18 health and nutrition myths you have likely been told are fact

You’d think that, as time goes on, there would be fewer nutrition myths to tackle.

Unfortunately, the internet is rife with misinformation, and it can be really difficult to tell what’s evidence-based without reading the original research yourself. Myths that were previously passed through word-of-mouth in gyms and health clubs now spread like wildfire through social media, blogs, and even established media. Between a 24-hour news cycle, studies that are both long and difficult to read, and journalists scrambling for the latest viral hit, information often gets published without being verified.

As myth buster myself, I’ve taken the time to identify the top 18 nutrition myths that just won’t die.

Claim 1: Super foods are healthier than conventional foods.

Did you know that apples have more anti-oxidants than acai berries and more fiber than kale? Why can’t they be a super food too? It’s because they are not exotic enough to be marketed as a “super food.”

Super foods are a marketing scheme to make you waste your money on foods that have nutritional profiles, which are no better than “conventional” foods.

Every food has a unique nutritional profile, which makes it beneficial to you. Limiting your intake of foods to “super foods” will decrease the diversity of your nutritional intake, as well as empty out your wallet.

Claim 2: GMO’s are dangerous to your health and the environment.

The general SCIENTIFIC consensus, regarding GMO’s, is that they are extremely safe for human consumption. Scientists who have dedicated their lives to the study of GMO’s have declared them to be safe through thousands of peer-reviewed studies. I’m no biologist and the science behind GMO’s are beyond my scope of understanding. Therefore I will tend towards the general scientific consensus of certain matters like GMOs, rather than listening to fear mongering health gurus like David Wolfe who don’t even have a formal education in basic nutrition.

The anti-science advocates will argue that these studies are funded by big agricultural companies like Monsanto who make GMO seeds, which is always a convenient way to dismiss any claim that challenges your world view and science. However, when something is “peer reviewed,” it doesn’t matter who funded the initial study.

Studies that associate GMO consumption with various diseases in humans are purely correlational and therefore cannot prove CAUSATION! Not to mention, these studies have many confounding variables that decrease the strength of the association between GMO’s and certain health concerns.

The mandatory labelling of GMO’s is damaging, as it makes the uneducated consumer believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with GMOs.

The non-GMO food industry is just another marketing scheme to sell you overpriced food based on fear. Also, many food products are labeled non-GMO when the products in the food cannot possibly be GMO. If this is not fear mongering then I don’t know what is.

Furthermore, unlike what you have heard, GMO’s are beneficial for the environment. This is because they increase food yield while minimising resources such as water, fossil fuels, pesticides and land for crop growing! The world population is skyrocketing and GMO’s will help us feed the masses.

GMO’s are also being used to cure extremely damaging nutritional deficiencies in the third world. For example, GMO technology allows us to fortify bananas with vitamin A in order to decrease blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency in third world countries.

To be against GMOs is a first world privilege and those who complain about their food are generally the ones that usually have enough food to eat. Resistance against GMO manufacturing leads to the suffering of those who need it the most.

Let’s face it, at the end of the day, fear mongering makes headlines and increases profit.

Claim 3: Commercial detoxes help cleanse your body of “toxins.”

The detox tea sold by that hot Instagram model on your news feed will help you put a dent in your bank account and that’s about it.

A 2009 investigation of ten companies found they couldn’t name the “toxins” targeted by any of their fifteen products — let alone prove those products’ efficacy. Strictly speaking, toxins are plant- or animal-based substances poisonous to humans; but for many detox gurus, “toxins” also include heavy metals … and everything synthetic: not just toxicants (man-made poisons, such as pollutants or pesticides), but also preservatives, high-fructose corn syrup, etc.

Even when a substance really is noxious, a “detox diet” won’t help. Acute toxicity would likely constitute a medical emergency, whereas chronic toxicity is best addressed by a well-fed body/good lifestyle habits — not a body weakened by a severely hypo-caloric diet. The liver, kidneys, lungs, and other organs toil around the clock to remove harmful substances and excrete the waste products of metabolism; don’t hinder their work!

Fatigue and some skin issues do not require a “detox.” It probably just means your diet and lifestyle needs improving.

There is no denying that people who go on “detoxes” usually feel amazing and lose weight initially. This is because these commercial detoxes usually involve some form of calorie restriction as well as increasing fruit and vegetable intake via juices. By default, this leads to quick weight loss and if the person had a poor diet before, the incorporation of fruit and vegetable juices is obviously going to help in the short term. However, they are not sustainable and can lead to nutrient deficiencies in the long run.

