In the age of unlimited digital information, you’d think it would be easy to separate fact from fiction, however when it comes to diet and nutrition, it seems there is more nonsense out there than ever before!
It really is a confusing subject, which isn’t helped when gym bro’s, poorly educated social media influencers and deceiving ad campaigns over-power evidence-based practitioners on popular platforms and spread misleading information.
The race for the next viral hit or hot selling product is fuelling an industry full of unverified claims, misinterpretations and over exaggerations.
Let’s put a few of them to bed…
First of all, however I do want to say that with most questions and topics within health and nutrition, there is usually not a black and white ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. Much will come down to personal circumstance and preference, so although I am using research evidence to support my information, take what I say with a pinch of salt and judge how it would apply to you as an individual.
1. Low Carb Diets
“To lose weight we must drop carbs / Carbs make us fat”.
Made popular by group diet organisations in the 1990’s and 2000’s, low carb diets or lowering carb intake (rice, bread, pasta, cereal etc) seems to be the popular initial thought for most people looking to lose a few lbs, however, there is no evidence which supports greater fat loss on a low carb diet compared with other diet strategies. Meta-analyses studies actually show that neither low fat nor ketogenic diets (low / no carb) provide clinically relevant weight loss differences when compared to higher-carb diets.
When people see fat loss results after removing carbohydrates from their diet, the results are not a direct result of excluding carbohydrates but are a product of a reduced food intake as a whole (calories). Fat loss is governed by energy balance (energy in v’s energy out), and by removing an entire food group we are greatly reducing our energy intake (calorie / energy deficit).
Now you may be thinking, ‘if it works its ok though?’. However how long can most people sustain a carb-free diet? Wouldn’t it be easier to not exclude entire food groups and control our overall calorie intake instead?
2. Fat is bad for you
“Fat blocks our arteries, increase cholesterol and can cause heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases”.
Wrong. Chronic high calorie diets and weight gain increase your chances of the above. High fat diets have actually shown very little effect on cholesterol and CVD risk when energy balance has been maintained.
Fat got a bed rep, before Carbohydrates did, as a result of high-sugar product companies paying for misleading studies to be published in the 80’s. However, Fat, especially in the form of omega fatty acids and even saturated fat, are essential for day to day bodily function and health.
The problem is that popular foods which are high in fat are also usually high in sugar (although sugar is also not directly bad), delicious and extremely easy to over consume. Thus, due to fats calorie cost (9 calories per gram of fat compared to just 4 calories from a gram of protein or carbohydrate) it is very easy to eat too much and enter a calorie surplus (eating more energy than you use), which could lead to gain weight over time.
Fat is essential in your diet, however, control your portions and make sure you are consuming essential fatty acids in the form of oily fish, oils, nuts and legumes over big macs, doughnuts and chocolate brownies.
3. Avoid Sugar
This ties in with point 1. Sugar is a simple form of carbohydrate which has recently received a bad reputation due to misleading information regarding insulin and the Glycaemic Index (if this is not known to you then the Glycaemic Index or ‘G.I scale’ rates foods on how quickly they affect your blood sugar when eaten on their own. Simple sugars, found in products like sweets, fizzy drinks and cereals rate high on the scale.).
Many people believe that the G.I scale rank foods by their “un healthiness”. Yet, available research on low-glycaemic diets (consisting predominantly of wholegrain foods, vegetables and pulses) have seen results ranging from neutral to modest improvements, even for diabetics. Furthermore, a low-glycaemic diet doesn’t universally perform better than other diet patterns, including those which contain sensible amounts of sugar.
Now I personally do not advise over consuming sugar. It’s bad for your teeth and may cause energy slumps, however you do not have to avoid it completely to live healthily or lose weight.
4. Red Meat causes Cancer
The reason we have nutritional myths are because of bold, absolute statements like this.
Red meat does not directly cause cancer, however large consumption of processed red meats and greatly charred processed red meat, as well as a poor lifestyle and inactivity may predispose you to a greater cancer risk, however is it unclear whether processed meats are a direct cause or a just a correlate associated with an unhealthy lifestyle (people who eat too many Big Mac’s and do not exercise).
Cancer is greatly related to genetics, however, to reduce risk, moderate your red meat intake, eat plenty of fibrous vegetables, exercise regularly, avoid smoking and cut out excessive binge drinking.
5. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day
Something we have all heard before but the health advantages of consuming a regular breakfast have been overstated.
For one, you do not need to eat breakfast to ‘kickstart’ your metabolism. There is no data to support this.
It has been shown in the past that those who skip breakfast may have, on average, higher BMI scores than those who habitually ate breakfast, however these studies failed to recognise whether eating breakfast was the critical factor behind BMI, or whether the difference in lifestyles between the participants who skipped breakfast and those who made time to eat a meal to start the day caused greater BMI scores.
