5 Food Myths Debunked

The world of nutrition and health is an ever-changing landscape. It can be difficult to keep up with the latest trends and health fads. There’s always plenty of misinformation afoot, which just complicates things for consumers. So how do we filter out the noise to gain clarity on what’s healthy? Here are 5 common food myths debunked.

While I stand firm in the belief that not everyone should follow the same diet, there are some basic nutrition principles that hold true for everyone. These are based on the foundational biology of every human. We all have a specific set of needs that must be met by our diet and lifestyle. The rest is really up to you. Debunking food myths can be helpful when making healthy choices for you and your family. 

Let’s get into them.

1. Saturated Fat Causes Heart Disease

Doctor showing patient information on heart disease

This has been the accepted conservative consensus for perhaps the last four decades. However, the evidence that saturated fat causes cardiovascular disease is mixed. Fat is important for cell membrane function, hormone synthesis and immune function. Consuming fats help transport fat-soluble vitamins - A, E, D and K. Clearly, we need fat to survive. 

It’s true that unsaturated fats, from nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil have protective polyphenols which are great for cardiovascular health. It’s also true that trans-fats, from processed plant oils like canola oil, are highly inflammatory and bad for your health. With those two points made, what now about saturated fat?

Fortunately, the smear campaign against saturated fat consumption as a causative agent for heart disease is now being reconsidered. An article from the British journal of sports medicine outlined an important paradigm shift that has occurred in the health sciences. 

The authors of this meta-analysis begin their findings with this explicit statement: ‘the conceptual model of dietary saturated fat clogging a pipe is just plain wrong’. Here they’re illuminating the conventional idea that fat consumption blocking arteries is analogous to a bit of backed-up plumbing. In fact, the idea that fat causes plaquing in the arteries and heart is actually misleading. Many articles, including this one, confirm that no association was found between saturated fat consumption and all-cause mortality. 

The authors make an important concession, however, and are careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. They note the importance of preventing atherosclerosis as a valuable health measure, but state that atherothrombosis is the ‘real killer’. What this means is the presence of inflammation due to sugar consumption and stress are the real culprits when it comes to deleterious health effects in the heart and blood vessels.

In light of this, a narrative review paper from 2020 called for a re-evaluation of the current guidelines. 21 prospective cohort studies involving over 347000 participants showed no evidence that saturated fat intake is associated with heart disease. In summary, natural fats from animal and plant sources that haven’t been tampered with are good for you. Stick with what nature provides and in most instances, you’ll be right.

2. Kale Is The Healthiest Leafy Green Vegetable, Ever!

Kale in a white bowl

Kale is a vegetable that was used to adorn meat trays in a butcher’s shop window. Does anyone else remember that? How in the world it came to be so popular over the last decade is a mystery to me. Yet, this dark leafy vegetable is everywhere, and is pretty much the mascot food of healthy living. If you’re not eating kale, are you even looking after yourself?? 

I’m prepared to stand completely on my own as a Nutritionist with the following opinion: I really am not a huge fan of kale. I think it’s gained way too much popularity when there are perfectly good, equally healthy and more familiar cruciferous vegetables around.

Generally, kale is indeed very healthy, but so are ALL the vegetables belonging to the cruciferous family. These include cabbage, watercress, bok choy, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, mustard greens, kohlrabi, radishes and even wasabi. These veggies are also known as brassica vegetables and as a category, they pack a huge punch of nutrients. Cruciferous veggies contain important plant compounds, such as kaempferol and sulforaphane. These compounds have been shown to inhibit cancer cell growth and support healthy hormone metabolism. It’s important not to be hoodwinked by the latest food trend, and kale is a perfect example of this. Give some of the less-glamorous brassica veggies a look-in, because they’re just as good for you.

3. Fresh Foods Are Healthier Than Frozen Foods

Frozen fruit in a tin

Eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables every day can be a challenge. While it’s certainly a healthy practice to include an abundance of these foods if you can, sometimes it’s just not possible. Some foods are only available in certain seasons, or sometimes you’re too busy to buy and use fresh ingredients each day. Fortunately, frozen fruit and vegetables are a wonderful and very healthy option

In some instances, the freezing process can cause damage to the cell walls of plant foods, which may affect their overall antioxidant content. Similarly, some minor vitamin C and B vitamin losses will invariably occur. In this way, fresh is going to be better. However, snap-frozen peas, broccoli, carrots, berries, mangoes and bananas retain as much of their nutritional value as their fresh counterparts. 

Just make sure you’re reading the labels on the foods you buy. Ensure the ingredients list is small and the food is as close to the real, natural product as possible. Check for added sodium, preservatives, anti-caking agents or flavourings. As long as your frozen, or even canned vegetables and fruit are as minimally processed as possible, you can rest assured you’re making a healthy choice.

4. Coffee Is Healthier Than Tea

Girl at a laptop drinking coffee

Like any good debate, there are arguments for and against both tea and coffee. But is there one, true winner based on the research? 