Focus on sustainable health habits, such as eating nutritious food on a daily basis. Ample protein, leafy greens, and foods chock-full of vitamins and minerals are not just tastier than anything a “detox diet” has to offer, they’re also way better for you (and your liver detoxification pathways, ironically).

Claim 4: Internet health gurus know what they are talking about because they have lots of followers.

People who go against scientific consensus to scare people into buying their bullshit products are snake oil salesmen. Don’t listen to gurus. Ever. They use fear and dogma to sell you their products, which they make thousands of dollars off. They will criticise big corporations for running our world and having invested interests, however they are happy to cash in on the products they try to promote and sell to you.

They often have no formal qualifications and can say whatever they want without accountability. Just because these people have a lot of social media followers, it does not legitimise the information that they spread.

Gurus appeal to people’s sense of tribe and individuality because they go against orthodoxy. This is why they have such a large number of followers, as people feel a sense of belonging when they begin to identify with the pseudo science that these gurus put out.

When people become “guru’d” they start to share the pseudo-scientific information with their friends and family in a very dogmatic way. There is no doubt that everyone has freedom of speech, however when your opinions start to promote things that could potentially harm others, such as anti-vaccination and anti-chemo, then this is dangerous.

Yes, it is important to be critical in the world we live in, however don’t be illogical.

Once again, fear mongering sells.

Claim 5: Organic produce is better for your health and the environment.

Organic farming uses pesticides just like conventional farming. Conventional farming pesticides are made from synthetic chemicals, where as organic pesticides are made from “natural” compounds. Just because something is “natural” does not mean it is harmless. After all, snake venom and ricin are “natural.”

Whether a chemical is natural or synthetic has nothing to do with its safety profile. And upon analysis, organic pesticides (e.g. copper sulfate) have been shown to be just as toxic/carcinogenic as conventional pesticides. However, both organic and conventional pesticides are exposed to humans well below toxic levels.

Compared to organic farming, conventional farming increases the yield of produce while decreasing the amount of resources needed, such as water, land, fossil fuels and pesticide use. Organic pesticides are less efficient and are just as damaging to the environment when compared to synthetic ones.

The world population is skyrocketing and due to the low yield and increased resources needed for organic farming, it would not be possible to feed everyone.

The organic industry is also a 52 billion dollar industry that markets their produce based on fear.

Lastly, processed food that is labeled as “organic” does not mean it is healthier you.

Accumulation of pesticide residues in the body over time may be a concern, however, in general, those who eat more fruit and vegetables (organic or not) on a population scale, tend to be healthier than those who don’t. So I ask you, why pay extra for produce that adds no extra benefit to your health or the environment? Buying organic produce can sometimes cause people to buy less fruit and vegetables due to price, which in turn leads to less amounts of fruit and vegetable consumption.

If you are really concerned about pesticides, rinsing, peeling when possible, and cooking can all reduce the amount of pesticide left on your food.

Claim 6: Vegetarian and vegan diets are healthier and more environmentally friendly than omnivorous diets.

With the age of supplements and food fortification, vegetarian and vegan diets are possible and a first world privilege. Just because they are possible in the first world, this doesn’t mean it is optimal.

Eating a vegetarian and vegan diet does not make you healthier or more morally correct. It is also not necessarily better for the environment. Vegetarian/vegan diets are prone to nutrient deficiencies and recent evidence shows they are not always better for the environment, considering meat production is done in an ethical way. Yes, we should reduce our meat consumption and in certain countries we need to change the way we farm our animals and stop feeding them food for which humans compete for (i.e. grains). However, avoiding all meat production and turning to a agricultural only diet may not be the best thing for the environment.

If you don’t want to eat animals that is completely cool, but don’t go parading around like you are doing something better for your health and better for the earth.

Also, films like “Forks over knives” are often sensationalistic and not scientific. They are biased.

Claim 7: The perfect diet exists.

There are so many diets and diet fads out there to follow. Each proclaiming that their one is better than the rest. But what really is the best diet? Is it vegetarian, or vegan? Maybe even paleo? The best diet is the one that is most suited to the individual. It is a diet that fits into the individual’s personal lifestyle and aligns with their health goals. It is also a diet that a person can sustain over a long period of time.

Now don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean that if you love chocolate the foundation of your diet should be centred on chocolate. For the average person, in order to improve their health, body composition and feel better, it does not really matter how much protein, carbs and fats they are eating. What really matters is the type and quality of these nutrients.

