As a culture, we go through phases with our diet preferences—low-fat gave way to low-carb, dairy-free begat gluten-free, and eggs (poor eggs) are either omega-rich wunderkinds or insidious cholesterol bombs, depending on the current political climate and whether or not Mercury's in retrograde. Yet there are some out-there diet myths that we simply can't seem to shake.
Over the course of The Anti-Diet Project, I've struggled to dislodge these false beliefs from my own diet-addled brain, but it's not easy. When I've believed for 10 years that a potato is four points, it's really hard to see it as a potato again. I still struggle with eating dinner, even when I'm hungry, and I'm fairly convinced it'll take years of couples counseling for me to ever trust bananas again. We'll get there one day, bananas.
Considering that I'm clearly bonkers when it comes to food, it helps to have a professional on-hand. I enlisted Theresa Kinsella, R.D., to take on some of the diet myths that we're particularly stuck on. Some of them are problems for me, while others seem to be bugaboos for pretty much everyone. Some seem to be obviously bunk, while I fully expected her to come back with, "Well, that one's kind of true," about others. Nope. Turns out, when it comes to the "rules" of eating right, we are almost always ridiculously wrong.
Note: I'm sure that some of the following might not jibe with your current belief system around food. (For the gluten topic alone, I expect a fair amount of tomato-throwing.) I'm not here to convert anyone, nor am I a nutrition professional—but Kinsella is. I hope that even if you disagree with or don't believe in any of these statements, you'll take it upon yourself to do your own research or reach out to your own medical or nutritional pros. We good?
Myth #1: You Shouldn't Eat Dinner (Or Anything Else) After 7 p.m.
"There is no universal time that everyone should stop eating," says Kinsella. "People get up at different times, go to sleep at different times, and eat at different times. Many countries eat dinner later than Americans, but their populations weigh less than Americans do. Unless someone has an eating disorder and needs to eat at regular intervals to establish normalized hunger cues—or someone has a self-care reason for eating (like they'll soon be stuck in a meeting without access to food)—it is more important for people to be connected to their internal hunger cues than to be eating based on an external influence, like the clock."
What's even more curious is how this diet myth originated. Kinsella wonders if the don't-eat-at-night rule may have more to do with how we regulate our earlier meals while dieting. "Some people get in bad cycles of skipping breakfast and then overeating at night," she says. Furthermore, it's often not about the time we eat but how we're eating. "Sometimes, people find themselves late-night snacking out of habit while they're watching TV. Both these patterns should be addressed simply because they aren't self-care behaviors. But non-hunger mindless snacking at 9 a.m. would be just as much of an issue as [it is at] 9 p.m."
Myth #2: Your Body Doesn't Need Carbohydrates. Carbs Make You Fat.
This line of thinking is central to quite a few diet programs, but Kinsella puts it right to bed. "With the exception of specialized diets for medical necessity, if someone isn't eating carbohydrates, they aren't functioning at their optimal level," she says. "The brain alone uses 130 grams of carbohydrates per day. Carbohydrates are also necessary for serotonin production."
She adds that the maligned molecules are even more important if you engage in even moderate exercise. "Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for exercise, and many people do not feel good when exercising without them. Since exercise is an essential component of self-care and health, eliminating carbohydrates can be detrimental to overall health."
Again, no one's arguing that you need more white bread in your life, but "whole grains, beans, fruit, and vegetables all contain carbohydrates and are excellent sources of fiber," says Kinsella. "For this reason, many people on low-carb diets experience an unwanted side effect: constipation." We've all been there. Let's not go there again.
Myth #3: Paleo is the Ideal Diet Because We Were All Once Paleolithic People.
This one particularly irks me. It's at once so attractive to the dieter ("Of course! Ancient man didn't have spaghetti, so I shouldn't, either!") and so ridiculous (Ancient man didn't have lentils, and therefore lentils are bad for you?). We also need to acknowledge that we don't live like ancient man. Consider, for example, that modern produce bears little resemblance to its Paleolithic ancestors. And hunter-gatherer diets varied drastically, depending on where the population lived. Lastly, when is the last time you actively pursued your steak before eating it?
Back me up, Theresa:
"The Paleo diet is based on eating food that can be hunted, fished, or gathered, such as meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, eggs, veggies, roots, and fruit, like berries. It does not include grains, dairy, beans, salt, and sugar. Whole grains, dairy, and beans are nutrient-rich foods. By eliminating them, you could be setting yourself up for a deficiency or eliminating nutrients that help prevent disease."
No matter how healthy we aim to be, most of us will not continue an eating program if it doesn't satisfy us. And, Kinsella warns, "the Paleo diet certainly doesn't emphasize enjoying your food. When people don't enjoy their food, it's difficult to eat mindfully and it is very difficult to sustain. … If we look at the research on losing excess weight, it's clear that people that include highly enjoyable food are actually more likely to maintain their loss." In other words, we can put in painstaking dedication and effort to supplement the nutrients that Paleo lacks, but the call of the bread or cheese—or even lentils—almost always wins out.