Health Myth #1: Counting Calories (without respect to nutritional value). 

If you’re trying to get (or stay) thin (or even if you are trying to bulk up), you might think all that matters is counting calories. Theoretically this will work, if that’s your only goal… but if your goal is to be thin (or muscular) and healthy, and to keep the weight off (or on), it will not. Here’s why.

Your body is designed to crave micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) as well as macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat). You can’t give it calories without vitamins and minerals, because the body will still tell you it wants more. It thinks you’re starving it if you aren’t taking in the former as well.

For example, even though short-term you’d consume more calories eating a piece of chicken than you would an equal sized portion of white spaghetti pasta (because there are 9 calories per gram of fat, versus 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates), there’re more to consider than just the number of calories in that one meal. For one thing, the chicken has a lot more nutritional value than the pasta, because white carbs have been processed and stripped of their nutrients. This means your body will continue to crave nutritional sustenance even once the caloric needs have been met. Second, while white carbohydrates will turn to sugar as soon as they hit your saliva (making them excellent choices for quick energy, but provoking a subsequent blood sugar crash), protein and fats take much longer to digest, which slows the release of glucose into your bloodstream, making you feel full longer. These two things mean that when you choose the piece of chicken, you will end up eating less in the long run than if you eat the pasta. That’s why the “low carb” diets work so well for weight loss (even though I don’t think all of these approaches are the healthiest way to eat either – here’s an article on fad diets.)

But what if the goal is to “bulk up,” — wouldn’t you want to eat a high carb diet in that case?

The answer is, it depends on the kind of weight you want to gain. If your goal is to gain fat, then sure, go for the pasta diet (and wash it down with plenty of alcohol, because there are 7 calories per gram of alcohol. Hence the term, “beer belly”).  The reason high carb, high alcohol diets make you fat is because your bloodstream can only accommodate about 2 tbsp of glucose at a time — if you consume more than that, your body will trigger the release of insulin so that the sugar will rush into your cells, where it will be stored for future use — as triglycerides (fat). 

But if you want to gain muscle, eating your excess calories in the form of protein is your best choice — as long as you are also lifting weights. Lifting weights to the capacity of your muscles (and a little beyond) will create micro tears in the muscle fibers themselves, which will encourage the body to repair them by adding more on… and muscle is made of protein. This process also requires micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and not calories only, so you want to make sure the food you choose is high quality in that regard. You do still need to consume some carbohydrates for the purpose of quick energy, but choose complex carbs with nutritional value, such as whole grains, fruits, and veggies. 

Health Myth #2: Avoiding fat (in order to lose weight)

I kind of just covered this one… but the low-fat diet approach doesn’t work. Sugar is what makes people fat, because foods containing processed sugar and/or white (processed) carbohydrates are stripped of nutrients, and they lead to a rapid blood sugar crash… both of which will make you feel like you’re still hungry. If you then turn to sugar and/or white carbs for a quick glucose fix, you’ll set yourself up for the same cycle all over again… and all the while, the sugar you’re eating will go straight to triglyceride storage in your adipose tissue (i.e. fat!) Protein and fat, however, will slow the release of the sugar into your bloodstream, keeping you satiated and allowing you to use that glucose for energy rather than storage. 

The answer isn’t to eat just any fats, though. Some fats will also perpetuate insulin resistance, because your cell membranes are made up of your dietary fats (“you are what you eat!”). If you’re eating trans fats, from fast food or processed foods made with vegetable oils, these fats get incorporated into your cell membranes. Your cell membranes are critical for letting “good” stuff in (nutrients, signals from the cell receptors such as insulin), and “bad” stuff out (such as toxic waste, which will help minimize inflammation), so keeping them healthy is one of the most important things you can do to ward off chronic disease.

The moral of the story: do not avoid healthy fats… because in addition to all these wonderful benefits from eating healthy fats, good dietary fat will also slow down the release of glucose into your bloodstream, making it more likely that you can burn the carbs you eat, rather than turn them all into storage. 

Health Myth #3: Avoiding Cholesterol (in order to prevent heart disease). 

The idea that cholesterol causes heart disease is a myth. I wrote a whole article on this here. The upshot, though, is that LDL increases in proportion to the amount of sugar you consume too (sugar gets stored as triglycerides, which get packaged into LDL, which shuttles it out to your peripheral tissues to get stored as fat). Dietary cholesterol is necessary for quite a number of reasons… and although it is true that you don’t want it to be too high, the answer is not to suppress its production, but to recognize that your sugar intake is the reason why it’s high in the first place. 

Health Myth #4: Gluten free foods are healthier.

Not necessarily — most prepackaged “gluten free” grain products are processed white carbs (i.e. sugar)… although they are certainly better for you than their gluten-containing counterparts, IF you are gluten sensitive (which, to be fair, a lot of people are). If you’re not, though, it makes no difference.

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