Research shows that individuals who eat and adhere to a varied diet that mostly consists of whole, minimally processed, nutrient rich foods such as meats, fish, eggs, dairy, seafood, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, whole grains, fruit, vegetables and healthy fats like coconut oil, butter, animals fats, olive oil and nut oils, tend to be healthier then those who don’t. Furthermore, research shows that the best diet is the one with the most diverse amount of whole-foods, which can be sustained for the longest period of time!

Humans have always eaten a wide variety of foods depending on where they lived in the world. This means that we are adapted to eat all kinds of foods. This is clearly demonstrated by examining the traditional diets of various tribes and ethnic groups throughout the world. For example, the Arctic Inuit and African Masai ate traditional diets that were very high in fat and animal products with very few vegetables. Conversely, the Kitavans in the South Pacific ate traditional diets that are low in fat but very high in vegetables and starchy carbs. Crazy differences here, yet all of these traditional cultures were relatively healthy people with minimal incidences of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, etc.

This is only possible because the human body is amazingly adaptable to a host of different dietary conditions. What all these traditional diets have in common is that they are based around minimally processed, whole, nutrient dense foods.

Similarly, all of the different diet camps (e.g. paleo or vegan) may focus on different macronutrients ratios, however they all encourage the eating of more whole foods.  And that may be one of the most important nutrition interventions of all, regardless of the protein, carb, and fat breakdowns.

Claim 8: Vaccines cause disease and health issues in kids.

Vaccines save lives and stop the spread of horrible diseases. Period. Fear mongering and sensationalism makes for good headlines. People like scape goats. Yes the flu vaccine is debatable in its efficacy, however vaccinations for terrible communicable diseases are very necessary.

Claim 9: Red meat causes cancer and other health issues.

Absolute statements like this one are the nutrition myth’s best friend. Cancer is particularly difficult to discuss in absolutes. After all, almost everything we eat has the potential to cause cancer. For example, antioxidants can both promote and hinder cancer growth, but the effect is usually too small to notice.

All of the studies linking red meat to cancer are correlational. This means they take huge populations of people, ask them on questionnaires how much meat they consume and then look at disease rates. Yes, these studies show a correlation with red meat and cancer, BUT correlation does not mean causation.

There is a likely explanation for this association because we know that people who eat a lot of red meat (compared to vegetarians) are more likely to engage in other unhealthier behaviours such as smoking, drinking, eating less fresh produce and exercising less. These are all factors that we know contribute to cancer, which is a multi-faceted disease.

Also, these studies don’t look at the type of red meat people are eating. A patty in a maccas burger that is eaten with many other unhealthy foods, is grouped in the same category as a grass fed rump steak eaten with veggies.

Some compounds, found in smoked meats and meat cooked at high temperatures (e.g. PAH, HCA, nitrites/nitrates), have been found to damage the genome, which is the first step to potential cancer. However, current evidence seems to suggest that any of these potentially harmful compounds can be negated by cooking meat at lower temperature with adequate oxygen, cooking with seasonings that contain anti-oxidants, as well as consuming a varied whole food diet that contains lots of anti-oxidants from foods like fruits and vegetables. Basically, if you have a healthy diet and lifestyle, red meat’s effect on cancer is nothing to worry about. Still, if you plan to decrease your intake of red meat, start with the kind that has been cured, smoked, or highly processed.

Lastly, humans are notoriously bad for remembering what they eat and these studies rely on people to answer questionnaires that ask them about their red meat intake from a few months ago. Can you even remember what you ate last week for dinner? Also, it is often quoted that high protein diets cause liver and kidney issues. This is not true. High protein diets only EXACERBATE kidney and liver issues if someone is already sick.

Claim 10: “Natural” products are better.

Here is a basic understanding of chemicals, which will hopefully clear this claim up.

  1. Everything is made of chemicals.
  2. Whether a chemical is natural or synthetic, has nothing to do with its safety profile.
  3. Whether a chemical is harmful or not depends on the dose. Any chemical in high enough amounts can cause harm to your health, even water. Many of the chemicals we are exposed to in our environment are in low enough amounts that don’t cause harm and our bodies can detoxify. Toxin accumulation that manifests in health issues, usually occurs along with other poor diet and lifestyle habits that impair our detoxification mechanisms. Many health issues are multi-faceted and require many compounding factors.
  4. Studies that measure high amounts of synthetic chemicals in the blood and urine is not surprising. We ingest chemicals everyday, natural and synthetic, however it is usually the synthetic ones that are measured. Because we ingest these chemicals daily, they have to go somewhere? But it doesn’t mean they cause disease. They may cause issues to cells in a petri dish or when administered to rats (via injections) in amounts that humans are not exposed to, however to say they cause disease to humans that have robust detox systems and in low amounts, may not be true. Also, when we test these chemicals in the urine, this is a good thing as it shows our bodies detox systems are working well!
  5. Toxin accumulation may effect you in the backdrop of other unhealthy behaviour in your diet and lifestyle that overburden and decrease available nutrients to support your detoxification systems such as drug use, smoking, alcohol, poor diet habits, chronic lack of sleep, a lack of exercise and stress. People get caught up in such minor details around health and neglect focussing on the main pillars of health such as sleep, eating a whole-food diet consistently, exercise and stress management.

