May 22, 2006 12:00 PM

You’re familiar with the government’s food pyramid. You know about the benefits of high fiber. And you’ve learned to check for saturated fats. So why do you still feel confused when you stare at the grocery-store shelves? Enter nutritionist Marion Nestle, author of 2002’s award-winning Food Politics. In her latest work, What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating, Nestle develops your cart smarts by tackling the conventional wisdom about healthy eating.

Myth 1

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day

“What you eat is more important than when you eat it,” Nestle says. So if you’re someone who’s groggy without corn flakes in the a.m., go ahead; otherwise, let your body tell you when it wants food. But Nestle stresses that the same doesn’t hold true for kids: Studies show children who eat breakfast do better in school.

Myth 2

You should drink eight glasses of water a day

Nestle says that’s an old—and entirely arbitrary—recommendation. “Drink all that water and you’d never get far from a bathroom!” she jokes, adding that the body takes in plenty of water throughout the day as you drink coffee and juice and munch on fruits and vegetables. Thus, she concludes, “unless you’re in a very, very hot climate, elderly, live at a high altitude or are seriously physically active, you don’t need to drink that much beyond what you normally would take in.”

Myth 3

Dairy will help you lose weight

Based on recent studies, the dairy industry claims that eating milk, cheese or yogurt every 24 hours can help people burn fat and lose weight. But Nestle points out that the study’s participants were placed on a low-calorie diet (that included dairy); thus, she concludes, it was really by eating less that they dropped pounds. “It has nothing to do with dairy itself that I can tell,” she says.

Myth 4

Soy milk is nutritionally superior to cow’s milk

Yes, soy milk has less saturated fat (and is thus healthier) than whole milk—but skim milk is just as low in saturated fat. So if you prefer soy to skim, fine, but don’t feel that you have to make the substitution.

Myth 5

Yogurt is a health food

Only if you eat plain, unsweetened yogurt. Although yogurt is packed with calcium and active cultures that help the digestive tract stay healthy, those benefits can be outweighed by the added sugars in most varieties. A typical 6-oz. serving of fruit-flavored yogurt has up to five teaspoons of sugar, prompting Nestle to call it “dessert.”

Myth 6

Brown eggs are better

Actually, Nestle says, the only difference between brown and white eggs is the price; brown are more expensive. (Nutritionally, they are the same.) As for eggs fortified with omega-3 fatty acids (which tend to be priciest of all), although some studies suggest omega-3s may reduce the risk of heart disease, Nestle says there isn’t yet firm evidence of that.

Myth 7

You need the calcium from dairy products to build strong bones

Dairy provides the majority of calcium in American diets—but there are plenty of other, healthier sources. As for claims that calcium helps stave off osteoporosis, Nestle argues, “Whether you develop the disease may be a combination of everything you eat, plus genetics and how active you are and whether you smoke or drink.”

Myth 8

There’s no nutritional difference between organic fruits and vegetables and those that are conventionally grown

Actually, because organic produce is grown in richer soils, it tends to have more vitamins and minerals. Another important difference: The organic variety hasn’t been treated with pesticides or chemical fertilizers. “I don’t like pesticides in my food,” Nestle says. “I can’t prove they’re harmful, and I can’t say that people are going to die of cancer or heart disease if they eat these pesticides. But if they’re chemicals that are killing insects, can they be good for us? I would rather not be the experiment.”

Myth 9

You should take a daily multivitamin

That’s not a bad idea if fast and processed food are your diet staples. But if you’re eating well-balanced meals—the kind with leafy greens, whole grains and lean proteins—then vitamins are likely a waste of money. “If your body doesn’t need them, you just pee most of them out,” Nestle says.

Myth 10

Cooking sprays don’t have the calories and fat of oil

As it turns out, the serving size listed on the labels of most cooking sprays—which promise zero calories and fat—is equal to a spritz just one-fourth of a second long. “Keep spraying, and you’ll get the calories”—about 120 a tablespoon, the same as vegetable or canola oil, Nestle says, though she admits you’d probably use less of it.

Myth 11

Bottled water is safer than tap

“The testing that has been done shows that there isn’t much difference,” says Nestle. If you’re really worried about the quality of your tap water, you’re better off buying a filter.

Myth 12

It’s okay to eat as much meat as you want if you stick to lean cuts

The phrase “lean beef” is an oxymoron—because even if the meat is labeled “80% lean,” the majority of calories come from fat. “All beef is high in saturated fat and calories,” says Nestle. “That is the nature of the animal.” So watch portion size.

Myth 13

It doesn’t matter if you buy farm-raised fish or wild fish

Fish hatched in pens would seem to be attractive: They’re cheaper than fish caught out in the ocean, and because they’re fed ground-up adult fish, they grow larger. But here’s the downside: Farm fish have more accumulated toxins (mercury, pollutants and bacteria) than wild fish, so choose accordingly. As for canned tuna, you can relax: It’s usually pretty low in all of the bad stuff.

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