Nowadays, it seems most people have strong opinions on how to eat, which diet is best or what is considered healthy or not healthy when it comes to food and nutrition. The reality is that nutrition is a nuanced topic. What might work for some, does not work for others. That said, experts do agree there are several food myths and misconceptions that persist.
To clear up any confusion for those who are trying to eat healthier, Yahoo Life reached out to eight dietitians — aka food experts focused on science — and asked them what pervasive nutrition myths they would like to debunk and squash for good. Here’s what they said.
Myth #1: Only shop the perimeter of the grocery store
The perimeter of a grocery store is often praised for offering fresh produce, meat, seafood, dairy and fortified non-dairy products, while some suggest avoiding the middle aisles because of processed and prepackaged foods on those shelves.
But as dietitian Lauren Harris-Pincus, founder of NutritionStarringYou.com and author of The Everything Easy Pre-Diabetes Cookbook, puts it: “The center aisles contain a treasure trove of nutrient-dense and cultural foods including frozen fruit, veggies and seafood, canned beans, fruit and vegetables, as well as dried beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds and spices.”
She tells Yahoo Life that this is the most damaging myth because it removes delicious, affordable and easy sources of essential nutrients from people’s shopping carts. Only 1 in 10 Americans consumes the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, and 95% do not meet the recommended amount of daily fiber. To better meet nutrition needs and have a well-balanced diet, Harris-Pincus encourages shopping in all areas of the supermarket that stock high-quality whole foods in any form.
Myth #2: Low calorie and low fat means healthier
“Opting for the lowest calorie options possible will usually leave you feeling hungry and unsatisfied, causing you to eventually overeat,” Alyssa Pacheco, dietitian and founder of the PCOS Nutritionist Alyssa, tells Yahoo Life. “Additionally, not eating enough calories can backfire in the long run because it can lower your metabolic rate.”
It’s also important to note that high-calorie foods such as nuts, avocados and oils, are nutrient-rich and health-promoting. As with calories, low fat isn’t better than full fat. Fat helps us feel full, better absorb fat-soluble vitamins and provides flavor. Catherine Karnatz, dietitian and creator of Nutrition Education RD, cautions that many low-fat and fat-free products, like yogurt or salad dressing, will often contain a lot of added sugar to try to make up for the flavor that’s lost from reducing or removing the fat content.
Instead of focusing on low-calorie and low-fat foods, experts urge eating enough calories and fat to support health and stay satisfied. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommends 20 to 35% of daily calories come from fat, with less than 10% from saturated fat.
Myth #3: Natural sugars are healthier than table sugar
While both honey and maple syrup have antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, they do not offer much nutrition and aren’t necessarily healthier than table sugar. This also applies to other natural sweeteners, such as date sugar, agave nectar and brown rice syrup.
“At the end of the day, your body digests and views all of these foods as sugar,” says Pacheco. What matters is that excessive sugar of any kind can lead to increased risks for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, metabolic disorders, depression and cognitive impairment.
Pacheco says that rather than stressing about which type of sugar a person chooses, select whichever one they prefer and enjoy it in moderation. The American Heart Association advises keeping added sugar to a maximum of 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men per day.
Myth #4: Sea salt is healthier than table salt
Just like for sugars, sea salt and Himalayan salt are ultimately salt, and contain about 40% sodium, similar to table salt. Sea salt is minimally processed and may contain trace amounts of minerals like magnesium, calcium and potassium, while table salt is more processed to remove impurities, and typically fortified with iodine for thyroid health. With a well-balanced diet, there’s no need to seek out minerals from sea salt.
Americans already consume over 150% of the maximum guidelines for sodium. “Excessive sodium consumption is linked to high blood pressure and other health issues, so it’s important to limit overall sodium intake regardless of the type of salt used,” Michelle Rauch, a dietitian for the Actors Fund, tells Yahoo Life.
Rauch suggests using any salt sparingingly to maintain a healthy diet. The DGA recommends capping salt intake at no more than 2,300 mg, but ideally, they suggest closer to 1,500 mg or less per day.
Myth #5: Eggs are bad for you and raise your cholesterol
For years, reports steered people away from eggs because of their high dietary cholesterol. However, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines eliminated the daily upper limit of 300 mg of dietary cholesterol per day as more research started showing that saturated fat, not dietary cholesterol, may increase risk of heart disease. Consuming six to 12 eggs a week with a heart healthy eating plan is generally considered safe.
Eggs are an affordable high-quality protein, packed with B vitamins, vitamin D and choline, and have an incredible amount of health benefits. “They can be part of a healthy diet and support muscle maintenance, overall well-being, help meet your daily protein needs and are a versatile protein source that can be added to many different meals,” Umo Callins, sports dietitian and owner of Well Rooted Health and Nutrition, tells Yahoo Life.
Myth #6: Don’t eat after 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. (or when the sun has set)
“Your body doesn’t have an internal clock that yells to your cells, ‘It’s 6 p.m., time to store this food for weight gain!’ Energy is energy no matter when it is consumed,” Katie Schimmelpfenning, founder of Eat Swim Win, tells Yahoo Life.
For those who exercise late, a post-workout snack is still key for muscle repair and growth, notes Schimmelpfenning. And people who work at night need to eat while they’re awake. Many studies also show that it’s not necessarily eating late that leads to weight gain, but rather eating larger amounts of food in the evening. Eating more earlier in the day may help manage hunger later on and prevent overeating.
Rhyan Geiger, dietitian and author, recommends taking a closer look at our overall food habits, and working on those instead of creating an arbitrary cut-off time. She recommends having a meal or snack if a person is actually hungry, and not bored or emotionally eating. “It all comes down to the types of foods you choose,” Geiger tells Yahoo Life. “Opting for fresh fruits, veggies or whole grains is much different than opting for cookies, candies and sweets.”
However, if eating close to bedtime affects digestion, reflux or sleep, consider having that last meal or snack two to three hours before laying down.
Myth #7: Coffee is a meal
Many people can’t start the day without a cup of coffee. But it is by no means a replacement for breakfast or any meal. A cup of brewed black coffee may be antioxidant-rich, but it only has about 5 calories and no protein, fat or carbohydrates.
“While [some] coffee includes protein and fats from milk, it will not leave you full and energized the same way a conventional breakfast does,” Patricia Kolesa, dietitian and owner of the Dietitian Dish, tells Yahoo Life. She suggests in addition to coffee, include quick options like peanut butter on frozen waffles, Greek yogurt with fruit or hard-boiled eggs on avocado toast to start the morning off right.
Maxine Yeung is a dietitian and board-certified health and wellness coach.