The Nutritional Therapists of Ireland have highlighted five common health and nutrition myths that they feel need to be corrected.
Myth: Eggs are bad because they raise your cholesterol!
Myth Busted: Eating any cholesterol does not result in overall higher cholesterol in the blood.
Why? Because the body regulates the level of cholesterol in the blood regardless of how much you eat.
Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes, two:
1) A genetic Condition called Familial Hypercholesterolemia which affects 1 in 500 people, where a person’s liver expresses much less LDL receptors and is therefore unable to clear ‘used’ cholesterol in LDL particles from the blood.
2) Cases of LOW cholesterol can be improved by eating more cholesterol; this is normally related to hypo caloric states, or liver disease, hyperthyroidism or cancer.
Cholesterol is a complex subject but the overview is very simple. We need cholesterol to live, and we need a lot of it.
The body regulates how much cholesterol it needs to have in the blood, and at different times of the day, week, month or year it needs different amounts. We need more cholesterol when we are stressed, ill, pregnant, growing, injured, training, working hard or eating a bad diet that damages our body, and we need less when we are sedentary, relaxed, well, and generally chilled out and eating a good diet!
Cholesterol gets into our blood in two ways:
1) Most of it is made by our liver
2) The rest...max 20%...comes from our food.
Egg yolks contain a lot but all animal foods contain cholesterol because it is in the cell membranes, so the fat and the lean both contain cholesterol. If we ate no cholesterol at all (as a vegan might) we’d still end up with the right amount the body needs at any given moment, it’s just that the liver would have to work that bit harder to make it all.
That’s one cholesterol myth busted...the amount of cholesterol we eat, whether from eggs or anywhere, does not affect the total amount we end up with in our blood save for the above exceptions.
More on Cholesterol
Low cholesterol is a big risk factor for mental diseases like depression or dementia and even for cancer. In fact research tells us that low cholesterol is a risk factor for more diseases than high cholesterol!
Is high cholesterol a bad thing at all?
The level fluctuates regularly but if it is chronically elevated then we should be concerned. The longer cholesterol stays high the more prone it is to oxidisation, the more oxidised it becomes the greater the propensity to induce foam cell production and arterial occlusion as a result of inflammation.
Over the long term we want the goldilocks amount in our blood...not too much, not too little...just right!
High cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease for some people, in general people are better off with their cholesterol somewhere within the ‘goldilocks’ range, but many people with high cholesterol are healthy and never get heart disease, and many people with heart disease never get high cholesterol. This is because heart disease is not due to high cholesterol therefore focussing solely on high cholesterol is of limited benefit.
There are several factors involved in heart disease and different people are affected in different ways by one or more of the following:
If the body is so good at regulating the amount of cholesterol in our blood...how do we get high cholesterol at all?
Remember from first principles, the body determines the amount of cholesterol in the blood. If we have too much our intestines would stop absorbing the cholesterol we eat, our liver would start making less and it would excrete more via bile into our bowels.
So any problem with these functions, for example hypothyroidism, IBS, bowel cancer or gut inflammation, will allow cholesterol to pool in the blood. Therefore high cholesterol is a sign to investigate these metabolic functions.
Separately cholesterol levels may also be high due to the need for more cholesterol, as per examples given above...injury, growth, stress etc.
Does eating fat elevate cholesterol?
Fat, particularly saturated fat, is a substrate from which the liver produces cholesterol, so yes fat can turn into cholesterol...but the body still regulates this process on demand, so eating more fat (whilst eating the required amount of total calories) will not necessarily give you more blood cholesterol!
A useful analogy might be:
If you went to the local park and saw hundreds of police there...would you think “there are too many police here...what can we do to lower the number”?
Or, would you think “Wow...hundreds of police in the park...something must be wrong! Maybe hooligans have taken over the park!!”
Whilst it is true that statin drugs can lower cholesterol levels, a more comprehensive approach to heart disease is to address the full spectrum of problems.
