The most common misconception about nutrition is that we actually know a lot about nutrition.
We have lots of theories, lots of errors, lots of contradictions, but little true scientific testing in search of truth.
Virtually all of the scientific research into nutrition is ‘illness based’, not healthiness based.
This bias creates a lot of knowledge about specific diseases but little understanding of health. When we research ‘illness’, we search for specific causes and specific cures. Did you ever wonder why everything seems to be bad for you, and almost everything seems to be good for you as well? This is a result of researching illness and ignoring healthiness. Illnesses are ‘specific’. Healthiness is general. Lessons learned by studying illness are poor teachers when trying to attain healthiness.
As a result, we have many theories about nutrition that are repeated over and over, but are simply, clearly wrong. Others are simply myths. I distinguish between myths and wrong ideas in this post – although I suspect I have not done so in previous posts. Although many people use the word myth to describe ‘wrong ideas’, I will use the word Myth for ideas that are widely believed, but not proven, and Error for ideas that have been proven wrong.
Some of the wrong theories include:
1. Error: “Calories in = calories out“. The truth – poo burns. Normally, it contains about 20 percent fats, but we don’t have much research into how eating more, or less fat changes that ratio. Poo contains calories. So does sebum. So does urine if you are diabetic. Both contain more if you have specific illnesses or if you consume specific diets. Calories in = calories out math simply doesn’t work. If we use it to estimate the weight based on averages in calorie consumption increases in the past two decades – the average weight would be about 900 pounds.
This Error is often stated differently: “Cutting calories will cause weight loss.” Experiments have clearly shown that cutting calories, but consuming the wrong foods (eg. high in carbs) will continue to increase obesity. Cutting back on the wrong foods does not make a difference to a poor diet. Unfortunately, figuring out what are ‘the right foods for you’ can be a huge challenge.
2. Myth: “Vegetarianism is a healthy diet” – vegetarianism is an ethical diet, marketed as a healthy diet. It has been studied (a bit) to determine what illnesses might result, and what illnesses might benefit, but it has not been studied from a healthiness perspective. It is very easy for someone who is not a vegetarian to switch to vegetarianism and choose a very unhealthy diet without realizing it.
At the same time, there has been little study of an all meat diet, because it is not seen as an ethical diet. There have been some studies – which found an all meat diet can also decrease illness and may improve healthiness in specific cases. But the studies are so few and so limited – that, as most studies conclude “more study is required”.
3. Myth: “Breakfast is the most important meal.” There is no significant evidence to support this, nor any other eating pattern for optimal healthiness. Of course it can always be said that breakfast is the most important meal – when we recognize that every meal ‘breaks the previous fast’, even if our lunch or dinner is actually our ‘beakfast’. For some people, breakfast is essential to get started, for others, breakfast can easily be left aside until lunchtime or later. Nobody has attempted to measure which of those ‘types’ are healthiest, nor if their healthiness is caused by their eating patterns.
We don’t scientifically test eating times and their effects on healthiness. Hospitals provide food ‘when it is convenient’, not on a schedule to improve or maximize healing or healthiness. When we truly know which eating patterns were healthiest, hospitals will want to know, and senior’s homes might need to change their schedules. It may well turn out that simple eating plans are not as healthy as more complex, diverse eating plans.
4. Myth: “Drink eight glasses of water a day for health” Where did this myth come from? You might find the answer here “The mysterious origins of the “8 glasses of water a day” rule“, where the author reports: “The origins of the “8 glasses of water a day” rule was explored by Dr. Heinz Valtin in a 2002 article and Dr. Tsindos in a 2012 article. After extensive searches of the published literature, they found absolutely no scientific evidence for the idea that most people need to drink at least 8 glasses of water a day.” How much water should you drink? At the very least, you should listen to your body and let it decide. If you are suffering a headache – the morning after, you are probably suffering from dehydration as your body tried to remove toxins by urinating. Drink some water.
5. Myth: “Vitamins are dangerous.” More people die from drinking too much water – than from taking too many vitamins. Vitamins are called vitamins because they are essential to health – but then it gets complicated. Really complicated. All vitamins are studied in isolation – studies of combinations are much more difficult. Scientific studies of vitamins are tested against illness – to determine if they cause, or cure illness. Many nutritional studies were designed to ensure that prisoners don’t get sick.