Whether you prefer tea over coffee or vice versa, you’ll be reaping some valuable health benefits. An article found in Advances in Nutrition found that tea is an effective weight loss aid. Green tea and black tea are rich in a compound called epigallocatechin (EGCG) which influences the body’s core temperature and helps stimulate energy use. Tea also helps protect against cardiovascular disease. However, the tannins in black tea can impair iron absorption. This may be important if you suffer from anaemia, and you may wish to reduce your tea intake. 

As far as coffee is concerned, there are some great health benefits as well. Coffee contains magnesium, B vitamins and important polyphenols to optimise health. The powerful compounds in coffee beans have a particular influence on the liver. The anti-inflammatory actions of coffee appear to protect against non-alcoholic fatty liver disease onset, according to a recent meta-analysis published in the journal Nutrients. Of course, overdoing it with coffee can cause other problems. Caffeine overdose causes jitteriness, and irritation and can lead to sleep issues. Depending on your health goals, there are benefits and downfalls to each beverage. Ultimately, both tea and coffee have anti-cancer and cardioprotective properties, so you may not need to choose one over the other after all!

5. Nuts Are Unhealthy & Cause Weight Gain

Various nuts in small bowls on a wooden background

It’s important in health science to remain flexible. As recently as the early 90s, nuts were believed to be a risk factor for heart disease. As such, public health recommendations at the time were to limit nut intake. Newer research has shown that nuts actually contain a wealth of healthy nutrients. So, when new evidence emerges, health advice should shift accordingly. In reality, however, this process is slow and it can take years, sometimes decades for the recommendations to catch up to the evidence.

Despite their fat content and caloric density, nuts are far and wide incredibly healthy for the heart, brain and body. As we’ve debunked the fat myth, that natural dietary fats don’t lead to poor health outcomes, we know now that there are protective elements to nuts that should be celebrated.

Nuts also don’t cause weight gain. On the contrary, nut consumption has been linked to weight loss, in various studies. Most nuts are high in protein and high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts, pecans and macadamias have all been linked to weight reduction, lower BMI and reduced blood pressure. Other important compounds in nuts are zinc, choline, vitamin E and fibre. All of these nutrients help the brain, heart and digestive system. 

Nuts should form a central component of any healthy diet. Enjoy roasted or raw nuts as well as nut butter. Or make your own nut milk (blend in the nuts too!) to get the best health advantages from nuts.

Be An Informed Consumer

It can be difficult to make head or tail of health claims, diet trends or food fads as they enter popular culture. Use common sense and ask lots of questions until you’re satisfied with what’s being offered. Trust your instincts and you should be able to make more aware, informed and healthy choices for you and your family.

Article References

Banel, D. K., & Hu, F. B. (2009). Effects of walnut consumption on blood lipids and other cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis and systematic review. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 90(1), 56–63. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.27457

Dangour, A.D. et al. (2009). Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 90(3), 680-685.

Dikariyanto, V., Smith, L., Francis, L., Robertson, M., Kusaslan, E., O'Callaghan-Latham, M., Palanche, C., D'Annibale, M., Christodoulou, D., Basty, N., Whitcher, B., Shuaib, H., Charles-Edwards, G., Chowienczyk, P. J., Ellis, P. R., Berry, S., & Hall, W. L. (2020). Snacking on whole almonds for 6 weeks improves endothelial function and lowers LDL cholesterol but does not affect liver fat and other cardiometabolic risk factors in healthy adults: the ATTIS study, a randomized controlled trial. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 111(6), 1178–1189. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa100

Fantino, M., Bichard, C., Mistretta, F., & Bellisle, F. (2020). Daily consumption of pistachios over 12 weeks improves dietary profile without increasing body weight in healthy women: A randomized controlled intervention. Appetite, 144, 104483. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2019.104483

Heileson J. L. (2020). Dietary saturated fat and heart disease: a narrative review. Nutrition reviews78(6), 474–485. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuz091

La Berge, A.F. (2008). How the ideology of low fat conquered America. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 63(2), 139-177.

Malhotra, A., Redberg, R. F., & Meier, P. (2017). Saturated fat does not clog the arteries: coronary heart disease is a chronic inflammatory condition, the risk of which can be effectively reduced from healthy lifestyle interventions. British journal of sports medicine51(15), 1111–1112. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2016-097285

Neri, L., Faieta, M., Di Mattia, C., Sacchetti, G., Mastrocola, D., & Pittia, P. (2020). Antioxidant Activity in Frozen Plant Foods: Effect of Cryoprotectants, Freezing Process and Frozen Storage. Foods (Basel, Switzerland)9(12), 1886. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods9121886

Tan, S. Y., & Mattes, R. D. (2013). Appetitive, dietary and health effects of almonds consumed with meals or as snacks: a randomized, controlled trial. European journal of clinical nutrition, 67(11), 1205–1214. https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2013.184

Theodore, L. E., Kellow, N. J., McNeil, E. A., Close, E. O., Coad, E. G., & Cardoso, B. R. (2021). Nut Consumption for Cognitive Performance: A Systematic Review. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 12(3), 777–792. https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmaa153
Vorvick, L. (2015). Foods: fresh vs. frozen. Medline Plus. Retrieved from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002095.htm