While I am a food scientist by trade, I also have a degree in Nutrition and am interested in helping people understand this confusing subject. I also find it beneficial to understand food as a whole, from both a nutritional and food science perspective (safety, shelf life, functionality, etc.).
Sea salt is better for you than regular table salt. False!
While many people believe sea salt is better because it is more “natural,” this can actually be a dangerous assumption. Iodine is an essential nutrient for proper thyroid function, as well as mental functioning. The thyroid, generally associated with metabolism, requires iodine to properly function and can lead to the development of goiters if the body does not have enough. Pregnant moms should also be careful; low iodine during development can lead to cretinism, a condition that leads to stunted growth and mental development in children.
The reason salt is iodized is that it is hard to find in food and varies based on soil levels. The best (and few) sources of iodine are iodized salt, saltwater fish, and dairy products such as milk and yogurt.
That doesn’t mean you can’t ever eat sea salt or specialty salts, just try to choose options that indicate they are iodized or be sure to eat iodized salt at home.
Excess salt intake leads to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Maybe?
Researchers have recently found that results were inconsistent in studies linking salt reduction and risk of heart disease and stroke. This topic is an ongoing area of interest and debate among scientists, with the findings being heavily criticized. There is a large amount of evidence supporting current dietary guidelines and advice to lower salt intake for health, so more research is needed before recommendations can be made. This is just an example of how knowledge and research are always changing, especially in a young field of science such as nutrition.
Salt is an important nutrient in the body that is required for many biological processes from muscle contraction to nerve transmission to maintaining fluid balance. Hyponatremia may occur if the body does not have enough salt. However, this is not very likely to happen for most. Just remember: everything in moderation. The dose makes the poison, as they say.
If you’d like to research this area on your own, find a link to the study below.
Let’s take a step back and think about it from another point of view. From a food science perspective, salt is very important. It is an antimicrobial agent because it lowers water activity (meaning it binds free water) that would be otherwise available for bacteria to utilize. This, in turn, increases shelf life.
However, many food companies recognize consumer demands and public health interests and are working to develop reduced sodium products that still taste great (it’s a challenge!). There are other salts that companies have tried to use in formulations, including potassium salts, but this generally gives a bitter aftertaste.
You should avoid eggs because they are high in cholesterol. False.
Eggs were persecuted for their high cholesterol levels for the past several decades and the advice has stuck. New research shows dietary intake of cholesterol does not have much impact on blood cholesterol (for the vast majority). Saturated fats are more of the problem. Eggs are a healthy source of protein, are low in saturated fat, and have many other important nutrients, as well. Lutein and choline are a few examples, important for eye health and brain health, respectively.
Keep in mind, however, that many foods high in cholesterol are also high in saturated fat, so be careful.
Eating vitamins makes up for a poor diet. False!
Most vitamins (except A, D, E, and K) are water soluble. This means your body can only absorb so much and the rest is excreted in urine. In addition, the body absorbs nutrients better from food than a supplement. Remember to eat the rainbow to ensure you are getting everything you need!
Of course, some vitamins can be hard to get in the diet and every individual is different. A supplement certainly will not hurt, but just remember to get vitamins from food when you can. Also, supplements are not regulated by FDA and so their claims are not checked to ensure they are meeting the standards consistently.
Side note: vitamin toxicity can occur, especially in the fat-soluble vitamins, because your body stores them. It’s pretty rare, but remember it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
Vitamin C tablets can cure my cold. Not exactly.
Vitamin C is important for immune function and helps keep you healthy. However, it is not a medicine and doesn’t necessarily “cure” a cold. The best advice is to eat enough Vitamin C before you get sick to ensure your immune system is in tip-top shape.
Did you know? Vitamin C is also critical for skin, cartilage, tendon, and bone. This is why sailors got scurvy back in the day.
Eating yogurt keeps your gut healthy. Kinda sorta.
Yogurt contains prebiotics that are healthy for your gut. Essentially, the idea here is that you want to populate your body with healthy bacteria so they keep the bad ones out. While yogurt provides these helpful bacteria, you would need to eat a lot of it and keep it up consistently to see a benefit. Yogurt is a delicious, healthy snack so that may not be hard for some! However, for the occasional yogurt eater, it’s unlikely those probiotics are sticking around.
Did you know? Not all bacteria are bad. The majority of bacteria are not harmful to humans and even help us digest food! Fermented products are examples of food that contain helpful bacteria.
Preparing food at home is healthier than eating out. Depends, but probably yes.
While preparing food at home is recommended because you can control what exactly ends up on your plate, just remember that the dash of salt and an extra pat of butter you throw in add up (just as it does in the restaurant)! Many people think that because they made it at home it is healthier. Remember that fried chicken is fried chicken, no matter where it’s made!
Vegetables lose a lot of nutrients when heated, and that happens whether it’s in a food processing plant or in your oven. Of course, you can use this knowledge to cook your own vegetables in less degrading ways, such as steaming in the microwave!
