Food Fables

Posted by Jennie Ann Freiman MD on

Food myths are rampant, mostly geared to quick-fix solutions for timeless questions of how to lose weight and be healthy. A few that persist deserve to join the ranks of debunked medical advice, including how margarine is better than butter, how ulcers are caused by spicy food, and how its best to drink eight glasses of water a day. Not!

These tidbits of truth are anything but:

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day: The built-in overnight fast that comes with sleeping, if extended to at least 12 hours, switches the body’s metabolic state from “fed physiology” to “fasting physiology,” which burns fat for fuel. Contrast that to a “healthy” breakfast of oatmeal or the more typical cereal or buttered toast, the recommended early morning carb-fest that burns glucose, spikes insulin and begins the fat storing process. Time-restricted eating (TRE), a user-friendly version of intermittent fasting, mimics the feeding cycle followed for almost all of human history, until recent times, a plan strongly linked to weight loss, improved body composition and healthy longevity: less obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, better cholesterol, triglycerides, and cognitive function. TRE benefits come from the timing of food intake, not which specific food or how much is eaten, although nutrient-dense calories instead of junk always makes the most sense. Skipping breakfast and confining food intake to an 8 - 12 hour window every day is easier than it seems because it’s ok to drink zero calorie foods such as black coffee, tea or water during the fast. Finish dinner/snacks by 7:30 PM and don't eat again until 7:30AM (or even better, push it to 11:30 AM) has little pain and lots of gain. Take home: the real breakfast of champions is no breakfast at all.

Eat frequent, small meals: The idea behind eating 5 or 6 small meals a day originally came from research into stabilizing blood sugar and insulin levels in diabetics, which somehow became generalized to everyone else. It’s also suggested as an antidote to food cravings and a way to boost metabolism. Each of these ideas is, in a word, ridiculous. A relatively constant level of insulin still means ongoing insulin production, which stresses the pancreas and makes development of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome a real threat. Because frequent small meals tend to morph into frequent bigger meals, fat is stored. If this feeding pattern is the answer to food cravings, it follows logically that alcoholics would do better by drinking throughout the day instead of binging or holding off until the night…As far as the notion of supercharging the metabolism, studies show the exact opposite: frequent small meals reduce levels of leptin, the “satiety” hormone that shuts down hunger. Once again, given that the needle of human physiology has barely budged since prehistoric times, our systems are hardwired for feast or famine, rather than nonstop feast. Take home: cows graze, people shouldn't.

Eggs are bad for you: This myth got started because eggs are high in cholesterol, about 200 mg each, which meant two per day exceeded most every historical recommendation for limiting daily dietary cholesterol intake. That was then and this is now. The latest 2015-2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines do not put a quantitative limit on dietary cholesterol because science shows that cholesterol in the food we eat does not significantly impact cholesterol levels in our blood: the real culprits are trans fat (the formerly touted margarine, for one) and sugar. Eggs are nutrient powerhouses packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and high quality protein that satisfy hunger without spiking insulin and setting off fat storage. Although they don’t raise blood cholesterol levels for most, in the case of the minority who are “hyper-responders,” HDL (“good” cholesterol) rises and and LDL (“bad” cholesterol) changes its balance in favor of large, fluffy, heart-healthy sub-particles. Organic, pastured eggs are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated fats at the center of the heart and brain friendly Mediterranean diet. To max out the health benefits of eggs, poaching is the best cooking method. Take home: eggs are the bomb* (*post-1997 usage:-)

Like most dogma, medical dogma is a moving target: what’s “true” today may be shown to be false.

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  • Always learn so much from you Dr Jennie. Look forward to your well vetted insightful posts.

    julie on
  • Finally, a doctor is actually condoning my eating habits instead of criticizing them. Most people still believe that it would be impossible for them to wait until noon to eat. But these are the same overweight or obese people that have known me for decades (I’m age 70, 5’6" and hover between 119-123 pounds my entire life) and comment that I am so lucky I’ve been able to eat as much as I want and never gain weight, implying, of course, that I was born that way and don’t need to discipline or modify my eating habits. They just don’t get it and refuse to see it any other way. Denial is a river in Egypt!

    Monika Half on

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