A myth can be defined as “a misrepresentation of the truth” or an “exaggerated or idealized conception about a person or thing.” [Oxford Dictionary].
As a Registered Dietitian, I regularly encounter exaggerated or over-simplified recommendations that people believe they need to follow to be healthy — especially when it comes to weight management. And when folx can’t stick to those nutrition myths, they are often left feeling like a failure. So, they buckle down, trying harder and harder with more and more restrictive diets. Ultimately they blame themselves for lack of success when they ‘fall off the wagon’, when in truth, the rules and restrictions are to blame. Their rigidity becomes impossible to sustain long term when there are so many other variables in life that impact the when, why, where, and what we eat.
Thus my goal, Dear Reader, is to increase your savvy by equipping you with the best method for approaching a nutrition myth, so you can eat smarter — not harder — and stress less about food.
Defining Nutrition Myths
For the purposes of this article, we are going to define nutrition myths as:
- Nuggets of nutrition wisdom that have been exaggerated, idealized, or oversimplified in such a way that following them long term is unlikely.
- A misrepresentation of the truth about our own health habits
Wow. That is a really broad definition, And, given we live in the age of Information Overwhelm, and the need of information makers to grab your attention with catchy headlines and sound bites, it leaves a lot up for scrutiny.
But wait, there’s more! As most individuals can agree, we tend to be our own worst enemies– which means we can be our very own myth makers. We might take a piece of nutrition information and distort or twist it in the hopes of getting faster or better results. Or, we might misrepresent the reality of our habits, therefore clouding the true picture of our health.
Fantastic Nutrition Myths and Where to Find Them
I love a good play on words, so thank you for indulging me with this heading. And in this case, fantastic means ‘fanciful; remote from reality’ — rather than ‘wonderful.’
Fantastic Nutrition Myths: A Tell-Tale Characteristic
When consuming nutrition information from all the media sources you encounter, the main characteristic that hints of a nutrition myth is:
All-or-nothing or black and white language. In fancy terms, this is known as dichotomous thinking. It’s roots are based in perfectionism. Things are either all good, or all bad — there is no middle ground. Some examples (all-or-nothing language is bolded):
- Everyone should eat gluten free.
- Non-organic produce is bad for you.
- Never eat after 8 pm.
- [Current fad] is the best diet for weight loss.
There is no wiggle room in these statements, and when we start to attach our self-worth to how good or bad we were at following rigid statements like these, it can get complicated fast. I have lost count of how many patients have told me, with their eyes cast to the ground, “I was bad today, I ate [insert forbidden food here].”
If we start to internalize being ‘bad’ every time we eat the ‘wrong’ way, that can snowball into feeling that we are a bad person, and may lead to the “What the Hell Effect.”
The “What the Hell Effect” is an actual term that dieting researchers use to describe what happens when someone feels they broke the rules of their diet by indulging in a ‘forbidden food,’ feeling regret about it, and then indulging some more because — “What the hell, I blew it anyway.”
Where to Find Nutrition Myths
Any Media Source
This comes as no surprise. The smaller the space to communicate, the more likely the information is to be exaggerated. It has to capture your attention somehow, so the use of extreme language is how it’s done.
- “Fifteen foods you should never eat. Ever.”
- “Kick your carb addiction for good.”
Self-Made Nutrition Myths: DIY and Smoke and Mirrors
We might be the ones to exaggerate a piece of nutrition information in the hopes of getting faster or better results — or to showcase our mighty will power. For example, distorting a recommendation into a myth:
|Reduce sugar intake||“I don’t eat sugar.”|
|Moderate carbohydrate intake||“I’m giving up carbs.”|
We will be able to keep up the myth for a time, but eventually the deprivation is going to rise to a level where we are pre-occupied with the very item we said we weren’t going to eat — the forbidden food.
I will share a personal example of this from my early twenties. After college graduation I spent a year as a Jesuit Volunteer (JV); it’s a program like AmeriCorps, but you live in community with other JVs. It was an incredible year of my life, but that is another story.
Well, one of my roommates and I decided to give up sugar. This was inspired by the Lent — the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, which is a time for reflection and fasting and sacrifice. In my very limited experience, the sacrifice and fasting were often combined into “giving something up” that you enjoy.
These twenty years later, all I can tell you is that my intentions were good. I recall scolding my roommate for drinking diet soda — because it was still sweet. I was Food Policing her as a way to manage my own deprivation.
Ultimately, the deprivation got the best of me when my housemates and I were volunteer servers at a non-profit’s auction. The desserts were petit-four sized items. They were perfect for discretely stuffing into my pockets so I could bee-line it to the bathroom and eat them in a stall where no one would see me. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but it was a classic example of the What the Hell Effect.
