We’re all inundated with information about food. And, like any other stream of notifications coming into our lives, not all of it is worth paying attention to. Some of it, in fact, is completely false.
These food myths have not only contributed to poor brain health, emotional instability, and poor cognitive function, but they also play a role in our societal epidemics of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
They’ve got people completely confused about what to eat. And the most concerning part is that most of them involve food we’ve been eating since FOREVER – food that’s been sustaining us for 99.5% of human history (we’ve only been eating agricultural foods for 0.5% of our evolution).
As I’ve discussed in another post (link), we aren’t always presented with the whole story in the media, or even in our doctor’s office. Therefore, it’s really important to consider information that conflicts with the “food rules” that we all feel so compelled to live by.
If you haven’t already learned to recognize the following myths as the false guidelines they are, please know that your health will benefit greatly from that realization now!
FOOD MYTH #1: Saturated fat causes heart disease.
Nope. There are zero studies that tell us this, but it’s still presented as a proven fact. (1, 2)
I used to avoid saturated fat like the plague, even though it didn’t really make much sense to me that something found in nature was actually going to kill me. Unsurprisingly, the years in which I avoided saturated fat were the sickest of my life.
As it turns out, saturated fat (found in foods like butter, lard, and coconut oil) does not contribute to heart disease, and it’s actually a major component of diets that reverse health conditions. (3, 4, 5) It’s also less likely to cause inflammation than unsaturated fat. That’s because saturated fat doesn’t require heavy processing in order to make it edible, so it usually comes to us undamaged. And if we use it to cook, the heat doesn’t easily damage it either. Consuming damaged fat then causes damage in our bodies.
Unsaturated oils (like canola oil, vegetable oil, peanut oil, and those PAM sprays), on the other hand, fall into the inflammatory category because they are easily damaged by not only heat, but also light and oxygen. Either we buy them already damaged (i.e. rancid), or we damage them while cooking. (6)
Saturated fats are actually healthier than all the industrial processed vegetable oils on the market. What makes this fat more heat stable is the same thing that makes it easier for our body to use as fuel: no double bonds. Double bonds are weak and easily broken, leading to the creation of free radicals:
The fact that unsaturated fats are more vulnerable to damage by heat is one reason why I recommend keeping cold-pressed olive oil cold. Cold pressing means that no heat was applied to the oil in processing, which is a good thing. It’s an unsaturated oil that can be damaged by too much heat, air, or light. It can be used for light sautéing and steaming, but is best saved for salad dressing and drizzling on food AFTER it’s been cooked (as our olive oil expert friends in Europe do).
FOOD MYTH #2: Cholesterol will kill you.
People often lump cholesterol and saturated fat together.
Cholesterol is usually represented as a fat, but it’s not. It’s a sterol (a.k.a. steroid + alcohol). It’s what we’re made of: a building block of all of our cells, responsible for cell repair, proper production and use of Vitamin D, and the production of all steroid hormones (which keep us vibrant and balanced). It’s an antioxidant that protects our cells from damage.
Every cell of your body makes it (it’s that important!), whether you eat it or not.
Because cholesterol is part of the body’s building and repair process, cholesterol levels rise in times of stress, even “healthy” physical stress like intense exercise. Other stressors may include low quality foods (esp. the low quality fats listed above), emotional stress, medications, alcohol – anything that has the potential to damage cells, which require cholesterol for repair.
Elevated cholesterol is a result of the body’s need to rebuild and repair. It’s a symptom of a bigger problem. Instead of targeting the symptom, we should be asking what stress is the body responding to? Rancid fats? Over- or under-exercising? Not getting enough sleep? Highly refined carbohydrates?
Low cholesterol can actually cause problems. It plays a hugely important role in brain function: low cholesterol levels are associated with depression and dementia (and potentially other brain disorders). (7,8,9)
Data from 164 countries collected by the World Health Organization (WHO) and BHF Heart Stats show that people with the lowest total cholesterol levels have the highest general levels of mortality and the highest levels of infectious diseases. Those with total cholesterol levels between 200 and 240 have the lowest general levels of mortality and low levels of infection (many doctors still encourage levels below 100!). The data also shows that heart disease occurs in people will all levels of cholesterol, indicating that it’s is not a good indicator of heart risk. (10, 11)
Makes you wonder why we’re being scared shitless about our cholesterol levels, doesn’t it?