Claim 11: Sugar is toxic and addictive.

Sugar is tasty, it is compelling, its added to many foods. However, sugar is not addictive. It hits the same reward pathways in the brain as cocaine but so does other ‘pleasurable’ experiences. Sugar withdrawal is not even close to drug withdrawal.

Sugar “addiction” is misusing a clinical term because there is no clinical dependence, it’s more of a relationship with sugar. Psychological habituation is not the same as addiction. Yes, a small percentage of people can become addicted to eating but they are not addicted to a specific ingredient. Sugar just happens to be contained in highly palatable and definitely rewarding foods.

We do consume too much and cutting back has its merit, but don’t call it addictive. Calling it addictive takes power away from you and gives it to sugar. Don’t make it a forbidden fruit as total restriction can lead to binging.

Occasional indulgences in the backdrop of a nutrient dense diet allows for sustainable healthy eating and small amounts in the context of a healthy diet has never been shown to be harmful. Sugar happens to be contained in processed and refined foods, therefore people tend to feel better by reducing their sugar intake as this, by default leads to increased consumption of more nutrient dense foods.

Also, don’t quote a rat study where rats are starved and then binge on sugar. Of course they will binge on sugar because it is high in calories. I’m pretty sure if you were starved and were given a choice of pizza or vegetables, you would eat the pizza.

At the end of the day, moderation doesn’t sell, but fear mongering about sugar does. Films about sugar such as “Fed up,” are sensationalistic, not scientific.

Note on high fructose corn syrup: Early evidence led to the belief that fructose could cause fatty-liver disease, as well as insulin resistance and obesity. By extension, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is frequently said to be unhealthy, since it is high in fructose.

The reality is that there isn’t more fructose in HFCS compared to normal sugar (sucrose). Liquid HFCS has a fructose content of 42–55%. Sucrose, also known as table sugar, is 50% fructose. The difference (-8% to +5%) is too slight to matter.

Claim 12: Gluten should be avoided by everyone.

Most people can handle gluten just fine. Some people have intolerances and celiac disease, however this is a small amount of people. There is nothing intrinsically bad about gluten, unless you have a genuine intolerance or allergy.

People usually feel better when they go gluten free because gluten is found in many processed foods, which are more calorie dense with less nutrients. Therefore, by avoiding gluten containing foods, you simply end up eating more nutrient dense foods by default.

Furthermore, gluten is not necessarily to blame for digestive upset in people. It might be due to compounds falling under the category of FODMAPs, which are present in a variety of plant foods including wheat.

If you are not celiac and don’t have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, I wouldn’t worry about avoiding gluten.

The same can be said for dairy. Unless you have allergic or intolerance symptoms when eating dairy, then there is no reason to avoid it. In fact, if tolerated, full fat diary is very healthy for you.

Claim 13: “Natural” supplements are better than drugs.

As mentioned above, natural does not mean harmless.

To be honest, most supplements on the commercial market just create expensive pee. Most don’t work as intended and have no scientific evidence for their efficacy.

In saying this, there are some good companies out there with good manufacturing practices who make high quality supplements (nutritional and herbal) that can provide various therapeutic benefits to improve health, physical and cognitive performance, increase longevity, prevent disease and help treat minor and serious health issues. There are also good practitioners who know how to use these supplements based on what the scientific evidence says and don’t over prescribe supplements for every symptom that a person may have.

However, it really annoys me when I hear people saying that they try to avoid pharmaceutical drugs because they are unsafe, but will happily take a “natural” supplement that has no scientific evidence behind its safety and efficacy. Yes drugs have side effects, they are often overprescribed and don’t address the underlying causes of certain health issues, however at least a lot of them are evidence based. Many supplements on the market are overpriced and have NO evidence.

Claim 14: Carbs are bad for you.

