In an attempt to make the science of nutrition easier to understand, nutrition gurus give us sound bites that are only partly accurate or based on misunderstood science. Here are 6 silly food and nutrition rules that have got to go.
Silly Nutrition Rule #1: Don’t eat white food.
Oh my, this drives me crazy. So many people have taken it literally and given up milk, cauliflower, tofu, white beans and other nutritious white foods. The much maligned white potato is a nutrient powerhouse. In fact, white potatoes are an inexpensive source of potassium, which is too rare in the diet and important for healthy blood pressure levels. People often forgo white, brown and pale-colored fruits and vegetables, but they too are loaded with nutrients. All fruits and vegetables give us nutrients and disease-fighting phytonutrients.
Even white bread and white pasta have something unique to offer. Because they are fortified with the B vitamin folic acid, they help to prevent serious birth defects. Researchers found that since mandatory folic acid fortification, about 1,300 babies are born each year without neural tube defects who would have likely been affected otherwise. Don’t get me wrong, I think that most of our grains should be whole grains, but there is place for some fortified grains. “Don’t eat white foods” really irks me because it’s much too general, doesn’t consider individual nutrient needs, and really doesn’t help to identify nutrient-dense foods.
Bottom line: The color of food does not dictate it’s nutrient value.
Better guidance: Eat a variety of foods and food groups. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, eat every color and every type (and yes, white and brown are colors).
Silly Nutrition Rule #2: Avoid processed foods.
This sound bite is also much too broad to be useful. I don’t recommend making a meal of toaster pastries or packing lunches of bologna sandwiches. But canned beans and tuna are also processed. So are cartons of vegetable broth and quick cooking oats. When I’m in a hurry, I really enjoy pouches of fully-cooked, microwaveable quinoa and brown rice. These are health-boosting processed foods that can make getting a nutritious meal on the table easier, faster and less expensive. Let’s not put all processed foods in the same category. Plus, some processing actually increases nutrition. For example, tomato sauce has more available lycopene than fresh tomatoes.
Better guidance: Eat mostly whole and minimally-processed foods. Plan ahead to avoid unhealthful convenience foods.
Silly Nutrition Rule #3: Shop only the perimeter of the store.
By skipping the inside aisles, you’ll miss a slew of wholesome items such as canned black beans, tomatoes, peaches and tuna. You’ll bypass whole grains like farro and steel cut oats; tea bags; and walnuts and peanut butter. And if you grab any ole thing from the perimeter of the store, you could fill your cart with plenty of not-so-healthful choices including donuts, hot dogs and ice cream.
Better guidance: Fill your cart like you should fill your plate. Choose lots and lots of vegetables along with some fruit, whole grains, lowfat dairy, beans, lentils, nuts, fish and other protein-rich foods.
Silly Nutrition Rule #4: Choose only natural or organic foods.
Unfortunately, “natural” doesn’t even have a legal definition – at least not yet, but the FDA is considering one. Organic has a lengthy legal definition, but even that is no guarantee of wholesomeness. An organic cookie – regardless of the type of sugar used – is still a cookie and should be eaten in moderation. And if the price of organic produce prevents you from eating ample fruits and vegetables, your diet is much worse off than if you ate the less expensive conventional fruits and vegetables. Here is a good discussion of organic versus conventional produce: Why the Dirty Dozen Doesn’t Mean What You Think it Means by my colleague Carrie Dennett.
Better guidance: Make your food choices based on wholesomeness and nutrient density, not on claims of natural or organic.Don't eat white food or anything with ingredients you can't pronounce. Let's dump silly nutrition rules!Click To Tweet
Silly Nutrition Rule #5: Skip anything with more than 5 ingredients.
Of all the nutrition rules, this one may make the least amount amount of sense. The number of ingredients has nothing to do with the nutritional value of a food. But what those ingredients are has quite a bit to do with nutrition though. I have no qualms with packaged bean or lentil soup with its 10 or more ingredients when those ingredients are beans (or lentils), vegetables, herbs, spices and cooking oil. I’ll claim greater nutrition from my 10-ingredient canned soup over someone else’s 3-ingredient organic corn chips.
Better guidance: Read the ingredients label to assess the quality – not quantity – of ingredients.
Silly Nutrition Rule #6: Don’t eat it if you can’t pronounce the ingredients.
Aaaack, this just doesn’t make sense. Cobalamin, alpha-tochopherol, thiamine mononitrate? These are essential nutrients: vitamin B12, vitamin E and vitamin B1, actually. Yet coconut oil and agave nectar worry me more because one provides a lot of saturated fat, and the other gives us a lot of added sugars. It’s okay to have coconut oil and agave nectar in small amounts, but you shouldn’t feel virtuous about them – no matter how easy they are to pronounce. Just like you shouldn’t fear something because the word is unfamiliar.
Better guidance: If you’re confused by an ingredient, check out the FDA resource for general information or reach out to a registered dietitian nutritionist.
When we really stop to think about it, these nutrition rules aren’t helpful and cause confusion. So, I’m curious: what food and nutrition rules do you want to see cleared up?