You can find healthy eating advice on every corner. That doesn’t mean it’s good advice, though. Nutrition research can be confusing, and it’s always changing. Throw in the sensationalistic headlines and the rate at which information is spread, and it’s no wonder the nutrition tips or suggestions you get from your friend are unsound. Best-case scenario, following bad advice means you unnecessarily avoid your favorite foods. Worst-case, you end up choosing the unhealthier option all while thinking you’re making a better choice.
We zeroed in on eight myths about healthy eating that especially need to die.
MYTH #1: EGG YOLKS ARE BAD FOR YOU
Dietary cholesterol has been wrongly accused of raising our blood cholesterol levels for years. It’s become clearer that saturated fats and trans fats are more influential in raising blood cholesterol levels. And while eggs—the yolks included—are high in cholesterol, they are relatively low in saturated fats. Lots of research has been done in recent years, and the verdict is that the entire egg can actually be a part of a healthy diet and in most people, do not significantly impact cholesterol levels or heart disease risk.
MYTH #2: COFFEE IS DEHYDRATING
Yes, coffee is a diuretic (aka, promotes urine production), but it’s an extremely mild one. It also has a lot of water in it and therefore actually counts toward your daily fluid intake. The amount it would take to dehydrate you is more than anyone should be consuming in a day—if you have two or three cups daily, your fluid levels will be completely fine.
MYTH #3: NATURAL SUGAR IS DIFFERENT FROM ADDED SUGAR
Sugar is sugar is sugar. On a molecular level, the sugar in an apple is the same as the sugar you spoon into your coffee cup. There can be a difference in how our bodies break down the sugar when it’s combined with other nutrients like fiber and protein, but simply being natural doesn’t cut it. Sugar in a whole fruit comes with fiber and helps slow digestion and prevent blood sugar spikes. That’s better than sugar that comes void of other nutrients. But when you squeeze out the juice and drink it, or eat maple syrup, agave syrup, or honey, your body reacts the same way it would to table sugar or the sugar in a Coke.
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MYTH #4: ORGANIC FOOD IS AUTOMATICALLY HEALTHY
The word “organic” comes with a big health halo around it, like everything with the label is automatically good for you. The truth is that organic snacks are still snacks. Eating them in excess isn’t suddenly OK because they meet the requirements for an organic label. “Organic chocolate syrup is still chocolate syrup,” Caroline Kaufman, R.D., tells SELF. Organic cookies, crackers, chips, and candies have the same amount of sugar, fat, and empty calories as non-organic versions. When it comes to produce, choosing organic versions of the “dirty dozen”—the foods that typically have the highest amount of pesticides on them—is a good way to cut back on chemical exposure. But Kaufman adds that conventionally grown produce is still safe to eat, since it’s monitored to ensure pesticide residue stays below a certain limit.
MYTH #5: MARGARINE IS AUTOMATICALLY BETTER THAN BUTTER
Margarine become popular in the fat-is-bad era, but many actually contain trans fats, which are worse for you than the naturally occurring saturated fat in butter. Butter’s ingredient list is short and sweet and doesn’t contain extra ingredients to make up for lack of taste. Not all fake butter is bad, but you have to be cautious about what you’re buying. “I always look at the ingredient list first,” Lori Zanini, R.D., spokesperson for the Association of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells SELF. “Stick margarines are not recommended due to the fact that they contain hydrogenated oils (aka trans fats). Spreads that are in tubs can be considered, just make sure the ingredients are beneficial,” she adds. Look for ones with olive oil to get a good dose of healthy plant-based fat.
MYTH #6: SALADS ARE ALWAYS THE HEALTHIEST OPTION ON THE MENU
You’d think that choosing the salad is safe. But all the add-ons piled atop a bed of lettuce can make the sugar, fat, and calorie count just as high as the mouthwatering burger you’re trying to resist. “Watch out for tricky salad toppings that add up quickly: creamy, bottled dressings; cheese; bacon; croutons; or sweetened, dried fruit,” Zanini says. Other ingredients, like avocado and nuts, are healthy in small amounts but are usually served in too-large portion sizes, Kaufman says. To make sure your salad is as healthy as possible, look for one with leafy greens, lean protein (fried chicken doesn’t count), a small serving of healthy fat, and an oil-based dressing on the side. The oil helps you absorb all the fat-soluble nutrients you’re eating, and keeps you away from caloric creamy dressing.
MYTH #7: LOW-FAT VERSIONS ARE BETTER THAN THE ORIGINALS
If you’re still buying low-fat varieties of naturally fatty foods (I’m looking at you, coffee creamer), you might be doing yourself a disservice. “Fat is a necessary part of a healthy diet. You need fat in your diet. Fat is not bad. Fat does not go directly to your hips,” Kaufman reassures. Any extra calories you eat that your body can’t use can be converted into body fat, not just dietary fat. Fat is more densely caloric, though, which is both a blessing and a curse. “Because fat is so rich in calories, it is also very satisfying. That’s good because ideally it means you could mindfully eat or use a small amount to feel full,” says Kaufman. It also means you need to watch your portion sizes. When fat is removed from foods, it’s usually replaced by sugar or salt, so it’s important to read the ingredients list before choosing the adulterated version. Usually, you’re better off eating a small serving of the full-fat kind so you actually enjoy it and feel satiated, Kaufman says.
MYTH #8: EVERYONE WILL BENEFIT FROM GIVING UP GLUTEN
“Eating gluten free is not necessarily healthier if you do not have Celiac disease or a gluten intolerance/sensitivity,” Zanini says. It’s also important to note that not all gluten-free foods are created equally, or healthfully. “Gluten-free breads and baked goods may still use nutrient-poor, refined flours,” she explains. They can also be high in sugar. If you think you might be sensitive to gluten, or have any of the symptoms of Celiac disease, see an R.D. to ask about being tested. If wheat products don’t make you feel crummy, swearing them off isn’t going to make you a healthier person.