10 Nutrition Myths, Debunked
The exercise inspired us to take on some other ingrained nutrition misconceptions. We talked with leading nutrition researchers, chefs, and food scientists and did some sleuthing of our own to debunk 10 myths so you can enjoy many once-forbidden foods without that old familiar twinge of guilt.
Myth 1. Added sugar is always bad for you.
Sugar is essential in the kitchen. Consider all that it does for baking, creating a tender cake crumb and ensuring crisp cookies. Then there’s its role in creating airy meringue or soft-textured ice cream. Keep in mind that other sweeteners like “natural” honey are basically refined sugar anyway—and they are all metabolized by your body the same way, as 4 calories per gram. Sugar also balances the flavors in healthy foods that might not taste so great on their own. Don’t go overboard, of course. Most health experts suggest that added sugar supply no more than 10 percent of your total calories—about 200 in a 2,000-calorie diet.
Good news: A little sugar can go a long way.
In this refreshing palate cleansing sorbet, sugar tames the tartness of grapefruit juice. And with just two ingredients, it could not be simpler to prepare. A serving delivers about two-thirds of your RDA for vitamin C, and only 145 calories.
Myth 2. Eating eggs raises your cholesterol levels.
The confusion can be boiled down to semantics: The same word, "cholesterol," is used to describe two different things. Dietary cholesterol—the fat-like molecules in animal-based foods like eggs—doesn’t greatly affect the amount of cholesterol circulating in your bloodstream. Your body makes its own cholesterol, so it doesn’t need much of the kind you eat. Instead, what fuels your body’s cholesterol-making machine is certain saturated and trans fats. Eggs contain relatively small amounts of saturated fat. One large egg contains about 1.5 grams saturated fat, a fraction of the amount in the tablespoon of butter many cooks use to cook that egg in. So, cutting eggs out of your diet is a bad idea; they're a rich source of 13 vitamins and minerals.
Good news: Eggs of all kinds are fine.
Make this Mexican scrambled egg dish for dinner, brunch, or for a hearty breakfast. Leave all the seeds in the jalapeño if you want a spicier kick, adjust the hot pepper sauce to taste, and throw in your favorite ad-ins to create a satisfying meal for four.
Myth 3: All saturated fats raise blood cholesterol.
Just when we’d all gotten comfortable with the idea that there are good-for-you mono- and polyunsaturated fats (like those found in olive oil and walnuts), along comes new research calling into question the one principle most health professionals thought was sacrosanct: All saturated fat is bad. Researchers have long known that there are many kinds of saturated fats, and they are handled differently by the body when consumed. Stearic acid, a type of saturated fat found naturally in cocoa, dairy products, meats, and poultry, as well as palm and coconut oils, does not raise harmful LDL cholesterol but boosts beneficial HDL cholesterol levels.
Good news: Saturated fat may be better than once thought.
Given that both chocolate and coconut are not as “bad” as once thought, and given that they taste mighty good together, we baked up a batch of toasty, chocolaty treats to celebrate. Like all sweets with few other nutrients, though, they are treats—perfectly healthy every once in a while.
Myth 4: The only heart-friendly alcohol is red wine.
The so-called French Paradox elevated red wine to health-food status when researchers thought it was the antioxidants in the drink that protected the foie gras- and cheese-loving French from heart disease.
More recent research, however, has shown that antioxidants aren’t the answer after all. Alcohol—the ethanol itself—raises levels of protective HDL, or good cholesterol, which help protect against plaque buildup in the arteries and reduce clotting factors that contribute to heart attack and stroke, according to Eric Rimm, ScD, associate professor of nutrition at the School of Public Health at Harvard University. Any kind of beverage that contains alcohol, when consumed in moderation (and that means one to two drinks a day), helps reduce heart disease risk.
Myth 5: Adding salt to the pot adds sodium to the food.
Public health messages encouraging us to shake our salt-in-everything habits are, in general, good; sodium is a potential problem even for non-hypertensive people. But it’s easy to overlook how sodium can actually help in recipes.
“Salt in the cooking water reduces the leaching of nutrients from vegetables into the water,” says Harold McGee, author of On Food & Cooking. That means your blanched broccoli, green beans, or asparagus likely retains more nutrients. “It also speeds up the cooking process so you don’t lose as many nutrients from overcooking.” McGee recommends using about 1 teaspoon of salt per cup of water. The amount of sodium absorbed by the food is minuscule.
