Scientists are now having second thoughts about which foods are best for us.
Bring back the butter and bacon — it seems fatty foods might not be the evil nemesis that we've been led to believe.
According to a new Cambridge University study, saturated fat doesn't cause cardiovascular disease, nor does eating lots of ‘healthy' polyunsaturated fats affect our risk of a heart attack.
“It's not saturated fat that we should worry about,” explains Dr Rajiv Chowdhury, lead author of the study. “It's the high-carbohydrate or sugary diet that should be the focus of dietary guidelines.”
The findings go against 40 years of traditional advice urging us to steer clear of butter and cheese and eat more foods rich in omega 3 to ward off heart disease.
But it's not just fats that have had us confused about what's healthy and what's not.
We asked some of Ireland's top nutritional experts to help clear up some of the biggest and most confusing food myths.
Eggs are bad for you
A few years ago we learned that egg yolks could be almost as bad for us as smoking cigarettes. In fact, over the years eggs have received a really bad rap, but according to consultant dietician nutritionist Sarah Keogh, (eatwell.ie) we've nothing to fear.
She explains: “When scientists first discovered cholesterol=blocking arteries, they assumed it was the cholesterol food that was the problem. Eggs have cholesterol so they went on the hit list.”
But actually research consistently shows that the cholesterol we eat has very little impact on how much cholesterol is in our blood.
In fact, when we eat cholesterol from foods like eggs, the body produces less of it. Cholesterol levels are largely determined by genetics, exercise and stress with diet playing a surprisingly small role.
Keogh adds: “We know now that eggs are not only safe to eat but actually have great benefits for eyes as they contain lutein and zeaxanthin — antioxidants that help protect eyes from macular degeneration.”
Sugar substitutes are better for you than sugar
Diet coke must be better for you than ‘fat' coke, right?
Not necessarily. Heather Leeson, nutritional therapist and director of Positive Nutrition and Glenville Nutrition Ireland (glenvillenutrition.ie) says: “Artificial sweeteners actually appear to reinforce our sweet tooth and leave us craving more sugar with new research also indicating that these substitutes may interfere with our normal metabolic processes and be linked to obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.”
Fruit juice is a healthy option
“Fruit juice contains the sugar from several pieces of fruit without the fibre we would normally find in the fruit,” says Leeson. “This means one glass of juice can contain a similar amount of sugar to a glass of fizzy drink.”
For example, 200ml of fresh apple juice contains 20.6g of sugar (approx five teaspoons) while 200ml of coca cola contains 21.2g.
She adds: “Eating a piece of fruit is always a healthier option. If you do drink juice occasionally, dilute it with water or sparkling water.”
Dairy causes cancer
“This is a myth that has been doing the rounds for a while, especially in relation to breast cancer,” says Keogh. “But the EPIC study, one of the biggest studies looking at the link between diet and cancer, found no link between dairy and breast cancer and found that people who eat milk and cheese actually have a lower risk of bowel cancer.”
Red meat is bad for you
Animal proteins recently came under fire after research suggested that middle aged people eating a lot of meat were twice as likely to die early compared to those who ate low amounts. But Elsa Jones, a consultant nutritionist in a Dublin-based GP clinic, says the issue bears greater scrutiny.
“Most of the ill-affects associated with red meat have more to do with the quality of the meat, quantity consumed and how it is cooked rather than just simply having red meat in your diet,” she explains.
“Red meat is not unhealthy if raised naturally and consumed in moderation. In fact, it has many benefits containing the most absorbable form of iron and also high in B vitamins.”
Go for quality not quantity, avoid processed meats (such as ham, sausages and salami) and eat quality lean, red meat once or twice a week.
I can get everything I need without supplements
Vitamin and mineral supplements have had some bad press recently, but Keogh insists there are times when a supplement is needed. “Folic acid is crucial in helping to prevent spina bifida and the 400mcg per day needed is almost impossible to get even on an extremely healthy diet.
“Women who are planning a pregnancy need to take folic acid for 14 weeks before getting pregnant and for the first three months after.”
She adds: “Vitamin D is another vitamin we need. Few foods are rich in vitamin D and it's thought that 50pc of Irish adults are Vitamin D deficient and 30pc borderline. All babies under 12 months need a supplement of 5mcg per day and adults should think about the same.”
Sea salt is better for you than table salt
You see the fancy packaging, higher price and think it must be ‘better'. Wrong, says Aveen Bannon from the Dublin Nutrition Centre (dnc.ie) “Both salts contain sodium and too much sodium in our diets can affect the risk of heart disease. We already get too much sodium from processed foods so we should avoid adding any salt at the table and reduce the amount used in cooking.”
Coffee is good for you
Yes, studies to suggest that a daily caffeine injection has some benefits including reducing risk of diabetes and disorders like such as Alzheimer's — but that's no reason to go mad on the macchiatos.
Bannon explains: “Studies have found that caffeine in coffee can cause heart palpitations, increased blood pressure and stress.”
She adds: “Other studies indicate how caffeine can weaken bone health. Each cup of coffee steals the amount of
calcium from your bones that you'd get from a teaspoon of milk — that's not a problem for café latte or cappuccino drinkers but it is a little worrisome for post-menopausal women who drink lots of coffee black and don't get enough calcium.”
Bannon suggests no more than two or three cups a day.
Carbs make you fat
Despite the Cambridge study pointing the finger of blame at carbs over fats, carbs aren't a clear-cut enemy either.
“It's fashionable to cut carbs but they do not make you fatter or help you lose weight any faster than other foods,” says Keogh. “Studies of high protein versus high carb diets see faster weight loss at the start from protein diets but by six months, there is no difference in loss. Our portions are too big — they should be one third of your plate at most.”
Jellies are a healthier treat than chocolate
“I see patients eating jellies and sweets, not chocolate. These are low in fat and perceived as healthier,” says Leeson. “But they have a ridiculous amount of sugar!”
Sugar, not fat, makes us fat, she adds: “More and more research is pointing the finger at high levels of sugar as the culprit for our weight gain over the past 30 years.”
Nor is chocolate the enemy. “Going for dark chocolate with greater than 70pc coco content can have benefits,” says Bannon. “It also contains antioxidants thought to protect against heart disease and certain cancer — but remember to balance calorie intake; two squares are enough for a treat.”