The wondrous world of nutrition is full of fables and fairy tales! Some so-called nutritional wisdom is so creative it would give The Brothers Grimm a run for their magic beans.
Information overload is a common symptom seen in the health-conscious and deciphering fact from fiction is like wading through a stinking swamp full of nasty surprises. Today, I will save you from this unpleasant journey and I shall attempt to debunk some of the most common myths of nutrition and health.
1. Three Little Piggies
Pork and other red meats have been considered synonymous with heart disease for decades now.
Specifically, the saturated fat found in animal produce has been portrayed as the great evil of our generation and has been blamed for most common chronic diseases. So we’ve followed a low fat, low cholesterol diet since the ‘80s and heart disease, cancer and diabetes have never been higher than today! Clearly, this strategy is not working and a global uprising has already started proclaiming that saturated fat might not be such a villain after all. In fact, the strong chains of saturated fatty acids keep our bodies structurally sound. They not only contribute to the integrity of bone, skin and hair but also give arteries and blood vessels stability and flexibility. Saturated fat only turns into the ‘big bad wolf’ when heated to high temperatures such as during frying, processing and barbecuing. As a rule of thumb, any natural fat is good for you as long as it is raw, unprocessed and cold pressed. Stewing and slow roasting are great methods to keep your fats pure and delicious!
2. Humpty Dumpty was a big HEALTHY egg!
Staying with the popular topic of heart disease, eggs have been labelled as not so golden and have certainly not been laid by a magic goose! Eggs contain high amounts of cholesterol so, logically, they should elevate your cholesterol levels in very much the same way as eating a piece of broccoli will turn you into a shrub. There is logic to this madness as cholesterol is an incredibly valuable raw material for the body. 80 percent of total cholesterol is produced in the liver and a mere 20% comes from the foods we eat. If we consume more cholesterol through food, the liver produces less and if we eat less, the liver produces more to keep this tightly controlled equilibrium. In fact, eggs are true nutritional pearls of nature providing a rich source of protein and countless vitamins and minerals!
3. A Big Fat Fairytale
After being told for decades that a low fat diet is healthy and helps you lose weight, it is only natural that we believe fat in foods is automatically turned into unsightly fat pockets on our thighs. This theory has now largely been disproven and the real culprits when it comes to weight gain, diabetes and obesity are the high amounts of sugar and high fructose corn syrup found in a variety of soft drinks and processed foods. Fat is very precious to the body and will preferably be turned into energy and not into pillows of soft cushioning. It is essential for the structural integrity of the body and it is able to modulate the immune system by producing strongly anti-inflammatory compounds. Full fat yoghurt, butter and cold-pressed plant oils deserve a prime spot in your fridge – instead of being known as silent killers, they are your secret weapon to health!
4. Sweet Buttercup
If you have been convinced by numerous adverts over the years that a chemical cocktail of hardened vegetable oils – aka margarine – is better for you than natural, highly nutritious butter, think again! While butter naturally contains a variety of vitamins, especially vitamin D, margarine is artificially fortified with nutrients because all is lost during processing. Whilst butter contains butyric acid – a naturally gut-healing fatty acid – margarine is brimming with artificial fats clogging up your liver. The highly processed vegetable oils found in plant spreads have been changed to such an extent that the body does not recognise them anymore as food. They will be subject to the same treatment as any other foreign material and toxin. Such man made fats are the ONLY fats that will end up straight on your hips. In addition, margarines are much more likely to contribute to heart disease while natural butter from grass fed cows actually protects your heart and arteries from damage!
5. Magic Beans
Coffee is not normally seen as a health drink, but it might be time to shift our perspective and give the black brew some credit. Some western cultures consume more antioxidants through coffee than by eating fruit and vegetables!
Caffeine – which is an important compound of coffee – is a liver toxin but, paradoxically, coffee has been shown to have a protective effect on the liver, especially in alcoholics. The black, liquid gold has also been shown to help in the prevention of type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s, stroke and several cancers. But – a word of caution: sugar-laden, double mocha lattes are as healthy as a Mars bar! Drink your favourite morning beverage black and without sugar to get the maximum benefit.