For decades, fat was the enemy; today, there’s a new scapegoat: carbs. And generalising about carbs and insulin seems to get more popular by the year. In fact, many people mistakenly believe that the popular glycemic index (along with the less well-known insulin index) rank foods by how dangerous they are. Yet low-glycemic diets haven’t shown an advantage in rigorous clinical trials.

Insulin has obtained a bad reputation, and its effects are widely misunderstood.

Early evidence suggested that carbs could cause your body to be less sensitive to insulin — the hormone that helps regulate your blood sugar levels. This can be true in diabetics and in insulin-resistant people overeating carbs, but not in healthy people on a healthy diet. The development of insulin resistance is multifactorial; excess fat, physical inactivity, poor sleep, and genetics all play a role. This said, there is no denying that modern society makes it very easy to overeat carbs: processed carbs are often delicious and seldom very filling, despite being high in calories.

Cutting carbs (especially processed carbs) can be a viable fat-loss decision, if it helps you eat less. But if cutting carbs makes you miserable and always hungry, you should consider other options. If you wish to lose weight, what matters is not to replace fat with carb or carbs with fat, but to end most days on a caloric deficit.

Claim 15: Bread is bad for you.

Bread has taken a beating over the past few years (especially white bread). The bread detractors generally make two arguments against its consumption:

  1. Bread will make you fat.
  2. Bread contains lots of gluten, which is bad for you. As seen above, this is very dependent on context.

Bread will not inherently make you fat, but it tends to be dense in calories and therefore easy to overeat. And of course, most people will eat bread with other high-calorie foods, such as butter, peanut butter, jam, or honey. This can lead to a caloric surplus and thus to weight gain over time. Moreover, while bread can be part of a healthful diet, a bread-centric diet can crowd out more nutrient-rich foods, notably fruits and vegetables.

Claim 16: Fresh is more nutritious than frozen.

Fresh produce has a natural appeal to many people. It just sounds better than “canned” or “frozen” fruits and vegetables. But just because a food is “fresh” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more nutritious.

Fresh produce is defined as anything that is “post-harvest ripened” (if it ripens during transport) or “vine-ripened” (if it is picked and sold ripe: at a farm’s fresh market or at a farmer’s roadside fruit stand, for instance).

Frozen produce is generally vine-ripened before undergoing minimal processing prior to freezing. Most vegetables and some fruits undergo blanching in hot water for a few minutes before freezing, in order to inactivate enzymes that may cause unfavourable changes in colour, smell, flavour, and nutritional value.

While there are some differences between fresh and frozen for select nutrients in select fruits and veggies, overall they have very similar nutritional content. Pick whichever suits your taste, budget, and lifestyle.

Claim 17: The government is trying to kill us.

Despite the introduction of vaccines, fluoride in our water and GMOS’s, human health has improved and life expectancy has increased. Yes, chronic disease is an issue and people may not always be thriving into their old age, however we are living much longer! I would say if the government was trying to kill us, they are doing a pretty crap job at it.

I know people will argue that we are kept alive so pharmaceutical companies can sell us more drugs, well I say good to that. I don’t agree that drugs should be the only form of treatment for chronic disease and helping with longevity, as diet and lifestyle always comes first. However, modern medicine and pharmaceuticals has defiantly helped us live longer.

In reality, the government probably wants you alive so they can tax you.

Conspiracy theorists like to post about these ideas because it gives them a sense of purpose and someone to blame for their life situation. I don’t know about you, but the successful and happy people on my news feed are not posting about conspiracies.

Claim 18: When it comes to health and nutrition, if everyone believes it, it must be true.

The truth is not affected by how many people believe it and the popularity of a belief doesn’t increase its validity.

Wrap up

You’ve likely heard all 18 of these myths repeated at one time or another — by a friend, on a blog, or somewhere in the media. Misinformation is rampant, difficult to identify, and unfortunately spreads much faster than facts.

And really, this is just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll see often see sensationalist headlines based on a study with unsurprising results.

As you can see, there is so much bullsh*t in the health and nutrition industry these days, but when you know how to ‘do’ science and be a critical thinker, it is easier to navigate your way through the misinformation.

Don’t get caught up in hype driven headlines and sometimes the truth will go against your world view. At the end of the day, fear mongering, extremism, pseudo science and sensationalism is what sells, not science.

This article hopefully removed unwarranted fear and misunderstanding around certain health and nutrition topics. When you are trying to be healthy, I know all the fear mongering and misinformation can be stressful and debilitating. It can also be expensive!

Just remember, good health requires consistent dedication to simple, healthy diet and lifestyle habits that I have spoken about a lot in previous posts and drum into my clients all the time.