Harley Pasternak Blogs: The Top 5 Myths About Diet and Nutrition

From going gluten-free to juice cleanses, the celebrity trainer uncovers the most common diet mistakes

Photo: Courtesy Harley Pasternak

I start most of my days with a walk to my favorite local cafe (2400 steps for the round trip), order a coffee, grab a seat and people watch. Even more entertaining than watching the many “interesting” Los Angelenos is listening to them.

I would estimate (based on my very unscientific cafe observations) that at least two-thirds of every conversation in LA revolves around diet. What makes this figure even more alarming is the rampant misinformation people possess and proliferate when it comes to healthy eating. These conversations inspired me to come up with a list of the top five most widespread myths about nutrition.

MYTH #1: A calorie is a calorie

“Losing weight is simple math! If you eat 1500 calories a day, and do 1500 calories a day of exercise, you’ll never gain weight.” WRONG!

Different foods have different effects on our body beyond their calorie count. Our metabolism, hunger, blood sugar and hormones respond differently to different types of foods. That means that 100 calories of broccoli, is not the same as 100 calories of licorice, just as 3 oz. of salmon is not the same as 3 oz. of cupcakes.

Foods with protein or fiber or healthy fats (or all three) will rev up your metabolism and keep you feeling fuller longer than simple sugars or starches, which will not only leave you still hungry but also will cause your blood sugar (and energy) to spike and then crash.

Let s look at an example. One piece of white bread has the same calories as three egg whites scrambled with peppers and onion. Which option do you think is better for you? If all calories were created equal, these two options would have to be nutritionally equivalent.

MYTH #2: Going gluten-free will help you lose weight

“OMG! My spiritual homeopath did a saliva test on me and discovered I was overweight because I’m allergic to gluten” WRONG!

These days everyone seems to be going gluten-free. From entire gluten-free grocery aisles to gluten-free pizza crust at your local pizza place, it seems everyone is scared of the G-word. Gluten-free product sales reached more than $2.6 billion by the end of 2010 and are now expected to exceed more than $5 billion by 2015.

So how is it possible that an entire nation (somehow only Americans) has been simultaneously affected by gluten sensitivity? The truth is that we haven’t. Gluten sensitivity, which is defined as a gastrointestinal reaction to ingesting gluten (a simple protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye), has notoriously vague symptoms that can range from fatigue and “foggy mind to diarrhea, depression and joint pain.

Now before you shout, That’s me! – only six percent of the population has gluten sensitivity and even fewer (one percent of the population) have a true allergy to gluten, or celiac disease. Celiac disease is an immune response in the small intestine triggered by gluten, which produces inflammation that damages the small intestine’s lining and prevents absorption of some nutrients (malabsorption). Interestingly, one of the major symptoms of celiac disease is actually weight loss due to malabsorption.

If you think you really are having a reaction to gluten, I encourage you to see your doctor who can perform tests and rule out other culprits of similar symptoms (irritable bowel syndrome, for example.)

Where people “succeed” by eliminating gluten from their diet lies in the fact that many of the foods that we overeat (breads, pasta, pastries, crackers) are wheat-based. Wheat contains gluten, so by eliminating gluten, you coincidentally eliminate the foods you were overeating.

MYTH #3: Juice fasts and cleanses rid the body of toxins

“I heard that a juice cleanse can detoxify your liver, clear up you skin and burn fat.” WRONG!

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone saying they re doing a juice fast or a cleanse to “detox” their bodies, I’d never have to work again. I’ve got news for you: The idea of limiting yourself to a regimen of liquid sugar (devoid of fiber, protein or healthy fats) to “flush out toxins” is not only pointless, it’s actually dangerous! I can safely say that the vast majority of us in the scientific community agree that the notion of a nutritional scrub is nothing more than profitable fiction at best, and fraud at worst.

Our bodies have a finely tuned built-in detoxifying system: It’s called our liver and it can detoxify our bodies better than any cleanse or fast without the unpleasantness and danger of muscle cramps, dehydration and diarrhea associated with artificial cleanses.

Fruits and vegetables are loaded with nutrients and fiber. Most of the nutrients, and almost all of the fiber lie in the skin and seeds. When you juice (regardless of the method), you separate the water and the sugars and you throw out the skin and seeds (where most of the good stuff is found). Moreover, an apple has approximately 75 calories and 4 grams of fiber. A large glass of fresh-pressed apple juice has in excess of 300 calories, 80 grams of sugar and zero fiber!

MYTH #4: Eating fat makes you fat

“If I don’t have fat in my diet, I won’t have fat on my body.” WRONG!

Some antiquated diet books will tell you to shun all fats if you want to lose weight but, in reality, it’s not healthy to eliminate fat from our diets altogether. Fat is, along with protein and carbohydrates, one of the three categories of macronutrients that our bodies need to function. Fat’s a major source of energy helps us to feel “full,” is essential in hormone production and helps the body absorb vitamins. It’s also important for the proper function of nerves, our reproductive system and our skin. Our brains need fat, too, especially the ones found in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which we can get only through food; the body does not produce these essential nutrients on its own.

Though fats are essential, they’re not all equally beneficial. There are good fats and bad fats, and we should strive to optimize the levels of healthy fats in our diet (like those in avocados and almonds) while steering clear of the bad fats.

If we limit saturated fats (most of which come from animal sources), entirely cut out trans fats (found in processed foods and hydrogenated oils), and up our intake of monounsaturated fats (found in nuts and vegetable oils) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (derived from vegetable sources and fish) we’ll be doing the most good for our health. These good fats can even help fight Alzheimer’s disease and prevent the brain from shrinking.

MYTH #5: Carbs are bad for you

“I can have a bacon double cheeseburger, and as long as I don’t eat the bun or the tomato, I’ll lose weight.” WRONG!

In the past decade, carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap. Self-proclaimed celebrity diet gurus have shunned them, fleeting diet fads have banned them, and sensationalist magazines have villainized them. But did you know that vegetables are carbs? That’s right. Broccoli, cucumbers, spinach and celery are all carbs.

The carbohydrate category includes fruit, vegetables, whole grains and other foods essential to a healthy diet. Most carbohydrates are absorbed into the system much faster than protein is, so eating a mixture of protein (and or healthy fats) and the right carbs gives you a feeling of satiety and an even release of energy throughout the day. So how can we tell the difference between a good carb and a “less good” carb?

One good general rule of thumb is that the closer the carb is to its original form, the better it is for you. When we get into refined starches and processed ingredient, that’s where we get into trouble. An example is rice; unlike whole-grain brown rice, white rice has been stripped of its bran and germ during processing, taking out 83 percent of the fiber, 16 percent of the protein, 75 percent of the iron, 70 percent of its B vitamins, and nearly all of its healthy fatty acids.

Another good measure of a carb is its glycemic index (GI), which is a system that rates carbs based on how quickly your body absorbs them and subsequently how quickly it affects your blood sugar levels. Foods that break down rapidly – starchy foods such as white rice, regular pasta and sugar – release quickly into your blood and rank higher on the index. Foods that break down slowly – such as veggies and whole grains – slowly release glucose into your blood so they rank lower on the index.

Try to choose foods with a GI under 80. These foods can give your body enough all-day energy without causing an insulin surge that will lead to storing excess body fat.

Do you have any nutrition myths you would like debunked? Tweet me @harleypasternak.

MORE: All Harley’s Blogs and Training Advice

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