The 10 top diet myths

Choosing a healthy diet is a minefield of oldwives' tales and misinformation. So we set you straight on some recurring food fantasies

Elsa Jones

Protein is good, carbs are bad. Carbs are good, protein is bad.

Low fat is good, low fat is bad. Wine is good, wine is bad. It's no wonder many people struggle to see through the mass of conflicting advice, old wives' tales and health myths out there. Jennifer Aniston may swear by the Zone diet and Gwyneth Paltrow may extol a macrobiotic diet, but be careful when it comes to choosing that weight-loss programme. Here, I expose 10 of the most common nutrition and diet myths and reveal the truth behind them:

1 Brown sugar is healthier than white sugar

It's often said that brown sugar is a healthier option than white sugar. But the truth is that we are either falling for clever marketing or happily fooling ourselves. In reality, the brown sugar you'll find in supermarkets and cafes is usually ordinary table sugar that is turned brown by the reintroduction of molasses.

Due to the molasses content, brown sugar does contain minute amounts of minerals. But, unless you eat a gigantic portion of brown sugar every day (not recommended), the mineral content difference between brown and white sugar is pretty insignificant.

2 Your 'five-a-day' can come from either fruit or vegetables

Many people confuse this generalised recommendation because fruit and vegetables tend to get clumped together into the one category.

Your ‘five-a-day' should be made up of both fruit and vegetables, not just one or the other. Ideally, a heavier emphasis should be placed on vegetables.

Clients often tell me they get their ‘five-a-day' but when I ask them which vegetables they choose they say none, which means they are missing out on all the powerful nutrients that vegetables have to offer. I must also stress that ‘five-a-day' is the bare minimum for optimal health and disease prevention.

3 Eggs raise cholesterol levels

Dietary cholesterol found in eggs has little to do with the amount of cholesterol in your body. Eggs contain relatively small amounts of saturated fat. One large egg contains about 1.5g of saturated fat, which isn't high. Eggs are often served with other high-fat foods such as butter and cheese, or fried with bacon and sausage which is why they are often associated with high fat. Eggs are extremely nutritious, so go ahead and enjoy them guilt-free. Boiling or poaching is best and yes, an egg a day is okay!

4 Coffee helps you lose weight

Coffee can raise the metabolism slightly, but it also depends on how you take it. Many of us think nothing of downing a couple of lattes per day and then wonder why our weight-loss efforts aren't working. Remember, the average latte contains around 200 calories, if you consume two a day that's as many calories as you'd find in a large croissant! Caffeine affects cravings for food — particularly the sweet variety. So if you're wondering why you are craving chocolate this afternoon, it could have something to do with that coffee you drank with lunch.

5 Jellies are low fat so won't cause weight gain

Fruit jellies or jelly sweets may be low in fat but they are packed with sugar which is one of the biggest contributors to weight gain. If you look at the ingredients list on your pack you'll see that sugar is top of the list -- remember, the ingredient listed first is present in the largest amount. The average tube of jellies contains approximately seven teaspoons of sugar. Many companies claim their products are 'Fat Free', 'Natural' and 'High in fruit' to make them sound healthy-- don't fall for it!

6 Red meat is bad for your health

Most of the ill effects associated with red meat are to do with the quality of the meat, quantity consumed and how it is cooked. Red meat is not unhealthy if it is raised naturally and consumed in moderation. In fact, it has many benefits. It contains the most absorbable form of iron and is also high in B vitamins. Naturally raised cattle tend to be leaner and have more Omega-3 fatty acids than their antibiotic and hormone-fed counterparts.

When it comes to meat go for quality over quantity -- organic, lean red meat once or twice a week is fine, but avoid processed meats altogether.

7 Never snack between meals

On the contrary, five or six small meals are better than three big meals. When we eat small, regular meals the body is better able to digest and to make effective use of the nutrients within the food.

Even more crucially, this regular intake of calories balances our blood sugar levels, which means we have more energy and are less likely to feel moody. An example of a small meal might be hummus with vegetable crudites and a couple of oat cakes.

8 Fruit juices are super healthy

While fruit is extremely nutritious, it also contains a significant amount of sugar. This type of sugar is natural and gives us energy, but if we consume too much, it can lead to energy dips and weight gain. When a fruit is juiced, the fibre and pulp are extracted.

It's the fibre in fruit which helps slow down the absorption of sugar and also keeps our bowel and gut healthy. So, glugging your way through a carton of fruit juice can give you a sugar hit, but then a subsequent sugar crash. In general, it's best to stick to whole fruits or opt for juices that combine both fruit and vegetables.

9 We need three portions of dairy per day

This way of thinking comes from outdated food pyramids and guidelines supplied by dairy boards. The fact is that while children and teenagers may need this amount of dairy for calcium, the majority of adults do not.

Dairy products can be beneficial to health when consumed in moderation but many of us over-consume dairy in this country, leading to a variety of digestive, skin and sinus complaints. There are many other ways to keep our bones healthy, they include avoiding the 'S' words: smoking, stimulants, sugar, salt and stress, which all leech calcium from the body. Good non-dairy sources of calcium include tinned sardines, nuts, seeds, pulses and green leafy vegetables.

10 Women need 2,000 calories per day

The daily number of calories the food industry recommends for women is 2,000. However, this is not to say that you should aim to eat that amount -- the truth is that your body might need more or less than 2,000. Height, weight, gender, age and activity level all affect your caloric needs. For example, a female athlete in her early 20s who is training rigorously for a marathon may need more than 2,000 calories whereas a 40-year-old woman who never exercises, works at a desk all day and spends her evenings in front of the television may well need less.

Elsa Jones is a nutritional therapist and presenter of How Healthy are You? on TV3. Elsa offers one-to-one consultations to meet your individual health requirements as well as group nutrition courses.