1. MYTH: Eggs are Bad for You
This is a classic instance of good intentions but scrambled science. For years, nutrition experts cautioned that eggs were unhealthy. After all, those gifts from the henhouse are one of the richest sources of cholesterol in the human diet. Since cholesterol plugs up arteries, eggs must raise the risk of heart attacks and strokes, right?
Wrong. Large studies suggest that this theory is full of feathers. For example, the famous Framingham Heart Study, which first showed that high blood cholesterol causes heart attacks, found no connection between eating eggs and cardiovascular disease. Another study, involving more than 117,000 men and women, failed to show an increased risk of heart attacks in people who ate up to one egg per day.
How could that be? It turns out that only about 25 percent of the cholesterol in your blood comes from food. The other 75 percent is manufactured by the liver, which produces lots of cholesterol when you eat cheeseburgers, doughnuts, and other sources of saturated fat — something eggs are low in. Eggs are also filled with plenty of useful nutrients that may offset any damage done by their cholesterol content, including unsaturated fat, folate and other B vitamins, and minerals. And if you shop around, you can find eggs that are enriched with healthful omega-3 fatty acids.
Eggs can fit into a balanced diet. In fact, even two eggs a day won’t budge most people’s cholesterol. Just keep in mind that each little orb contains about 200 milligrams of cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day, so plan on enjoying your omelet instead of — not alongside — the bacon and home fries.
By the way, eggs aren’t the only high-cholesterol food that has been exonerated by nutritionists. In the 1990s, research showed that eating another delicacy that’s notoriously high in cholesterol — shrimp — had barely any effect on cholesterol levels.
2. MYTH: Coffee Causes Cancer
While we’re on the topic of breakfast, coffee is another wrongly maligned staple of the morning meal. It’s hard to say when doubts about this stimulating beverage first emerged, but it has been linked to cancer on several occasions over the past generation or so. In the late 1970s, for example, researchers reported that caffeine caused the growth of cysts in breast tissue. That finding raised concerns since women who frequently develop cysts often go on to have breast cancer. Then, in 1981, a Harvard study found an increase in pancreatic cancer among coffee drinkers.
However, other scientists later looked for links between coffee and these cancers, using superior research methods and studying larger groups of people. They found none. Likewise, major studies examining the risk of other cancers among coffee drinkers came up empty. In some cases, just the opposite appeared to be true. For instance, a review of 17 studies conducted from 1990 to 2003 found a 24 percent reduced risk of colon cancer among people who regularly sipped coffee (including decaffeinated brew) and tea.
Need another reason to raise your cup? Studies have also shown in recent years that drinking coffee appears to offer some protection against other conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and type 2 diabetes (although in order to substantially lower your risk for the latter, you may need to imbibe a jitters-inducing six cups per day). Some people also worry that consuming too much caffeine will raise their blood pressure. While caffeine may cause your pressure to rise, a study of more than 155,000 women found that the coffee lovers among them did not have an increased risk of high blood pressure.
3. MYTH: Fat-Free and Low-Fat Foods are Always Healthier than Full-Fat Varieties
When it comes to dairy products and some other foods, such as meat, you can reliably adopt a simple rule: The less fat, the better. But that’s not always the case with other foods. Take salad dressing. If you’re trying to lose weight, switching from an oil-based dressing to a low-fat or fat-free dressing may make sense. But sparing yourself 100 calories or so (per 2 tablespoons) comes at a cost.
For starters, salad dressings made with healthy monounsaturated fats, such as olive or canola oil, may help prevent heart disease and other conditions. What’s more, a recent study shows that you may be missing out on important disease protection by going oil-free. That’s because without some fat in the meal, your digestive tract won’t absorb many of the nutrients in a salad.
Researchers at the University of Iowa demonstrated this phenomenon by asking volunteer diners to eat three different salads. Each included romaine lettuce, spinach leaves, grated carrots, and cherry tomatoes. But the first was topped with fat-free Italian dressing, the second with reduced-fat dressing, and the third with conventional full-fat dressing. The researchers took blood samples from the volunteers after they ate each salad and measured levels of carotenoids, the important antioxidants we’ve talked so much about. After eating the salad with fat-free dressing, the volunteers absorbed just a tiny amount of carotenoids, including beta-carotene and lycopene. The reduced-fat dressing improved matters only slightly, while the volunteers’ bodies absorbed an adequate amount of carotenoids after eating the salad with the full-fat dressing. There’s no need to drown your greens in oil, however; 1 or 2 tablespoons will get the job done.
4. MYTH: Raw Fruits and Vegetables are More Nutritious than Cooked Ones
The idea sounds logical enough. Doesn’t it make sense to eat fruits and vegetables in their natural state? Some “raw food” enthusiasts take this theory to the extreme, unwilling to eat so much as a pea pod if it’s been boiled, steamed, or exposed to any form of heat.
