Health foods market is perhaps stronger than ever. Stores “covering all your health and fitness needs”(c) are popping everywhere, featuring extensive ranges of all-natural-organic-gluten-free-epic-foods-no-matter-if-you-need-them-or-not. It’s such a prevalent theme right now that we’ve almost forgotten the roots of the health craze.

It all began in 1984, when a March issue of TIME magazine featured a material called “Sorry, It’s True. Cholesterol Really Is A Killer” [1]. Convincing at the time, the article thoroughly described the “dangers” of high-fat diets, basically blaming fat for everything from obesity to mental health disturbances. Of course, it was not really exploring different types of fats – these days we are fairly confident there are “good” and “bad” kinds. All saturated fats were pronounced our worst enemies.

Everyone knows what happened next – all of a sudden, everyone decided to stop buying processed meat, stopped cooking with egg yolks and swapped butter with margarine on their morning toast. Big corporations were happy to follow with an extensive range of low fat products. However, it seems like the low-fat craze has only made us fatter, as it made us eat much more sugary items and exclude healthy fats [2].

Today, it seems like low-carb is the new black. After the low-fat craze was over, people quickly found a new enemy, which happened to be sugar – in all shapes and forms. Again, going sugar-free doesn’t seem to be doing anything nice for public health, and the obesity epidemic is stronger than ever [3]. However, low-carb market is flourishing on the shelves of local supermarkets and convenience stores, let alone healthy food venues.

By no means are we trying to say that limiting fat, sugar, or any other nutrient consumption to healthy amounts is not important. Indeed, healthy balanced nutrition is definitely something we should strive for! However, it’s important to establish a healthy degree of dietary restrictions in order to make informed, balanced choices.

Today, we’re going to debunk some popular food-related myths, most of which are based around restricting certain nutrients.

The Problem With Fat-Free Yogurt

2

Scientists warn that low-fat yogurt may cause greater weight gain compared to “classic” version. The reason behind this is very simple: fat-free doesn’t mean sugar-free and sugar is precisely what most manufacturers add to “light” yoghurts in excess to make up for the lack of flavor and texture.

The same trend applies to many “light” versions, including salad dressings and ice cream toppings. The problem is, many people tend to wrongly assume that “light” versions are by default much better that their classic counterparts. As a result, consumers ingest much more calories in a form of sugar, which quickly settles around their waists…

Low-Fat Ice Cream

Low-fat ice cream has similar problems to low-fat yogurt. Sure, there’s less fat, but usually that means there’s more sugar, sometimes in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. The solution for both problems is quite simple: read the label to make sure you’re not about to ingest a bucket of sugar when browsing for healthier alternatives. There are a few brilliant products out there, and although it takes some time to find them, once you do – you’re in a safe haven.

Diet Drinks

3

Health practitioners are adamant: diet carbonated drinks, although calorie-free, is absolutely not chemical free and can be incredibly unhealthy.

The popularity of diet carbonated drinks has risen dramatically since public health messages promoting reduced sugar intake started to appear. People soon found comfort in artificial sweeteners, which mimic the sweet taste with no added calories.

Seems too good to be true? Well, it probably is. Long-term prospective studies raise the concern that regular consumption of artificial sweeteners might actually contribute to development of metabolic derangements that lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease [4]. By increasing sugar cravings, artificial sweeteners also seem to induce various metabolic alterations, leading to weight gain [4].

The bottom line is that unfortunately, simple substitution of artificial sweeteners for sugars in humans is not the answer. Instead of assisting in weight loss and reducing cravings, artificial sweeteners appear to have the opposite effects, while also inducing numerous health complications [4].

Fat-Free Crisps

4

It so tempting to swap regular potato crisps for delicious fat-free crisps and call it a healthy snack day… Here is the major problem, however: fat-free crisps are often made with so-called fat replacers.

What are these beasts and why are they dangerous, you’re asking? We’re more than happy to elaborate. See, the humanity has been using fats in cooking for a long time due to a variety of perfectly valid reasons, one of them being the fact that fat improves texture and flavor of foods. It contributes to appearance, palatability, texture, and lubricity of foods, making those more attractive and fulfilling.

More often than not, lack of fat can’t be simply replaced in food manufacturing using simple techniques such as adding more water or air to the product. The flavor will likely suffer, and no one will pick such a “healthy” creation from the supermarket shelf!