A Nutritional Therapist can advise you on what you can do to support the overall working of your body and thus improve many of the risk factors that contribute to heart disease.
In fact Nutritional Therapy, along with exercise, has proven itself to be the best intervention for reducing the risk of heart disease because it addresses several of the underlying causes...not just one!
Doctors are encouraged to follow best practice guidelines which state that patients with high cholesterol must first be advised to modify their diet and lifestyle in an effort to lower cholesterol to the desired range.
Only when this fails must they be advised to take a statin drug.
So that’s another myth busted…the official first line intervention for patients with high cholesterol is not statin drugs…its diet change…and that’s official!
Myth: Low Fat products are healthier because they help
us lose weight and avoid heart disease!
Myth Busted: When real foods, like milk, cheese, butter, meat
and eggs, have been processed to remove their fat, they
become less nutritious for the body and actually contribute to
Caveat! When it comes to processed oils and junk food then the lower fat option may be preferable, but ideally we should avoid fake-foods altogether.
Are full fat foods really better for us?
Natural fat from real food is good for you.
As well as supplying large doses of minerals to our bodies, fat is the source of all of the ‘fat soluble vitamins’ A, D, E, K1 & K2. It is well accepted that small amounts of all these vitamins are essential to our life, but less appreciated is the fact that optimal amounts are critical to our general sense of vitality. In other words we need a certain minimum amount to live…but beyond that we need optimal amounts to feel good and thrive. Low fat foods deprive us of these.
The latest scientific research is moving along the debate about fat. Today we know far more about how fat works in our body than we ever did. We know that fat in our bodies is different to the fat we eat, and although we know that weight gain is the result of eating a net excess of all calories, we also know that for most overweight people, the excess fat comes from eating excess sugar, not fat!
Fat is incredibly important to our health. It helps us to build our cells, nerves and brain tissue, it helps us regulate our hormones, balance our mood, improve our skin texture and vision and even helps us sleep better.
The nutrients that come with fat exert a positive influence on our ability to regulate our weight and to keep our cardiovascular system healthy. Vitamin A for example is necessary for a normal heartbeat, vitamin K2 is needed to make flexible yet strong artery walls that resist atherosclerosis, and vitamin E helps red blood cell formation making exercise easier as red blood cells bring oxygen to our tissues.
Therefore, to the extent that we avoid fat by choosing low fat versions of real food, we deprive ourselves of these crucial nutrients thus making it more difficult for our bodies to regulate weight and cardiovascular function.
In light of this knowledge…ask yourself…are Low Fat foods healthier than the original higher fat food from which they came?
Now you might say “Fair enough, I see the value of the nutrients contained in real fat…but what if I’m already overweight, what about all the calories in fat”?
Yes, it’s true, to lose weight you may need fewer calories, but you don’t need fewer nutrients! The trick is to maximize the amount of nutrients with the right amount of calories, and eating real foods that have been processed to remove some fat is not the way to do it because it deprives us of crucial nutrients.
Aside from the obvious skipping of junk and processed foods, which are high in calories and low in nutrients, the best way to achieve a reduced calorie intake is to eat less food overall, or indeed if you must pick on one macronutrient then eat less carbohydrates, this way you still get the benefit of all the good nutrition, and the satiating effect of fat.
There are plenty of lower carb vegetables available, think of salads, cauliflower, carrots, onions, garlic and herbs, all of which provide fewer calories and still supply lots of nutrients, however the same is not true for lower fat options. Low fat cheese for example may be lower in calories but it is also stripped of many nutrients that were in the fat. In other words you lose out on nutrition when you choose low fat, but you actually increase nutrition (whilst losing the calories) when you choose lower carb. Lower carb does not automatically mean very low carb. People undertaking very low carb diets should only do so with professional guidance.
What if I have Heart Disease…won’t high fat foods, particularly saturated fat, contribute to high cholesterol and clog my arteries?
