Food smarts: separating nutrition myths from facts

Increase plant foods, reduce animal products and don’t worry about a little chocolate, says UCLA Health dietitian Dana Ellis Hunnes.

Should you be eating a keto diet? Going gluten-free? How much protein is enough? Are carbs the enemy?

Being flooded with nutrition information makes it hard to know what’s true. To distinguish myths from facts, we ran some of the most popular food notions past UCLA Health dietitian Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD.

Myth: Cutting carbohydrates is the key to weight loss.

Fact: “Actually, carbohydrates are the foundation of any good, healthy food pyramid,” says Dr. Hunnes.

She adds that the body and brain need eight grams of glucose per hour — derived most readily from carbs — to function normally. Our muscles thrive on carbohydrates.

“Having a low-carbohydrate diet does not really burn calories more or assist with weight loss, except in the idea if you cut out an entire food group, you’re going to eat fewer calories in a day,” she says. “But cutting out carbohydrates is actually not a good thing for the body.”

Myth: The keto diet is the best way to lose weight.

Fact: “That has become an awful myth,” Dr. Hunnes says, “because, again, our muscles and our brains thrive on carbohydrates.”

A ketogenic diet is a high-protein diet sometimes prescribed to hospital patients in need of extremely regulated low-carb, high-fat, high-protein regimen.

“A ketogenic diet is very specific and requires your body to be in ketosis,” says Dr. Hunnes. Ketosis is a process by which the body, lacking sufficient carbohydrates, turns to fat as a fuel source.

The healthiest diet, Dr. Hunnes says, is a plant-based diet or plant-based Mediterranean-style diet, with ample fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans and healthy fats.

Myth: It’s hard to get enough protein without eating meat.

Dr. Dana Hunnes.

Fact: “It's really hard, in a country like the U.S., to be protein deficient if you are getting enough calories,” Dr. Hunnes says. “There’s protein in almost everything. Even vegetables have a teeny bit of protein in them.”

Most people don’t need as much protein as they think they do, she adds. A 140-pound woman, for example, needs about 50 to 60 grams of protein a day. Bread has four or five grams of protein per slice, Dr. Hunnes says. Beans can have 11 or 12 grams of protein per half-cup serving. Peanuts, tofu and soy milk are also good sources of protein.

“It’s very easy to get protein from non-animal sources,” Dr. Hunnes says.

Myth: It’s better to be pescatarian than eat red meat.

Fact: Eating fish is healthier than eating red meat, Dr. Hunnes says, but a plant-based diet is even healthier, for us and for the planet. While livestock growth is a significant source of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, fish are not an endless resource either.

“It’s not sustainable to eat fish instead of meat. At some point, there’s not going to be enough to go around,” she says. “Reducing and eliminating any animal product, regardless of its source, is the best and healthiest diet.”

Myth: Gluten is always bad.

Fact: “If you’re not allergic to gluten, there’s no reason to avoid it,” Dr. Hunnes says. It often isn’t actually the gluten (proteins found in wheat) that causes reactions, but the glyphosate in pesticides and fertilizers used in wheat production, she says.

“I generally encourage people, if they’re going to eat wheat products to go for organic.”

Myth: Eating dairy foods when sick prolongs symptoms.

Fact: “Everything I’ve read says this is a myth,” Dr. Hunnes says. “It doesn’t cause additional mucus.”

Still, she generally recommends avoiding dairy foods.

“There's research out there about dairy products and some of the proteins in dairy increasing the rate of tumor proliferation,” she says.

Besides, dairy alternatives can be delicious. “There are so many non-dairy options out there now that taste just as good as the original, in my opinion, if not better,” Dr. Hunnes says.

Myth: Food choices have no effect on inflammation levels.

Fact: Dietary practices absolutely affect inflammation, Dr. Hunnes says. Plant-based diets high in fruits and vegetables are anti-inflammatory, she says, because these foods are packed with nutrients and antioxidants that reduce inflammation. Animal-derived foods, such as meat and dairy, on the other hand, should be minimized as they are known to increase inflammation.

Sugar is also a culprit, Dr. Hunnes says, so reducing sugar consumption lowers inflammation.

Myth: Chocolate isn’t healthy.

Fact: “Chocolate is definitely healthy,” says Dr. Hunnes, because it contains polyphenols, which are healthy plant compounds. “Dark chocolate is the best, of course – the more cacao the better,” Dr. Hunnes says. “But yeah, nothing wrong with some good ol’ chocolate.”

For more information, visit the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.

Yasmeen Yanez and Morgan K. Newson are the authors of this article, which was produced as part of UCLA Health’s Marketing and Communications High School Internship program. Learn more about the program and apply here.