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10 big myths about food

Eating your way to good health

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Through social media and the Internet, Canadians are increasingly gaining access to nutrition information.

But is it all credible? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is no.

In a bid to sort out fact from fiction, the Dietitians of Canada decided to mark Nutrition Month this March by busting some popular food and nutrition myths.

With that in mind, registered dietitian Rosemary Szabadka has pulled together a list of her top 10 myths about food.

Myth: Late-night snacking will make you gain weight

The Truth: Late-night snacking can certainly lead to weight gain, but not because of the time on the clock. Late-night snackers are often breakfast skippers, eating the majority of food from supper onward. When a lot of snacking occurs in the evening, there is a good chance that the snacks are from higher calorie foods and sweetened beverages. Look at why and what you snack on. It is important to be mindful when you eat. Eating a piece of fruit, some cereal and milk, a yogurt, or a piece of toast with peanut butter when you're honestly hungry in the evening will not make you gain weight. However, if you are snacking while distracted during a night of television watching, chances are you may gain weight.

The Bottom Line: Eat three meals a day and plan small portions of healthy snacks. Eat when you are honestly hungry. And don't forget to drink water. Sometimes you are actually thirsty and not hungry.

Myth: Avoid carbohydrates if you want to lose weight

The Truth: Sure, cutting out a group of foods will make you lose weight, but not because they are "carbs." You'll probably lose weight because you are eating less food and taking in fewer calories. But cutting out carbs means cutting out whole grains, fruit, starchy veggies and legumes. Not only will this diet be tough to follow, but you will also be depriving yourself of energy, key nutrients and fibre. And even if you lose weight this way, it can often lead to a decreased metabolism, making it easier to gain weight in the future.

The Bottom Line: Think about how and why and if you are mindful when you eat. Balanced meals following Canada's Food Guide, combined with enjoyable physical activity, will lead you toward a healthier lifestyle and probably help you shed a few pounds along the way.

Myth: Everyone should eat a gluten-free diet

The Truth: Gluten is a type of protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye and any foods made from these grains. Unless you have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or an allergy to one of these grains, there's no reason to avoid them. Why would you deprive yourself of wonderful tastes and a variety of foods when you don't have to?

The Bottom Line: Choose whole grains that contain gluten and others that are gluten-free, like corn, rice, quinoa and millet. Remember, variety is the spice of life.

Myth: Sea salt is natural, so it's better for you than table salt

The Truth: Salt has many names: table, kosher, gourmet, and sea. Sure, they all have different tastes and textures, but they all contain the same amount of sodium. Canadians eat way too much sodium, about 3,400 mg every day on average, which is more than double what your body needs for good health. This can lead to many health problems. Table salt is mined from dried-up ancient salt lakes. Some table salt includes iodine, a nutrient that helps prevent thyroid disease. Sea salt is made by evaporating seawater and tastes different depending on where it is from.

The Bottom Line: Whatever salt you choose, use less. Flavour your foods using garlic, herbs, spices, vinegars, and lemon or orange rind or juice.

Myth: Superfoods will keep you super healthy

The Truth: Seriously, do not fall for this type of marketing. No food has superpowers to keep you healthy on its own. Trendy, expensive foods like goji or acai berries don't necessarily live up to their claims. These berries, like most foods in the vegetables and fruit food group, are high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre. Other basic foods like apples, oranges, blueberries and mangos may not be marketed as "super" but can be equally nutritious. Plus, they cost less and are more easily available. For example, blueberries are one of the most antioxidant-rich foods and you can pick them in Manitoba in the summer and buy them frozen in winter for a fraction of the price of a goji berry.

The Bottom Line: Eat vegetables and fruits. This least-consumed food group is packed with nutrition. Enjoy different healthy foods, experiment with new foods, try a new recipe and like what you eat.

