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Abby Langer Headshot

8 Food Myths I Learned at Nutrition School

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I hate to age myself, but I went to school for my nutrition degree more than a few years ago. Things have changed since then, and while my practice has changed, we still see some of these gems being recommended to this day.

Here's where we got it wrong all those years ago:

Avoid Butter, Use Margarine
I recommended margarine for years before I figured out that what I was recommending is a highly-processed fat that's one step up from plastic. Butter has two ingredients -- cream and salt, and the taste is light years better than oily margarine. People get all hyper when I recommend butter in small amounts instead of margarine, but believe me when I say that the tablespoon of butter that you are putting on your toast is not why your cholesterol is high.

You Need 8 Servings of Grains a Day
Lots of dietitians still recommend copious amounts of whole grains, but I believe that 8 servings a day is way too much. In fact, you can live a healthy life without grains altogether if you choose, but I think that a moderate amount in your diet is fine. Whole grains are a source of fiber and vitamins, but I do believe that the current recommendations for grains (which haven't changed since I was in school) are excessive.

Lowfat or Fat-Free Dairy is Best
Except for skim milk, fat-free dairy is disgusting and usually full of gums and fillers. I usually recommend 2 per cent everything and full-fat cheese. Because fat free cheese bounces and doesn't melt, and that's neither normal nor right. Enjoy your food, don't merely tolerate it.

Kids Should Avoid Nuts for 2 Years After Birth
Actually, kids should be exposed to nuts at between 4 and 6 months of age. Parents' eyes bug out when I tell them this. It was only when the American Academy of Pediatrics started recommending that nuts be withheld until two years of age that allergies to them started exploding. A bit of nut butter on the tongue of your child in the 4-6 month window may help desensitize them to the allergens in the nuts.

Sugar is Empty Calories But Not Harmful
Sugar is "empty calories," and too much of it is harmful as we are finding out. Whereas I was warned in nutrition school of the perils of fat, now fat seems to be the angel and sugar is the devil. That's why between classes, I would grab a bag of Rold Gold pretzels or a Rice Krispies treat, and I would always put fat-free mayonnaise on my sandwich (ew -- it tasted awful!) -- anything to avoid fat. Little did I know, I was making the wrong choice. I was always hungry, and I was consuming major amounts of carbs and chemicals.

Calories In vs Calories Out, That's The Weight Loss Equation
Your body doesn't work like that. In fact, I recommend not counting calories at all, preferring instead that clients choose quality ingredients over calories. With the calories in vs calories out idea, a 100-calorie pack of Thinsation Oreos would win out over a 250 calorie apple spread with almond butter, but which one would you say is better for you in terms of nutrients and satiety?

Your Protein Serving Should be The Size of a Deck of Cards
Protein plays a large role in muscle repair and maintenance, as well as in satiety. A piece of meat or fish that's the size of a deck of cards, or 3.5 oz, has around 25-30 grams of protein, which we are finding is the optimal amount for one meal. If your protein is lean, however, I would much rather you have more of that than loading up on the starches. Limiting yourself to a deck-sized piece is not necessary. Neither is a 16oz porterhouse, but 6oz of lean protein at meals, coupled with half a plate of vegetables, is not a bad thing.

You Need Dairy to Get Your Calcium
Uh, no you don't. It's more challenging for sure to get adequate calcium from plant sources, but it can be done and done well. Oranges, leafy greens, tofu, and almonds are sources, as well as dairy alternatives like almond or soy milk.

And Five Things From Now That I Wish Would Go Away:

Stop Eating Sugar
You shouldn't stop eating sugar, because you won't be able to avoid it completely for very long. You should, however, eat as few highly processed foods as you possibly can, especially those with lots of sugar and chemicals. Every time a nutrient emerges as a "villain," there's always a movement to strike that particular nutrient altogether from peoples' diets. Don't get crazy about sugar. Eat mostly whole unprocessed foods and you won't have to worry.

Sweeteners Make You Fat and Your Blood Sugar High
I know about the latest study about artificial sweeteners affecting gut microbiota and blood sugars, and it's interesting. What I want to say is that people eat too much "sweet" overall. Whether you use sugar, Splenda, Equal, agave, or whatever, you're training your body to expect sweetness. How about dialing down the sweetness by using less of whatever you're using?

Superfoods Will Make You Healthy
Eat a varied diet, because no one food is going to be the miracle worker in your diet. Can we stop using the word "superfood" now?

Fat is Okay Now

As I mentioned before, fat is no longer the evil nutrient we thought it was. This doesn't mean that you can suddenly eat duck fat fries every day or free-pour olive oil onto your toast. Fat is still fat, and like every other nutrient, it should be consumed mindfully. Fat plays a huge role in satiety and it is a valuable and essential nutrient, but as people are doing with shunning sugar, don't go all the way the other direction by eating as much fat as you want. There is a middle ground for both sugar and fat. Find it, okay?

My overarching sentiment is that there is really room in anyone's diet for any food at all (okay, maybe not juice or pop...I still think those are evil, but that's just me). Many people don't understand moderation, but if you can find some middle ground between eliminating a food and overeating it, plus you have a mostly whole-foods diet, you should be fine.

Try to rise above the static of the "don't eat this, it's going to kill you" in the media, and stick with the basics. Enjoy your food, eat what you love, and be active. Most of all, have a healthy attitude towards food. Easier said than done sometimes, but freeing yourself from a "diet" or "elimination" mentality is the healthiest thing you can do.

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