Fad or fact: Busting myths behind food
From the goodness of red wine to the benefits of olive oil, there are too many theories about food, health and dieting. Vir Sanghvi does a deep dive to try and find how many of these have a scientific foundation.brunch Updated: Jul 19, 2014 17:16 IST
So, will red wine make you live longer? Will olive oil make you thin? Is honey excreted undigested from your system? Is the best way of dieting as simple as eating a small portion of food every two hours?
I have heard so many theories about food, health and dieting over the last couple of years that I decided to do some digging to try and find out how many of these theories have any scientific foundation.
I looked far and wide but the best single source of accurate information was Dr Michael Mosley, author of the Fast Diet books. You might want to look him up.
Myth: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day
Well, yes and no. It’s good to eat breakfast but there is little evidence for the claim that you need a good breakfast to get your metabolism going or that people who eat breakfast are slimmer and healthier.
One recent study took 300 overweight volunteers and asked those who always ate breakfast to try skipping it. Those who never ate breakfast were asked to eat something every morning. At the end of four months, they weighed both sets of volunteers.
People who had never before eaten breakfast but had now started had lost 0.76kg over four months. But regular breakfast eaters who had now begun skipping it had also lost 0.71kg.The researchers concluded that whether or not you eat breakfast makes no difference to your weight.
Myth: Chocolate makes you happy
This myth has been assiduously promoted by chocolate companies who now ascribe all kinds of health benefits to chocolate. Often, these claims are substantiated by references to ‘scientific’ research that has been sponsored by the chocolate companies themselves.
Also read: Have chocolate to lose weight
The truth is that chocolate does contain tiny quantities of substances that can elevate your mood. So far so good. But many other foods contain much larger quantities of these substances: salami, for instance. And yet, I have never read an article that says “Want to feel happy and romantic? Eat lots of garlic salami!”
One reason why people often feel a degree of elation after eating chocolate is because chocolate usually contains sugar and they get what is known as a sugar rush.The problem is that cheap chocolate usually contains the most sugar. But the claims are made most often for very expensive, low-sugar dark chocolate.
Myth: Olive oil will not make you fat
I have done a whole article on the olive oil propaganda blitz before so we won’t cover the same ground. But two things need to be remembered. One, there are many cheaper oils with the same health benefits as olive oil. So, if you are using it on grounds of health alone, then make sure you consider the alternatives. And two, the whole point of olive oil is that it is an oil. In other words, it is fat. It will affect your body weight in exactly the same way as all other kinds of fat.
It is worth making the point that recent research suggests that butter and ghee are not as unhealthy as doctors used to claim. Eating anything to excess is bad but there is no case for eliminating butter and ghee entirely from your diet.
Myth: Honey will make you thin
If I had a penny for every time somebody told me to give up stevia or splenda on health grounds and to switch to honey or agave syrup instead, I would be a millionaire.
Scientists are almost uniformly agreed that we eat too much white sugar or (in processed foods) corn syrup. So yes, there is a very strong case for cutting down on refined sugar and sugary products. But the view that both honey and agave syrup are as calorie free as, say, stevia is bogus. Honey has many wonderful properties, but in calorific terms, it affects your body in much the same way as sugar. Agave syrup is even sweeter than refined sugar.
So, if you want to cut down on sugar for health reasons then this makes a lot of sense. But switching to honey or agave syrup may not be the best alternatives.
Myth: Crash diets do not work
Yes, a crash diet that leads you to concentrate on one particular category of food or to ignore vital nutrients may be bad for you. But all the scientific research shows that a crash diet is the most effective way of losing weight quickly.
Doctors who admit this will warn you that even if you lose weight on a crash diet it will all come back very quickly. Well, perhaps not. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania compared very low calorie diets with standard diets. They found that while weight tended to come back once people stopped dieting there was no difference in the extent of weight gain between those who went on crash diets and those who followed the so-called healthy diets.
Myth: Eat many small meals a day
Many dieticians have made fortunes by telling us not to eat proper meals three times a day but to eat small quantities of food – a handful of nuts, an apple, etc. – every two hours or so.
A recent study at the Institute for Clinical and Experimental Medicine in Prague tested this hypothesis. Two groups of testers were fed 1,700 calories a day. The first group ate at regular intervals while the other group ate six small meals in the course of the day.
It turned out that the people who ate regular meals lost an average of 1.4kgs more than the group that ate several small meals. More significantly perhaps, they also lost about 1.5 inches more from around their waists. The people who kept eating small meals not only lost less weight but were also highly dissatisfied and hungry throughout the day.
Scientists are sceptical of exercise instructors and dieticians who suddenly decide that they understand the complicated business of metabolism. And so should you be.
Myth: Drink water to lose weight
I am so fed up of beauty editors and other morons on the staffs of women’s magazines who pretend to understand how the human body works.
The truth is that everybody needs water because we need to stay hydrated. One estimate is that our body needs two litres of fluids every 24 hours. But what beauty editors don’t tell you is that these fluids can be taken in any form. Coke, coffee, tea, etc. all count as fluids. So does the water content of many foods.
There is one interesting sidelight, however. While research shows that water makes little difference to how hungry you feel, soup can make a difference. Drinking soup will make your stomach stay fuller for longer and will stave off hunger pangs. Hopefully, you will eat less as a consequence.
Myth: Fasting is bad for you
This one has undergone a change in recent times. In the old days, we were told that fasting would lead to all kinds of terrible consequences for the body and especially, the stomach. Now, with the popularity of the 5:2 diet, fasting has suddenly become trendy. I even read some ‘research’ that claimed that fasting helped the body heal faster.
There is, however, the widely held view that if you fast, your blood sugar levels will fall dramatically and that you may feel faint.
Indians should know that this is not necessarily true for healthy individuals. We have a long tradition of fasting and our ancestors managed okay. But there is now research to back up this view.
One study showed that volunteers who lived on nothing but water for 84 hours did see drops in their blood glucose levels. They fell from 4.9 mmols/1 on the first day to 3.5 mmols/1 by day four. But these levels are not unhealthy. They are not in any sense abnormally low and pose no great danger to health.
And there’s a silver lining. The same study showed that as blood glucose levels diminished, the levels of fatty acid in the blood shot up. This demonstrates that fasting causes your body to switch to fat-burning mode. And so, it’s not a bad way to lose weight, after all.
From HT Brunch, July 20
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First Published: Jul 18, 2014 18:14 IST