We have already busted the myth that eating cholesterol contributes to our total amount of cholesterol in the blood, it doesn’t. (See Myth 1) But does saturated fat contribute to high cholesterol?
Saturated fat is used by the liver to manufacture cholesterol, that’s true. But the body will still regulate the total amount of cholesterol it requires regardless of how much saturated fat you eat. In any event, cholesterol is not the main culprit in heart disease.
Some diet trials showed that eating saturated fat raised cholesterol levels, but it was HDL, the so-called good cholesterol, that was more elevated!
Does eating high fat food in general contribute to heart disease?
No, not as long as it is real fat from real food and one does not eat more food than their body needs.
Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,”
Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease.”
There are two main foods that do independently contribute to heart disease, processed fat and processed sugar, not only that but they can do so even if you don’t overeat in general. So it’s possible to lose weight by cutting calories yet at the same time develop heart disease due to eating a lot of processed fat and or processed sugar!
Of course eating too much food in general can contribute to heart disease, but as long as you are eating a calorie appropriate diet of real food, then fat does not contribute to heart disease. It’s also harder to over eat this way! In fact eating sufficient real fat, which includes some saturated, some monounsaturated and some polyunsaturated fat as part of real food, can promote a healthy heart. Whole foods are just better for you in general!
For clarity lets distinguish between Low Fat foods and foods that are naturally low in fat…like apples, cabbage or potatoes for example.
When a retailer boasts that apples are low in fat…well it’s technically true…but it’s a bit silly. It’s playing on the idea that the apple is better for you because it’s low in fat! It’s as if the retailer is promoting themselves as a ‘good guy’ because they went out of their way to get you a low fat apple! Of course the truth is not that apples are good for you because they are low in fat, but rather that apples are just good for you!
So, generally speaking, Low Fat / Lite / Fat Free products should really only refer to versions of products that have had some fat removed by processing. For example Low Fat milk is just regular milk that has had some cream removed, and a ‘lite’ chocolate cake would have less fat than its ‘regular’ equivalent.
MYTH: Vegetable Oils are good for you because they
MYTH BUSTED: Polyunsaturated oils are not intrinsically better for you than monounsaturated or saturated fats…all three types have different functions in the body and can be good for health. Conversely all three types can also become damaged by heat and processing which renders them pro-inflammatory and unsuitable for consumption.
So why the big fuss about polyunsaturated oils being so healthy?
In recent history saturated fat was unfairly demonized after preliminary research suggested it was responsible for clogging arteries. Thankfully new science has overturned this opinion, but in the interim seed oil marketing efforts stepped in to convince the public and the medical establishment that seed oils…aka polyunsaturated ‘vegetable’ oils, were healthy because they were the ‘opposite’ to saturated fat. This opinion has taken deep root and thus the myth persists to this day.
The vast majority of vegetable oil sold today is extracted from seeds like canola, sunflower, safflower, soya beans and corn using high heat and chemicals. Since this oil is predominantly polyunsaturated it is volatile and very susceptible to oxidization by heat and light thus they are already oxidized before consumption.
This presents a dual problem to the body after ingestion, namely it contributes to creating an unhealthy excess of omega 6 over omega 3, and secondly the oil is damaged by heat and processing.
Both of these points independently contribute to excess cellular inflammation making them very unhealthy for the body and may even contribute to heart disease according to a review of data carried out for the British Medical Journal.
Saturated fat on the other hand is much more stable when exposed to heat and light and thus is less prone to oxidation and rancidity making it more suitable for cooking and consumption than polyunsaturated oils.
MYTH: Artificial sweeteners promote weight loss because
they help you cut sugar calories.
MYTH BUSTED: Artificial sweeteners may have zero calories but
they are inflammatory to the body and can promote weight gain
via several mechanisms.
Since sugar gets a deservedly bad rap it seems to make perfect sense to avoid it by choosing foods sweetened with artificial zero calorie sweeteners, but this may actually backfire!
