A dietitian weighs in on whether butter really is healthier than margarine, and if athletes should – or shouldn’t – cut out carbs.
Today there are more food myths than we can count. It’s difficult to filter through all the information and know what’s good for us and what’s not. Here are some of the most common food myths I hear in practice, that need busting or perhaps just some more explaining.
Myth: Diet drinks are better than ‘regular’ soft drinks
We’re often told that diet drinks are a better choice than regular soft drinks, as they are lower in sugar and, therefore, a lower calorie drink.
But the trade off is that diet soft drinks are pumped with artificial sweeteners. So what happens when artificial sweeteners are added into soft drinks? Well, there is plenty of research that shows the consumption of artificial sweeteners is associated with eating more. It has been suggested that this is due to the brains ability to sense sweetness and energy intake. What this means is that when we consume something that contains artificial sweetener our brain thinks we are also getting something that will supply us with energy. When there is no energy, the brain responds by promoting more food intake, to make up for the lack of energy.
Does this mean soft drinks that contain sugar are recommended? No. Sugar sweetened beverages are one of the key causes of obesity in Australia.
What do I recommend instead? Straight soda water or sparkling water is a great option if you enjoy the sensation of bubbles. Otherwise, flavouring water with slices of fresh fruit, or adding frozen fruit (such as frozen berries) can provide a delicate flavour, which is actually great for you, too.
Myth: Butter is a better choice than margarine
There’s recently been a resurgence of people recommending butter as a healthier choice than margarine. Whilst a smear of butter on warm bread is delicious, there are so many other choices that provide better nutritional benefits than either butter or margarine. So, in short, I recommend neither, and would recommend these alternatives instead:
1. Avocado provides a wonderful mix of healthy fats and is rich in folate, vitamin C and E.
2. Tahini is a sesame seed paste that is also rich in healthy fats, and contains a compound called sesamol, which has been shown to help slow cartilage degeneration. Sesame is also a rich source of calcium, iron, magnesium and folate, along with being a good source of protein and fibre.
3. Olive oil – we are lucky enough that in Australia, we have some of the best quality olive oil in the world. Olive oil has been shown to help improve heart health and may also help with weight management as well.
Myth: Protein shakes are essential after exercise
One of the questions I am often asked is ‘which protein powder should I have?’ Whilst protein powders provide a super convenient way to consume protein, they are not the only way to get enough protein after a workout. For most of us, eating a normal, macronutrient-balanced meal afterwards is sufficient. Think muesli with yoghurt and a flat white, or eggs on toast or salmon and sweet potato, for example. All of which make great recovery meals, providing the required quantity of protein, without the addition of protein powders.
I do recommend protein powders if I am working with an athlete with high-energy requirements, who will often struggle to consume enough calories overall without the incorporating these protein supplements into their diet.
The second instance I would recommend protein powder is if it’s going to make someone’s life easier. Maybe they need to drink their breakfast post a morning training session on the train or bus, but even then I would recommend their smoothie gets pimped out a little more, to make it healthier.
Myth: Eggs increase cholesterol
Historically, eggs are one of the foods that people have been wary of, mostly due to the cholesterol, which is found in the yolk. Research shows that this is not anything to worry about, as our bodies are better at making cholesterol from saturated fats, than they are at absorbing cholesterol from egg yolk. Recently, the NHMRC updated their guidelines in relation to eggs, stating ‘There do not appear to be any increased health risks associated with consumption of eggs. There is recent evidence to suggest that consumption of eggs every day is not associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease.’
So how many eggs should we have a day? My recommendation is two eggs. This is considered to be one serve, and this should be consumed as a part of the two and a half serves of protein-rich foods recommended each day, which also includes meat, poultry, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes and beans.
Myth: Coffee is bad for you
It’s hard to find a ‘detox diet’ that doesn’t recommend avoiding coffee because it is ‘bad for you’ – but research begs to differ.
If we’re honest though, most of us aren’t drinking coffee for the purported health benefits. I’m sure you’d agree that it’s your go-to drink to help wake up and increase alertness. In this way, more isn’t necessarily better. An optimal coffee intake is more of a bell curve than ‘more is more.’ Too much coffee is linked with poor sleep, anxiety and even heart palpitations.
Further to that, health benefits can all start to come undone when we begin adding large serves of milk, sugar, syrups and the odd muffin into the mix; calorie intake can go up incredibly quickly, making it harder to manage weight, and possibly working against some of the health benefits coffee is associated with.
Myth: Carbs are bad for endurance athletes
One of the most common questions I am asked by my endurance clients is ‘should I try low carb?’ Whilst there has been much discussion about this in the media, current research shows that if you’re looking for a podium finish, or for a PB in endurance activity, carbs are king.
When running, cycling or swimming, carbohydrates are the main source of fuel our bodies use to continue with the activity. The best diet will also include moderate amounts of protein and fat as well, to ensure the best balance of nutrition is supplied.
Even when looking at elite athletes who are supposedly on ‘low carb’ diets, once the break down of the food and drink they consume during a race is done, it is likely to show that a higher carb intake is actually the case.
If you haven’t consumed enough carbohydrates before or during a long training session, performing at your best will become increasingly difficult.
Myth: Milk is a bad choice
The milk debate is on every ones lips and dairy milk has been put through the ringer. But it doesn’t matter if it is dairy milk, soy or almond, there are pros and cons to all types.
Dairy milk provides a rich source of calcium, protein and B12, along with a mix of other nutrients important for health. Many people don’t tolerate dairy well, some because of a lactose intolerance, and others due to cow’s milk protein intolerance. However, research shows it is great for bone health and is involved in weight management.
Many soy milks also contain added sugar, and not all contain the same calcium content that cow’s milk naturally supplies. However, soy can make a great alternate option to dairy milk for vegans or those who do not tolerate lactose. It is rich in protein, and soy consumption is linked to management of heart health and can help reduce inflammation. I recommend keeping to 2-3 serves per day for best health benefits.
‘How do you get milk from almonds?’ is another common comment I hear from many! And, given many almond milks are only 2 per cent almonds, it is understandable how this has come about. Almonds themselves are a great source of vitamin E and calcium, however due to the low quantity of almonds in the milk, the amount in the milk is often quite low. Many almond milks are fortified with calcium, and if you choose an unsweetened version, this can be a good option if you require a plant based milk.
Myth: Yoghurt is too high in sugar
Many flavoured yoghurts are incredibly high in sugar, however this doesn’t mean that all yoghurt is high in sugar.
Plain, unsweetened, natural or Greek yoghurts are great sources of protein and calcium, and whilst they contain some sugar, it’s content is what’s naturally found in milk. When you are choosing yoghurt, I recommend Greek-style natural yoghurt, flavoured with fresh fruit, cinnamon, vanilla or a drizzle of honey.
Chloe McLeod is an accredited practicing dietitian. For more from Chloe, head here.