Nutrition as well as the health and fitness industry in general, can be a very confusing space.
This confusion relates to the sheer volume of information available to us at any one time. No matter the social media platform, there is a sea of voices all chiming in on different topics of food and nutrition.
Doctors, dietitians, nutritionists, personal trainers, fitness influencers, health coaches and naturopaths all have something to say about nutrition and often there are many conflicting points of view.
It’s hard to know who to trust. Anyone can publish information about nutrition and many people do without adequate knowledge.
To help to clear up some misinformation, here are the top 10 facts that most people don’t know about nutrition:
1. Nutrition is a science.
You’ve eaten all your life, so you have come to know what foods you enjoy and what makes you feel good. That’s great!
Unfortunately, many people mistake their intimate experience with food as knowledge of nutrition science. Just because something worked for you, it does not mean that it will work for everyone else around you.
Nutrition science is a relatively new field. The first vitamin was isolated and chemically defined in 1926 and in the grand scheme of things, that was not that long ago.
In less than 100 years, the field of nutrition research has accomplished a lot. We have a great understanding of our macro and micronutrient requirements over the course of the lifecycle. We know a lot about habitual dietary practices and their long-term health outcomes and we understand the human relationship with food to a much better extent.
However, there are still a lot gaps that we don’t have solid evidence for and a lot of questions that are not yet answered.
Whilst we know a lot about food and nutrition, these gaps allow for misinformation to creep in.
I think as humans, we tend to want an answer for everything and it is even better when that answer is very black and white. But nutrition isn’t black and white. Because we are dealing with not only biochemistry and physiology but also the human condition and human psychology, nutrition science is open to a lot of nuance.
And from my experience, nuance isn’t very sexy or marketable.
At the end of the day, we just need to be aware that nutrition science is a field full of qualified health professionals including chemists, biologists, dietitians, food scientists and so many more and our understanding of nutrition and health will continue to grow and expand.
2. Food variety is just as important as food quality
The quality of food can be defined by its contribution to our overall nutritional intake.
Whilst I don’t like to label foods as good or bad because food all food is morally equal, we aren’t going to pretend that some foods don’t have more nutritonal value than others.
That is why it is important to have a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, lean proteins and calcium rich foods.
Nonetheless, beyond having a base of nutritious wholefoods in your diet, it is equally important to have a variety.
- Improves our ability to meet vitamin and mineral requirements
- Nourishes our gut microbiome and contributes to better gut health
- Makes nutritious food exciting to eat and prevents boredom due to repetitive foods
- May improve long-term health outcomes including reducing the risk of chronic disease
3. Small changes can make a big difference
Small dietary changes can make a big difference.
So many people assume that they need to do a full nutrition 360 if they want to lose weight or improve their health. People will often be looking for the thing they can do to immediately change their circiumstances.
Go keto, eat paleo, cut out sugar, no carbs, take a fat burner….
But in all honestly, the most worthwhile thing we can do to improve our nutrition is to change our habits. These small habits don’t individually result in a less than ideal health or weight status but it is the culmination of them that put us there and keeps us there.
Habits such as
- Being very sedentary during the day
- Not engaging in much physical activity
- Not being prepared with our meal and snack choices and relying on convenience options
- Eating whilst distracted
- Not eating enough fruits and vegetables
- Eating takeout food and drinking alcohol too frequently
- Choosing more processed foods instead of fibre rich wholegrains
- Eating a large amount of animals products and eat very few plant based foods
- Not drinking enough water
- Drinking large quantities of sugar sweetened beverages such as soft drink
Can all contribute to poor health and individually targeting each one of our less than ideal habits and changing them is going to have the best results long term.
4. The success of any diet comes down to one thing – a calorie deficit
There are more diets marketed for weight loss than I could possibly sit here and name.
But at the end of the day a weight loss diet will only work if it has one secret ingredient. A calorie deficit.
You have likely heard the term, calories in versus calories out before, and despite the debate often circulating around this term, it rings very true.
Weight loss or weight gain for that matter, all comes down to energy balance. Energy balance is a nuanced topic, like many things in nutrition, and is often misunderstood.
The most common misunderstanding is that energy in and energy out are magic, static numbers that we can calculate and control with perfect accuracy.
However, this is not the case. Finding the right amount of calories for your goals is almost always a bit of trial and error. Sure, we can use an equation or calorie calculator online but these numbers are just theoretical ball parks for us to start with and adjust as time goes on.
The fact of the matter is,
when energy expenditure (calories burnt) is greater than energy in (calories consumed) our bodies are forced to take from our internal energy (fat) stores to make up for this deficit. Over time, this calorie deficit leads to weight loss.
So when Susan from HR lost 15kgs on keto, it was because she was in a calorie deficit.
When Dave from the coffee shop got ripped abs from going vegan, it was because he was in a calories deficit.
and when Amy from the local mum’s group lost her post baby weight from fasting, it was the calorie deficit.
From the evidence we have now, no one diet is better than the other. If you want to lose weight, eat in a way that allows you to be in a calorie deficit.
5. Weight loss is not the only nutrition-related goal you can focus on
Weight loss often dominates the food and nutrition discource.
Its rare that you will find a group of people chatting about how nutrition can serve them in any other way.
Wanting to change your body composition or weight is not necessarily harmful. A lot people can use periods of time to try and reduce their weight or body fat and be perfectly fine. However, if weight loss is taking up a significant portion of your mental energy for years on end, then it might be time to switch focus.
