Scrolling through social media, reading your favorite magazine, or visiting popular websites exposes you to endless information about nutrition and health — most of which is incorrect.
Even qualified health professionals, including doctors and dietitians, are to blame for spreading misinformation about nutrition to the public, adding to the confusion.
Here are 20 of the biggest myths related to nutrition, and why these antiquated beliefs need to be put to rest.
1. “Calories in, calories out” is all that matters when it comes to weight loss
Though creating a calorie deficit by burning more energy than you take in is the most important factor when it comes to weight loss, it’s not the only thing that matters.
Relying solely on calorie intake doesn’t account for the large number of variables that may prevent someone from losing weight, even when on a very low-calorie diet.
For example, hormonal imbalances, health conditions like hypothyroidism, metabolic adaptations, the use of certain medications, and genetics are just some of the factors that may make weight loss harder for some people, even when they’re on a strict diet.
This concept also fails to emphasize the importance of sustainability and diet quality for weight loss. Those following the “calories in, calories out” method typically concentrate solely on the calorie value of foods, not their nutrient value.
This can lead to choosing low-calorie, nutrient-poor foods like rice cakes and egg whites over higher calorie, nutrient-dense foods like avocados and whole eggs, which isn’t the best for overall health.
Summary: The “calories in, calories out” theory doesn’t account for several variables that may prevent someone from losing weight. Many factors, such as genetics, medical conditions, and metabolic adaptations, make weight loss much harder for some.
2. High-fat foods are unhealthy
Though this antiquated and incorrect theory is slowly being put to rest, many people still fear high-fat foods and follow low-fat diets in the hopes that cutting their fat intake will benefit their overall health.
Dietary fat is essential for optimal health. Plus, low-fat diets have been linked to a greater risk of health issues, including metabolic syndrome, and may lead to an increase in insulin resistance and triglyceride levels, which are known risk factors for heart disease.
What’s more, diets that are higher in fat have been proven just as effective — or even more so — than low-fat diets when it comes to encouraging weight loss.
Of course, extremes in either direction, whether it be a very low fat or very high-fat diet, may harm your health, especially when diet quality is poor.
Summary: Many high-fat foods are extremely nutritious and can help you maintain a healthy weight.
3. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day
While it was once thought that eating breakfast was one of the most important factors in setting yourself up for a healthy day, research has shown that this might not be the case for most adults.
For instance, research indicates that forgoing breakfast may result in reduced calorie intake.
Moreover, partaking in intermittent fasting, during which breakfast is either skipped or consumed later in the day, has been linked to a plethora of benefits, including improved blood sugar control and reductions in inflammatory markers.
However, intermittent fasting can also be accomplished by consuming a regular breakfast then having your last meal earlier in the evening to maintain a fasting window of 14–16 hours.
Keep in mind that this does not apply to growing children and teens or those with increased nutrient needs, such as pregnant women and those with certain health conditions, as skipping meals may lead to negative health effects in these populations.
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On the other hand, some evidence shows that eating breakfast and consuming more calories earlier in the day rather than at night, coupled with reduced meal frequency, may benefit health by reducing inflammation and body weight.
Regardless, if you enjoy breakfast, eat it. If you’re not a breakfast person, don’t feel the need to add it to your daily routine.
Summary: Eating breakfast is not necessary for everyone. Health benefits are associated with both eating breakfast and skipping it.
4. You need to eat small, frequent meals for optimal health
Eating small, frequent meals regularly throughout the day is a method used by many people to boost metabolism and weight loss.
However, if you are healthy, the frequency of your meals does not matter as long as you meet your energy needs.
That said, those with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, coronary artery disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), as well as those who are pregnant, may benefit from eating more frequent meals.
Summary: Eating frequent meals throughout the day is not the best way to promote weight loss. Research shows that a regular meal pattern may be best for health.
5. Non-nutritive sweeteners are healthy
The rising interest in low calorie, low carb, sugar-free foods has led to an increase in products that contain non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS). While it’s clear that a diet high in added sugar significantly increases disease risk, intake of NNS can also lead to negative health outcomes.
For example, NNS intake may increase your risk of type 2 diabetes by leading to negative shifts in gut bacteria and promoting blood sugar dysregulation. What’s more, regular NNS intake is associated with overall unhealthy lifestyle patterns.
Keep in mind that research in this area is ongoing, and future high-quality studies are needed to confirm these potential links.
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Summary: Non-nutritive sweeteners may lead to adverse health outcomes, such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and negative changes to gut bacteria.
6. Macronutrient ratio matters more than diet quality
Although macro coaches may lead you to believe that the ratio of macronutrients in your diet is all that matters when it comes to weight loss and overall health, this narrow-minded take on nutrition is missing the bigger picture.
While tweaking macro ratios can benefit health in many ways, the most important factor in any diet is the quality of the foods you eat.
