When bad things happen to good foods in media reports, it's time to set the record straight.
With hundreds of media outlets vying for the public's attention, it’s no wonder that misinformation about food gets spread quicker than softened butter. When it comes to the latest health studies, reporters often emphasize obscure, minor findings at the expense of the bigger picture, just to snag your attention. It’s no wonder that consumers are baffled by a barrage of nutrition recommendations that flip-flop more than an Olympic gymnast doing a floor routine.
“The public responds to the media,” says Krysten Klein, MS, a nutritionist based in Redondo Beach, California. “What’s unfortunate is that America’s network news organizations and consumer publications often report on the key findings of a study without explaining the context.”
The latest victims of misguided media bashing are some of the foods once thought to be good for you, like eggs and avocados. This article attempts to set the record straight about a few healthy foods that lately have been undeservedly demonized in the popular press.
Myth: Eggs should be shunned. They’re high in cholesterol and saturated fat and will almost guarantee a heart attack. If you have to eat eggs, opt for the whites only.
Truth: Both the egg whites and the yolks contain important nutrients. The yolk is made up of folic acid, vitamin A, selenium and important proteins called amino acids. And since only 20% of our cholesterol is derived from food (the other 80% is manufactured in the liver), dietary cholesterol in the form of an occasional egg is not a problem.
“In fact, the current recommendations allow for an egg a day,” says Edee Hogan, RD, a nutrition consultant in Washington, DC. “An economical, convenient and easy-to-prepare source of high-quality protein, a single egg supplies about 10% of the protein you need daily, along with good amounts of vitamins A, D and B12.”
Myth: If you’re trying to lose weight, avocados are your worst enemy.
Truth: Although it is true that avocados are high in calories and fat—according to the www.avocado.org website, a medium avocado weighs in at 275 calories and 25 grams (g) of fat—they’re also an extremely healthy food, says Klein. As a nutrient-dense, high-fiber food, a medium avocado can stave off hunger for several hours, making you less likely to indulge in unhealthy snacks. Avocados are also rich in vitamin E, potassium, magnesium and heart-healthy antioxidants. What’s more, the monounsaturated fats found in avocados have been shown to increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels and decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
“Avocados are an excellent source of protein for vegetarians, children and infants, and they don’t [contain] any cholesterol or sodium,” notes Klein.
Myth: Loaded with artery-clogging saturated fat, all red meat is bad for the heart.
Truth: As the best source of absorbable iron in the human diet, red meat can actually be a healthy addition to the diet if eaten in moderation. According to the American Dietetic Association, most Americans—particularly women—fall short of the daily recommendation for iron.
Meat is also high in protein, and lean cuts are actually quite low in fat (often lower than dark chicken meat), coming in at 4–8 g per 100 g (Food Standards Agency 2004). Moreover, red meat contains the full range of amino acids, whereas vegetable protein sources (such as beans and lentils) are often incomplete in this regard.
Myth: Full of fat and calories, almonds are sure to sabotage any weight loss effort.
Truth: Almonds may actually help in the battle of the bulge. In fact, a recent study found that a daily dose of almonds helps control blood sugar levels and promotes weight loss (Wien et al. 2003). “The cell walls of almonds seem to act as a physical barrier to the total absorption of fat,” says Klein. “The fat is then excreted from the body, thereby failing to contribute calories. In essence, almonds are a satisfying, on-the-go snack that people can eat anytime, anywhere.”
A 1-ounce serving of almonds contains 166 calories, 4 g of fiber and only 1 g of saturated fat (14 g of healthy fats) (U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] 2004).
Myth: You should never eat any kind of cheese.
Truth: Cheese contains a high concentration of essential nutrients, especially high-quality protein and calcium. According to the National Dairy Council, certain cheeses—such as Cheddar, Swiss, blue, Monterey Jack and American—may reduce the risk of dental cavities (National Dairy Council 2004).
“Cheese is a double-edged sword,” says Karen Ansel, MS, RD, a dietitian based in Walnut Creek, California. “On the one hand, it’s an excellent source of calcium and protein. On the other, it’s very high in saturated fat.” Choose reduced or low-fat versions of your favorite cheeses, or stick to those that are naturally lower in fat like cottage, goat and feta.
Myth: Margarine is better than butter because it’s lower in saturated fat.
Truth: Although margarine may have less saturated fat than butter, it’s loaded with trans fatty acids—dangerous chemicals found to be more harmful than saturated animal fats. Recent studies have linked the trans fatty acids found in margarine and other hydrogenated products to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer (U.S. Food and Drug Administration 2003). Butter, in contrast, is a natural fat. It increases the absorption of other nutrients, particularly fat-soluble vitamins like E and D.
A word of caution, however. “Even though butter is better than margarine, intake should still be restricted,” says Klein. “Excessive intake of saturated fat has been linked to heart disease and may compromise the absorption of some nutrients.”
Myth: Potatoes are scarce on nutrients, contain high levels of carbohydrates and send blood sugar levels soaring.
Truth: While it’s true that potatoes have a high glycemic index (GI)—meaning they produce a dramatic blood sugar spike, followed by a quick return to hunger—pairing them with an appropriate protein source and eating them with the skin (for more fiber) can prevent the blood sugar boost. Provided that it is not bathed in fat during cooking or topped with butter or sour cream, a medium white potato contains just 160 calories and absolutely no fat or sodium (USDA 2004). Potatoes are a rich source of vitamin C and potassium. (Potassium plays a role in controlling blood pressure levels and preventing stroke conditions.)
Myth: Carrots have a high GI and are readily converted to fat.
Truth: Although studies have found that carrots have a moderate to high GI, they are also unlikely to substantially raise blood sugar levels. “Two factors play a role in raising blood sugar,” explains Ansel. “A food’s GI and the amount of food eaten. You would have to eat an awful lot of carrots to have an impact on blood sugar levels, [so a spike is] not a concern for people eating one or two servings.”
Carrots are a major source of beta carotene, which has been linked to reduced risk for cancer, heart disease and macular degeneration. To get the most beta carotene bang for your buck, opt for cooked carrots instead of raw. Cooking increases the availability of the nutrient, which in turn enhances absorption by the body.
So, the next time you read a damning report on a healthy food, remember this. No single food or food group should be forbidden, cautions Klein. In other words, the conventional wisdom of consuming all things in moderation still holds true—no matter what tomorrow’s headlines say. Bon appétit!
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National Dairy Council. 2004. Facts about cheese. www.nationaldairycouncil.org/health/digest/dcd73-5.asp; retrieved October 2004.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). 2004. Nutrient database for almond facts. www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/ foodcomp/cgi-bin/list_nut_edit.pl; retrieved October 2004.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2003. FDA Fact Sheet: What Every Consumer Should Know About Trans Fatty Acids. July 2003.
Wien, M., et al. 2003. Almonds vs. complex carbohydrates in a weight reduction program. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, 27 (11), 1365–72.
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