15 Biggest Nutrition Myths

Is organic always healthier? Are oranges the best source of vitamin C? Find out the truth about certain "facts" about food that have been perpetuated for years

July 8, 2011
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Angelina's jealous that Brad's still secretly in love with Jennifer! Tom Cruise keeps Katie Holmes trapped in a crazed religious complex! And aliens are manning the toll booths on a Nevada freeway! How do I know these things are true? Because I read them in the tabloids at my local supermarket.

The supermarket is rife with less-than-accurate reporting, and not just in the checkout-lane newspaper racks. Walk the aisles scanning food labels and you'll see the fallout from millions of lobbying and advertising dollars spent to posit faulty claims about health and nutrition. You'll find row upon endless row of foods that promise--explicitly or not--to improve your life, flatten your belly, and make you a happier person. The fact is, many of these foods do just the opposite. Learn how to separate fact from fiction and you might finally shed the habits that are silently sabotaging your chances of losing weight. But I must warn you: The truth can hurt.

Video: Are fatty foods ever good for you? Find out.

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MYTH #1: High fructose corn syrup is worse than table sugar

Whether or not added sugar is bad for you has never been in dispute. The less sugar you eat, the better. But whether HFCS is worse than plain ol' table sugar has long been a contentious issue. Here's what you need to know: Both HFCS and table sugar, or sucrose, are built with roughly a 50-50 blend of two sugars, fructose, and glucose. That means in all likelihood that your body can't tell one from the other--they're both just sugar. HFCS's real sin is that it's supercheap, and as a result, it's added to everything from cereal to ketchup to salad dressing. Plus it may be affecting your health in ways not yet fully understood by the scientific community. Is it a good idea to minimize the HFCS in your diet? Absolutely. It's best to cut out all unnecessary sugars. But HFCS's role as nutritional enemy #1 has been exaggerated. (Search: Which foods contain hidden sugars?)

Bonus Tip: Eating fiber- and protein-loaded snacks between meals can help you control hunger and avoid overeating at mealtime. Shed flab by checking out this essential list of The 50 Best Snack Foods in America.

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MYTH #2: Sea salt is a healthier version of regular salt

Everyday table salt comes from a mine and contains roughly 2,300 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon. Sea salt comes from evaporated seawater, and it also contains roughly 2,300 milligrams of sodium. That makes them, well, roughly identical. Advocates point to the fact that sea salt also contains other compounds like magnesium and iron, but in truth, these minerals exist in trace amounts. To obtain a meaningful dose, you'd have to take in extremely high and potentially dangerous levels of sodium. What's more, traditional table salt is regularly fortified with iodine, which plays an important role in regulating the hormones in your body. Sea salt, on the other hand, gives you virtually zero iodine. The bottom line is this: If switching from table salt to sea salt causes you to consume even one extra granule, then you've just completely snuffed out whatever elusive health boon you hope to receive. Plus you've wasted a few bucks. Beware, though--excess sodium in food can be surprisingly sneaky. Check out our slideshow of 10 Sinister Sources of Salt.

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MYTH #3: Energy drinks are less harmful than soda

Energy drinks like Red Bull, Monster, and Full Throttle attempt to boost your energy with a cache of B vitamins, herbal extracts, and amino acids. But what your body's going to remember most (especially around your waistline) is the sugar in these concoctions; a 16-ounce can delivers as much as 280 calories of pure sugar, which is about 80 calories more than you'd find in a 16-ounce cup of Pepsi. What's more, a University of Maryland study found energy drinks to be 11 percent more corrosive to your teeth than regular soda. So here's the secret that energy drink companies don't want you to know: The only proven, significant energy boost comes from caffeine. If you want an energy boost, save yourself the sugar spike and drink a cup of coffee. Whatever you do, don't confuse the dessert-in-glass offerings at coffee houses with real java. Don't miss our slideshow of The 6 Worst Coffee Drinks.

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MYTH #4: Diet soda is harmless

The obesity-research community is becoming increasingly aware that the artificial sweeteners used in diet soda--aspartame and sucralose, for instance--lead to hard-to-control food urges later in the day. One Purdue study discovered that rats took in more calories if they'd been fed artificial sweeteners prior to mealtime, and a University of Texas study found that people who consume just three diet sodas per week were more than 40 percent more likely to be obese. Try weaning yourself off by switching to carbonated water and flavoring with lemon, cucumber, and fresh herbs. If you must get your carbonated fix, make an educated--that is, less fattening--selection with our slideshow of The Best and Worst Soft Drinks.