Myth: Eating a lot of protein helps build muscle

The Truth: I am not really sure why people are so worried about protein. Found mostly in the meat and alternatives and milk and alternatives food groups, protein is the one nutrient that most people get enough of. Protein alone does not build muscle strength. A strength-training program, along with enough calories from healthy foods, recovery time, sleep and fluids, is also needed for building muscle. Sure, we need protein, but over-doing it can add extra calories and will not build bigger muscles. Strength-training athletes like body builders might benefit from extra protein, especially in post-workout snacks. The extra amount of protein you may need can be easily met by choosing protein-rich foods from Canada's Food Guide, like lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, lower-fat milk and alternatives, and legumes. Hello, chicken salad sandwich and glass of milk.

The Bottom Line: Save money! Pricey protein powders are just another form of protein and no better than protein-rich foods from Canada's Food Guide for building a better body. Eat food, it tastes good.

Myth: If you eat too much sugar, you'll get diabetes

The Truth: You will not get diabetes just from eating sugar. Often foods high in sugar, like cookies, sugary drinks, cakes and candy, are high in calories and low in nutrients. Diets with too many calories will lead to weight gain, and being overweight is a risk factor for Type 2 Diabetes. Other risk factors, such as family history, age (40 and older) and ethnicity, also play a role. Eating healthy foods, maintaining a healthy weight and being physically active are the best things you can do to reduce your risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes.

The Bottom Line: Sugary foods are high in calories and low in nutrition. Limit these foods. If you want something sweet, pick up a fruit. Take a bite and enjoy! It is nature's candy.

Myth: Honey, brown sugar and agave syrup are better for you than white sugar

The Truth: I hear this all the time. Sugar is sugar. All are a concentrated source of calories with very few nutrients. The body doesn't react any differently to honey than it does to table sugar - it can't tell the difference. The only difference is in the taste. If you like honey in your tea, then by all means use honey. Excess sugar in any form means extra calories. Brown sugar is just white sugar with molasses added. Agave syrup is similar to honey, only less thick. It is higher in calories than regular sugar, but because it's extremely sweet, you may use less.

The Bottom Line: Use small amounts of whatever sugar you like.

Myth: Cooking meals at home takes too much time

The Truth: The key to anything in life starts with a little bit of planning. When menus are planned for the week or even a couple of days in advance, actual cooking may not take any more time than ordering that pizza and picking it up. It is a great feeling knowing you can be coming home to marinated chicken ready to grill. Simple nutritious foods can make tasty meals. Spinach-and-mushroom omelets, bean-and-cheese burritos, baked fish, slow-cooker meals, spaghetti sauce and homemade pizza on pitas are just a few examples. Spend some time with your family on the weekend going through a few recipe books or look for recipes online. Make a list of family favourites. Try a new recipe and get the family involved. This can take the pressure off that one person in the family "who does the cooking." Kids who start cooking early are healthier eaters. Batch cook on the weekends and think about how to use leftovers such as rice, noodles and vegetables. Keep your pantry stocked with the basics. A can of tuna can make a great salad, casserole, pasta dish, melt, or burger. Home-cooked meals benefit the whole family.

The Bottom Line: Plan, use your imagination and have fun.

Myth: Drinking energy drinks is the best way to get energized

The Truth: Hmmm. Energy drinks might make you feel a short burst of energy, but it doesn't last. Loaded with sugar (some up to 14 teaspoons) and stimulants, energy drinks can have many side-effects, including rapid heartbeat and insomnia. Loaded with caffeine, these drinks are not recommended for children or pregnant or lactating women. Children are at risk from behavioural side-effects as high amounts of caffeine can cause restlessness, anxiety and insomnia. High caffeine consumption during pregnancy (in excess of six to seven cups per day) has been linked with a higher risk of miscarriage and low birth weight babies.

The Bottom Line: Want to stay energized? Eat well, be active, get enough sleep and drink water throughout the day. Good hydration helps you feel alert.

Rosemary Szabadka is a public health dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region, a Dietitians of Canada nutrition month volunteer, and a member of the Dietitians of Canada Board of Directors.

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