MYTH: Low-fat products are better for your waistline than high-fat versions of the same foods.
It may seem counterintuitive, but eating less fat can actually make your body fatter.
"Fat consumption does not cause weight gain," doctor Aaron Carroll wrote in his book "The Bad Food Bible." "To the contrary, it might actually help us shed a few pounds."
This is because people who skimp on fat (something our bodies need to function properly) are more likely to fill up on sugar and refined carbohydrates instead, and that can lead to measurable weight gain over time. Studies of people around the globe show this to be true time and again.
Fat molecules help our body's cells stay healthy, and they aid us in absorbing nutrients in the other foods we eat. So if you prefer whole milk to skim, there's no reason to feel guilty about that.
MYTH: You should "refuel" with electrolytes after a workout.
"Athletes who lose the most body mass during marathons, ultramarathons, and Ironman triathlons are usually the most successful, which suggests that fluid losses are not as tightly linked to performance as sports drink makers claim," science journalist Christie Aschwanden writes in her 2019 book, "Good to go: What the athlete in all of us can learn from the strange science of recovery."
"You need enough fluid and electrolytes in your blood for your cells to function properly, and this balance is tightly regulated by a feedback loop," she said.
MYTH: Your pee should be clear, and you should drink eight glasses of water per day.
If your pee is clear, you'll probably need to find a toilet soon, because you're over-hydrated.
The truth is, the body has a "thirst center" in the brain that helps regulate how much fluid we need, and it's impressively tuned (though it tends to become less effective as we move into old age). So the most important way to stay hydrated is to listen to your thirst and drink when you feel like it.
Don't ignore itchings for water or confuse them with hunger, and you'll generally be fine. And don't worry too much about the color of your urine, either. A light yellow or straw-like color can indicate you're well hydrated, but darker urine isn't necessarily a reason to panic.
"Dark pee might mean that you're running low on fluid, but it could also mean that your kidneys are keeping your plasma osmolality in check by conserving water," Aschwanden said.
MYTH: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Some cereal companies have made a lot of cash off that catchy phrase.
"Many — if not most — studies demonstrating that breakfast eaters are healthier and manage weight better than non-breakfast eaters were sponsored by Kellogg or other breakfast cereal companies whose businesses depend on people believing that breakfast means ready-to-eat cereal," nutrition expert Marion Nestle wrote on her Food Politics blog in 2015. "Independently-funded studies tend to show that any eating pattern can promote health if it provides vegetables and fruits, balances calories, and does not include much junk food."
Nestle keeps her own breakfast advice short and sweet: "If you wake up starving, by all means eat an early breakfast. If not, eat when you are hungry and don't worry about it."
In fact, studies have shown that people who work out in the morning on an empty stomach can burn up to 20% more body fat during their workouts.
"People who are more health-conscious overall tend to eat breakfast because they are following health guidelines," Lowery pointed out, "whereas people who skip breakfast are usually unhealthier overall because they are ignoring guidelines"
Most cereals are ultra-processed. That means they're infused with preservatives, packaged in plastic bags, and sprinkled with sugar.
Scientists are beginning to zero in on the dangers of processed foods like this: People who rely on these types of convenience foods tend to eat more (about 500 extra calories a day) and gain more weight than people who stick to unprocessed fruits, vegetables, grains, and other edible plants.
Nutrition experts who study sugary drinks were not surprised by this result, because the way our bodies process the sugar in fruit juice is almost identical to the way we take in sugar from a can of soda. Juice just doesn't satisfy our bellies like a piece of fibrous fruit does.
"It's basically sugar and water, and no protein or fat to counteract that metabolism," Jean Welsh, a nutrition professor at Emory University, previously told Business Insider.
In the same vein, smoothies — which are often loaded with sugar and may not contain all the fiber available in whole fruits — are not a health food, either.
Besides, many readily available snack foods aren't very good for us, since they are often ultra-processed and high in sugar, so are linked with weight gain and more cancer cases.
"When you eat real, wholesome, healthy foods, you feel full sooner," Ocean Robbins, grandson of ice cream magnate Irvine Robins (a Baskin-Robbins co-founder) recently told Business Insider. "Your body feels nourished. You actually have the nutrients you need and in time you can have less cravings."
Just because something has lots of protein doesn't make it healthy.
"Most Americans get more than enough protein from their diet," public-health experts at the University of California, Berkeley wrote recently in Berkeley Wellness. (Adults over 65 are a notable exception to that rule, though.)
A long-term study of over 131,300 people in the US found that the more animal protein people ate, the more likely they were to die of a heart attack, suggesting that it may be best to favor plant proteins like those from nuts and beans, rather than relying on meat.
MYTH: The food pyramid should be your go-to guide.
Let's get one thing straight: This is a picture of a food triangle on the side of a pyramid.
The "pyramid" above was released by the USDA in 1992, and it suggests there is one ideal strategy for healthy eating that everyone can follow. That strategy, it suggested, was to load up on breads and pastas, eat ample servings of fruits and vegetables (three to five per day), and round out one's diet with some dairy and protein from sources like meats, nuts, and beans.
But researchers are discovering in study after study that what works for one person may not be right for everyone else. Different bodies respond differently to ingested fats and carbohydrates, so a stable energy source for one person could lead another's blood sugar to skyrocket then crash.
Health-conscious dessert-lovers for years bought carob chips instead of chocolate. Carob is made from the dried fruit of Mediterranean carob trees (whereas chocolate comes from cacao). But they might have been better off sticking to chocolate.