There are no vitamin studies that test changes in ‘healthiness’. Because of the focus on illness, much vitamin research is ignored. For example, a deficiency of Vitamin C results in scurvy (in theory) – but this research ignores that fact that a diet of meats alone does not result in scurvy, even though the Vitamin C consumed is much less than required to prevent scurvy on a carb diet.
Many so called ‘vitamins’ are actually chemicals created to ‘act like’ natural vitamins – and these are poorly studied with regards to healthiness and illness. It is certainly possible that some of these vitamins are dangerous.
The Food Myth, is the common myth that eating the right foods will provide all the nutrients required for optimal healthiness. It is simply, a myth – that has been disproved by science many times, and will undoubtedly be disproved again and again.
When we are truly interested in learning about healthiness of vitamins and minerals, we will study which vitamin combinations improve healthiness the most – and study their relationships to different dietary regimens.
6. Myth: “Lean meats are good for your heart” – there is no scientific evidence that lean meats are healthier than fatty meats. The same goes for other low fat foods (milk and cheese). If anything, the science demonstrates the opposite. The avoid fat concept is simply a misunderstanding on how fat is created in our bodies – fat is created from sugars. The lean meat myth was created by the American Heart Association, and is actively maintained by them in full view of much scientific evidence to the contrary. It has become fundamental to their fundraising operations – and it is unlikely they can change without losing a lot of face – and possibly a lot of money. Most people who restrict themselves to ‘lean meats’ compensate with high glycemic foods like bread, pasta, and sugar. These foods are far worse for your heart and circulatory system than fatty foods.
7. Error: “Fiber is an essential nutrient for health.” Fiber is not an essential nutrient – in fact, it is not even a nutrient. It is likely that fiber is important for specific dietary regimes, or specific purposes, but is completely useless in other diets. We simply don’t know and there is little scientific research that tests the fiber theories across different diets. Fiber is typically suggested to resolve illnesses that cannot be clearly diagnosed, not to improve healthiness.
8. Error: “You need to consume sugar for your brain to function.” This is a misconception that is proved wrong by the simple act of fasting. Your blood supply runs out of dietary sugar in less than a day. Your brain has no problem functioning for weeks.
9. Error: “Fasting is unhealthy.” Short term fasts are prescribed for blood tests, etc, but many doctors claim that fasting is unhealthy or simply does not enhance healthiness. The simple truth is that we don’t test overall healthiness, we don’t measure overall healthiness, and we don’t know the facts about fasting either. Sleeping, frankly is fasting. And it’s healthy. You might wonder how long someone can fast ‘safely’? The answer is simply, ‘it depends’. There are different types of fasts, and different people. If you ask Google, you might think that the longest fast is just over 40 days. But no. Here is a scientific report of a therapeutic fast that lasted 382 days. The patient started at over 400 pounds and emerged a healthy weight of 180 pounds. Fasting can be unhealthy – so can crossing the street.
10. Myth: “Toxins in foods are not at levels dangerous to your health.” Many foods contain toxins. We know this. Many foods contain ‘natural toxins’ that the plants develop to fight insects. What the toxins do to our bodies, whether they build up or are excreted is poorly studied.
Toxins come in many forms and might be natural, coming from nature, or unnatural, created by man. Many GMO ‘foods‘ contain designer toxins. So do most patented medicines. Every day, more chemicals are created and used on foods and in our environment.
Studies of toxins are extremely weak. We don’t even have scientific agreement on simple questions like ‘is fluoridated water healthy, or unhealthy?’ We have many studies on the toxicity of fluoride and very few studies that suggest it may prevent dental caries. But no studies on healthiness of fluoride. However, in many communities – fluoride is routinely added to drinking water.
a) Simple rules are not so simple, and often not accurate. Take all advice with a grain of salt – I recommend natural salt. But I also recommend that you make your own decisions.
b) Studying illness to create healthiness is a poor choice, resulting in many simple errors.
c) If we want to learn about health – we need to study healthiness.
to your health, tracy
This post is based on my answer to a Quora question “What should everyone know about nutrition?” Click the link if you wish to see my initial response and other responses to the question. But be warned – many people who replied to the question repeated the errors and myths listed here. These myths are well established.