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Healthy Eating: Myths vs. Facts

by Madeline Waters, RDN

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A myth is advice that becomes popular without facts to back it up. When it comes to healthy eating, it can be challenging to sort through what’s fact and what’s a myth. It's important to learn the facts about what you’re eating so you can make the most informed food choices and learn how to develop healthy eating habits.

Myth: Eating at Night Causes Weight Gain

Fact: First and foremost, it is important to make sure that you are eating balanced nutritious meals throughout the day. A balanced meal has: whole grains, protein, fruits, vegetables, dairy or dairy alternative, and healthy oils. Balanced meals will fuel your day by providing the body with adequate energy through carbohydrates, protein, and fat and nourishment through vitamins and minerals. Balanced meals throughout the day may also lessen the likelihood of feeling hungry at bedtime.

Of course, there are those days that we do feel hungry before bedtime – if that happens, here is some information to help you make an informed decision about a nighttime snack:

Most people have found themselves hungry after dinner or before bedtime, often from boredom or cravings. In theory, as long as you don’t exceed your daily caloric intake, you shouldn’t gain weight from eating at night. However, if this snacking is mindless, you may not be conscious of the calories you’re ingesting and can exceed your daily caloric intake, which may lead to weight gain. It is all about being mindful. If you are hungry, listen to your body and choose a balanced snack. Slow down, savor the snack, and when you are done with the snack, ask yourself if you are still hungry – chances are you will be satisfied and ready for a good night’s sleep.

If you do find yourself hungry at nighttime, reach for nutrient-dense foods instead of junk food. Be mindful of the amount of sugar in your snack to avoid overnight spikes in blood sugar. Choose a balanced snack such as fruit with unsalted nuts, banana with peanut butter, cheese and whole grain crackers, Greek yogurt with granola, cottage cheese and fruit, unsalted nuts.

Myth: Fasting Can Help You Lose Weight Quickly

Fact: Fasting can lead to extreme hunger and this extreme hunger may lead to overeating. This overeating may lead to weight gain. Rather than fasting, aim to balance your meals. For better appetite control throughout the day, choose balanced meals that include a variety of food groups: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, dairy/dairy alternative, healthy oils. Balance is key.

Restrictive diets, such as fasting, can be difficult to maintain long-term. Devote yourself to making a lifestyle change that can be maintained over time. This will ensure that the results you work so hard to achieve can also be maintained. Rather than being restrictive, try being more inclusive of healthy foods. By choosing healthy foods in proper portions, weight loss and maintenance can be achieved in a sustainable, healthy way.

Myth: Kale is the Healthiest Green

Fact: All leafy greens are nutrient powerhouses. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends at least 1.5 cups of dark green vegetables per week. Note that 18-21 cups of vegetables are recommended per week – this may sound like a lot, but this translates to about 2-3 cups of vegetables per day. The vegetable subgroups are: dark green vegetables, red and orange vegetables, beans and peas, starchy vegetables, and other vegetables. Try to include vegetables from all the subgroups throughout the week to meet your weekly recommendation.

Leafy greens are a source of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium, fiber, and some even provide calcium. (Given that vitamin K is found in leafy greens, anyone taking blood thinner medication should first consult with their doctor or dietitian due to a vitamin K and drug interaction). Some popular leafy greens are: spinach, kale, broccoli, collard, mustard greens, turnip greens, watercress, romaine, etc.

Leafy greens get their vibrant green color from antioxidants that help fight free radical damage within the body. Fresh leafy greens are low in calories – leaving room for more foods to be enjoyed with them and within your daily recommended caloric intake.

Leafy greens are versatile and can be used in a variety of ways:

  • Salad: Enjoy raw leafy greens in a salad. Top a bed of massaged kale with vegetables and a source of lean protein, grains, and healthy oils.
  • Soups: Add leafy greens to homemade soups.
  • Stir-fry: Add to a stir fry. Try spinach, bok choy, or broccoli. Stir fry with colorful, nutrient-dense vegetables, a grain, and a lean protein.
  • Steam: Steam leafy greens to slightly soften them.
  • Blend: Add leafy greens to a balanced smoothie.

Myth: Multi-Grain Breads are Healthier Than White Breads

Fact: Multi-grain breads may sound healthy because they are marketed with “multi-grain,” but multi-grain breads aren’t as healthy as you think. Food companies use various refined grains to create some multi-grain breads, filtering out key nutrients in the process, which is what happens during the manufacturing of white breads. Unless the multi-grain bread is made with whole wheat, it is similar to white bread.

Here are some tips to help you choose nutritious whole grains:

  • The term to look for when you are reading the labels is “whole wheat.” Whole wheat contains the entire whole grain kernel: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The bran contains vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber. The germ contains healthy fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals. The endosperm contains carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals. A “refined” or “enriched” grain is missing one or more of the nutritious parts of a whole grain kernel. Often, the bran and germ are removed from refined grains, leaving only the endosperm. This process takes away important vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Refined grains may be enriched to add some nutrients back in.
  • Whole grains contain all the vitamins, minerals, and fiber found naturally in the grain kernel. Therefore, whole grain foods are preferred as the most nutritious choice. The Dietary Guidelines recommend making at least 50% of more of your grains whole grains.
  • In order to make sure you are choosing 100% whole wheat bread, look at the ingredient list. Look for the word “whole” at the beginning of the ingredient list to indicate the product is indeed made with whole grains. Examples: “whole oats, whole wheat, whole grain (followed by name of grain), etc.”

Enjoy whole grains in your daily diet:

  • Start your day with whole grains: choose oatmeal, whole grain toast, or a whole grain cereal. The fiber found in these whole grains can help keep you full between meals. The whole grain will also help provide steady energy in the form of complex carbohydrates to fuel your day.
  • Choose whole grains over white, refined grains when choosing breads, tortillas, bagels, pastas, etc.
  • Snack on grains: choose whole grain crackers, air-popped popcorn

If you’re having trouble sticking with a healthy lifestyle, consider establishing a partner in health. Talk to your primary care physician or a registered dietitian nutritionist about how to get started on your wellness journey.

Madeline Waters is a registered dietitian nutritionist with UPMC Susquehanna. Registered dietitian nutritionists are the food and nutrition experts who translate the science of nutrition into practical solutions to help individuals make unique, positive lifestyle changes.