6. Sugar & Spice & All Things Nice
Sugar is no doubt the silent killer that has infiltrated our society. Found in almost every packaged food and drink that can be bought in your local supermarket, it is the driving force behind modern chronic disease. Highly addictive, it is just as hard to give up as smoking once you have succumbed to its sweet temptation. Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and acesulfame K seemed to be the perfect solution to nourish our collective sweet tooth without the dramatic side effects of sugar. More than a decade after their invention, we now have firm evidence that artificial sweeteners can shrink organs, poison your liver, contribute to cognitive disorders in children and are just as much a contributor to obesity as their natural white and deadly counterpart. When consuming chemical sweeteners, you are tricking your brain into thinking it will receive a sweet sugar hit that never arrives. Your brain will soon start to demand more and more sweetness and sugar craving will become stronger and stronger. People who consume large amounts of artificial sweeteners are much more likely to consume more sugar, suffer from obesity and type 2 diabetes. The only suitable alternatives are natural sweet compounds found in certain plants such as Stevia or Xylitol. Used in moderation they can bring a little sweetness into your life without wreaking havoc with your health!
7. Same Same, No Difference?
Eat less, exercise more, and lose weight! It would be great if things were really that simple but, unfortunately, not all calories are created equal! Just restricting their intake might work in the very short term, but no weight loss plan which focuses solely on calorie restriction has ever been successful in the long term! Here is a very simple example: one large fillet of salmon contains roughly the same amount of calories as a bar of chocolate.
Whilst oily fish is going to nourish your body, supporting your weight loss goals, the same amount of calories from chocolate will do the exact opposite. Instead of focusing on a meticulous calorie count, it is much more important to eat the right foods at the right time, irrespective of how many calories they contain! Including plenty of protein, healthy fats and vegetables in your diet and abstaining from sugars and carbohydrates is a much better strategy for weight loss than taking your calculator to the supermarket sweet goodies aisle!
8. Little by Little
Eating little and often is the key to balanced blood sugar levels, reduced cravings and successful weight loss. We have been living by this mantra for a number of years but new research is challenging our long held beliefs. If blood sugar levels are never allowed to fall below a certain threshold, the body does not get a chance to use up and empty its glycogen stores. Any excess sugar is usually stored in the form of glycogen in the liver and muscles but if storage space is constantly full, blood sugar levels can be disrupted and fat storage is encouraged. It might actually be better for your health to consume the old three meals a day, maybe even only two and NO snacks at all. This type of intermittent fasting can have a number of health benefits including healthier blood sugar levels and a reduced risk of diabetes and obesity!
9. The ‘Black Pudding’ of the Meat Family
Offal like black pudding, liver, kidneys and hearts are often frowned upon these days. They have a reputation as being unhealthy, unsightly and somewhat out of fashion. It is something your grandad would have had for tea or in a pie and he surely didn’t look the picture of health.
In fact, all sorts of offal including tripe and animal blood are highly nutritious and they contain more vitamins and minerals than any other cut of meat. Most innards are quite lean, tender, cost effective and remarkably easy to cook! Grilled lambs liver is delicious on a bed of salad and chicken hearts are a great addition to a stir-fry. Nowadays, we often regard these meats as waste products and favour more prestigious (and pricier) cuts despite the soaring cost of animal produce and declining welfare standards. By reverting to traditional offal dishes you have the opportunity to boost your health, reduce wastage and make your grandad proud!
10. Barking up the Wrong Beanstalk
If you have been proclaiming endlessly that raw vegetables are much healthier and nutritious than cooked ones, you were not alone.
This is a very common misconception and hardly anyone is aware of the enormous benefits of cooked produce. Naturally, we should consume some raw veggies but in the case of carrots, for example, it is always better to give them a quick steam! Heat breaks down the root’s tough fibres and makes it much easier for your body to absorb the highly prized beta-carotene. Cooked tomatoes are actually richer in the antioxidant lycopene than raw ones and a tomato based pasta sauce can turn into a real health food! Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli contain compounds called goitrogens, which can interfere with thyroid function. Slightly steaming your florettes will render those compounds inactive and you will get the full vitamin hit. Many green leafy vegetables (such as spinach) contain oxalic acid, which can block the absorption of iron and other minerals. A quick blanch or stir-fry reduces its action drastically and you will end up with a nutrient-charged meal that would make Popeye jealous!