasonable proportions. High-quality carbs like wholegrains, legumes and fruits tend to be rich in various health-promoting compounds like vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre, and phytonutrients (free-radical fighting pigments from plants).
While low carb diets offer many advantages, including weight-loss, they should be followed in manner where we get our nutrition from other sources (you can read this for some general guidelines on following a low carb diet).8
In any diet, it’s best to choose high-nutrition carbs (like the ones mentioned above) instead of low-nutrition ones like sweet sodas and desserts.
Myth #5: “Coffee is unhealthy”
Coffee is the richest source of a stimulant called caffeine, which has a number of health benefits.
It can help us feel less tired and increase energy levels. It improves brain functions, like our memory, mood, vigilance, reaction times and general cognition.
Caffeine can also help with weight loss, possibly because it boosts our metabolic rate up to 11%. Even our physical performance can be improved, as caffeine increases the production of our ‘fight or flight’ hormone, adrenaline.9-12 It also increases the efficacy of painkillers like paracetamol when clubbed with them.13, 14
In addition to caffeine, coffee contains other helpful vitamins and minerals like B-vitamins, potassium and magnesium. In the western diet, coffee is the biggest contributor of phytonutrients (like flavonoids), the antioxidant activity of which is linked to a reduced risk of lifestyle diseases like heart disease and cancer, and even the signs of ageing.
Coffee has been shown to lessen the risk of type II diabetes as well, by virtue of both the caffeine and antioxidants.12, 15-17
As you can see, there’s plenty of evidence to show that coffee (by itself) is not bad for us, with about 4 cups of coffee (assuming 100 mg caffeine per cup) a day appearing to be completely alright for healthy individuals.
Based on this list of common nutritional myths, it’s clear that we must not believe everything we hear! It’s always a good idea to find sources that help us stay updated about fact-based nutrition backed by science.
1. Singh J. What is killing India? live mint. 2016 9 February 2016.
2. Lucas L, et al. Curr Pharm Des 2011, 17(8): 754-768.
3. Jurgens G, Graudal NA. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2003(1): Cd004022.
4. Ekinci EI, et al. Diabetes care 2011, 34(3): 703-709.
5. Cohen HW, et al. Am J Med 2006, 119(3): 275.e277-214.
6. Stolarz-Skrzypek K, et al. Jama 2011, 305(17): 1777-1785.
7. Mattes RD, Donnelly D. J Am Coll Nutr 1991, 10(4): 383-393.
8. Liebman M. Nutrition 2014, 30(7): 748-754.
9. Dulloo AG, et al. Am J Clin Nutr 1989, 49(1): 44-50.
10. Koot P, Deurenberg P. Ann Nutr Metab 1995, 39(3): 135-142.
11. Han L, et al. International journal of obesity and related metabolic disorders: journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity 1999, 23(1): 98-105.
12. Klatsky AL, et al. Arch Intern Med 2006, 166(11): 1190-1195.
13. Ali Z, et al. Curr Med Res Opin 2007, 23(4): 841-851.
14. Ward N, et al. Pain 1991, 44(2): 151-155.
15. SelfNutritionData. Coffee, brewed from grounds, prepared with tap water. California, USA: Condé Nast; 2014.
16. Huxley R, et al. Arch Intern Med 2009, 169(22): 2053-2063.
17. Maia L, De Mendonça A. European Journal of Neurology 2002, 9(4): 377-382.