Counteracting Food Myths That Miss the Mark

by Sanna Delmonico, MS, RDN, CHES on Sep 25, 2019

Debunk these food myths to improve your clients' nutrition.

Have you ever made a recommendation to a client, then discovered the client heard something completely different? Or she took part of what you suggested and ignored the rest? Like the time I advised my client about the healthfulness of berries and later found out he had given up all other fruit. That was a nutrition misfire. Maybe it was the client’s all-or-nothing thinking, or maybe I hadn’t been clear enough. After all, there is subtlety in food and nutrition, and getting the message right is a challenge.

Stamp out misunderstandings by learning how top nutrition professionals set their clients straight on six all-too-common nutrition myths.

Myth #1: All Carbs Are Bad

“All carbs are not created equal,” advises Kathy McManus, MS, RDN, director of the Department of Nutrition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “There are some unhealthy sources, like white bread, white rice, white potatoes, and foods containing added sugar (cake, cookies, candy and sugar-sweetened beverages). These foods raise blood sugar and can lead to diabetes and weight gain.”

But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. As McManus points out, “The right types of carbohydrate foods, such as intact whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and other legumes, are the foundation for a healthy diet.” (Intact whole grains include all layers of the original kernel: bran, germ and endosperm.)

Because added sugar is “empty-calorie,” providing calories but no additional nutrients, focus clients on reducing added sugar, not on reducing sugar that occurs naturally, as in fruit or all carbohydrates. Help clients navigate this terrain by thinking about the carbohydrate’s context: If it is added sugar or refined grain, limit intake. If it’s in whole foods, dig in, though be mindful of portion control even with healthy foods.

Myth #2: Avoid Animal Foods and Eat Vegetarian Diets

Vegetarians have lower rates of overweight and obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers compared with those on a typical American diet (Appleby & Key 2016). That sounds pretty compelling, but it doesn’t necessarily mean animal foods (meat, poultry, fish, dairy products) have no place in a healthy diet. In addition to protein, meats are sources of well-absorbed minerals, including iron and zinc, while milk and other dairy products are great sources of calcium.

McManus says that avoiding all animal foods “can be overly restrictive and limit options, especially when eating with friends and family and away from home.” It can be difficult to find enough variety to eat well in restaurants and may be socially isolating. She explains that “plant-based eating” means eating mostly foods from plants (legumes, healthy oils like olive oil, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits and vegetables), but it allows for greater flexibility than a vegetarian diet and can include fish, eggs, dairy and some meats.

Plant-based eating “supports many of the same health benefits as vegetarianism, such as lower weight, less heart disease and less diabetes, but for many people is a less severe, more sustainable food pattern to support health.” Some call this pattern a “flexitarian” diet.

Myth #3: Avoid Gluten

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. “The fact that gluten is a protein surprises people, since today’s food conversation is very positive about protein,” says Kim Kirchherr, MS, RDN, a nutrition consultant in Chicago who has worked extensively in supermarket nutrition. “Gluten is the reason bread has that wonderful, chewy texture.”

People with celiac disease react to gluten in a way that damages the lining of their small intestine, leading to digestive symptoms like bloating, diarrhea and malabsorption of nutrients.

Wheat sensitivities are not always related to gluten. “Some people with irritable bowel syndrome are intolerant to the carbohydrate portions of wheat called oligosaccharides. But the majority of us are totally okay to consume wheat and gluten,” says Denise Barratt, MS, RDN, a nutrition consultant and blogger in Asheville, North Carolina, and the author of Farm Fresh Nutrition (vineripenutrition.com). Barratt says gluten-free products may have less iron, fiber and B vitamins, so reconsider switching unless you need to avoid gluten for health reasons.

On the other hand, do we tend to overeat white bread, pizza, cakes, cookies and other less healthy sources of gluten? Yes, we certainly do. Is it the gluten that makes these foods unhealthy? Not for most people! The message shouldn’t be to avoid gluten; it should be to choose more nutrient-dense breads made with whole-grain flours and, especially, more intact whole grains like barley and quinoa, which don’t raise blood sugar as much.



For the three other myths/misfires and tips for clients, plus a full reference list, see “Nutrition Misfires” from the November 2018 print edition of Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.

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About the Author

Sanna Delmonico, MS, RDN, CHES

Sanna Delmonico, MS, RDN, CHES IDEA Author/Presenter

Sanna Delmonico, MS, RDN, CHE is a faculty member at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in the Napa Valley, where she teaches food safety and nutrition.