Wednesday 26 July 2017

Busted: The five most common food myths that could have a serious effect on your health

Is bread really the villain it's made out to be? When you have a cold, will taking Echinacea make any difference at all? Dietitian Orla Walsh separates truth and fiction when it comes to what we should and shouldn't eat

Image: Getty
Image: Getty
Dietitian Orla Walsh busts the food myths preventing us fulfilling our healthy-eating goals Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

Health and food can be a minefield of information and misinformation - and both can have serious consequences to your health - some for the better and some, unfortunately, can make us worse. Due to the growing interest in food and the abundance of unqualified people preaching on what they consider good nutritional practices, there are a tonne of myths out there. These fallacies, both good and bad, need to be debunked!

Myth 1: Nutritional information is always changing and professionals contradict each other all the time

This is a myth. The truth is nutrition is not based on belief, it is based in science. Science, more often than not, evolves slowly. I agree that there are different views out there but not many between those who have actually studied nutrition.

The problem with the science of nutrition is that there is a lot of advice being given by people who are not qualified to give it.

For example, I'm a dietitian. This is a professional title that is protected so only registered dietitians can legally call themselves dietitians. To become a dietitian you have to study a particular array of topics, spend time interning within the hospital etc... This takes time, at least four years. To be a dietitian you now have to register with CORU. If I were to give advice that wasn't true I could get struck off the registrar. Unfortunately the title nutritionist isn't protected meaning anybody can use it. Some nutritionists are excellent while others are terrible. There's no quality control system. They can say what they like, and unlike us dietitians, aren't accountable to any governing body. Here lies the problem!

Myth 2: You should only eat natural food

This is a myth. However if you ate only natural food, you could argue that you'll end up eating food that is higher in fibre, vitamins and minerals and lower in calories, salt and sugar. This is of course a recipe for healthy success. However, it's not that straight forward.

The mantra behind the people that follow this strictly is 'if you can't pronounce the ingredients, don't eat it'. The problem with this mantra is that nutrition is a science. So if you can't pronounce all the ingredients on the back of a package, that's ok. Science is home of ridiculously complicated scientific words that even scientists struggle to pronounce! The truth is natural whole foods are made up of these complicated ingredients too. If I offered you a bit of limonene-containing food you'd say no even though I'm referring to an orange. I probably wouldn't make you drool with the mention of linalool which is found in cinnamon. These are examples of naturally occurring weird-sounding ingredients that make up 'natural food'!

So although I'd like to wave a magic wand and make most people eat naturally occurring whole foods most of the time, that doesn't mean that you need to cut out all processed foods from your life. Some foods are processed to make them even healthier e.g. milk to reduce bacteria. What's more there are plenty of perfectly healthy foods like rolled oats, extra virgin olive oil and yoghurt that are all processed to some extent but complement a wholefood diet quite nicely.

Myth 3: Only athletes need to take whey protein

This isn't true... Milk is 20pc whey protein, 80pc casein protein. Whey protein has been taken out of milk, dried and turned into a powder. It's then mixed with water in a shaker and consumed after exercise. It has been shown to be really good at stimulating muscles to grow and repair. It's even harder to stimulate older people's muscles, and whey has been shown to achieve this due to a particular amino acid that it contains in abundance called leucine.

Dietitian Orla Walsh busts the food myths preventing us fulfilling our healthy-eating goals Photo: Marc O'Sullivan
Dietitian Orla Walsh busts the food myths preventing us fulfilling our healthy-eating goals Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

A scoop of whey usually contains about 120kcal, which is similar to a large piece of fruit, in terms of calories. Therefore not high in calories, all things considered. To get the 24g of protein that 1 scoop of whey contains, you'd have to drink over a pint of milk which contains twice to three times the calories depending on whether you go for normal or skimmed! Nevertheless, milk tastes great and is more than just a protein source. It has a myriad of different macronutrients and micronutrients that you would benefit from ingesting. But if you're after the muscle stimulating protein in a quick releasing form that's lower in calories, the whey protein is handy and effective.

The big issue with taking whey protein is contamination. There are a few studies that have shown that about 10pc of supplements are contaminated with things that they shouldn't contain such as steroids. For this reason, it's probably a good idea to only take supplements that have been batch-tested to limit contamination with nastiness. A list of these can be found on the 'informed sport' website www.informedsport.com.

Myth 4: You should take Echinacea when you get a cold

Undecided. Echinacea is widely used to reduce the risk and symptoms of a common cold, despite having limited evidence for it. A big problem with the studies that have been conducted is that one Echinacea product differs quite differently to the next. They might use different types of plants from the same species, different parts of the plant eg herb, root or both as well as different manufacturing methods of creating the supplement, eg drying, alcoholic extraction, pressing out the juice from fresh plants. Like other supplements, sometimes other herbs are also added to the supplement.

A review of the literature was done which only included high quality studies known as randomized controlled trials. Due to all the differences in supplements being tested, it was difficult to draw any strong conclusions. Only five trials out of 24 were rated as having a low risk of bias which isn't a great result! Additionally there does seem to be more people in the treatment groups of these studies dropping out due to adverse effects of taking the supplement when compared to those that drop out who are not taking it. Nonetheless it does seem that some Echinacea products may be effective at treating colds. Nevertheless the overall evidence is weak.

Myth 5: Bread is bad for you

This is a myth. Many people proudly proclaim that they have given up bread, suggesting that it indeed has a bad rep among certain members of society. What I have observed over the years is that people tend to eat the correct amount of carbohydrate at a meal when they eat bread, which isn't the case with other carbohydrate sources. Most people tend to eat two slices at breakfast or lunch which is sufficient carbohydrate to fuel their activity till the next meal time. Yet when people eat pasta or rice, their typical portion is equivalent, in terms of carbohydrate and calories, to four to eight slices of bread.

According to one survey, white bread provided 9-18pc of the fibre in Irish diets and 11-12pc of the minerals iron and calcium. In my professional opinion, this doesn't highlight how nutrient rich white bread is but rather how poor the typical Irish diet has become. If you're looking to boost these nutrients in your diet, choose the likes of pulses, nuts, seeds, dairy and beef rather than white bread.

What I would suggest is that people focus on the quality of the bread they choose to eat. For example, there may not always be much difference between white and wholemeal bread. Sometimes the difference is a mere half a gram of fibre. It's important to look at the back of the pack! Try and choose a bread that has >6g of fibre per 100g. Usually this bread is brown and seeded.

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