Smoke and Mirrors
Or, we might misrepresent the reality of our habits, therefore clouding the true picture of our health.
Someone I met socially talked about abstaining from alcohol every September, and he happened to have a doctor’s visit during that time. So, when he was asked about how many alcohol drinks he consumed in the last 30 days he could honestly say ‘zero.’ He joked he was going to plan his annual check up every September. Does he have an actual drinking problem? Maybe yes, maybe no. What we do know is he created his own nutrition myth — exaggerating his one month of alcohol avoidance into a false narrative of his usual habits.
Okay, okay. A lot of us ‘fudge’ things — our height, our weight, how much we exercise, our other consumption habits — to better suit the narrative we want to tell. So, what? Is it hurting anyone or anything? The answer is — it depends. Most of the time, these little myths have no consequence for others and minimal to no consequence to ourselves. If, however, the myth we’ve created involves normalizing substance abuse or disordered eating behaviors, for example, there is potential for a lot of harm.
The Greatest Nutrition Myth and the Real Truth
The greatest nutrition myth of all is that there is one right way to eat for health.
We can look at population health and see trends and associations and learn from them. Research has told us that most of us in the United States could benefit from more produce, whole grains and legumes and less saturated fat, sugar, and salt. For the most part, this information will have application for us as individuals, but there will always be exceptions.
Making blanket statements about what specific amounts and types of carbohydrates, protein and fat are best, however, is a recipe for individual failure. Chronic dieters will tell you they have tried every combination and nothing worked long term. Have you ever noticed that in weight loss testimonials, there is usually a very small asterisk leading you to some very small print that says *results not typical?
The Real Truth
There is no perfect diet. There is no pre-set perfect weight. Health is not a one, two, or even three dimensional object — it’s a complex forest. Because we live in a dieting culture, it’s easy for us to just focus on a couple of trees in that forest — zoning in on how/what we eat and how much we weigh, as the representations of what health looks like. “If I can just give up sugar, or lose 5 more pounds, then I will be healthy.”
We may very well be able to prune those two trees the way we want, but at what cost to the rest of the forest? For example:
- Declining social events because it will be too hard to follow the rules of our diet and we can’t risk failure.
- Spending excess time exercising in order to achieve a ‘magic number.’
- Becoming increasingly pre-occupied with food, which takes away mental energy for other pursuits
That is why weight loss diets ultimately fail long term– the complex forest of our health starts to show signs of neglect and suffering and we eventually need to nurture these other areas. Unfortunately, though, in our diet culture, when we go off the diet we tend to see it as a failure of our will power rather than recognizing it as a way to better care for other aspects of ourselves.
The true key to good health is adopting habits that nurture the trees that need it, while minimizing any negative impact on the rest of the forest. It’s about balance, which requires flexibility, not rigidity.
So, now that we are thinking of our health as a forest, and nutrition as a tree in that forest, let’s consider all the nutrition information we encounter as various forest creatures — some are mythical and some are not. So, how do we tell the difference?
The Best Method for Approaching a Nutrition Myth
De-myth-tify it! Often these nutrition myths have some nugget of wisdom that can serve our health. We can find it by:
- Identifying and removing the all-or-nothing language. Remember, that is perfectionism talking. It’s rigid and it sets us up for future failure. These words might include:
- Everyone/No one
- Adding progressive language. I like to think of this as adding Fudge Room — building in the permission to be flexible with our eating, which can include room for actual fudge — if you like fudge. (I’m a peanut butter cup person myself). Progressive language includes:
- “Most of the time . . . . “
|“Carbs are bad for my blood sugars.”||“I can eat carbs and balance my blood sugars.”|
|“I am so bad. I had real bacon on my veggie burger.”||“I am vegetarian-ish.”|
|“Never eat after 8 pm.”||“I can eat whenever I feel hungry.”|
Be wary of all or nothing language when it comes to nutrition information. Only in rare circumstances — such as a severe food allergy or celiac disease, for example — do we need to be extremely rigid when it comes to eating for health.
If you have tried de-myth-tifying what you see and hear about nutrition in the vast ocean of information and continue to feel stressed, confused or unsuccessful, consider meeting with a Registered Dietitian about your particular circumstance. They can help you sort nutrition myth from nutrition truth, and help you nourish yourself in a way that supports the complex forest you manage called Overall Health.
Take good care.
Meredith Kleinhenz, RDN, CSG, LD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Board Certified Specialist in Gerontological Nutrition. Over 20 years of experience working with patients has taught her there are no good or bad foods and context matters a whole lot when talking about nourishment. Learn more about Meredith’s philosophy on nutrition and health here.