"No offense to carob, but it doesn't taste as good as chocolate," Robbins said. "It turns out that chocolate's actually better for you — it's good for your heart and it's good for your brain."
That doesn't mean you should eat candy bars. But a bit of dark chocolate (70% cacao or higher) here and there could help improve blood flow and protect the heart.
Most prepackaged yogurts in the dairy case are packed with sugar.
If you like yogurt, find a plain one; you can always sprinkle nuts, seeds, berries, or spices like cinnamon and nutmeg on top for flavor.
MYTH: Margarine is better for you than butter, and all oil is bad.
Margarine was a darling toast-topper during the low-fat craze of the 1990s. Made from plant oils like palm oil, canola oil, and soybeans, it was marketed as a "healthier" alternative to animal fats.
But margarine used to include trans fat. Harvard researchers estimate that during the heyday of artificial trans fats in the 1990s, their presence in our food supply led to roughly 50,000 preventable deaths every year in the US. The FDA rolled out a near-universal ban on artificial trans fats in 2018, and most margarines today are trans-fat free.
But butter alternatives are highly processed, and vegetable oils that are lab-heated to prevent spoilage, like those in margarine, can be serious drivers of disease. Often, a key ingredient in margarine is palm oil, which is not nearly as good for our hearts as monounsaturated fats that are in a liquid state at room temperature, like olive oil. Monounsaturated fats can lower bad cholesterol levels and keep our immune systems humming with Vitamin E, making them a healthier choice.
MYTH: Ditch cholesterol-heavy egg yolks and only eat the whites.
For most people, there's no evidence that the cholesterol in eggs translates to higher blood cholesterol.
Quinoa, bananas, apples, beans, and carrots are all relatively high-carb foods, and studies repeatedly show that people who eat a wide variety of these foods, in addition to whole grains, tend to have trimmer waistlines and lower blood-pressure levels.
It's true, however, that once grains are stripped of their protein-hefty bran and germ, they're not great at providing key nutrients or satiating us for hours after we eat. That's why it's still a good idea to avoid refined carbs, which are used to make items like cookies and white bread.
MYTH: Counting calories is a good weight-loss strategy.
A calorie is a calorie, right? Wrong.
Nutritionists increasingly urge people to evaluate foods holistically, rather than based on individual nutrients or calorie counts.
Take avocados, for example. A cup has 234 calories and 14 grams of monounsaturated fat, along with smaller doses of polyunsaturated (2.7 g) and saturated fat (3.1 g). But an avocado also provides good doses of fiber, protein, and potassium,which can help maintain healthy blood-pressure levels. No one would suggest you'd get the same health benefits or stay as full after eating 234 calories' worth of potato chips (that'd be about 25 chips).
Recent studies have shown that plants are the best choice for our health, and consuming more processed foods — even with the exact same amount of calories on offer — can lead to weight gain.
But that doesn't mean that a glass of OJ will fight a cold you already have, or even that it will make your cold go away more quickly. Instead, try sucking on a zinc lozenge — some studies suggest that taking zinc can lead some people's colds to end quicker.
MYTH: Getting nutrients from vitamins is the same as eating them in foods, so a multivitamin a day keeps the doctor away.
"Show me a single study ever done saying people who took a multivitamin pill ... did better. There's no study," Ajay Goel, a biophysicist who researches cancer, recently told Business Insider.
The US Preventative Services Task Force does not recommend that people take vitamins or supplements as a preventive measure for heart disease or cancer, the leading causes of death in the US. In fact, there's evidence that supplements can do more harm than good.
"Extra vitamin A supplements can lead to dangerous, toxic levels if taken too frequently," Dr. Clifford Lo, associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health said in a blog post.
Try getting important vitamins and minerals from fresh fruits and vegetables.
It may be the case that people who eat a lot of salt are at risk of developing health problems for a host of other reasons, mostly because their diets and lifestyles are less healthy overall. For example, salt is a great preservative, which means there is a lot of it in processed food, which we know is not good for us.
This piece of false information may have originated in WWII, according to Snopes, when Britain pretended that its bomber pilots had freakishly good, carrot-fueled eyesight instead of admitting to using radar to track Nazis.
Carrots are good for eye health, but they cannot help you see better than you already do. Carrots are rich in chemicals called carotenoids, as are spinach, kale, collard greens, and sweet potatoes. Our bodies convert these chemicals from plants into nutrients like vitamin A, which is essential for developing healthy embryos, keeping tissues healthy, and ensuring the immune system functions properly. People who have diets rich in the carotenoid beta carotene, for example, have lower instances of cervical cancer and slight reductions in breast cancer risk.
"For some people it is unhelpful, because it makes them jittery, and they get addicted to it, and they get headaches if they don't drink a lot of it," Robbins said. "And I think our society is a little high-strung sometimes."
"Diet soda may be used to help frequent consumers of sugary drinks cut back their consumption, but water is the best and healthiest choice," Vasanti Malik, the study's lead author and a research scientist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a release.
Malik found that women who drank four or more artificially sweetened beverages per day significantly upped their risk of death (the finding didn't hold true for men, though). The researchers think the explanation for an observed link between diet drinks and death may just be that people who are already overweight drink more diet beverages. But more research is needed.
MYTH: You need to drink a lot of milk to prevent osteoporosis.
Milk-mustached celebrities suggested to us for years that there's something special about the calcium in milk that helps our bones stay strong. But there's really no evidence to suggest that milk has advantages over other calcium-rich foods like leafy greens and legumes.