De-Mystifying 3 Food Myths

Tuesday, January 30, 2007 - 10:35am

By Katie Clark, MPH, RD

A good proportion of the diet industry thrives on perpetuating food myths. Here are some straightforward, scientifically-backed explanations to commonly held food misunderstandings.

Myth 1.   Pasta makes you fat

Even with the drop-off in the low-carb revolution, this is one food myth that might never die. Pasta does not make you fat. It is an excellent source of carbohydrate, the body’s preferred source of fuel. But as with most things, too much of a good thing is not a good thing.

Pasta is made from semolina flour that comes from durum wheat. Durum is a relatively high protein wheat source. Most 1 ounce servings of pasta contain 5-7 grams of protein. Although the protein in pasta is incomplete, 5-7 grams is still impressive for a bread product.

While 200-300 calories of pasta can be a good addition to your daily diet—loading that pasta with oily pesto or fatty meats is not! Stick to marinara sauce, low-fat cheeses and lean meat toppings. Look for high-fiber pastas such as lentil or whole wheat.

For you visual folks, a healthy pasta dinner should look like this:

  • 1/4 full of pasta
  • 1/2 filled with vegetables
  • 1/4 with green salad and lowfat dressing
  • Top pasta with 1/2 cup of sauce, with or without lean meat
  • Add 1 cup of skim milk for calcium and protein

With a little portion control, pasta need not sabotage a healthy nutrition plan.

Myth 2.   Trans fat-free foods don’t contain any trans fats

In January 2006, the FDA mandated that all food labels list trans fat content. Food manufacturers jumped on the public’s misunderstanding of fat and trans fat and complicated an already confusing concept.

Trans fat raises LDL, the bad cholesterol that promotes heart disease. Trans fat is added to processed foods such as margarine, pies, cakes and cookies—foods you shouldn’t be eating very much of anyway.

There is a loophole in the 2006 trans-fat ruling: Any food with less than 1/2 gram of trans fat per serving can be called “trans-fat free.” Manufacturers get to choose what a serving size is, and it rarely matches up with what you want a serving size to be. If 1 serving of one very small cookie has 1/2 gram of trans fat, and you eat 10 of these “trans-fat free” cookies you just ate 5 grams of trans fat!

This entire debate loses sight of the big picture: A diet high in any type of fat is unhealthy. Instead of focusing on reducing trans fat, Americans should focus on limiting total fat intake. Most people need only 50-65 grams of fat per day, and trans fat should constitute less than 1% of all calories in a day.

To avoid the trans fat pitfall, keep these tips in mind:

  • “Partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list means the food contains trans fat.
  • Trans fat is a type of fat; any diet high in any type of fat is unhealthy.
  • De-emphasize trans fat and choose foods that are low in total fat; this way, you minimize a lot of diet-related health risk.

For more information on fat in your diet see the following articles from TheDietChannel: Fat Facts: Fat Confusions Cleared Up and Healthy and Fat: 5 High-Fat Foods You Should Not Avoid

Myth 3.   Bananas are bad for you

I have a wealthy client, a technology consultant who used to shun bananas because “they’re high in sugar.” One day he chastised me for not buying an expensive new computer system for my practice, saying: “Nobody ever saved their way to growth.” I said I might consider this argument, but only if he would agree that “nobody ever got fat off of fruit.”

Bananas take unnecessary flack for being high in sugar. All fruit contains sugar in the naturally occurring form of fructose. It is true that per serving, bananas have slightly more sugar, carbohydrate and calories than do most fruit. But they are by no means on any dietitian’s do-not-eat list.

One medium 7-8 inch banana has:

  • 105 calories
  • 0 fat
  • 3 grams of fiber
  • Over 400 milligrams of potassium

Emerging research and accepted nutrition theory demonstrates:

  • Increased potassium intake helps control high blood pressure, perhaps as well as reduced sodium intake.
  • Decreased fat intake protects against heart disease.
  • Increased fiber and fruit and vegetable intake helps prevent certain cancers.

Only those with specific kidney and heart conditions and a doctor’s order to avoid potassium should be concerned about bananas. For the rest of us, if anything, we should be eating more bananas (and maybe spending more on our computer systems too!).