We all know that what we choose to eat can have an impact on our health - and right now, there’s no shortage of advice, from cookbooks, apps and Insta health gurus.
But most of us are still walking about wondering things like: should I be cutting carbs? Or eating them, but just not the gluten-filled ones? Should I be vegan? Or paleo? The simple act of eating has become a minefield of paradoxical ‘facts’.
Obviously, not everybody talking about nutrition on the internet is doing a bad job - and many of the people out there have good intentions. But as dietitians, and founders of The Rooted Project - offering up nutrition information based on facts, not fads - we believe that people with significant influence and followings have an ethical responsibility to get it right.
Here, we expose eight of the most popular myths we hear peddled in the world of wellness.
1. Coconut oil is better than olive oil
Along with being a cure for diseases from diabetes to Alzheimer’s, this ‘miracle’ ingredient is claimed to promote weight loss by affecting our metabolism and appetite. It contains lauric acid, a fat belonging to a group called medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which have been found to have these effects. However, scientists now dispute whether lauric acid actually behaves like an MCT in the body.
Like all oils, coconut oil is a high-calorie food. One tablespoon contains about 120 calories, roughly the same as half a jam doughnut. So adding a lot to your diet could cause weight gain.
In terms of heart health, the best available evidence shows coconut oil increases cholesterol more than vegetable oils; it also contains 82 per cent saturated fat, whereas butter contains 63 per cent and olive oil 14 per cent.
Coconut oil is promoted as being a good oil to cook with as it remains stable when heated, however this is only the case with the refined variety. Refined olive oil, rapeseed oil and avocado oil are better choices for high-temperature cooking. Unless you are trying to increase your calorie intake, there is no need to add coconut oil to your coffee or cakes.
2. Low carb diets are best for weight loss
How many times have you heard that to lose weight you should ‘cut the carbs’? In simple terms, the theory is that carbohydrates are uniquely fattening because when we eat them our insulin levels go up, meaning we break down less fat and move more of it into storage.
However, we know from ‘metabolic ward studies’ - where the participants live in a controlled environment, with food intake measured and recorded - that the percentage of dietary fat or carbohydrate in a diet makes very little difference to the amount of weight lost.
Real world studies have found the same thing.
Often, people who prefer low-carb diets state that they make them feel less hungry - which may be due to them eating more protein - and that they find they lose weight quickly in the initial stages - which is less to do with fat-burning efficiency and more to do with a loss of water weight. After about 12 months, however, on average there is no difference between low-carb and low-fat diets for weight loss.
While following a low-carb diet may suit you, there is no one ‘best’ dietary pattern for everyone. It’s better to find one that meets your needs, that you enjoy and that you can follow in the long term.
3. Sugar feeds cancer
Recently, amid claims that cancer cells ferment sugar, it has been sugggested that cutting it out of our diet (and following a high-fat, ketogenic diet) could help to slow or even cure cancer. The picture is complicated. Although there are animal studies that suggest reducing carbohydrates in the diet might be beneficial for some cancers, human evidence is extremely limited, and scientists are still (rightly) sceptical.
It might be that, in the future, we learn that a diet lower in carbohydrates could work alongside chemotherapy for some types of cancer. However, as of yet, we just don’t know. Undertaking a diet like this with a cancer diagnosis (or not) is not without risks and has the potential to make things much worse.
4. Dairy leaches calcium from your bones
The rise of veganism has seen a rise in conspiracy soundbites like this. People who promote this myth state that milk is ‘acidic’, and causes calcium to leak out from your bones to neutralise the threat, making them weaker.
Some observational studies have seen that the countries with the highest intake of dairy products also have the highest incidence of osteoporosis.
However, this theory falls down in a number of places. Firstly, dairy foods are rich in calcium, protein and minerals, all of which are essential for good bone health - this is backed up by clinical studies. Secondly, it does not acknowledge the role your kidneys play in maintaining blood pH; they filter out any ‘acidic’ compounds and you pass them out in your urine – your bones aren’t involved in this process.
5. An alkaline diet is healthier
Popular in the UK thanks to the backing of celebrities including Victoria Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow, this diet removes ‘acid-forming foods’ and replaces them with ‘alkaline-forming foods’.
When you metabolise foods they produce waste, which can be either acidic or alkaline and is often referred to as ‘ash’. The alkaline diet is based around the idea that acidic ash can cause diseases such as depression, cancer and osteoporosis.
The trouble is that your body’s inbuilt regulatory systems (lungs and kidneys) keep your blood pH very tightly controlled, and it isn’t possible to change your body’s pH with diet. You can, however, change the pH of your urine, which is what often draws people into the diet.
Most of the foods suggested on the alkaline diet are fresh fruits and vegetables, and many on the ‘avoid’ list are things like sweets, cakes and biscuits, etc, so followers may see an improvement to the quality of their diet. But this is nothing to do with acidity, and avoiding ‘acid-forming’ foods like meat, fish and lentils could mean you miss out on beneficial nutrients.
6. Grains are toxic for the gut
Grains get a bad rap, with many people claiming that they are toxic and can cause damage to our gut lining, in turn causing ‘leaky gut’. This has been blamed on lectins, an indigestible protein found in grains and other foods, such as legumes, vegetables and eggs. As they travel through our digestive system unchanged, it’s thought that they could be damaging to the gut wall.
However, we don’t eat lectins in isolation or in large enough amounts for them to be a problem. Uncooked grains and legumes have high amounts, but as long as you’re cooking and preparing your food properly, they’re nothing to worry about. Grains do contain lectins, but they also contain gut-loving fibre and antioxidants, so the benefits far outweigh the risks. Diet patterns which are high in whole grains, like the Mediterranean diet, have been linked with healthy and long lives.
7. Meat causes cancer
Although scientists are fairly certain that people who eat larger amounts of red meat, particularly processed meats, have a higher risk of colorectal cancer, the level of risk is fairly small. Cancer is a complex disease that doesn’t have one single cause, and can be influenced by many different factors. It’s also likely from a dietary perspective that your actual risk of cancer also depends on your diet as a whole, rather than the inclusion or exclusion of meat. This was reflected in the Oxford EPIC study, which found a small reduction in risk of all cancers in vegetarians, but a higher risk of colorectal cancer.
8. Turmeric is anti-ageing
Putting turmeric into drinks and tonics is currently a big thing in the wellness industry. It’s claimed that its anti-inflammatory effects promote healthy brain ageing and decrease your risk of chronic health conditions like diabetes and even cancer.
The part of turmeric thought to possess these beneficial properties is a compound called curcumin. Turmeric only contains teeny amounts (maximum 5 per cent, but often as low as 2–3 per cent) which is very poorly absorbed from the spice.
Studies in test tubes have shown that turmeric has some potential as an anti-inflammatory/anti-cancer agent, but so far we have very few human experiments. Regularly using it in curries or having a turmeric latte may have a beneficial effect on your health over the long term - who knows? - but it’s not a cure-all and certainly shouldn’t replace modern medical therapies that have been shown to work.
Maybe curcumin will be used along with conventional cancer treatment one day, but at the moment it’s way too early to tell.
Is Butter a Carb? by Rosie Saunt, Helen West published by Little, Brown Book Group RRP £14.99. Buy now for £12.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514