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TORONTO – Gluten-free, fat-free, sugar-free. Guidelines on sugar, recommendations for salt intake, limits on red meat consumption. The Dukan diet, a cleanse, and a juicing craze.
These days, it’s hard to wade through what’s fact and what’s fiction when it comes to nutritional advice and what you should be eating.
Global News asked registered dietitian and nutrition expert Zannat Reza to walk readers through the top misconceptions out there about nutrition.
Superfoods are your saving grace: First there was blueberries, then it was kale, brussel sprouts, chia seeds, and acai and goji berries – superfoods are allegedly nutritional powerhouses that we should stock up on. But does that mean that apples, spinach and other vegetables and fruits should be exiled?
Reza says no. “The whole point is other regular non-sexy fruits and vegetables also have benefits to them. There’s no such thing as a superfood,” she said.
“Different foods offer different benefits so it’s not like you can eat tons of kale and think you’re healthy. There has got to be variety – you can’t bank your health on one particular superfood,” she said.
Her suggestion is to mix it up: include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Whole grain and multigrain are synonymous: This is where shopping for bread at the grocery store can get confusing. Multigrain means that the product in hand has many different grains – corn, rice, wheat, barley, for example. Whole grain is what consumers should be looking for. In this case, the whole grain includes the outer skin of the kernel (the bran), the vitamin-packed, protein and fat-rich sprout (or the germ), and the endosperm, packed with minerals and carbohydrates.
“Multigrain doesn’t always mean whole grain, which is what you want because it includes all three parts of the grain that work together for a health benefit,” Reza said. Multigrain options could also include processed products that are stripped of the bran and germ.
A low-fat diet is good for you: Fat, just like gluten, has been demonized, Reza says. These days, grocery stores are lined with fat-free treats but she suggests consumers stop to think: if the fat is being swapped out, what’s it being replaced with? In most cases, the fat is being substituted for sugary carbohydrates and that’s not always a healthy trade-off.
“We need fat in our bodies,” Reza said. It makes food taste more satisfying, and along with protein, leaves us feeling satiated until our next meal. As a general rule of thumb, reach for fat in whole food sources instead of processed fare.
“I eat full fat cheese, I will never eat low fat cheese or I feel completely ripped off,” Reza said. She also cooks with canola oil and olive oil, sautés vegetables in a bit of butter and eats fatty fish like salmon, all sources of healthy fats.
Agave, honey and brown sugar are better than regular sugar: If it’s sweet and delicious, the bottom line is “sugar is sugar is sugar.”
“They’re all the same and your body treats them the same,” Reza explained to Global News. The World Health Organization dropped the gauntlet on consumers with its updated recommendations: sugar intake should be just five per cent of your total calories. For an average woman, that’s roughly 25 grams of sugar per day – and it includes sources such as table sugar, honey, syrups and fruit concentrates.
Brown sugar is, in short, sugar with molasses while honey and agave are natural sweeteners. But don’t convince yourself that that makes it okay for you to smother your pancakes in either option.
“Spoon for spoon, they all count as added sugar, and contain the same amount of calories,” Reza said.
(It’s the same case for sea salt: gram for gram, sea salt, table salt and kosher salt have the same amount of sodium. The differences include the texture, taste and how they’re made.)
Frozen fruits and vegetables aren’t as good as fresh: If you can get your hands on fresh fare when it’s in season, then go for it, Reza recommends. But the frozen option is just as good – it’s harvested and frozen at peak ripeness so nutrients are locked in. It’s also more convenient; just take what you need, and freeze the rest. But Reza says that consumers should reach for frozen fruits and veggies that come without added sauces and seasonings.
Gluten-free diets help you lose weight: Some people adopt the gluten-free lifestyle to help them with their gluten insensitivities. Others boast that the switch helped them lose weight. Reza said that gluten-free diets are meant to help people with Celiac disease – they can’t process the gluten found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye so they swap it out for flours made with rice, soy, potatoes, or tapioca.
But pastries, bread and other goodies have been slapped with a gluten-free “health halo.” And Reza says that if people on a gluten-free diet are losing weight, it’s more likely because they’re cutting down on processed goods and replacing them with fresh food.
“Some people can actually feel better but maybe it’s because their diets weren’t good to begin with. Maybe it isn’t the gluten,” she said.