The devil’s in the details: Breaking down common food misconceptions

Basket of goods on a trip “only to buy peanut butter and bread” from Lucky’s Market in Columbia, Missouri.

Basket of goods on a trip “only to buy peanut butter and bread” from Lucky’s Market in Columbia, Missouri. Abigail Geiger – Daily Record/Sunday News

We’ve all heard that brown sugar is the best and gluten will kill you as we’ve dawdled under the fluorescent lights of a grocery store.

But while these ideas might be spoken in earnest, they’re often full of misconceptions. Do you quake at the sight of a gluten-filled delicacy? Or do your palms start sweating in the wake of an organic section decision? Look no further – we’ve taken five of the most common health statements and broken them down.

In a hurry? Summary: Avoid simple sugar, watch out for refined flour, eat a balanced diet of macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates), use proper portioning, consume “good” fats (monounsatured fats, polyunsaturated fats, Omega-3 fatty acids) and avoid “bad fats” (trans fats, saturated fats).

1. “Brown sugar is better than white sugar.”

There are few times in life when you’ll find me happier than when I’m sitting in front of a bowl of oatmeal with a spoon of brown sugar in my hand.

Yet, brown sugar isn’t much better than its pale sister, white sugar. Brown sugar is essentially white sugar plus molasses (although, in a nod to an editor here, molasses does in fact have some benefits for your body). Is it good in oatmeal? Sure. Is it different from white sugar? Not really.

Honey can also be deceiving – while it’s argued to be a vitamin B and antioxidant machine, it’s still holds a heck of a lot of sugar. I use a lot of honey, because it contains these added bonuses, and goodness, it’s just so tasty. (But, bear in mind, I live an active lifestyle and I have no history of diabetes.)

Of course, this is all within reason. Let’s not jump to a sad, sour life with no sweets. If you’re eating a healthy diet, consuming sugar-based sweeteners isn’t bad. Raw honey is one good option, and if you’re baking, try applesauce.

What to do: Opt for alternative sweeteners, such as stevia or monk fruit. Bake with applesauce. Be mindful of how you use it (I’m a sucker for a daily tub of honey, so I’ve been trying to tone it down). Eat foods without sugar – you’d be surprised how delicious meals can be without it and how quickly your taste buds will change.

2. “Buy multigrain bread instead of white bread.”

The bread you’re buying might not actually be the bread you want.

Since healthful living has become more popular, many bread brands have created more whole grain-centered bread. Many of these breads still contain refined flour, however. When flour is refined, the husk and bran is basically shucked from the inner grain, removing much of the needed nutrients. These breads – like many breads – also can often contain a lot of sugar.

Also, bread labeled “whole grain” or “multigrain” could, for good measure, contain whole grains or different kinds; however, the amount is often just a fraction of the flour content.

You might be holding a loaf labeled as whole grain bread, but if it has refined flour and just a fraction of whole grains, it’s really not as nutritional as it’s labeled.

You can also make your own bread. It’s not as daunting as it sounds. (Take a peek here at a no-knead bread recipe from Steamy Kitchen.)

What to do: Read the ingredient label on whole wheat or multigrain bread. Look for low sugar and high fiber content. Have fun and make your own. Buy locally made bread. 

3. “I don’t eat gluten.”

While we’re thinking about it, let’s just do it. Let’s talk about gluten.

It’s been found that bread now contains a significantly higher amount of gluten than before, and our bodies haven’t evolved to process the potent protein composite. If you’re sensitive, problems can span from weight gain to autoimmune issues. Gluten encompasses the whole gammut of health opinion, from staunch support to avid condemnation.

And it’s important to note that a portion of the population with celiac or other sensitivities to gluten is right to avoid this prevalent protein. But, the reality is not many people are actually severely sensitive to gluten. (Scientists are suggesting the fermentable oligo-, di-, and mono-monosaccharides and polyols or sugar alcohols (FODMAPs), which ferment in the intestine, as the culprits instead.) Gluten-free diets also can lead to a high calorie consumption, which can lead to weight gain.

Going gluten-free could be good for your digestion and overall health (although new research is refuting this). I try not to eat much bread, because it makes me feel bloated. But I do eat it, and try to get it from my local baker or make it myself.

What to do: Think you’re gluten sensitive? Consult a medical professional; don’t assume you should go gluten-free until you’ve been tested for an autoimmune disease. Also, contact a nutritionist to see if you can pinpoint any triggers. Not gluten sensitive, but feel better when you eat less? Rejigger your diet with new items like polenta or quinoa cakes. Read the ingredient list on gluten-free foods. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t feel bad eating from that bread loaf in the morning – just make sure to know what’s in it.

4. “I use coconut oil all the time.” 

For the record, this post isn’t about beating down any products. Rather, it’s to clarify what they do and how to approach them.

That being said, I love avocados, oils and nuts. But no matter my love for them, they’ve still got a lot of fat. Avocados are known as a high-fat food, but avocado lovers are quick to defend the benefits of avocado fat including phytosterols that fight inflammation. Similarly, the monounsaturated fats in olive oil can help control cholesterol levels.

Coconut oil has its fair share of fans, but the numbers can be alarming: just one tablespoon of the stuff has 11.8 grams of saturated fat (a “bad” fat, along with trans fat). However, new research is suggesting saturated fat might not be the devil it has been made into.

The main issue with these foods is portioning. I’m a coconut oil fan as much as the next girl, but I’ve learned (from arguments that I lost) to use just a bit of it. Coconut oil isn’t bad for you, but two huge tablespoons thrown into your skillet for each meal might not be a great idea. But sure, eat a lot of nuts and avocados and olive oil. Nuts and other foods contain the “good” fats that are essential to a good diet. You’ve just gotta eat your leafy greens too.

What to do: Balance high-fat items with low-fat items including vegetables and fruits. Consume the “good” fats: monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and Omega-3 fatty acids. Use very small portions of oils in cooking.

5. “Low-fat foods are healthier than others.”

As fat consumption jumped in the 1990’s and the trans fat subsequently became the forbidden fruit of the 1980’s, companies jumped in to create a whole low-fat niche for the thoughtful, healthy consumer in the belief that it would lead to weight loss and a decrease in heart disease.

The low-fat lifestyle has continued – but with a pretty big asterisk. It’s true that cutting trans fats is good for your health. However, low-fat foods can be loaded with sugar to counter the flavor loss that comes from removing fats. Low-fat milk, however, is still a good choice because little is added to it after the fat is extracted.

Significant portions of sugar have detrimental effects on our health; the sweet stuff is connected to heart problems,  type 2 diabetes and more. So, you might not be eating the “bad fats,” but your heart might be shrieking from the sugar that’s taken their place.

Good news: there are “good fats” (as mentioned before). Become friends with monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and Omega-3 fatty acids, and you can get both the satiety of fats and the satisfaction of a healthy diet. These fats are essential to your diet.

What to do: Look at the sugar content in low-fat foods. Don’t be afraid of fat: monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and Omega-3 fatty acids are the “good” ones. Watch your portions – you’re likely already consuming enough fats. Balance the fat in your diet with proteins and carbohydrates.

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