The 3 Most Destructive Myths Around Eating and Health
While it is true that to lose weight or get healthier you need to change what you are eating, many of us hold beliefs about food that inadvertently keep us from our goals. Underlying the way we eat, our attitudes about it and our resistance to changing our habits are a series of beliefs or myths about what is “good,” “healthy,” and “normal.” Let’s look at three of the most common of those health-undermining myths.
- Myth #1: It’s just a “sweet tooth”
- Myth #2: Sugar and flour are just “empty calories”
- Myth #3: Calories In/Calories Out
Myth # 1: It’s just a sweet tooth.
There’s something innocent about calling a sugar addiction just a “sweet tooth.” By calling it a “sweet tooth,” we do two things: we give it an innocent-sounding name that white washes the damage it does; and, we give our behavior a name that is self-justifying — if we have a sweet tooth, then that’s the reason why we indulge in chocolate every day.
The feigning-of-innocence in the term “sweet tooth” is a way to let ourselves off the hook. It simultaneously gives us an explanation and an excuse, while side-stepping responsibility of our actions, as if “the devil made me do it.”
And that’s precisely the point; if we are compelled to an action that does us harm disguised as a harmless indulgence, then we are doubly deceiving ourselves.
Myth #2: Sugar and flour are just “empty calories.”
This myth must have been created and/or picked up steam during the low-fat era beginning in the 1980’s, when the prevailing belief was that “fat is bad.” This myth posits that sugar and flour, while not expressly “bad” for you, do not have any nutrients your body needs, and thus “empty.” That means that if you eat these foods, the worst thing that would happen is that you might gain weight. And if you don’t eat too much of them, and/or exercise, you can eat these foods and they won’t do any harm.
While it true that they are “empty” of nutrients, this idea undermines the fact that they are doing metabolic damage to two different systems every time they are consumed. First, blood sugar. Every time you have sweets or white flour (the refined nature of white flour is digested so quickly that it has the same metabolic impact as eating sugar), it causes a chain-reaction of hormones that impact your body’s ability to absorb and process it, notably insulin. Abuse of this system eventually causes insulin resistance and pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes.
The second area of systemic damage is in the gut. Sugar and refined flours are known to create inflammation in the gut, which is linked not only to impairment of the immune system, but systemic inflammation throughout the body, including the arteries, joints, and brain. Some in the medical field are now referring to Alzheimer’s disease as Type 3 Diabetes, because of the link between extended periods of high blood sugar and the brain disorder. Indeed, the gut-brain connection is now understood to be a factor in many brain disorders, including depression and Parkinson’s Disease.
Myth #3: Calories In/Calories Out.
Similar to both of the other myths, the calories in/calories out myth denies any nefarious properties of those empty calories, by simply reducing weight loss to a numbers game. Yes, at some point you need to balance the amount of physical activity you do with the amount you eat, but it is misleading to presume — as is the assumption in this myth — that all calories are created equal. All of those “empty” calories are doing metabolic damage, so even if you are able to manage your sweet tooth with an abundance of exercise, they are still jacking your blood sugar and creating inflammation. Those two bodily reactions to consuming refined sugar and flour are the building blocks of our greatest killers: heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases caused by inflammation.
The bottom line is this: We can no longer continue to delude ourselves with the naïve and wishful myths that eating sugar and refined carbohydrates are merely evidence of a “sweet tooth” being indulged in by consuming “empty calories,” and that an aggressive workout regimen will nullify any damage we are doing, as evidenced by managing our weight.
By examining and dismantling the underlying beliefs you hold about eating, food and health will help you identify those which are not serving you, and allow you to create new beliefs that are more truthful and helpful for pursuing your goals of a healthy weight and healthy lifestyle.
Andrea Grayson works in behavior change communications and teaches in the Masters of Public Health program at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. Join the free 7-Day Mid-Pandemic Reset to come out of this better than you went into it.