Read: prescription drugs designed to lower cholesterol levels make the pharmaceutical and medical community lots of money. But, we can decide to take a different path, one that actually supports health. Eat your egg yolks and butter.
FOOD MYTH #3: Fat makes us fat.
With so many products in the grocery stores that still perpetuate the “low-fat” mindset, it’s no wonder that this myth endures. Likewise, many doctors still recommend that people adopt a low-fat diet, or a diet low in the fats that are actually good for us, like saturated fat from healthy animals.
Take milk, for example. Low-fat dairy has been all the rage for decades, so much so that it’s very difficult to find whole milk yogurt anymore unless you go to a health food store (which should tell us something).
But high-fat dairy is associated with lower body fat and lower rates of cardiovascular and metabolic disease. (12, 13)
Also, women who eat the most low-fat dairy are 85% more at risk for infertility than women who ate the least low-fat dairy, though, we don’t know if this had more to do with the poor quality of the dairy and the high amounts of hormones present in the milk or the absence of the fat itself. (14)
Generally speaking (and from a biochemical perspective), we know that eating fat does not cause us to store body fat. Sugar does. That’s why so many studies find that low-carb diets work so well to reduce body mass and diabetes. (15, 16)
Our brains are 60% fat, so it stands to reason that consuming healthy fats are an important part of brain health (and restricting them might compromise brain health). Saturated fat has a positive effect on mood and cognition, especially when someone is experiencing sadness. (17) (That explains those ice cream cravings!) By contrast, low-fat diets tend to have a negative effect on mood. (18)
FOOD MYTH #4: Salt is bad.
Salt isn’t the evil villain it’s often made out to be. Unless you are salt sensitive or have chronic renal disease, lowering salt intake doesn’t change health outcomes when it comes to heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure. And, for about 15% of the population, lowering salt intake too much can actually cause high blood pressure. (19)
For the vast majority of people, it’s more likely that there are other lifestyle factors at play – the preservative-rich, highly processed packaged foods that usually contain salt (so many other problematic ingredients there), low intake of phosphorus, potassium and other important and counterbalancing minerals, lack of physical activity, stress, alcohol consumption, etc. (20)
Natural sea salt is a healthy choice that is lower in sodium and contains counterbalancing minerals (magnesium, potassium, etc.) that refined table salt does not. (21)
Salt actually keeps you hydrated (which is why sports drinks contain sodium and other minerals) and helps with mineral balance that supports kidney and adrenal function. It’s a crucial component of a healthy diet.
FOOD MYTH #5: Meat causes cancer.
First off, much of the controversy around meat started as a result of the demonization of saturated fat and cholesterol. We’ve already discussed the fallacy of those arguments.
Secondly, there is a huge difference between processed meat and unprocessed meat.
Processed meat is full of nitrates, a known carcinogen. (22) On the other hand, studies using unprocessed meat show no correlation, or a “weak” correlation, to cancer. (23, 24, 25) Also, cancer risk can be increased through cooking methods for meat, including charring it – so it may be less the meat itself, and more what we do to it. (26) Unfortunately, so many of the studies that link meat to cancer do not do a good job of separating out other lifestyle and diet factors. The Standard American Diet (note that the acronym here is SAD – appropriate, huh?) includes meat, but also fried foods, processed foods, high refined carbohydrates, soft drinks, and other high-sugar items, which are known cancer-causing foods. People who consume these foods also tend to be smokers and stick to a sedentary lifestyle.
Meat from animals that are properly raised – grass fed beef, organic and free-range chicken and wild seafood – offers us a whole host of nutrients that are difficult or impossible to get from plant foods.
My experience with incorporating the right kinds of meats into my diet and my client’s diets have only reinforced the idea that meat is part of what sustains us (though the ideal amounts and types of meat will vary from person to person).
Want to test these recommendations?
If you have been told by your doctor that you have high triglycerides, cholesterol, blood sugar or any other blood marker, change your diet to incorporate saturated fats, healthy animal protein, increase your vegetable intake and reduce the more processed foods for three months before getting your blood rechecked. You will be amazed.
If you’re starting to see that we’ve made some very costly assumptions about what we should be eating, but don’t know how they all fit into a healthy balanced diet, check out this post for guidelines and photos to help you get started!