However, the theory that cooking foods makes them less nutritious is a bit half-baked. Raw food advocates note that heat destroys enzymes in foods that make them more easily digested. While that’s true, cooking also breaks down fiber, making it easier for your body to process. (Just imagine trying to chew, much less digest, a spear of raw asparagus.) Subsisting primarily on raw fruit and vegetables could even backfire if your goal is to get healthier. German researchers studied 201 men and women who adopted raw-food diets and found that their total cholesterol and triglyceride levels dropped. However, the raw-food diet also lowered their HDL cholesterol. Meanwhile, their levels of homocysteine (an amino acid linked to heart attacks and strokes) rose.
Scientists have discovered in recent years that cooking actually boosts levels of important compounds in some fruits and vegetables. For instance, ketchup contains five to six times more of the antioxidant lycopene than raw tomatoes do, making it much more useful against diseases such as prostate cancer.
Heat does rob fresh produce of some nutrients, especially vitamins that dissolve in water. For example, cooking fruits and vegetables tends to reduce their levels of vitamin B6, vitamin C, and folate in particular. But it increases the antioxidant levels of some vegetables, such as sweet corn and carrots. The bottom line: If you like raw produce, crunch away — but don’t fear the vegetable steamer or stir-fry pan.
5. MYTH: Frozen and Canned Fruits and Vegetables are Less Nutritious than Fresh Ones
Fresh fruits and vegetables are more nutritious than the frozen and canned variety — at the instant they are picked. However, the foods you find in the produce section have often had a long journey from the moment they were packed in crates, spending days or even weeks in transit from the farm or orchard. During shipping and storage, natural enzymes are released in fresh fruit and vegetables that cause them to lose nutrients.
By contrast, food processors quick-freeze fresh-picked produce, which preserves much of its vitamin and mineral content. “With some fruits and vegetables, you actually lock in a higher nutrient content by freezing,” says Douglas Archer, Ph.D., a professor of food science at the University of Florida. A 1992 University of Illinois study found, for instance, that frozen beans retained twice as much vitamin C as fresh beans purchased in a grocery store. Contrary to common belief, canning does not deplete fruit and vegetables of significant amounts of nutrients either. While heat processing may reduce levels of some vitamins, certain canned foods — such as spinach and pumpkin — actually have higher levels of vitamin A than fresh versions.
But what about taste? You’ll never mistake a frozen strawberry for a fresh one, but freezing technology has made huge leaps in recent years. “Frozen vegetables used to have both texture and taste problems,” says Dr. Archer. “Now they’re quite good and are even used by professional chefs.”
6. MYTH: Nuts are Too Fattening — Eat them Sparingly
And deprive yourself of a nutritious and satisfying food? To be sure, nuts contain a lot of fat, but it’s mostly the good kind. Dry-roasted peanuts, for example, have three to four times more heart-healthy monounsaturated fat than saturated fat. Recent research suggests that eating nuts as part of a healthy diet may even help you lose weight.
Researchers believe that the fat in nuts helps people feel full, and the protein may use up calories as it digests. What’s more, a study by British researchers shows that high-protein foods help trigger the release of a hormone known to reduce hunger.
Nuts’ high concentration of healthy fats makes them a guilt-free way to satisfy hunger without raising cholesterol or other blood fats. What’s more, nuts are an excellent fiber source and provide a long list of nutrients, including vitamin E, magnesium, folate, and copper. It’s no wonder people who include nuts in their diet tend to be so healthy. For instance, women who eat just 1 ounce of nuts most days of the week are 35 percent less likely to have heart attacks than those who avoid nuts, according to a Harvard study of more than 80,000 nurses. Prefer peanut butter sandwiches? Eat one five days a week (preferably on whole-grain bread), and you may lower your risk of type 2 diabetes by 21 percent.
7. MYTH: To Protect Your Heart, Drink Red Wine or Don’t Bother Filling Your Glass
It’s called the French paradox: French men and women have far fewer heart attacks than Americans do, despite their fondness for some notably unhealthy lifestyle habits. (They smoke more cigarettes, for example. And don’t forget — these people invented french fries.) Some scientists have speculated that their love of wine, especially red wine, at least partly explains their superior cardiovascular health. It seems logical, since red wine contains high levels of a phytochemical called resveratrol, which acts as an antioxidant and reduces inflammation. (What’s more, recent research offers intriguing clues that resveratrol may actually slow the aging process.)
As it turns out, though, it’s the alcohol in red wine — and white wine and beer — that’s responsible for most of its heart-related benefits. Large population studies suggest that most people enjoy at least some health benefits from sipping any form of alcohol in moderation. For example, the Harvard School of Public Health asked more than 38,000 men about their drinking habits, then checked up on them 12 years later. Men who had up to a drink or two per day were 37 percent less likely to have had heart attacks than men who rarely or never indulged.
Alcohol — no matter how you drink it — raises HDL (“good”) cholesterol and seems to make blood less likely to clot. If you enjoy alcoholic beverages, most health authorities agree that having no more than a drink or two per day (one for women, two for men) may offer some benefits and probably can’t hurt.
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