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MYTH #5: Low-fat foods are better for you

As it applies to food marketing, the term "low fat" is synonymous with "loaded with salt and cheap carbohydrates." For instance, look at Smucker's Reduced Fat Peanut Butter. To replace the fat it skimmed out, Smucker's added a fast-digesting carbohydrate called maltodextrin. That's not going to help you lose weight. A 2008 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that over a 2-year span, people on low-carb diets lost 62 percent more body weight than those trying to cut fat. (Plus, the fat in peanut butter is heart-healthy monounsaturated fat--you'd be better off eating more of it, not less!)  The fact is, America's restaurants and supermarket aisles are bursting with foods making false claims of benefits to your body: Don't miss our slideshow of 30 "Healthy" Foods That Aren't.

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MYTH #6: “Trans-fat free” foods are actually trans-fat free

The FDA's guidelines allow companies to claim 0 grams of trans fat--even broadcast it on the front of their packages--as long as the food in question contains no more than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. But here's the deal: Due to an inextricable link to heart disease, the World Health Organization advises people to keep trans fat intake as low as possible, maxing out at about 1 gram per 2,000 calories consumed. If your cupboard's full of foods with almost half a gram per serving, you might be blowing past that number every single day. The American Journal of Health Promotion recently published an article urging the FDA to rethink its lax regulations, but until that happens, you should avoid all foods with "partially hydrogenated oil" (meaning, trans fats) on their ingredients statements.

Bonus Tip: Keeping up with the latest scientific research and food industry shenanigans is a full-time job--who has time for that? That's why we created our new book: The Eat This, Not That! No-Diet Diet, a complete day-by-day, meal-by-meal weight-loss plan for busy people. You can eat all the foods you love, and still lose tons of weight--without ever dieting again. Check it out.

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MYTH #7: Foods labeled “natural” are healthier

The FDA makes no serious effort to control the use of the word "natural" on nutrition labels. Case in point: 7UP boasts that it's made with "100% Natural Flavors" when, in fact, the soda is sweetened with a decidedly un-natural dose of high fructose corn syrup. "Corn" is natural, but "high fructose corn syrup" is produced using a centrifuge and a series of chemical reactions. Other "natural" abusers include Natural Cheetos, which are made with maltodextrin and disodium phosphate, and "natural advantage" Post Raisin Bran, which bathes its raisins in both sugar and corn syrup. The worst part is, you're likely paying a premium price for common junk food.

Bonus Tip: Beware: Mr. Salty is running loose at some of your favorite restaurants! Click here to check out our complete list of The 30 Saltiest Foods in America.

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MYTH #8: Egg yolks raise your cholesterol

Egg yolks contain dietary cholesterol; this much is true. But research has proven that dietary cholesterol has almost nothing to do with serum cholesterol, the stuff in your blood. Wake Forest University researchers reviewed more than 30 egg studies and found no link between egg consumption and heart disease, and a study in Saint Louis found that eating eggs for breakfast could decrease your calorie intake for the remainder of the day.

Bonus Tip: For more health, nutrition and weight loss secrets every day in your inbox, sign up for our FREE Eat This, Not That! newsletter.

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MYTH #9: Eating junk food helps battle stress

You've been there: Stressed out and sprawled across your sofa with one arm elbow deep in a bag of cheese puffs. In the moment, it can be comforting, but a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that people who consumed the most highly processed foods were 58 percent more likely to be depressed than those who ate the least. Your move: Find a healthy stress snack. Peanut butter and Triscuits do the trick, or check out the next myth...

Bonus Tip: For foods scientifically proven to reduce stress above and beyond the satisfying fulfillment of the urge to snack, check out our slideshow of The 7 Best Stress-Fighting Foods.

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MYTH #10: Chocolate is bad for you

Cocoa is a plant-based food replete with flavonoids that increase blood flow and release feel-good endorphins. Plus, it contains a healthy kind of saturated fat called stearic acid, which research has shown can increase your good HDL cholesterol. But here's the rub: When most people think of chocolate, their minds jump immediately to milk chocolate, which contains far more sugar than actual cocoa. Instead, look for dark chocolate, specifically those versions that tell you exactly how much cocoa they contain. A bar with 60% cocoa is good, but the more cocoa it contains, the greater the health effects.

Bonus Tip: Leafy greens are reliably lean--until our nation's restaurants get their hands on them. Don't miss our shocking slideshow of the 20 Salads Worse Than a Whopper.