Studies in mice show that artificial sweeteners can impair insulin resistance.
A human study on Type 2 Diabetic men after exercise showed that an artificial sweetener induced a similar rise in glucose and insulin compared to plain sugar, suggesting that there was no benefit at all to choosing the artificial sweetener over regular sugar! http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/30/7/e59.full
Artificial sweeteners may actually cause weight gain by negatively impacting the gut micro biome, even in healthy human subjects!!
Nature (2014) http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13793
Whether artificial sweeteners are better or worse in the long term than the sugar they replace is a tough question.
It’s much easier to answer the question: Is one better off eating real foods and simply getting used to a diet without any intense sweeteners which offer no nutritional value, and are probably bad for you?
A qualified Nutritional Therapist can easily guide a person through the maze of conflicting information, and using a step by step program it is common for clients to successfully avoid all forms of intense sweeteners, whether natural or artificial, without feeling deprived. In fact they can often continue to enjoy ‘treats’ as part of a healthy lifestyle. Choice and variety are plentiful!
MYTH: Elimination diets are a bad idea because they can cause nutrient deficiencies
MYTH BUSTED: Elimination diets do not result in nutrient deficiencies when guided by qualified Nutritional Therapists. They are powerful tools for identifying the root cause of many health complaints.
The main concern leveled against elimination diets (and the Therapists who advise them) comes from erroneously conflating Public Nutrition Policy with Personalised Nutrition Advice.
Public policy must operate on a lowest common denominator approach as it seeks to supply generic healthcare guidelines to a nation, therefore it must avoid complicated instruction lest it be misconstrued and wrongly applied by sections of the population to their own detriment.
Personalised Nutrition advice is very different from Public Policy and operates in a different context where an individual is actively engaged with a qualified Nutritional Therapist and diet changes are monitored for their effect, and changed to suit the personal circumstances and level of understanding of the individual.
Short term restrictions of food groups are often employed to help determine food intolerances or to find the root cause of digestive complaints so that a remediation program can be put in place. Nutrient deficiencies do not arise as a result of short term diet restriction.
Medium to long term diet restrictions may also be advised in certain circumstances, for example where a person reports feeling better whilst avoiding certain foods, or where damage to ones digestive system takes time to resolve.
In these cases diets are easily recreated to ensure adequate supply of key macro and micro nutrients despite eliminating certain food groups. In the event that a suitable diet cannot be implemented, for example due to food reactions, or personal preference, temporary courses of nutritional supplements can be employed as extra insurance. Such fine tuned advice is not possible to issue to the public at large and is thus one of the key strengths of personalized Nutrition Therapy carried out under the guidance of a fully qualified practitioner, such as those listed on the NTOI website.
The most common criticisms of exclusion diets relate to wheat and dairy. Wheat and dairy comprise the lion’s share of the world’s most allergenic foods and are thus commonly excluded…often indefinitely.
For sure much of this advice is based on fad reasoning or simple popularity, but much is also necessary, thus navigating this complex field should ideally be done under professional guidance. For every food excluded there are numerous alternative common foods available to replace them and supply the ‘missing’ nutrition.
For example dairy supplies most people with their RDA of calcium, but if it needs to be excluded then all green vegetables, nuts, fish, bones and meat can be used to supply the difference.
The main concern with excluding wheat is the potential deficit it may cause for carbohydrate in general and B vitamins specifically, but also fiber.
All of these nutrients are easily found in a range of other foods, for example potatoes and bananas supply lots of carbohydrate, beans supply B vitamins and fiber, organ meats, even in small amounts supply ample B vitamins, all vegetables supply some fiber, some B vitamins and some carbohydrate.
Sections of the public may not be aware of this thus exclusion diets promoted to the public at large may well be a bad idea, but under the guidance of a professional Nutritional Therapist they are a very powerful healing tool.