Health Myths That Won’t Seem to Go Away

Woody Allen Sleeper

It is funny looking back at how much of the food and health information we learned as kids and young adults in the 70s and 80s turned out to be wrong – it makes me feel like Woody Allen in Sleeper! Over the last couple of days I have seen this Lifehacker post cited in a number of places, so I figured it was worth talking about!

But before we get to their list, it is interesting looking back at one bit of health mis-information in particular: sugar as a healthy weight-loss supplement. There are great sets of ads at Buzzfeed here and here. The ones I love the most are how they try to demonstrate that eating a few spoons of refined sugar is a better choice than an apple or a grapefruit!

That seems silly now (at least I HOPE everyone recognizes it as laughable!) … but at its core it is the basis of all of the advertising based misinformation about food and weight.

OK, here is Lifehacker’s list with my comments in between:

Myth 1: Eating Fatty Food Makes You Fat

In the 70s when people started gaining weight just as ‘big sugar’ started pushing corn sugar as a great additive, they came upon a stunning realization: the same word described a component of foods as described a condition of beign overweight – FAT. That made life easy – blame fat for everything! Fat makes you fat! This idea has continued to have considerable traction as we gobble up ‘chemical soup’ Fat-Free foods.

Of course, saturated fats can cause higher cholesterol and lead to heart disease and other health issues – but natural fats and oils from plants and meats are actually beneficial.

Myth 2: Eating Carbs Makes You Fat

You know what foods are high in carbs? Oatmeal, beans, veggies and fruits. ’nuff said.

But #1 and #2 are reminders – if we eat a box of donuts and a bucket of fried chicken while sitting on the coach watching a Star Wars marathon … the results will not be good. Having a donut with fruit and yogurt for breakfast and piece of fried chicken with sweet potatoes and broccoli for dinner and keeping active … there is no issue.

These things always bring me back to one of my favorite Bloom County comics:


Myth 3: MSG Is Bad For You

I know people who have a sensitivity to MSG, and others who don’t notice anything. I really have no clue about what triggers that reaction, but I know it isn’t universal. There seems to be some alarmist bad science on the ‘MSG is poison’ side, but ultimately I really don’t know.

My advice here is to listen to your body when it comes to food sensitivity. As an example, after Chowder-fest many years ago, my body suddenly decided ‘no more clams for you’. A few years after that we were at Nauset beach and Lisa wanted a clam roll, so I got onion rings. Of course, it didn’t take long before my body knew they were fried in the same oil. Lesson learned.

Myth 4: High-Fructose Corn Syrup Is Worse Than Sugar

With all of the press you’d think that HFCS is some sort of demon-spawn. But as the sugar lobby likes to point out, it is no worse than any other refined, processed, high fructore sugar source.

The problem isn’t that HFCS is worse than table sugar … it is that HFCS is EVERYWHERE! Salad dressing? HFCS. Ketchup? HFCS. Pasta sauce? HFCS. Want a few more? Lender’s Bagels, Souffer’s French bread pizza, Pepperidge Farm stuffing, Fig Newtons, Wheatables, Jack Daniels Marinade in a bag, and on and on.

The problem with HFCS is that it has become one of the dominant components of the American diet.

Myth 5: Gluten-Free Foods Are Healthier

This is absolutely true … if you have Celiac disease. Otherwise, not necessarily. This came up originally because in order to deal with Celiac, people had very pure, natural, essential diets – which ARE healthy. But like anything else, as soon as companies discovered where they could cut corners it became the same crap … but without wheat products.

Myth 6: Everyone Needs to Poop Daily

On average everyone in our house poops daily. As individuals … it is all over the map. And that is just the way things work – Lisa’s system seems to react almost instantly whereas I can’t tell before breakfast how my system reacted to last night’s dinner …

Myth 7: Microwaving Kills the Nutrients in Food

As noted in the article, certain nutrients in broccoli are lost … but are lost no matter what. Peeling potatoes has a bigger nutritional impact than microwaving. And it doesn’t impact humans at all … so long as you are wearing your tin-foil hat! 🙂

Myth 8: You’ll Lose a Pound of Fat for Every 3,500 Calorie You Burn

There are so many variants on this thing … bottom line is that if you burn 3500 calories you lose a pound. The make-up of that pound depends on many things – and whether it is offset by those chips and beer is an entirely different issue!

Myth 9: Spot Training Helps You Burn Fat in Specific Areas

Spot-reduction is a great myth – you can WORK specific areas, such as arms or legs or abs … but if you are trying to lose loads of fat, it needs to be through global weight loss.

Spot reduction

Myth 10: The Scale Is a Good Way to Help You Manage Your Fat Loss Progress

The scale is your enemy! The old truism that you can tell what is going on through how you feel and how you fit into your favorite clothes is very much true. The scale can go up or down based on water, how much is ‘in your system’, and doesn’t discriminate between fat and muscle.

BMI is every bit as bad, if not worse! There was the case of the teen athlete who got a ‘you are overweight’ assessment sent home due to BMI. As it turned out the height used was incorrect, but in general BMI is just a way of scaling your weight to your height. I look at our family – Chris is tall and built slender, I am in the middle and Danny has very broad shoulders. We are all within an inch of each other, but would have vastly different BMIs based on weight – and none of it takes our body type into account.

So … what other myths are out there? There are tons, here are a few I’ve heard about lately:
– Colon cleanses: your body has got the situation covered. You don’t need to ‘flush your undercarriage’ – it might make you feel lighter, but it is totally unnecessary and can be dangerous according to some! A better alternative is to do your own ‘detox’ by just eating right.

– Muscle turns into fat when you don’t exercise: just like water doesn’t turn into rock, muscle doesn’t turn into fat. If you are not active your muscle tone will decrease, and if you gain weight you will build fat. But the two are unrelated.

– Eating after 8/9/10PM causes weight gain. Bottom line: nothing magical about the time, it is the content. If you have already eaten all of your calories for the day, and then go back for ice cream / pie / chips / whatever (because at 10PM is probably isn’t an apple or a few grapes), then you will probably have a caloric excess … in other words, weight gain.

– More meals is better: this comes from the theory that your body burns slow and constant and that whatever you can’t burn between breakfast and lunch becomes fat. That has been debunked as well.

Bottom line on weight loss is pretty simple: you burn calories all the time. Exercise increases that amount – and high aerobic activities like running or biking increase it exponentially. You need to increase food intake to fuel your workouts – but there is the danger of too much fuel … which then becomes weight gain.

Here is my favorite quote on health and eating, from Michael Pollan (author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma):

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Oh, and here is the full Woody Allen scene:

1 thought on “Health Myths That Won’t Seem to Go Away

  1. Pingback: From The Archives – Health Myths That Won’t Seem to Go Away | Running Around the Bend

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