Why not try to
- Improve your relationship with food
- Improve the quality and variety of your food for improved health
- Learn new cooking skills to create nutritious food at home
- Improve your gut health and nourish your gut microflora
- Improve your nutrition for performance and recovery
- Build some muscle mass
6. No one food or nutrient is the problem.
Returning back to the idea that people really love a black and white answer to a problem, single foods or single nutrients are often demonised.
They are blamed for huge issues which they could not possibly cause on their own.
Carbs, fat, sugar, fruit, beans and grains have all copped a bad wrap over the past decade for “causing the obesity epidemic” or being the reason why no one can lose weight.
Nonetheless, no singular type of food or nutrient is at fault for poor health outcomes or weight gain.
It is the culmination of our food and dietary habits that contributes to our health and weight and focusing on one tiny thing is not going to be helpful in improving your situation long term.
7. Metabolic damage isn’t real, but metabolic adaptation is
You cannot break or damage your metabolism through dieting.
Too much emphasis gets placed on ‘metabolic damage’ as the thing that is going to derail all your weight loss and dieting efforts.
The word damage indicates that your body is doing something wrong and your metabolism is in need of repair. However, your body is just reacting naturally to a reduced energy availability.
When you are in a calorie deficit your body does slightly slow down your metabolism, like wise, when you are in a calorie surplus, your metabolism increases.
If you are trying to lose weight, metabolic adaptation or otherwise known as adaptive thermogenesis is useful to be aware of as your caloric needs may be slightly less than what is expected after dieting for a while.
This is not the catastrophe it is made out to be, a simple slight reduction in caloric intake will likely have you back where you want to be.
You can also introduce diet breaks. Diet breaks are where you eat at maintenance calories for 2-4 weeks in between phases of weight loss to allow metabolic adaption to be reversed.
8. Eating food is more nutritious than taking vitamins or nutritional supplements.
Having a food first approach to nutrition is highly recommended.
A food first approach is defined by a focus on eating a variety of wholefoods from all five food groups. For the most part, having a variety of wholefoods as the basis of your diet will provide you with most of the nutrients your body requires for health and maintenance.
Nutritional supplements may be useful for some people who struggle to meet their requirements through food alone, however, whole foods provide benefits that supplements cannot.
Whole foods contain plant substances that are just as important for health as meeting your vitamin and mineral requirements. These substances call polyphenols do not appear in nutritional supplements.
So your daily multivitamin does not exempt you from having to eat your fruits and vegetables.
For some nutrients such as iron and zinc, it is also possible to have too much and end up with toxic levels of those nutrients in your system. However, these upper limits are very unlikely to be reached by food alone and are therefore only a potential issue with supplementation.
9. A hyperfocus on eating healthy can be a sign of disorded eating
Being aware of your nutritional habits and putting some effort into ensuring that your diet is based on quality, wholefoods is great. However, a fixation on the ‘healthiness’ of food can be a sign of disordered eating.
The term ‘orthorexia’ was coined in 1998 and means an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating.
Many people try to eat healthy or attempt different diets so it can be difficult to know when an innocent interest in food and health becomes a more serious issue.
The Bratman Test for Orthorexia is a 10-question checklist developed by Dr Steve Bratman, who coined the term ‘Orthorexia’. If you answer yes to four or more of the questions, you may benefit from seeking support around your eating behaviours.
- Do you spend more than three hours a day thinking about your diet?
- Do you plan your meals several days ahead?
- Is the nutritional value of your meal more important than the pleasure of eating it?
- Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet has increased?
- Have you become stricter with yourself lately?
- Does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthily?
- Have you given up foods you used to enjoy in order to eat the ‘right’ foods
- Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat out, distancing you from family and friends?
- Do you feel guilty when you stray from your diet?
- Do you feel at peace with yourself and in total control when you eat healthily?
If you or anyone you know is experiencing sign of orthorexia, seek advice from a health professional.
10. Fat burning does not equal fat loss
“Fat burning” and “fat loss” are not interchangeable concepts.
You may hear that low carb, keto diets and fasted cardio turn you into a fat burning machine.
And this is an accurate statement. Typically, the body’s predominant fuel source is carbohydrates, particularly during high intensity activity. However, if you do not provide your body with adequate carbohydrates to fuel your activity, it will go for the next best thing. Fat.
Your body will oxidise (aka burn) fat as a main fuel source on a low-carb diet and during fasted cardio. Although this does not equate to fat loss.
This is because on these diets you will be consuming a higher amount of fat and some of this dietary fat will end up in your fat cells. So you may be burning fat but your body is also storing fat at the same time. If you are eating a maintenance level of calories, fat oxidation and fat deposition will happen at an equal rate. This will then result in a consistent level of fat storage.
The biggest factor in weight or fat loss is the old-fashioned calorie deficit. If you are not in a calorie deficit, you will not lose body fat!
Even if you are a “fat burning machine”.
Nutrition is a complicated field of research and social media often doesn’t do it any favours. Nutrition misinformation is a huge problem on a variety of platforms but hopefully we have cleared up a few of the most common misunderstandings.
Leah is an accredited practising dietitian from Brisbane. She also competes as an under 75kg powerlifter with Valhalla Strength Brisbane. As both an athlete and dietitian, she spends much of her time developing her knowledge and skills around sports nutrition, specifically for strength-based sports. Although, she works with a range of athletes from triathletes to combat sports and powerlifting.
Leah also follows a plant-based diet and her greatest passion is fuelling vegan/vegetarian athletes and proving that plant-based athletes can be just as competitive as their non-vegan counterparts.