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Common Food Misconceptions: Sorting out fact from fiction

Jul 10, 2014

By Dr Janet Brill

First we are told to avoid fat, now we are told to eat fat—just make sure it’s the “good” kind. Eggs are full of cholesterol and cause heart disease, but no, wait, eggs are healthy and don’t cause heart disease…Oh boy, nutrition advice can definitely be confusing! This situation is most likely due the endless contradictory nutrition messages that bombard the airwaves, all from purported nutrition “experts.” What’s a health conscious person to believe? Here are 5 common food misconceptions and the real truth behind the hype:

FOOD MISCONCEPTION #1: ALL FATS ARE OKAY. It’s time for an oil change in this country. Considering that heart disease is the #1 killer of American men and women, it would behoove all of us to eat a heart healthy diet. This means avoiding the artery-clogging fats whenever possible—saturated fat, dietary cholesterol and trans fat (found in butter, cheese, tropical oils and some processed foods). Make extra virgin olive oil your main fat and add in the omega-3 fats from plants (flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts) and fish (salmon, halibut, tuna).

FOOD MISCONCEPTION #2: EGGS ARE OKAY TO EAT WITHOUT RESTRICTION. Eggs are a highly nutritious food containing protein, vitamins B12, D, riboflavin, and folate. If you are healthy and not at risk for heart disease, the current recommendation is “moderate” egg consumption—meaning up to one a day. However, make no mistake about it, egg yolks are chock full of dietary cholesterol. (The average egg contains about 220 mg.) The government recommends that for those individuals interested in lowering their LDL or “bad” cholesterol via dietary means, they should restrict cholesterol intake to a max of 200 mg/day. One egg and you are over the top. Why not chuck the yolks and eat all the egg whites you want (at a mere 15 calorie per white and a great source of high quality protein—they make a tasty snack).

FOOD MISCONCEPTION #3: BETTER TO AVOID EATING FISH BECAUSE OF THE MERCURY. The American Heart Association recommends that all Americans strive to eat at least two fatty fish meals per week for better heart health. For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a major health concern as the health risks of not eating fish far outweigh the risk of mercury toxicity. That said, here is what you need to know:

  • Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish contain the highest levels of mercury—so eat these fish sparingly.
  • Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are: shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.
  • Another commonly eaten fish, albacore ("white") tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you should only eat up to 6 ounces of albacore tuna per week.

FOOD MISCONCEPTION #4: CHEESE IS A HEALTHY SOURCE OF PROTEIN. Cheese is the chief source of saturated fat in the American diet (an ounce of full fat cheese contains as much saturated fat as a glass of whole milk). Cheese can also be extremely high in sodium and is the yummy full-fat kind is clearly far from a “lean” source of protein. These negative stats have not stopped us from chowing down on our cheese! In fact, Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, nearly triple the 1970 rate. On the plus side, cheese is a great source of protein, calcium, and phosphorus. Your best strategy is to look for low-fat (such as reduced fat versions of Parmesan, grated Romano and part-skim mozzarella) and lower-sodium versions. If this strategy isn’t in the cards, then stick to your full-fat favorites, but just consume highly flavorful ones in very small amounts or as an accent to your dishes.

FOOD MISCONCEPTION #5: A SALAD IS A HEALTHY LOW CALORIE DIET FOOD. You might think that ordering a salad or dining at the salad bar is your healthiest option but that is not necessarily true. Consider this, a chicken Caesar salad at Chili’s (loaded with salad dressing, croutons, cheese, and chicken) clocks in at an astounding 1,010 calories and 76 grams of fat! So what makes a diet-friendly salad? For a healthy salad, think COLOR and plain. Start with a variety of colorful veggies, fruits, beans, and mixed greens. Opt for dark leafy greens like arugula, spinach, and red leaf lettuce in lieu of iceberg lettuce. (The darker the leaf, the more nutrition it has.) Add a small amount of low-fat cheese or another lean protein like beans or hard-cooked egg whites. Top off your salad with a small amount of avocado or chopped nuts to add some healthy fat. Don’t drown your salad in dressing—salad dressing can pile on the calories quickly so order your salad dressing on the side, then just dip your fork into the dressing before you dig into each forkful of salad.

The take away message is to rely on information disseminated by nutrition professional and make sure that the conclusions are from findings from groups of studies rather than a single study. A registered dietitian/nutritionist is the true expert on food and nutrition topics and should be your primary source of trusted nutrition information. A Fitness Together trainer can help you to sort out nutrition facts from fiction by getting your questions answered from a registered dietitian/nutritionist. He or she will also develop an exercise program designed to meet your specific needs. You’ll receive nutritional counseling through the dietitian-designed Nutrition Together program, which will complement your workouts. To find the Fitness Together studio nearest you, please visit


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