Myth 6: Fried foods are always too fatty.
Here’s how frying works: When food is exposed to hot oil, the moisture inside boils and pushes to the surface and then out into the oil. As moisture leaves, it creates a barrier, minimizing oil absorption—when the frying is done right. Meanwhile, the little oil that does penetrate the food’s surface forms a crisp, tasty crust. To keep foods from soaking up oil, fry according to recipe instructions. For most foods, 375°F is optimal. Oil temperatures that are too low will increase fat absorption. When we added tempura-coated vegetables to cooler-than-optimal oil, the result was greasy and inedible—they absorbed more than 1 cup of oil instead of 1⁄3 cup. So, watch the oil temperature like a hawk using a candy/fry thermometer, and drain cooked foods on a paper towel for a minute or two before diving in.
Good news: You can have fried catfish and hush puppies, too.
But as an occasional treat, home-fried foods have a place in a healthy diet. Use in moderation by pairing with a sensible side or salad. Always choose a healthy oil that’s low in saturated fat—such as peanut, soybean, and canola oils—and follow our step-by-step techniques to frying basics to keep calories and fat as low as possible. In the hands of a careful home cook, a delicately breaded and fried catfish fillet with a few hush puppies can be a perfectly reasonable—and delicious—dinner.
Myth 7: The more fiber you eat, the better.
Yogurt doesn’t naturally come with fiber, yet the grocery aisles now boast fiber-supplemented yogurt, along with cereals, energy bars, even water. What’s the deal?
Fiber is a fad-food component right now, and manufacturers are isolating specific types of fiber and adding them to packaged foods to take advantage. But the science isn’t entirely clear yet: Just as we’re learning more about different types of fat, research is showing how complex fiber is as well. We now know that different fibers have different functions (wheat bran helps move foods along; oat bran lowers cholesterol; inulin supports healthy gut bacteria). Some experts are skeptical that the so-called faux-fiber foods offer the same beneficial effect as naturally fiber-rich ones like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes.
Good news: Fiber-rich <em>whole</em> foods satisfy hunger.
In this recipe, whole-grain wheat berries are chewy, mild, and packed with fiber. Dressing the hot wheat berries in a homemade spicy-sweet vinaigrette and letting stand for 20 minutes infuses them with intense flavor. And more good news: This fiber- and protein-rich salad will curb hunger pains, something packaged foods can’t always deliver on.
Myth 8: You should always remove chicken skin before eating.
Half the pleasure of eating roast chicken comes from the gloriously crisp, brown skin that seems to melt in your mouth. Yet the skinless, boneless chicken breast—one of the more boring protein sources on Earth—became the health-conscious cook’s gold standard somewhere along the way. Fortunately, the long-standing command to strip poultry of its skin before eating doesn’t hold up under a nutritional microscope. A 12-ounce bone-in, skin-on chicken breast half contains just 2.5 grams of saturated fat and 50 calories more than its similarly portioned skinless counterpart.
Good news: You can splurge with skin-on chicken from time to time.
So if you and your family are tired of plain skinless, boneless chicken breasts, splurge on a skin-on option like this oregano- and lime-scented dish. A quick pan sauce made from some of the delectable pan drippings will make your regular chicken dinner a lot more interesting—and appetizing.
Myth 9: Organic foods are more nutritious than conventional.
Myth 10: Cooking olive oil destroys its health benefits.
This one has been kicking around ever since olive oil became a “good” fat: Cook with premium versions and you heat away the healthful properties. It simply isn’t true.
First of all, heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fats aren’t unfavorably altered by heat. They survive a sauté intact. Now, research is showing that other plant-based compounds—the elements that likely give olive oils their complex flavor profiles as well as other healthful properties—can also stand up to standard cooking procedures. They’re surprisingly stable, as long as the oil isn’t heated past its smoking point, which for extra-virgin olive oil is pretty high—about 405°F.
Good news: Olive oil can take the heat
In this simple side dish, extra-virgin olive oil adds great fruity flavor, and sautéing over high heat doesn’t burn away the oil’s healthful antioxidants.