Though it may be possible to lose weight by eating nothing but highly processed foods and protein shakes, focusing solely on macronutrients discounts how eating certain foods can either increase or decrease metabolic health, disease risk, lifespan, and vitality.
Summary: Although tweaking macro ratios can be helpful in some ways, the most important way to promote overall health is to follow a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods, regardless of the macro ratio.
7. White potatoes are unhealthy
Often labeled as “unhealthy” by those in the nutrition world, white potatoes are restricted by many people wanting to lose weight or improve their overall health.
While eating too much of any food — including white potatoes — can lead to weight gain, these starchy tubers are highly nutritious and can be included as part of a healthy diet.
White potatoes are an excellent source of many nutrients, including potassium, vitamin C, and fiber.
Plus, they’re more filling than other carb sources like rice and pasta and can help you feel more satisfied after meals. Just remember to enjoy potatoes baked or roasted, not fried.
Summary: White potatoes are a nutritious carb choice — just be sure to enjoy them in more healthful ways, such as roasted or baked.
8. Low fat and diet foods are healthy alternatives
Take a trip to your local grocery store and you’ll find a variety of products labeled “diet,” “light,” “low fat,” and “fat-free.” While these products are tempting to those wanting to shed excess body fat, they’re typically an unhealthy choice.
Research has shown that many low-fat and diet items contain much more added sugar and salt than their regular-fat counterparts. It’s best to forgo these products and instead enjoy small amounts of foods like full-fat yogurt, cheese, and nut butter.
Summary: Low fat and diet foods are typically high in sugar and salt. Unaltered higher fat alternatives are often a healthier choice.
9. Supplements are a waste of money
While focusing on consuming a nutrient-dense, well-rounded diet is the most essential component of health, supplements — when used correctly and in the right form — can be beneficial in many ways.
For many, especially those with health conditions like type 2 diabetes, as well as those who take common medications like statins, proton pump inhibitors, birth control, and antidiabetic medications, taking specific supplements can significantly affect their health.
For example, supplementing with magnesium and B vitamins has been shown to benefit those with type 2 diabetes by enhancing blood sugar and reducing heart disease risk factors and diabetes-related complications.
Those on restrictive diets, people with genetic mutations like methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR), people over the age of 50, and pregnant or breastfeeding women are other examples of populations that may benefit from taking specific supplements.
Summary: Supplements are useful and often necessary in many populations. The use of common medications, age, and certain medical conditions are just some of the reasons why supplements may be needed for some people.
10. Following a very low-calorie diet is the best way to lose weight
While reducing calorie intake can indeed boost weight loss, cutting calories too low can lead to metabolic adaptations and long-term health consequences.
Though going on a very low-calorie diet will likely promote rapid weight loss in the short term, long-term adherence to very low-calorie diets leads to a reduction in metabolic rate, increased feelings of hunger, and alterations in fullness hormones.
This makes long-term weight maintenance difficult.
This is why studies have shown that low-calorie dieters rarely succeed in keeping excess weight off in the long term.
Summary: Very low-calorie diets lead to metabolic adaptations that make long-term weight maintenance difficult.
11. You have to be skinny to be healthy
Obesity is associated with many health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression, certain cancers, and even early death.
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Still, reducing your disease risk does not mean you have to be skinny. What’s most important is consuming a nutritious diet and maintaining an active lifestyle, as these behaviors often improve your body weight and body fat percentage.
Summary: Though obesity increases your risk of disease, you don’t have to be skinny to be healthy. Rather, maintaining healthy body weight and body fat percent by consuming a nutritious diet and maintaining an active lifestyle is most important.
12. Calcium supplements are necessary for bone health
Many people are told to pop calcium supplements to keep their skeletal system healthy. However, current research has shown that supplementing with calcium may do more harm than good.
For example, some studies have linked calcium supplements to an increased risk of heart disease. Additionally, research shows that they don’t reduce the risk of fracture or osteoporosis.
If you’re concerned about your calcium intake, it’s best to focus on dietary sources of calcium like full-fat yogurt, sardines, beans, and seeds.
Summary: Although medical professionals commonly prescribe calcium supplements, current research shows that these supplements may do more harm than good.
13. Fiber supplements are a good substitute for high fiber foods
Many people struggle with getting adequate dietary fiber, which is why fiber supplements are so popular. Although fiber supplements can benefit health by improving bowel movements and blood sugar control, they should not replace real food.
High-fiber whole foods like vegetables, beans, and fruit contain nutrients and plant compounds that work synergistically to promote your health, and they can’t be replaced by fiber supplements.
Summary: Fiber supplements should not be used as a replacement for nutritious, high-fiber foods.
14. All smoothies and juices are healthy
Certain juices and smoothies are highly nutritious. For example, a nutrient-dense smoothie or freshly made juice composed primarily of non-starchy vegetables can be a great way to increase your vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant intake.
