Nutrition: Dietary Fact and Fiction

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Our nutrition expert Sophie Bruno separates dietary fact from fiction.

Nutritional myths are not only dominating the media, but they are also infiltrating innocuous dinner conversations. Some dietary beliefs are repeated so often and via an array of different media that they inevitably become entrenched in common knowledge. This makes it difficult to separate truth from myth when we’re talking about nutrition. Moreover, as the implementation of a healthy, balanced diet can be complex, it is no wonder that the media is brimming with short cuts which claim to achieve speedy results. However, some of these alleged nutritional quick-fixes are often based on shaky science and may cause more harm than good. This article will explore the most insidious food and nutrition misconceptions and provide some scientific insights to dispel these myths.

Gluten-free: The booming gluten-free market, galvanized by its underlying belief, has been fuelled by mainstream media advocating the negative effects of gluten in society’s diets and health outcomes. This has resulted in a significant proportion of the population actively avoiding foods that contain gluten or systematically eliminating gluten entirely from their diets. Gluten refers to the protein complex found in wheat, rye and barley. Coeliac disease results in the activation of the immune system which causes damage to the lining of the small intestine, interfering with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Gluten intolerant or sensitive people experience negative reactions to gluten, but do not have coealiac disease. Research is mounting as to whether gluten is the cause of sensitivity, or if other components are to blame, such as Fermentable Oligo- Di- Mono-saccharides and Polyols (FODMAPs) and other non-gluten proteins found in wheat. With so many different causes, conditions and symptoms, diagnosis can be extremely hard. This generates a lot of misinformation about gluten. In the absence of a legitimate medical reason to avoid gluten, there is no robust scientific argumentation that supports switching to non-gluten alternatives; not only will this represent a costly pursuit, but it will offer no additional health benefits.

Carbs are fattening: If you look at the calorie content of carbohydrates, gram for gram carbohydrates supply fewer than half the calories of fat. Extreme caution should be applied if a stringent dietary programme is implemented that recommends eliminating entire food groups or any form of stringent dietary rules and patterns. Focus should be on the type of carbohydrates rather than restricting consumption. Starchy carbohydrates come in two forms: refined and whole. The latter are packed full of fibre, which deliver a plethora of essential vitamins and minerals to your nutrition. In fact, if you want to lose weight, eating high-fibre foods will help to satiate you, which means you are less likely to overeat. We need starchy carbohydrates to deliver energy. Instead of cutting them out, make some smart switches and cut down on the unhealthier, refined carbohydrates.

Sugar: Sugar has been demonized in the media, and has been attributed to the onset of many chronic diseases. Ultimately, regardless of the food or format, once sugar is consumed it will be broken down into glucose, which our cells employ for energy. However, the difference between a teaspoon of sugar added to your tea or coffee and the natural sugar in a portion of fruit or dairy is the presence of vitamins and minerals. Although it is a form of sugar, lactose is accompanied by a healthy supply of vitamins and minerals present in the matrix of dairy, such as calcium. Honey, maple syrup and agave syrup are all still natural forms of sugar – however, they are similar to refined sugar, in that their actual nutrient content is quite poor. Abide by the principle that sugar should always be accompanied by as many nutrients as possible, and remember that added sugar should always be avoided.

Low fat is best: Many health guidelines recommend low fat dairy, driven by the scientific evidence demonstrating that saturated fat content is linked with a greater risk of heart disease and obesity. Contrary to deep-seated opinion, a low-fat diet is not a necessarily a healthy one in terms of nutrition. The important take-away is not to cut out fat entirely, but to make sure that you are consuming the healthy varieties. Unsaturated fats bring about a myriad of heath benefits. They have been associated with lower blood cholesterol and a reduction in inflammation and are found in foods such as oils, nuts, seeds, avocado and oily fish. In terms of dairy, recent studies have shown an inverse association with full fat dairy and obesity risk. As such, the key message is to ensure that you are including three servings of dairy or dairy alternatives in your diet each day. However, if you are overweight or obese, then low-fat products are useful in the reduction of overall energy consumption and intake of saturated fat. If you do choose low-fat products, make sure they are free from added sugar.

Clean eating: Clean eating is increasingly associated with health and is promoted by many online bloggers. While the term is heavily used in social media, there has never been any agreement on what it really constitutes or any comprehensive studies examining the potential benefits of a clean eating lifestyle as a whole. While some of the core principles that the movement champions are in line with the best available evidence for losing weight or preventing ill health, there are plenty of others that do not stand up to scrutiny. For example, it has been repeatedly proven that dietary restrictions such as a dairy-free diet or gluten-free diet are nutritionally sub-standard. Moreover, any form of restrictive eating characterized by strict and forbidden foods is unhelpful and may be harmful. Ascribing labels to food such as ‘clean’ and ‘bad’ is counter-productive and may result in unnecessary judgments, instilling an unhealthy relationship with food, which precipitates unhealthy dietary habits and misconceived perceptions about food and nutrition that could trigger the onset of dietary disorders.

Coconut oil is healthier than olive oil: The hype surrounding coconut oil in the media is hard to dismiss, and is penetrating public opinion. Coconut oil has ignited controversial discussion among health professionals and the public as it has been hailed as the latest ‘superfood’ aiding weight loss and heralded with anti-microbial and anti-viral properties.Coconut oil is very energy dense; it supplies 117 kcals in just one tablespoon, 92% of which is made up of saturated fatty acids. There has been a lot of noise around the supposed superior smoke point of coconut oil. This idea has been scientifically refuted. Extra virgin and virgin olive oil is predominantly made of mono-unsaturated fats, which are more heat stable and contain a range of antioxidants that further protect the oil from oxidising when it is heated. As such, there is currently insufficient evidence to recommend coconut oil over healthy fats such as olive or rapeseed oils. Making the switch to coconut oil is likely to lead to less favourable blood lipid profiles and potentially increase the risk of coronary heart disease. Moreover, coconut oil delivers none of the vitamins or polyphenol antioxidant compounds that are found in extra virgin olive oil.

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