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Common Nutrition Trends - DEBUNKED!

November 18, 2013
With nutrition topics constantly hitting the mainstream, and everyone having varied opinions on the subject, the science can seem to be confusing. There is a lot of skewed information put out there and some that is just plain wrong. The blog world online creates nutrition “facts” more frequently and seemingly faster than the scientific literature. Taking control of your health is one thing, but at the end of the day, nutrition needs to be scientific. In this article, we address that which appear to be overhyped in the alternative health community.

1. Attack on “Government” Nutrition Standards - Do you hear/say: “Look at the conventional nutrition guidelines and look at the rates of obesity and diabetes, obviously something is wrong”? Obese people are surely not following the nutrition guidelines put out by the major policy makers. Of course they are likely influenced by industry, but these policies are made based off the best science available, while also taking into consideration what foods are widely available, what is feasible for the average person to attain, and what will deter disease. Trusting a bodybuilding forum's/natural health blog's opinion over a group of diverse PhD's who've read over the literature doesn't make much sense. It's very scam artist-y to start off saying, ‘they've got it wrong, you've been mislead, and I've got it right’. In reality, the major issue is that current policy has created a food environment that allows for cheaply produced corn/soy/wheat products to be turned in readily available, cheap food products. Very little subsidy dollars goes towards fruits and vegetables (for a variety of reasons that would necessitate another NEWS entry altogether). Critiquing current nutrition standards should be saved for after the development of an ideal food system where fruits, vegetables, and minimally processed foods are the norm. Read up on the farm bill and the horrible politics surrounding that and suddenly your issue over vitamin C recommendations doesn't seem that big of a deal.

2. Grass Fed Meat/Dairy - Nutritionally speaking, grassfed gets a lot of hype because it contains lower amounts of omega 6 fats, higher omega 3's and contains a fatty acid known as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) - which may benefit heart health. Unfortunately, there is so little of these omega 3's in grass fed meat/dairy to truly make an impact on your health - eating fatty fish or taking a fish oil supplement gets you substantially more omega 3's per serving. There are varied numbers, but on average, you would need to eat about 4.5lbs of grass-fed beef to get the current omega fatty acid recommendations. That is definitely not feasible and even if you could, you would displace so many other nutritious foods by eating that many calories solely from grass-fed beef. The conjugated linoleic acid in grass fed beef runs into the same problem - there is so little of the fatty acid in grass fed beef. The levels that are often boasted about by proponents of CLA in grass fed beef were studied in raw meats - cooking the meat reduced the CLA content to a level comparable to grain fed beef, because of fat loss in cooking. Not to mention, the benefits of CLA, which is not entirely backed by all the scientific literature on it, were at levels in the range of 5g - DRASTICALLY higher than 1g of CLA per 100g of RAW grass fed beef. To be fair, there are no long-term studies of intake of small amounts of CLA on heart health. However, even if these studies existed, it's currently not feasible in our food system for everyone to eat grassfed beef due to cost and availability concerns, nor does it seem to be plausible in the near future.

3. Spirulina - with claims of being one of the most nutrient dense sources of food, and containing 55% vegetable protein, spirulina sounds like the perfect food source. However, the reality is a freeze-dried powder that is quite expensive and provides very little nutrition per serving. The high protein claims come with the reality that most spirulina servings are only a couple grams and you might get 1g of protein out of that. All of the micronutrients and phytochemicals that exist in spirulina would need to be consumed at high quantities - also, not many recipes incorporate it on it's own so you'd probably be drinking a lot of smoothies and breaking your bank. There have actually been legal battles between distributors of algae products and the FDA over health claims - the FDA described the benefits of spirulina as "negligible". Making the case for algae supplements worse, many algae produce natural toxins known to cause liver damage. Some of brands of algae have been tested to show higher than tolerable levels.

4. Antioxidant supplements - Antioxidants are a diverse group of biological substances that prevent dangerous molecules called free radicals from harming our cells. Antioxidants appear to be great for your health, however it is scientifically unclear exactly how antioxidants interact with our bodies, what doses are appropriate and how they are synthesized and beneficial for our health. It's believed that a high fruit and vegetable intake can help extended long life and deter aging-related diseases, in part, because of antioxidants. However, the antioxidants in these foods are generally at low doses, aren't completely absorbed, and are delivered over a longer period of digestion, slowly entering the body. Antioxidant supplements, however, are large, mega doses of these compounds in a pill form. It's generally thought that the more of a good thing, the better. However, recent data shows that antioxidant supplement can actually be harmful and cause damage to DNA. Too much of them appears to interfere with some of the body's natural processes. Until the science is better understood, stick to getting your antioxidants from colorful fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans and grains - avoid the pills and save your money.

5. Protein Powders - Go to a gym and it seems that everyone has a shaker and protein shake ready the moment they finish their workouts. While protein is essential to the body, the recommended levels are about 50g for women and 60g for men depending on height, weight, and age. Some people argue for a bit higher levels (especially for those who are physically active) and generally, that's not too big of a concern. However, over time, intake of too much protein can cause stress on the kidneys and possibly lead to kidney failure. When choosing protein sources, you should be getting more than just protein alongside of it. If you eat chicken, you're not only getting protein but also getting the vitamins and minerals that come with it. If you eat chickpeas, you're getting 15g of protein per cup, as well as 12g of fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, folate, and phytonutrients. Most protein powders are just protein, with blended amino acids. Some will add in a multivitamins worth of nutrients, but the quality and bioavailability of those nutrients should be questioned. It's also important to note that the FDA does not regulate what goes into protein powders. You can never be sure that what's on the label is what's in the bottle. When you're looking for protein sources, choose whole foods that come with all of the other benefits. If you are going to drink a protein shake, try ones that are closer to whole foods, like hemp protein powder, which retains some fiber and omega 3's and drink plenty of water.

Making sense of the confusing world that is nutrition should not be left to the public. Registered dietitians go through years of education and training to be able to decipher what is right for a person. THEY are the trusted sources for all things nutrition - do not be fooled by TV doctors, health "experts," celebrity chefs, and those who bring on nutrition as a hobby. For more questions on these topics (or others), do not hesitate to ask the expert: Mr. Cook-It.

Kevin Klatt, Nutritionist + Assistant Site Manager


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