Debunking 3 Popular Nutrition Myths

Wouldn’t it be nice if it were illegal for anyone to knowingly convey false or misleading information about nutrition in print or on TV? Alas, it may seem dishonest, but because of one main driver – profit – the misinformation continues.

But as an informed, not-easily-persuaded runner, you might be wondering, “Why don’t more people buy into the ‘If it seems too good to be true, it probably is’ line of thought?” Well, there are actually quite a few reasons. First of all, we all want quick and easy solutions to life events that confound us. Things we absolutely can’t control, like ageing or incurable diseases, and the things we can control with a lot of work, like managing the amount of stress in our lives, addressing our fluctuating weight, and more. Fad diets and fad products also sell because we tend to believe what we want to hear, we tend to believe what we see in print, and many ads sound quite scientific and true. So it makes sense that we dive in with both feet and believe nutrition news that’s current and hot off the press.

Below, we explore a few popular and cyclical nutrition myths and debunk them.


Myth #1: Natural is better.

We’ve all heard this one, and my answer to this slogan is, “Arsenic is technically natural.” There’s no set definition for “natural” on a food label, and if you ask the FDA what they consider to be natural, here’s what you’ll find out: From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product as “natural” because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added colour, artificial flavours or synthetic substances.

Many manufacturers who produce “natural” products to improve your health aren’t always qualified to do so, and if you’re opting for a natural remedy for whatever ails you, you might want to think twice. Keep in mind that some “natural” dietary supplements are not benign and can actually interact with other meds you might be taking or might even derail your running performance due to possible side effects. At the end of the day, more research is needed, and funding is not available to analyse every “natural” product. Remember: Just because that supplement or snack food claims to be natural doesn’t mean it’s going to boost your health and performance!


Myth #2: Coffee is evil and will dehydrate you!

Thank goodness this one isn’t true. While in large doses, caffeine can have a diuretic effect, a 2002 study by the researcher Armstrong (and colleagues) showed that despite its mild diuretic effect, caffeine does not dehydrate. In fact, many of us actually rely on caffeine-containing drinks (coffee, tea, fizzy drinks, etc.) to hydrate us. If you’re a habitual user, it’s likely that any effect on urine losses is minor. Added bonus of caffeine? Just a moderate amount can actually improve your performance. The researcher Ganio and colleagues suggest that caffeine ingestion can be an effective ergogenic aid for endurance athletes when taken before and/or during exercise in moderate quantities (3-6 mg/kg body mass). They also add that abstaining from caffeine at least 7 days before an event will give the greatest chance of optimising the ergogenic effect. Remember, a little bit of caffeine can go a long way and taking more won’t make you faster; there is no evidence of a dose-response relationship to caffeine, and too much can make you feel jittery or worse. One word of caution – there are some runners who are sensitive to caffeine, and if you’re one of them, I’d recommend leaving the coffee and caffeine-enhanced gels at home.


Myth #3: Breakfast isn’t all that important.

The other day I was in a coffee shop, and based on my attire, the cashier realised I was a runner. As we got to chatting, I let slip that I was a sports dietitian. Her eyes lit up, and she said she had something she’d been dying to know. Her question? “Exactly how important is breakfast, and will any food jump-start metabolism?”

It’s probably not a coincidence that the frequency of eating breakfast has declined over the past decade while the incidence of obesity has skyrocketed. Time and time again, research has found links between eating breakfast and weighing less, and eating breakfast and having an overall healthier diet. Research suggests that by eating regular meals throughout the day, the risk for obesity and chronic diseases can be reduced, thanks to mechanisms involved in energy balance and metabolism. Breakfast actually is very improtant because when you skip breakfast, it may lead to an up-regulation of appetite (i.e. you feel hungrier) and this may lead to weight gain over time. Folks who skip breakfast tend to have a poorer quality of diet mainly because breakfast-eaters have higher fibre and nutrient intakes for fewer kilojoules than those who skip breakfast, are starving by 10am, and then dive into the box of doughnuts at the office.

But to answer the cashier’s question, “What should I be eating?” luckily you’ve got some options. If it’s a choice between skipping your meal altogether and chowing on double-deep fried doughnuts, I’d have to lean toward abstaining until something healthier is available. The best breakfasts include complex carbohydrates (e.g. whole grains), as research has found that whole grains and plant foods can help you feel satisfied for longer. Along with whole grains, breakfast is a great place to add in your first serving of fruit (and we’re all looking to up our fruit and veggie intake, right?). For staying power, try adding in a source of lean protein, like skim milk mixed into your oats or Greek yoghurt with your granola.


Not a Myth! Eating late in the evening makes you gain weight

Surprise – this one isn’t actually a myth and is backed by scientific evidence. Researchers have found that the time of day in which food is consumed may influence appetite and overall energy intake. Just as eating breakfast has been found to decrease overall food intake throughout the day, eating more later in the day has shown a positive correlation with overall food intake throughout the day. For more information about the benefits of shutting down the kitchen after dinner, turn to our class session on “Stop eating after dinner to lose weight.”

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