From The Archives – Health Myths That Won’t Seem to Go Away

I got a great response from my vacation ‘from the archives’ posts as well as the one about smoking … so I am going to pluck another one from the depths of the archives of the very first few weeks of the blog. When you read this we will be on the road at the crack of dawn for another day of college tours!

Originally published here, this looks at health myths that seem to continue plaguing us regardless of more accurate information being available.

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.

(Update: for some great thoughts on quitting sugar check out Michele’s post)

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! πŸ™‚

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:

23 thoughts on “From The Archives – Health Myths That Won’t Seem to Go Away

  1. Haha I love reading about different crazy weight loss myths debunked. Back when I was sick with my ED and even after for a few years, carbs and fat were huge fear things for me because of all the stuff out there that I essentially grown up with that said they made you fat. It took a long time for me to rework my thinking on those two, but once I did, I felt better and my running got a ton better, too. Go figure πŸ˜› The gluten free craze drives me up a wall right now, though (as do any “diet” thing). Unless you have Celiac disease or are diagnosed by a doctor with gluten insensitivity, you will see me roll my eyes at you if you tell me you’re on a gluten free diet because it’s healthier. And then I will probably suggest we go to a bagel place for lunch πŸ˜‰

    • Love it Caitlin! I hate all of these fad diets that have messed things up for people with actual issues. Gluten free is such a mess because eliminating processed foods to ‘go gluten free’ WILL drop weight quickly, but it isn’t because of the gluten Argh!

      And the whole fat-free thing is really tough … Weight Watchers used to really preach that stuff so Lisa still struggles even though she KNOWS chemically what is going on!

  2. I’d always heard about MSG but never knew much about it until we were in China and we got small bowls of it on the side with hot pot. Mmm, that $hit is good! No sensitivity here. I figure eating it for one week once a decade won’t really matter. But it was odd for me to think of it like poison and then realize actually millions eat it all the time.

    • Definitely agree – I think that is the key point: I do believe people have sensitivities to pretty much everything (if I had a dollar for every time someone said ‘no you aren’t’ to Lisa noting her apple allergy … we wouldn’t have any concerns paying for college!) … MSG isn’t something I worry about, but I am prety sure Lisa has a low-level sensitivity … (but then it could be how much nut-containing stuff is cooked in the same pans as stuff she gets … )

  3. The thing going around my local circle is that meat is poison. That gets me to roll my eyes every time. I enjoyed reading all of these because I think I’ve heard most of them recently!! My mantra is “EVERYTHING IN MODERATION”. I think Hal Higdon’s advice is to eat a wide variety of lightly or non-processed foods. Seems logical to me πŸ™‚

    • I get the ‘meat is murder’ sentiment of vegans, but poison? I think there is a case for much of the ‘factory meat farms’ where livestock are fed things they wouldn’t eat in nature … and also for processed meats full of chemicals (pre-cooked sausage, bacon, etc) … but again, that just means taking care of what you eat.

  4. Love Sleeper! And I always think about how true that sort of thing really it. You drove it home with all these myths, and thanks for the little surprise shout-out in the sugar one! It does amaze me how many myths continue to circulate and how we take them for face value without digging a little or even applying basic logic. I was guilty for a long time!

    Another gross TMI thing is that I am a “delayed reactor” to foods that bother me, which has made it even harder to figure out what really bothers me, but lucky me used to always feel the effects of dinner somewhere in the 7th mile of a long run the day after! I’m still traumatized from some of those runs, aware of the pun πŸ™‚

    • haha – yeah, I loved your sugar post so I had to include it! And totally get you on the ‘delayed reaction’ – no two people are the same in that regard … πŸ™‚

  5. I have to laugh at all of these because everyone looks to point blame at a certain food group, etc as to why they can’t lose weight, etc. I am a big believer in everything in moderation. I eat fairly clean most of the time but if I want a cookie, a glass of wine or some ice cream with my son, I am going to have them, just not every night.

    • My old mantra was to ‘find excess within moderation’ … and it really helped me when first losing weight so many years ago. I would never NOT eat anything, but would have reasonable portions and not everyday.

  6. I love the food myths. I think eating well comes down to eating less processed food and thinking before you stuff something down the pie-hole. I am not great at eating super healthy, especially when it comes to portion sizes (half a pizza anyone or a whole giant whoopie pie), but at the same time I prefer to know what I am eating most of the time and if a label has too many ingredients that I can’t pronounce, I tend to avoid it and attempt to go for things still recognizable as what they were originally.

    • Very true – and I think it is an important distinction: when we eat ‘junk’ we know what we are doing, and when we are eating ‘real’ food, we should know what it is!

  7. Ugh do you remember Phen Phen from the 90s? I always immediately think of that when I think of food myths and quick ways to lose weight. People like quick fixes, and as Lara so actually puts it, people like to play the blame game and believe that it couldn’t possibly be them! Your body is a living breathing organism. Give it what it needs to survive. Sometimes that will change. Be patient with it, and respect it.
    And if has more syllables than can be counted on one hand, probably best to avoid it.

    • So many different un-healthy trends, but yeah Phen-Phen was so dangerous! My mom was put on ‘diet pills’ by her doctor in the 70s … they were basically speed! Um, yeah – she lost weight … and her mind!

  8. I haven’t had MSG in a very long time, the last time I did I had that psyco-somatic reaction or something where I could feel my nerves just coming off all of my limbs, it was definitely weird.

    With all these myths, it is hard to know what is right and what is wrong. When I first starting venturing into weight loss I believed so much of what I read, I remember counting calories perfectly for this “6 weeks slim down” thing, didn’t weigh myself like it told us too but kept the tally on this white board at what I should expect at the end, and when I did do the final weigh in I was only down a ‘measly’ 4 or 5 pounds when I was expecting 10+. That’s when I first realized that my body didn’t really follow that rule but it took many more years before I actually believed it. I also remember getting mad at my mom about the amount of butter she would eat – yes it is a fine balance, you need some fat but I was so fearful of fat that I would just get teenager angry at her (and I wasn’t a teenager at the time) telling her to not put so much into the dishes she was creating.

    • I think that sort of reaction tells you to avoid MSG! haha

      And so true on not knowing what is right or wrong … but my thought is always that the basics hold true – fruit, veggies, whole grains, lean meats and water.

  9. I heard from a nutritionist that multiple small meals were good not because it changed how your metabolism burned calories but because if people wait until they’re starving to eat dinner, they’ll over eat at meal time. I think this seems fairly sound or at least in practice it does seem to keep me from gigantic dinners.

  10. The MSG thing is very real for some people–my mom gets debilitating migraines if she has even a little bit of it (she also has to avoid anything that contains “autolyzed yeast extract,” which is MSG in disguise), and I can get sick from it too, but only if I have a lot. Oh and I have to avoid lentils (probably unrelated…), which are migraine triggers and they have made me sick in the past. But on the whole, unless someone is actually sensitive to MSG, like my mom, there is no reason to avoid it. Just like gluten for people with Celiac’s versus people who just avoid it to avoid it.

    • ABSOLUTELY Rachel – as I have talked about before, my wife has loads of allergies and tolerance issues, including curry giving her migraines. I have no doubt that MSG *is* poison for some people! For me, it is no big deal, for some it causes sweats, others have real bad reactions, and so on.

      The whole thing with Gluten is frustrating, because there are people with real issues, and others who use it as an excuse … and it dilutes how seriously it is taken … which is not cool.

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