In addition, many view processed foods as inherently bad. But remember processing is essential for many foods to even be edible and digestible for humans. We simply couldn’t break down the foods to get the nutrients we need. Anything from cutting, slicing, baking, or steaming is a form of food processing. Industrialization and technology have allowed us to produce healthy foods with longer shelf-life so we can spend our time doing other things.
Foods with “natural” ingredients are inherently better for me. Not exactly.
There is no legal definition of the term “natural.” Any company can put natural on a food label and make this claim. The problem is natural means different things to different people. Agave nectar is not better for you because it is “natural.” Both sugar and agave nectar are agricultural products and have been further processed. Your body can’t tell the difference.
It must be proved that food ingredients are safe before they can be used in foods. For many, safe levels of usage are set. Any ingredient known to be a carcinogen (causes cancer) may not be added in food, even if it has other benefits.
Remember, many natural products are toxins themselves. Think: poisonous mushrooms.
All fat is bad for you. False!
I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a balanced diet; that includes the right amount of carbohydrates, fat, and protein.
While you should certainly watch your fat intake and look for healthy sources of monounsaturated fats, you still need fat in your diet! Fat is important for healthy skin and hair, nerve transmission, absorption of certain vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, and K), temperature regulation, energy, and regulation of the menstrual cycle.
Fatty acids such as EPA and DHA are also critical in brain development of a growing fetus. These are your omega-3 monounsaturated fatty acids. In adults, these fats have been shown to reduce inflammation and are critical in brain maintenance. In fact, the brain is comprised of 67% fat!
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature while unsaturated fats are liquid, or oil. Unsaturated fatty acids may be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Both have beneficial effects, but polyunsaturated fats may be both helpful and harmful if we eat too much. Healthy sources of fat include nuts and seeds, olives, olive oil, avocados, peanut butter, and fatty fish. Fat should make up 20-35% of your diet, with a limited saturated fat intake.
Still curious? Most organic compounds, such as fat, are made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. Unsaturated is a fancy word for “not full.” These fats are “not full” of hydrogen, so they produce double bonds with carbons in the molecule. This causes a “kink” in the molecule meaning the other fat molecules cannot stack neatly together. This inability to stack is what makes unsaturated fats liquid, while the “full” saturated fats can stack and thus are solid. Monounsaturated fats have only one “kink” while polyunsaturated may have several kinks. Think about how this would act in your body.
From a food science perspective, fat contributes mouthfeel (full and satisfying feeling), smooth texture, and flavor. Saturated fats are more shelf-stable and provide this texture and flavor. Unsaturated fatty acids, while healthier, are not equal in terms of functionality, nor are they shelf stable. Again, challenging from a product development and transportation/storage perspective.
Carbohydrates are evil. False.
Just as we discussed with fats above, carbohydrates are essential to a healthy diet. They are your main source of fuel for muscles and your brain! Once again, though, they must be consumed in moderation. 45-65% of daily calories should come from carbs. Many foods contain more sugar than we realize, and this can add up quickly. Nutrition labels will be required to label added sugars on products so you can keep better track of how much you’re consuming.
Choose healthy sources such as whole grains, whole fruits, whole vegetable, and beans.
From a food science perspective, this is another challenging area to work in. Sugar provides sweetness, texture, color development, and bulk to many recipes. Alternative sweeteners may not be stable in different types of products based on their pH or processing method. Also, Americans are used to eating pretty sweet stuff, so retraining the pallet can be difficult. Sometimes when products are reformulated they end up failing and are removed from the market because they just don’t taste good and people won’t buy it.
Takehome message: Moderation, moderation, moderation! In my opinion, this is the best way to ensure a healthy diet. Choose healthy, nutrient dense (vs energy dense with lots of calories) sources. And believe me, I know it can be tough. I have a sweet tooth and love baking 🙂 But by tracking what you’re eating and being a little more aware of the effects of macronutrients on your body (good and bad) you can begin to make healthier choices.
If you’re interested in nutrition, check out the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020.
Do you have a nutrition question? Have a different opinion or a research study to share? Please, reach out!
Disclaimer: This article is NOT meant as nutrition/medical advice! I am not a registered dietitian and you should always consult your doctor for your individual needs.
Tarver, T. 2016. A big fat dispute. Food Technology. 70: 27-35.
Komaroff, A. 2017. Are eggs risky for heart health? Ask the doctor. Harvard Health Publishing. Accessed 2018 September 29. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/are-eggs-risky-for-heart-health
Mente, A. O’Donnel, M, DPhil, S. 2016. How robust is the evidence for recommending very low salt intake in entire populations? Journal of the American College of Cardiology. (68) 15: 1618-1621. Accessed 2018 Sept 30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2016.08.008
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. Accessed 2018 Sept 30. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.