More recent research actually points to ‘personal preference’ as the most important consideration when choosing whether to eat breakfast or not. Individual responses to breakfast vary, some people will compensate (and sometimes overcompensate) for missed calories later in the day, and some shall not feel the effects of these cravings and will consume food without overindulging. If you are unaffected by cravings when skipping breakfast, forcing yourself into an eating pattern that doesn’t sit well with you or that you can’t sustain may end up backfiring. This was shown in a recent study when women who habitually skipped breakfast actually gained weight when forced to eat it (a bit of a no brainer really).
Eating breakfast is down to preference. If you are starving by 11am and reach for the office biscuit tin, you may want to consider making time for breakfast, however if you skip it and cruise through your morning to a healthy brunch / lunch, why force yourself to consume more calories for the sake of it?
6. Eat regularly and often
A big one in the bodybuilding world, however this statement has been greatly misinterpreted when carried over into the wider world.
Bodybuilders do not eat 6 meals a day because they think it raises their metabolism and burns more fat (although I am sure some probably do). They eat regularly because they hold a greater amount of muscle mass and require a greater number of calories than the average human being and need to eat regularly to consume these calories and fuel their training and recovery.
We must acknowledge that digestion does raise metabolism slightly, however evidence shows that, given an equal number of daily calories, the number of meals largely makes no difference in fat loss. Moreover, some studies suggest that having smaller meals more often makes it harder to feel full, potentially leading to increased food intake and fat gain!
So, to take home, eat as many meals as you like as long as those meals equate to your target calorie consumption. If you need 3500 calories per day, greater meal frequency may be more ideal than 3 enormous meals, but it won’t enable you to burn more fat.
7. Fresh is better than Frozen
Fresh produce has a natural appeal to many people, however 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 farmer’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.
While there are some differences between fresh and frozen for select nutrients in certain fruits and veggies, overall, they have very similar nutritional content, yet frozen products (especially berries) can be considerably cheaper.
8. Post Workout Protein
During resistance training, you damage your muscles, which your body then needs to repair, often making them stronger (and larger) in the process, if the required nutrients are available. The facilitating material for this repair is protein (or the amino acids protein is broken down into), yet the existence of a beneficial post-workout “anabolic window” for this protein consumption remains a contentious topic for debate.
“You need protein right after your workout” may not be a myth but it is an exaggeration.
Consuming 20–40 g of protein within the two hours following your workout may beideal, but it isn’t necessary. What matters most is your daily protein intake. To maximize muscle repair, aim for 1.4–2.2 g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day (0.64–1.00 g/lb/day).
9. Fasted Cardio
Another bodybuilding favourite which has been misinterpreted along the years. Low intensity exercise on an empty stomach burns more fat, right? - because the body is forced to use fat stores as fuel? This one has science behind it, however practical studies fail to support the theoretical benefits.
During low intensity cardio, performance and energy expenditure in the fasted state are about the same as in fed state (however, if partaking in high intensity cardio, prior feeding is recommended for increased performance). In the fasted state, yes, you’ll burn more body fat, but that won’t make it easier for you to use body fat as fuel during the rest of the day, which is one of the benefits of fed, high intensity cardio. When looking at total fat used over the course of the entire day, they kind of equal each other out.
There’s very little difference between cardio in the fed or fasted state, be it with regard to fat loss, muscle preservation, daily caloric intake, or metabolic rate. What really matters is your preference. Some people feel lighter and energized when they do cardio on an empty stomach, while others feel light-headed and sluggish. Fed or fasted state: pick whichever makes you feel better or whichever better suits your body type (for example, a 225lb bodybuilder may not fancy running sprints).
10. Post-Workout Carbohydrates
Similar to post-workout protein in point 8 – Carbohydrates are often seen as an essential nutrient to consume in the ‘anabolic window’, 30-60 minutes post workout.
Although consuming carbohydrates post workout would theoretically help raise the anabolic hormone insulin, and thus facilitate transport of muscle building nutrients, there is little evidence to suggest post workout carbohydrates promote any greater muscle building benefits than when taking protein alone (although not as effective as carbohydrates, protein has been shown to increase insulin without carbohydrate consumption).
Some studies actually show greater muscle building benefits when participants prioritised protein and carbohydrates pre workout, rather than post workout, however this is largely down to preference as carbohydrates can sometimes make us feel sleepy or bloated, two things we do not want before we train.
However, post workout carbohydrates have been shown to benefit high level athletes and those who train with short periods between one session and the next (for example an athlete training twice per day or an athlete training in the evening and following morning). This is largely due to the speed of which these types of people (with large workloads) need to replenish glycogen stores and recover before their next bout of training.