This is exactly where fat replacers come into play. These additives chemically resemble fat. One of the most famous examples of such replacers is olestra, a synthetic compound used as a calorie-free substitute for fat [5].

Olestra is a polyester derived from sucrose. Because it passes through the gastrointestinal tract without being absorbed or digested, olestra often causes unpleasant issues such as abdominal cramping and stool softening or loosening [5]. Furthermore, due to its chemical properties olestra has a tendency to reduce absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients [5]. Not quite what someone on a diet needs, hey…

Olestra is not the only fat replacer derived from sugars: in fact, this is how the majority of those are produced. As a result, excess of fat replacers in the diet can be a contributing factor in diabetes development [6]. Therefore, swapping real fats for fat replacers entirely is not a great strategy to reduce the burden of chronic disease.

Sugar-Free Chocolate

5

Among some of the product categories we’ve discussed today, sugar-free chocolate is quite possibly the most innocent one. Health professionals agree that sugar-free confectionery may be a good treat alternative for people with certain health conditions such as diabetes.

However, don’t let the packaging claims fool you: just because the chocolate is sugar-free, doesn’t mean you should scarf an entire bar. It still contains calories and fat! Cocoa butter is rich in saturated fat and very energy dense. A sugar-free chocolate bar may contain up to 400 calories and around 30 grams of fat – so choose wisely and make sure such treats fit into your daily nutrient allowance.

Note on the side: sugar-free chocolate also contains various sugar alcohols – more on this topic later…

Fruit Juices

6

Fruit juices are made out of fruit, so they must be healthy, right?..

Wrong. Authority Nutrition warns the consumers: “Fruit juice contains some nutrients, but less compared to many plant foods. It contains no fiber and is just as high in sugar and calories as most sugar-sweetened beverages.”

Manufacturers are extremely sneaky these days – no surprise many people perceive fruit juices as healthy! It’s hard not to fall for misleading claims such as “made with real fruit” or “100 pure”. Reality is, the first statement only means that some of the drink is real fruit (sometimes as little as 1%!), whereas the second claim basically means nothing.

In summary, drinking fruit juice isn’t going to do your low-calorie diet any good. They may give you a little bit of vitamin C and some antioxidants, but the benefits do not outweigh the negatives.

Sugar Alcohols: Good or Bad?

Sugar alcohols, or “polyols”, are basically just types of sweet carbohydrates. Many sugar alcohols, such as xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, maltitol and numerous others, are widely used as sweetening agents.

These make great sugar alternatives for people on low-GI diets and individuals with diabetes, because despite the sweet taste, only a small portion will be digested and absorbed.

There is also some less pleasant news, however: because sugar alcohols are not being absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract, they are capable of causing side effects such as bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea, and those are not rare. Therefore, it’s advisable to slowly increase the amount of sugar alcohols in the diet in order to determine what’s tolerable for a particular person.

You can’t replace a healthy balanced diet.

The truth is simple: you don’t need any special tricks in your sleeve to be healthy. All you need to remember is that eating a healthy, balanced diet, incorporating items from five core food groups, promotes great health and gives you energy. Pretty much anything more complicated than that is likely a myth.

References

  1. “Sorry, It’s True. Cholesterol Really Is A Killer” (1984). TIME Magazine. Source: http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,949956,00.html
  2. Aubrey, A. (2014). “Why We Got Fatter During The Fat-Free Food Boom”. Source: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/03/28/295332576/why-we-got-fatter-during-the-fat-free-food-boom
  3. Cuschieri, S. & Mamo, J. (2016). “Getting to grips with the obesity epidemic in Europe”. SAGE Open Med. 2016 Sep 21;4:2050312116670406. eCollection 2016.
  4. Shearer, J. & Swithers, S.E. (2016). “Artificial sweeteners and metabolic dysregulation: Lessons learned from agriculture and the laboratory.” Rev Endocr Metab Disord. 2016 Jun;17(2):179-86. doi: 10.1007/s11154-016-9372-1.
  5. “Fat replacers” (1998). Food Technology Magazine, March 1998.52[3]:47-53.
  6. Warshaw, H., et al (1996) “Fat replacers: their use in foods and role in diabetes medical nutrition therapy.” Diabetes Care. 1996 Nov;19(11):1294-301.