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MYTH #11: Granola is good for you

Oats are good for you, and the same goes for oatmeal. But granola takes those good-for-you hunks of flattened oat, blankets them in sugar, and bakes them in oil to give them crunch. The amount of fat and sugar added to each oat is at the discretion of food processors, but you can bet your last cup of milk it's going to far sweeter and more fatty than a bowl of regular cereal. Take this example: A single cup of Quaker Natural Granola, Nuts & Raisins has 420 calories, 30 grams of sugar, and 10 grams of fat. Switch to a humble cup of Kix and you drop down about 90 calories, 2.5 grams of sugar, and 1 gram of fat. Or better yet, find your favorite healthy cereal here: The 24 Best and Worst Cereals in America.

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MYTH #12: Bananas are the best source of potassium

Your body uses potassium to keep your nerves and muscles firing efficiently, and an adequate intake can blunt sodium's effect on blood pressure. One 2009 study found that a 2:1 ratio of potassium to sodium could halve your risk of heart disease, and since the average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day, your goal should be 6,800 milligrams of daily potassium. You're extremely unlikely to ever reach that mark--and never with bananas alone. One medium banana has 422 milligrams and 105 calories. Here are the sources that earn you roughly the same amount of potassium in fewer calories:

    * Potato, half a medium spud, 80 calories
    * Apricots, 5 whole fruit, 80 calories
    * Cantaloupe, 1 cup cubes, 55 calories
    * Broccoli, 1 full stalk, 50 calories
    * Sun-dried tomatoes, a quarter cup, 35 calories

Bonus Tip: A post-meal indulgence doesn't have to be a guilt-inducing belly-buster. Check out this indispensable Eat This, Not That! list of the 15 Best and Worst Desserts in America.

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MYTH #13: Oranges are the best source of vitamin C

Far more than a simple immune booster, vitamin C is an antioxidant that plays a host of important roles in your body. It strengthens skin by helping to build collagen, improves mood by increasing the flow of norepinephrine, and bolsters metabolic efficiency by helping transport fat cells into the body's energy-burning mitochondria. But since your body can neither store nor create the wonder vitamin, you need to provide a constant supply. An orange is the most famous vitamin-C food, and although it's a good source, it's by no means the best. For 70 calories, one orange gives you about 70 micrograms of vitamin C. Here are five sources with just as much vitamin C and even fewer calories:

    * Papaya, ¾ cup, 50 calories
    * Brussel's sprouts, 1 cup, 40 calories
    * Strawberries, 7 large fruit, 40 calories
    * Broccoli, ½ stalk, 25 calories
    * Red Bell Pepper, ½ medium pepper, 20 calories

Bonus Link: Nutrient-packed foods can be harder to recognize than you would think--don't miss our slideshow of 6 Superfoods in Disguise.

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MYTH #14: Organic is always better

Often, but not in every case. Organic produce is almost nutritionally identical to its conventional counterpart. The issue is pesticide exposure--pesticides have been linked to an increased risk of obesity in some studies. But many conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are very low in pesticides. Take, for example, the conventional onion: It's got the lowest pesticide load of 45 fruits and vegetables tested by the Environmental Working Group. Also in the safe-to-eat-conventional group are avocados, sweet corn, and pineapple. In general, fruits and vegetables with impermeable skins are safe to buy conventional, while produce like celery, peaches, apples, and blueberries are better purchased organic. The rise of organic products is one of many complex new developments in American food--find out how they affect your diet with our slideshow of The Best and Worst Food Industry Changes.

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MYTH #15: Meat is bad for you

Pork, beef, and lamb are among the world's best sources of complete protein, and a Danish study found that dieting with 25 percent of calories from protein can help you lose twice as much weight as dieting with 12 percent protein. Then there's vitamin B12, which is prevalent only in animal-based foods. B12 is essential to your body's ability to decode DNA and build red blood cells, and British researchers found that adequate intakes protect against age-related brain shrinkage. Now, if you're worried that meat will increase your risk for heart disease, don't be. A Harvard review last year looked at 20 studies and found that meat's link to heart disease exists only with processed meats like bacon, sausage, and deli cuts. Unprocessed meats, those that hadn't been smoked, cured, or chemically preserved, presented absolutely zero risk.

Bonus Tip: You don't need to make big changes to your diet to lose 10, 20, or even 30 pounds. You just need to make the right small tweaks. Change how you look and feel--fast and forever--with the Eat This, Not That! book series and this must-see report on the 25 Best Nutrition Secrets Ever!

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