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Yet, it’s important to know that most juices and smoothies sold at stores are loaded with sugar and calories. When consumed in excess, they can promote weight gain and other health issues like tooth decay and blood sugar dysregulation.
Summary: Many store-bought juices and smoothies are packed with added sugar and calories.
15. Everyone can benefit from a probiotic
Probiotics are amongst the most popular dietary supplements on the market. However, practitioners generally overprescribed them, and research has demonstrated that some people may not benefit from probiotics as others do.
Not only are some people’s digestive systems resistant to probiotic colonization, but introducing probiotics through supplements may lead to negative changes in their gut bacteria.
Plus, bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine related to probiotic use can lead to bloating, gas, and other adverse side effects.
Additionally, some studies show that probiotic treatment following a course of antibiotics may delay the natural reconstitution of normal gut bacteria.
Instead of being prescribed as a one-size-fits-all supplement, probiotics should be more personalized and only be used when a therapeutic benefit is likely.
Summary: Current research suggests that probiotic supplements may not benefit everyone and should not be prescribed as a one-size-fits-all supplement.
16. Weight loss is easy
Don’t be fooled by the dramatic before and after pictures used by supplement companies and stories of rapid weight loss attained with little to no effort.
Weight loss is not easy. It requires consistency, self-love, hard work, and patience. Plus, genetics and other factors make weight loss much harder for some than others.
If you’re struggling to lose weight, you’re not alone. The best thing to do is drown out the weight loss noise that you’re exposed to every day and find a nourishing and sustainable dietary and activity pattern that works for you.
Summary: Weight loss is difficult for most people and requires consistency, self-love, hard work, and patience. Many factors may influence how easy it is for you to lose weight.
17. Tracking calories and macros is necessary for weight loss
There’s no need to obsess over your calorie intake and track every morsel of food that passes your lips to lose weight.
Although food tracking can be a useful tool when trying to lose excess body fat, it’s not right for everyone.
What’s more, being overly preoccupied with food by tracking calories has been associated with an increased risk of disordered eating tendencies.
Summary: Although tracking calories may help some people lose weight, it’s not necessary for everyone and may lead to disordered eating tendencies.
18. High cholesterol foods are unhealthy
Cholesterol-rich foods have gotten a bad rap thanks to misconceptions about how dietary cholesterol affects heart health.
While some people are more sensitive to dietary cholesterol than others, overall, nutrient-dense, cholesterol-rich foods can be included in a healthy diet.
In fact, including cholesterol-rich, nutritious foods like eggs and full-fat yogurt in your diet may boost health by enhancing feelings of fullness and providing important nutrients that other foods lack.
Summary: High cholesterol foods like eggs and full-fat yogurt are highly nutritious. Although genetic factors make some people more sensitive to dietary cholesterol, for most people, high cholesterol foods can be included as part of a healthy diet.
19. Eating disorders only affect women
Many people assume that eating disorders and disordered eating tendencies only affect women. In reality, adolescent and adult men are also at risk.
What’s more, over 30% of adolescent men in the United States report body dissatisfaction and the use of unhealthy methods to attain their ideal body type.
It’s important to note that eating disorders present differently in men than women, and they’re more prevalent in adolescent and young adult men who are gay or bisexual, highlighting the need for eating disorder treatments that are better adapted to the male population.
Summary: Eating disorders affect both men and women. However, eating disorders present differently in men than women, highlighting the need for eating disorder treatments that are better adapted to the male population.
20. Carbs make you gain weight
Just as fat has been blamed for promoting weight gain and heart disease, carbs have been shunned by many people over fears that consuming this macronutrient will cause obesity, diabetes, and other adverse health effects.
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In reality, eating a moderate amount of nutritious carbs that are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals like starchy root vegetables, ancient grains, and legumes will likely benefit your health — not harm it.
For example, dietary patterns that contain a balanced mix of high fiber carbs mainly from produce, healthy fats, and proteins, such as the Mediterranean diet, have been associated with a reduced risk of obesity, diabetes, certain cancers, and heart disease.
However, carb-rich foods like cakes, cookies, sweetened beverages, and white bread should be restricted, as these foods can increase weight gain and disease risk when eaten in excess. As you can see, food quality is the main predictor of disease risk.
Summary: Including healthy carb choices in your diet won’t make you gain weight. However, following unhealthy eating patterns and overindulging in carb-rich sugary foods will lead to weight gain.
The nutrition world is rife with misinformation, leading to public confusion, mistrust of health professionals, and poor dietary choices.
This, coupled with the fact that nutrition science is constantly changing, makes it no wonder that most people have a warped view of what constitutes a healthy diet.
Although these nutrition myths are likely here to stay, educating yourself by separating fact from fiction when it comes to nutrition can help you feel more empowered to develop a nutritious and sustainable dietary pattern that works for your individual needs.