Nine food myths busted

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 14, 2014 19:08 IST

Judging by the response the column on food/health/diet myths received, many of you are as confused as I am by the multiplicity of contradictory health information out there.

So here’s another (entirely healthy) helping of the same stuff. My primary source this time is the Australian dietician, Nicole Senior, author of the book Food Myths.

Myth: Shellfish cause heart disease.
The same as eggs – another old wives’ tale. The dietary cholesterol in shellfish (oysters, prawns, scallops etc) does not make a significant contribution to your blood cholesterol levels. Shellfish are actually low in total and saturated fat.

Myth: Blood-type and food-combining diets are the best way to lose weight.
Reality: Well, maybe they are – but there is no convincing scientific evidence to back up either diet’s weight-loss properties.

The blood-group diet was popular after a bestseller made it a rage a decade or so ago. It drew its intuitive appeal from our belief that different people respond in different ways to the same diet. Some lose weight quickly and some don’t.

There is actually a branch of nutrition called nutrigenetics devoted to working out why we react differently from each other. Some dieticians plan diets according to what they think will work best for your genetic makeup. But deciding what your genetic makeup is can be a lot more complicated than just looking at your blood type.

The blood-type diet works on the assumption that characteristics within your blood will affect digestion. For instance, people with blood group O have more stomach acid and can therefore find it easier to digest meat. On the other hand, people with blood group A produce less acid and are therefore better off with vegetarian diets and less meat.

The problem is that there is no convincing scientific evidence for this theory. Even if people with type O blood do produce more acid, this has very little to do with the ability to digest meat. The digestion of meat is done by enzymes produced by the pancreas and not just by stomach acids.

If this theory were valid, then everybody who suffers from acidity should eat lots of meat every day and lose lots of weight! Alas, digestion is not so simple to explain.

Food-combining diets have been around for a long time, but they sprang to fame in 1985 with the publication of the best-selling Fit for Life, which said that you could not combine meat with complex carbohydrates (ie rice, wheat, potatoes etc). In effect, what this meant was that unless you were vegetarian, you should stop enjoying food: no biryani, no meat curry with rice or chapatis, no steak and chips, no ham sandwiches, no keema naans, etc.

But if the Fit for Life theory is valid and people who eat only vegetables along with complex carbohydrates will never put on weight, then all vegetarians should be thin – which as any Indian knows is nonsense.

There is absolutely no scientific evidence for this. And all the stuff about stomach enzymes and food fermentation etc that this diet is based on is pooh-poohed by scientists.

But yes, it will cause you to eat less. And that alone will make you lose weight.

Myth: There is no natural propensity among some people to put on weight. It is all your own fault.
This is a load of cobblers. I know, for instance, that I put on weight faster than most people. (I joke that I put on two kilos every time I pass a pastry shop.)

Research has shown that a tendency to put on weight is genetic. Researchers studied identical twins who had been raised separately and found that they had a similar body weight even if they had been raised apart – or given away for adoption at birth.

So, the fault is often in our genes. Some of us are programed to be fat and some to be thin. This does not mean that people with fatty genes should lie back and eat jalebis all day. We should all try and eat healthy. But let’s accept that it isn’t always our fault.

Myth: Eggs increase cholesterol.
The late Russi Modi outlived most of his contemporaries even though he was famous for the number of eggs he consumed. And in general, Parsis who eat eggs with everything (even bhindi!) live a lot longer than the rest of us.

Nobody has found any causal link between eggs and heart disease. In fact, eggs are good for you and a typical 50mm egg contains 5gm of fat of which only 1.5gm is saturated fats.

So don’t necessarily eat loads of eggs – unless you are a Parsi! – but you can forget all that nonsense about egg white omelettes.

Myth: Exercise alone can lead to weight loss.
Exercise is good for you. But it isn’t the best way to lose weight. Run for 30 minutes and you will expend 403 calories. Come back and eat a chocolate bar and you will consume 342 calories.

This explains why the people you see, year after year, walking around Lodhi Garden or Mahalakshmi Race Course are fatties. They eat what they like and imagine they can lose it through exercise.

The best way to lose weight is diet plus exercise. But if you have to pick only one, pick diet over exercise.

Myth: Microwaves can make food toxic.
Relax. Microwaves are safe. You don’t lose nutrients if you cook vegetables in the microwave whereas if you boil them, the nutrients are thrown away with the water.

Microwaves don’t expose you to radiation for significant lengths of time, as the moment the microwave is switched off there is no radiation in the kitchen. Even if the microwave is on and the door is properly closed, no radiation leaks out.

Myth: Red meat takes longer to digest.
This myth was popularised by Fit for Life. The book also said never to combine meat with fruit (so no duck a la orange, no Thai food, no turkey with cranberry sauce etc.)

There is no scientific basis for this view. All food takes about three hours to leave the stomach. And it is fully digested and excreted within one to three days. Meat is no exception, even if you eat a banana after your seekh kabab.

Myth: Non-stick pans are the best.
Well, yes and no. The bright side is that you may need less oil while cooking. The bad side is that some non-stick pans should not be used if you are cooking at very high temperatures.

Some non-stick pans use PFOA, a chemical, which, at high temperatures, can release dangerous gases into the air. These gasses can cause flu-like symptoms in humans and can even kill pet birds.

So if you are frying at hot temperatures, cooking Chinese food or making a steak, then use cast-iron. It is safe and adds more flavour to your food.

You will note that professional kitchens rarely use non-stick pans. That should tell you something. On the other hand, many non-stick pans are manufactured these days without dangerous chemicals. So, if you can tell the difference then do, by all means, use non-stick cookware.

Myth: Frozen food is bad for you.
The opposite is true. We can argue about the flavour of say, frozen fish versus fresh fish and yes fresh is better. But even the frozen kind is not bad for you.

In the case of some vegetables, frozen is better. The vegetables are frozen within hours of being harvested, whereas you have no way of knowing when the vegetables your sabziwalla sells you were picked.

Plus some vegetables (peas are the best example) start to deteriorate as soon as they are harvested. So frozen vegetables may actually be healthier.

From HT Brunch, September 14
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