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.
Here are five common nutrition myths, along with the scientifically-proven facts that disprove them:
Myth #1: “Saturated fat is bad”
Saturated fats (SFAs) are often considered bad, mainly for an allegedly negative impact on our heart health.
According to research, though, consuming saturated fats has no significant association with the development of heart issues or stroke. Whole-fat dairy, unprocessed meat and dark chocolate are examples of SFA-rich foods that don’t have any correlation with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, contrary to popular belief [1, 2, 3, 4].
The health effects of any food item cannot be predicted by focusing only on a singular nutrient in it - especially without considering the other nutrients it contains. For example, dairy products are nutrient-dense but also contain SFAs. If their consumption is reduced, we also end up forgoing all the micronutrients that come with it (calcium, phosphorus, vitamin B-12, vitamin A and vitamin B2) .
Having said that, while an average healthy individual need not worry, people with existing medical conditions or high-cholesterol issues may need to watch their saturated fat intake.
To sum it up: sticking to a reasonable amount of saturated fats, as you would find in a balanced diet, is perfectly safe for healthy individuals.
Myth #2: “Extra Virgin Olive oil is not suitable for cooking”
For an oil to be suitable for cooking, it has to have a high smoking point so it can stay stable at the high temperatures at which most of Indian food is cooked (170 °C and above) .
There’s a misconception around olive oil not being suitable for cooking because it purportedly has a lower smoking point than other oils.
However, scientific research doesn’t support this and, on the contrary, even states that high-quality unrefined extra virgin olive oil is highly stable when heated [7, 8, 9, 10, 11]. It not only has a high smoke point (around 190–207°C), but, most importantly, does not break down into harmful compounds (like some other oils do) when heated at high temperatures.
Researchers also found that vegetables that are fried or sautéed in olive oil contain added levels of antioxidants . That’s because of the presence of some polyphenols (a kind of antioxidant) in the oil, which get transferred into the food (also telling us that the antioxidants in olive oil are not lost when it’s heated). Additionally, an antioxidant called oleocanthal that’s present in olive oil possesses similar anti-inflammatory properties to ibuprofen (an anti-inflammatory prescription drug) .
To sum it up: A heat-stable oil that’s full of antioxidants is definitely a good choice for cooking!
Pro tip: Ensure you are buying a true ‘extra virgin olive oil’ by looking for “unrefined 100 percent extra virgin oil”, with a recent harvest date, in a dark bottle.
#Myth 3: “Salt is unhealthy”
Salt is mainly composed of two minerals, sodium and chloride, which have various functions in the body. Sodium is essential to controlling our blood pressure and for our nerves and muscles to work properly, and chloride helps maintain the body’s balance of fluids [14, 15]. This is why salt should not be unnecessarily avoided by people who don’t face problems with high blood pressure. In fact, many functions can go terribly wrong when we excessively restrict our salt intake [16, 17, 18].
The problem with salt’s effects on blood pressure doesn’t lie in the salt, but in the amount of salt consumed. The average intake of salt in India is about 11 grams per day, which is more than double the amount recommended by WHO (recommended maximum salt intake is 5g per day) . There are also “hidden” salts found in snacky foods, canned food and processed meat, where it’s added as one of the preservatives. It’s even present in bread, breakfast cereals and cheese!
To sum it up: For those who follow a healthy diet with limited processed and/or fast foods, adding a little bit of salt to food is not a cause for concern.
Pro Tip: Look for ‘iodised’ or ‘fortified’ with iodine” while buying your salt, since iodised salt is one of the most common dietary sources of iodine, a mineral that plays a large role in our body’s metabolism .
Myth #4: “Carbohydrates make you overweight and should be restricted”
Weight gain is led more by our overall calorie intake than the macronutrient (in this case, carbohydrates) that provides those calories . Any nutrient can make us gain weight if it’s consumed in excess amounts and provides more calories than required or burnt by our body.
Carbohydrates are made out to be the main culprit primarily because a low-carbohydrate diet helps us lose more weight faster.
But it needs to be noted that if continued for longer periods, a low-carb diet is counterproductive. One, because the weight loss plateaus, which beats the primary objective. Secondly, the lack of nutrients associated with a low-carb diet can cause hair loss, constipation, headache, and affect brain function . According to research, reducing our consumption of carbohydrates may compromise our vascular health [23, 24].
For its optimal function, our body needs a balanced diet, in which 50-60% of our daily calories come from carbohydrates. Having said that, it’s important to choose the right carbohydrate sources - specifically those that are unrefined (like whole grains), unprocessed, and high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. For example, starchy root vegetables, colourful fruits, whole grains and legumes are naturally preferable to r cakes, cookies, sweetened beverages, and white bread [25, 26, 27].
To sum it up: Carbohydrates are crucial for our survival, and extremely beneficial when consumed in the right proportions, from the right sources.
Myth #5: “Coffee is unhealthy”
Contrary to this belief, coffee is the richest source of a stimulant called caffeine, which has a number of health benefits.
Caffeine increases our energy levels (which is also helpful for our exercise performance) and improves various brain functions like our memory, mood, vigilance, reaction times, and general cognition. It’s also known to boost our metabolic rate by up to 11%, which can help with fat loss .
Coffee also contains small amounts of some vitamins and minerals (B-vitamins, potassium and magnesium), and is also high in antioxidants. Its content of phytonutrients, which are plant-based compounds that have antioxidant effects, are associated with a reduced risk of developing lifestyle diseases like heart disease and cancer, and even help slow down the signs of ageing. Coffee has been shown to lessen the risk of developing type II diabetes as well, by virtue of both its caffeine and antioxidants [30, 31].
Having said that, we still need to regulate our consumption of coffee and limit it to 4 cups a day (assuming you’re getting 100 mg of caffeine per cup), with this amount reducing further for women who are pregnant (less than 200 mg caffeine per day) . It’s also important to keep a check on the sugar that’s being consumed through the coffee, for those who like their coffees to be sweet.
To sum it up: Coffee (by itself) is not bad for healthy individuals and even comes with a range of health benefits.
We hope this article makes it clear that, despite how many times we hear certain statements about our health/nutrition repeated, they aren’t necessarily all true!
It’s always a good idea to find sources of information that are reliable and backed by science - and that’s where we come in. :)