This month, our focus is on nutrition: one of the most confusing aspects in our quest for optimal health. Unlike our ancestors, who were pretty much happy to get enough food in the first place, the sheer volume of options we are faced with can be as dizzying as the tsunami of nutritional information being thrown at us.
Much of that information is supported by shaky science, and/or sources who stand to profit from our acceptance of their claims. The most immediate example that comes to mind for me is coconut water, a beverage I’ve seen in bodegas all my life, at about 99 cents for a big can of the stuff.
Suddenly, it was found to have antioxidants, and electrolytes, and superior hydration properties. All that was needed was some fancy packaging, the claim that the particular coconuts this magical elixir is made from obtain their moisture from Andean mountain mist, and WHAMO! You’ve got yourself a 700% markup, and coconut water producers are doing cartwheels in their new condos.
In that vein, let’s take a look at 3 prevalent nutrition myths:
CARBS (AND SUGARS) MAKE YOU FAT
Like many things, nutrition often boils down to common sense. In this case, it means that carbs, like fat and protein, will be stored as fat if they represent excess calories. That means that you need to use those calories up before they get stored, either by physical activity or the increased metabolism that comes as a result of having more lean muscle which, unlike body fat, consumes calories even when you are at rest.
The reason carbs get a bad rap is that food and beverage companies have racked their brains to come up with the cheapest way to deliver a calorie to the consumer, and it turns out that sugar and flour (as “carby” as carbs get) are ideal candidates. They’re inexpensive to produce, have a long shelf life, and are space efficient; It takes a lot of bulky, quick-spoiling apples to give you the same amount of calories as a bottle of apple juice. Sodas, cakes and candies are even better, because all you need is sugar, flour and flavoring, and you’re in business. You can pack a lot of calories into a small package. For someone who is already storing excess calories in the form of body fat, it stands to reason that this type of delivery system is to be avoided.
But the fault doesn’t lie with carbs, per se. It’s the quick, excess calories that are the dietary culprit. Most naturally occurring foods that contain calories will also have bulk to them (meat, fruits, nuts, vegetables), so that the fullness you feel when consuming them gives you a gauge as to when you’ve had enough. That’s a little harder with soft drinks and desserts.
SKIM MILK IS BETTER THAN WHOLE MILK
Why someone would want to lighten their coffee with skim milk is beyond me, unless their preference is for grey, watery, bitter drinks. In that case, more power to them. But if they think they’re making a healthy choice, they may want to revisit that.
Skim milk used to be a by-product of obtaining cream for human consumption. But then someone came out with a study linking fats like those found in milk to heart disease. All of a sudden, a by-product became a pot of gold, and dairy farmers everywhere jumped for joy, kind of like margarine makers, who whipped up some fat, added chemicals to it, and fraudulently sold it as a healthier alternative to butter. Modern studies have since debunked those silly claims. In fact, a Harvard study which followed public school kids found that those who drank low or non-fat milk wound up being fatter than those who drank whole milk.
As if that weren’t enough, it turns out that the vitamins contained in milk are fat soluble, which means that by removing the fat, you’re also removing your ability to absorb those vitamins, thereby robbing it of its nutritional value. If you’re still not convinced, it may interest you to know that farmers often feed skim milk to their pigs, because if fattens them up quickly. When pressed to explain why, farmers say that when they give them whole milk, it makes the pigs feel full right away, and they stop drinking, whereas with the skim milk they just keep going. Food for thought…
VITAMIN SUPPLEMENTS HELP YOU LIVE LONGER
There are approximately 51,000 different supplements on the market today, and the industry generates many billions of dollars. Clearly, they have a vested interest in having you believe that you are increasing the length and quality of your life by consuming their products. But does it stand up to the science?
Of the recent studies conducted, 4 of the 51,000 were found to have measurable benefits to otherwise healthy humans. These are calcium and vitamin D in postmenopausal women to prevent bone thinning, omega-3 fatty acids to prevent heart disease, and folic acid taken during pregnancy, to prevent birth defects.
High doses of that same folic acid, however, have been implicated in an increased risk of precancerous colon polyps. One international study that tracked 8,000 people found no differences in health or longevity when comparing people who took vitamins to those who took placebos. Another found that those taking antioxidants had a 5% increase in mortality rates compared to a control group. The body can only handle a certain amount of vitamins. The rest gets stored in your tissues, with potentially toxic effects
Clearly, there are things we don’t understand about how supplements affect our bodies, and you can’t really expect that the guy making money from your multivitamin purchase is going to fall over himself trying to get you the right information on how his product can have adverse effects.
The truth is that if you eat a reasonably well balanced diet, you will obtain the vitamins and minerals you need from your food. There may be people with certain conditions that involve vitamin deficiencies, which can be determined with a blood test administered by a doctor (as long as it’s not the guy who sells you the supplements), but most of us who live in the developed world simply don’t need it. Remember your uncle that developed rickets? How about the neighbor with scurvy?… Yeah, me neither.
What we kind of always knew deep down inside; Eat a balance of protein, fats and carbs. Protein and fats should come from meat, fish, chicken, cheese, nuts, and avocados. Carbs should mostly come from fruits and vegetables. As far as grains and starches (oatmeal, rice, potatoes, bread), they can be good source of fuel for your workouts, but should be used sparingly, and in proportion to your activity level, increasing your intake when activity levels are high, decreasing them when they aren’t. Sugars should be used minimally.
Diets that cut carbs completely are often unsustainable, and have a poor record when it comes to the long term, as subjects in many studies gained their weight back, as is the case with many restrictive plans (I know that whenever I’ve tried it, I could smell a bowl of white rice from a block away, and felt like I would have knocked over some school kids to get to it.)
If you’re going to put something in your coffee or drink some milk, just drink it whole. It’s better for you, and the fat in it will make you feel fuller sooner. As long as you’re not chugging it like water, you’ll be OK. Ditto for cheese and butter.
Unless your doctor has identified a specific deficiency that requires nutritional intervention, get your nutrients, vitamins and minerals from a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Maintain a balance between the amount of energy you consume by way of food intake, and the amount of energy you expend by way of physical activity which, after all, is what we’re here to help you with ;-).
By Gerry Pinzon, Mercedes Club Personal Trainer and Boxing Instructor