Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, nutritionist, cofounder and strategic director, Dietitians for Professional Integrity, Las Vegas.
Coca-Cola recently came under fire for secretly funding the “Global Energy Balance Network,” which blames society’s growing weight problem primarily on our lack of exercise—rather than our food choices such as…soda. New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, PhD, neatly summed up the issue in a column entitled “Coca-Cola Says Its Drinks Don’t Cause Obesity. Science Says Otherwise.” The New York Times exposed Coke’s cynical campaign of lies based on a tip from obesity doctor and blogger Yoni Freedhoff, MD and also ran a cartoon sarcastically featuring “The Sugar Water Workout.”
That got us thinking—what other health myths stoked by the food industry are people swallowing? We spoke with registered dietitian Andy Bellatti, who works within his profession to minimize the negative effects of Big Food influence. Says Bellati, “Every day I have to reeducate clients based on inaccuracies that have been set by the food industry.”
Here are the myths—and the truth…
The truth: We could dub this one the “Coca-Cola myth” (see above). While sedentary lifestyles may play a role, the body of scientific research shows that poor dietary choices are far more to blame for the obesity epidemic. The contrast is even clearer when it comes to losing weight. After all, it takes three miles of walking to burn off the 140 calories in just one 12-ounce can of Coke. Exercise is essential for a healthy life, of course, but if you want to lose weight, start with what you eat and drink…especially sugar-laden beverages. As the saying goes, “You can’t outrun a bad diet.”
The truth: Just because the package says a food is a “good source of [FILL IN THE BLANK NUTRIENT]!” doesn’t mean it’s actually a nutritious choice. Food companies use single nutrients to trump up the value of their unhealthy offerings. For example, “Most cereals are just whole-grain, low-fat cookies,” says Bellati. That is, they are highly processed and stripped of many nutrients (that are later fortified back in), sugary and devoid of healthful fats. Even when they add in a little extra protein (or whatever) and tout it, they’re just hoping we overlook all that added sugar.
Another “disaster” food Belatti recently spotted at a grocery store—a prepacked lunch containing a candy bar, a sugar-sweetened drink and corn chips with cheese dip. It was labeled as a good source of calcium! “It’s a perfect example of the food industry’s smoke and mirrors,” Bellatti says. Look at the whole nutritional story when making choices.
The truth: This is another Big Food sleight of hand trick. Example: Foods that don’t contain added white sugar but instead are “naturally sweetened” with honey, agave or maple syrup. “The term ‘natural’ on food labels is absolutely meaningless,” Bellatti says. “From a caloric standpoint and from a health standpoint, sugar is sugar.” Ditto for unhealthy foods with “good-for-you” attributes—a gluten-free donut is still, after all…a donut. The latest food industry bait-and-switch is removing artificial colorings and then crowing about it. It’s a good step, to be sure. But beware of attempts to make these foods have a “health halo” that gives you permission to eat more of them. No matter what is not in your food, what really matters is what is in it…and a donut is never going to be a peach.
The truth: Foods that are low in fat may claim that they’re good for your heart for that reason, but that’s not necessarily true. Fat is not the enemy of the heart—different fats have different effects on heart health. “There are lots of foods that are high in fat, such as nuts, seeds, avocado, cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil and sardines, that are very heart healthy,” Bellatti notes. Plus, we like fat because it makes food taste good, so when manufacturers cut fat from desserts, they typically add in more sugar to make them taste better. Meanwhile, there’s growing evidence that diets that are high in added sugar are detrimental to heart health. Those low-fat cookies should be looking a lot less appealing to you now.
The truth: Quality matters, not just quantity. The food industry promotes the idea that as long as we’re eating the right amount of daily calories, we’re fine. But the number of calories we take in is not the only component of dietary health—the quality of those calories is critical, too. “There’s a huge difference between snacking on a Three Musketeers bar and eating the same amount of calories in almonds,” Bellatti says. The candy bar will spike your blood sugar while providing almost no nutrients, but the almonds will give you protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamin E, magnesium and much more. If weight is your concern, he adds, the more nutrient-dense choice is better for you even if it contains a bit more calories—especially if it has significant amounts of fiber and protein, which will help keep you fuller longer. It’s also wise to remember that weight isn’t the only marker of health. “You can lose weight but still be wrecking your arteries and having blood sugars fluctuate like crazy,” Bellatti says. “The composition and quality of calories is very important for health, and the food industry tends to downplay that.”