Food and Nutrition: Facts or Myths

EN sifts through some commonly shared nutrition myths and counters with the facts.

I’m sure you’ve read something like this: “Eat this food, not that food…more of this, less of that…eat your food in this particular order, at this time of day and on this day of the week…” It’s a confusing and exhausting set of mixed messages. All the conflicting information out there about nutrition can make it hard to know what is actually true and what is false. Let’s explore in more depth five of the most common nutrition fallacies.

MYTH: High fructose corn syrup is worse for our bodies than other sugars.

Let’s dig into the sweet details.

FACT: There are two types of sugars: monosaccharides and disaccharides. Man-made high fructose corn syrup and naturally occurring sucrose are both disaccharides that consist of the monosaccharides glucose and fructose. Chemically, high fructose corn syrup and sucrose are almost identical and therefore our bodies digest and metabolize them both in very similar manners. There has been a lot of debate regarding the effects of high fructose corn syrup on our bodies, but there have been no studies which conclusively prove that this sweetener changes metabolism, increases body fat, or increases appetite. No matter the source, our bodies know how to break down all forms of sugar and use this for energy. Whatever sugar our bodies do not need or utilize at that moment is stored in our livers for later use and when the liver is at full capacity our bodies turn that surplus energy into fat and store it for long term use. Bottom line: our bodies will use high fructose corn syrup for energy like any other sugar.

MYTH: Eating before bedtime automatically leads to weight gain.

Try to stay awake for the details.

FACT: Popular belief says that if we eat in close proximity to falling asleep, weight gain will result because our metabolism slows and food that is not digested turns into fat. Science however tells us a different bedtime story: when we fall asleep, our bodies continue to function normally. Our hearts continue to pump blood, our brains remain active, our livers continue to filter and our kidneys continue to regulate fluid balance and blood pressure. The same goes for digestion and metabolism of food while we sleep. Moreover, nighttime basal metabolic rate averages the same as during the day. If there is food in our bodies that needs to be digested, it will be (no matter if you are awake or asleep) and that energy will be used to keep all our essential organs functioning all night long.

MYTH: Consuming dietary cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease.

The fact is you may be your own worst enemy.

FACT: Cholesterol occurs naturally in our bodies and plays many essential roles like forming cell membrane structure and assisting with the production of hormones. However, our genetic makeup, not diet, is often the driving force behind serum cholesterol levels. When we consume more dietary cholesterol, our bodies respond by reducing production of cholesterol, and when we consume less dietary cholesterol our bodies then ramp up production. About a quarter of the population does however have a genetic predisposition that affects how their bodies respond to dietary cholesterol and they are often referred to as “hyper-responders.” Hyper-responders do experience a rise in serum cholesterol as a response to an increase in dietary cholesterol, however, the ratio of negative LDL to positive HDL cholesterol in these individuals stays the same and so does their risk of heart disease.

MYTH: There are foods with “empty calories.”

This nutrition lore is running on empty.

FACT: People commonly refer to foods that are high in carbohydrate and or fats such as potatoes, desserts, chips and soda to name a few, as foods that have “empty calories.” But how can a food that contains calories also be empty? The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the word empty as, “containing nothing” or “lacking reality, substance, meaning or value.” This implies that potatoes, for instance, contain nothing or lack substance and value. However, potatoes are a good source of not only carbohydrate but also potassium, vitamin C, thiamin, and niacin. In addition to nutritional value, potatoes are also viewed historically among the most important crops economically and culturally.

MYTH: There are good foods and bad foods.

It’s all good.

FACT: Every food differs in its makeup of macronutrients and micronutrients, but each food contains some nutrition and our bodies are able to use this nutrition as fuel. Of course, overconsumption of one food or another will not give you the variety of nutrition your body needs but this certainly does not make any food inherently bad. Even the most vilified foods such as soda and candy can provide our bodies with quick energy which is necessary at times and to most these foods also taste good. Ellyn Satter, leading researcher on eating competency, tells us, “Your body needs variety and your soul needs pleasure.” Labeling food as good and bad only perpetuates fear and misunderstanding about nutrition and takes away from the enjoyment that food can have in our lives.

—Nicole Wavra, MPH, RD


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