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The 5 Most Dangerous Food Myths

When you're in the health business, you tend to hear a lot of confusing and damaging messages. Some come from influential people: Doctors, researchers, and TV experts. But the most important information isn't heard in the media--it's in the gym, what you overhear in restaurants, and the conversations you have with your friends. The perception of the truth by "real" people is what really matters.

These days, the biggest problem is that media messages are creating a wave of confusion--especially about food. Meat will kill you. White rice will give you diabetes. Chocolate will make you drop pounds. It's enough to make your head spin. Unfortunately, that type of spinning doesn't burn any calories and tends to do more harm than good. So I wanted to set the record straight: What is the truth about the dangers and benefits of food?

You see, food is vilified in our society. Just this past week, a co-worker casually mentioned, "Eating is cheating." There might have been some sarcasm inserted, but the point was made: People are confused about eating. And while the nation (and world) is overweight as a whole, the mixed messages surrounding food only contributes to the problem. The reality? Food is good. Food is power, energy, and something that should be enjoyed. It also happens to be one of the most confusing health topics and one that people genuinely don't understand.

To provide some clarity, I spoke with Dr. Yoni Freedhoff. Dr. Freedhoff knows a thing or two about food and weight loss. That's what happens when you're the founder and Medical Director of the Bariatric Medical Institute--a place dedicated to non-surgical treatment of the overweight and obese. The best part about Dr. Freedhoff? He comes equipped with a no-BS filter and action-oriented advice. He's just what the health industry needs, and his advice can help you become more educated, make better decisions that work for you, and allow you to start enjoying food.

Here are 5 of the most damaging foods myths, according to Dr. Freedhoff, and what he says you can do to take charge.

1.  Well-Researched Studies are Always Accurate

Let's set the record straight: Any absolute statement made in the media is absolutely misleading. If a headline identifies a specific food as a killer or a savior, you can rest assured whatever study they’re basing their headline on wasn’t actually powerful enough to answer that question.

Nutritional epidemiology is the study of the impact of food on chronic disease, but the best we’re ever going to read are observational studies that, in turn, try to tease out what it is in our diets that are conferring risks or benefits. The only way to ever truly study particular foods would be to randomly assign tens of thousands of people to identical diets with the exception of the food in question and then follow them for years. That just isn't going to happen.

My advice for when you see one of those headlines is to just plain ignore them (for examples why, here are my takes on red meat, white rice, and chocolate) as there’s no doubt there’s no more such thing as a true superfood hero or villain as there is a real life Spiderman or Green Goblin.

2.  If it's "Natural" it Must Be Good

There are a great many mushrooms growing in my front yard that I’m not about to toss into my salad, and just because it had a mother doesn’t mean I should eat inexpertly prepared portions of fugu. Everything is made of chemicals, and those chemicals, just as the They Might Be Giants kids’ song "Meet the Elements" will tell you, are mostly made of 4 elements. How those elements are put together is ultimately what makes something safe or healthy, not who has put them together. So whether they’re assembled by humankind or by nature really doesn’t matter. The notion that everything’s put on earth simply to service us is an incredibly arrogant.

Don't be fooled by clever food marketing

Next time you see the word “natural” on the front of a package, remember, it’s just a sales pitch. If a product needs to pitch to you from its package front that it’s healthy, it’s probably not. Turn it over, actually read the ingredients and nutrition facts panel and then decide.

3.  Healthy Options Have Simple Ingredient Lists

I love Michael Pollan (author of In Defense of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and Food Rules) as much as the next guy, but we need to clarify something that's misleading: Just because you can pronounce it, doesn’t make it good. I can pronounce trans-fat pretty easily; along with its more covert twin brothers hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. I can also pronounce pepperoni, white flour, bacon double cheeseburger and lollipop, but that doesn’t mean I should make those foods a regular part of my diet.

However, the incredible looking lamb stew that’s simmering on my stove? It has more than 5 ingredients--but that doesn’t make it bad for me. And yet, if we went by some of the "short ingredient list is best" ideology, we'd be missing out on a lot of very healthy and delicious food options.

Eating isn't about all-or-nothing rules. And that holds true whether you're talking about research studies, the occasional dessert, or ingredient profiles. You need to use your own thinking cap and evaluate your choices for what they are. Remember that however confused the world has made you, given that you’re on LIVESTRONG.COM, you probably already have a better sense of what’s right and wrong nutritionally then you give yourself credit for. You simply have to take the time to actually read ingredients and nutrition facts panels, then do some critical thinking.

4.  Calories Don't Matter, Foods Do

Here's a rule that applies to all diets: There’s no plan, regime, or program that will negate the absolute truth that calories are the currency of weight.

There are certainly those who’ll tell you differently and usually they’re low-carb folks. Now that doesn’t mean that you have to count calories in order to succeed with weight management (if you do, that's what the Calorie Tracker is for), but it also doesn’t mean that there are magical fairy foods that you can eat with abandon and not worry about gaining weight. Low-carb diets do, in fact, help many lose weight without counting. Want to know how? They lead people to consume fewer calories.

But that said, actually considering the calories in ANY diet might help a great deal. Imagine if you were on a strict budget--would you ever shop without first looking at price tags?

And yet, this is exactly what people do when they're struggling to lose weight--even people on low-carb plans. Even though low-carb folks tend to have lesser appetites and consume fewer calories, there are many low-carb dieters who have been frustrated by what they see as plateaus, which perhaps, on careful caloric inspection, might have just be a result of eating more calories than they were burning.

If you’re stuck at a particular weight, regardless of the approach you’re taking to weight management, keep a careful food diary (yup, scales, spoons, cups and all – but they’re not there to limit you, they’re just there to tell you how much you’re having) and figure out exactly what’s going into your body. Only then will you be able to decide what you should keep and what doesn't make the cut.

5.  Changing Your Lifestyle Fixes Your Diet

Most people I know don't want something that's temporary. A fleeting fortune or happiness is almost more cruel than beneficial--it offers a taste of what you want and then rips it from your grasp. This is why fad diets don't work on a psychological or physical level. Whether it’s an exceedingly restrictive all-liquid diet, or the adoption of an eating style that you either don’t like or that leaves you desperately missing what’s gone, the weight you lose living a life you don’t enjoy is weight that will not stay off. The smaller you become, the fewer calories you burn. If your calorie reduction comes as a consequence of suffering, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that when you get sick of suffering and slowly slide back into your old likable lifestyle, the old calories and their old weights will return.

Your real goal? Live the healthiest life you can enjoy, not the healthiest life you can tolerate. Yes, if you have weight to lose, you'll have to make changes. But if you change so far from who you are and what you enjoy, odds are that it's not a sustainable plan. Don’t aim for your so-called “ideal” weight; instead aim for what I refer to as your “best” weight, which is the weight you reach when living the healthiest life you can actually enjoy.

Try any harder and eventually you’ll quit. And when it comes to your health and your body, that's something you can't afford to risk.

-Adam Bornstein

Have a question for me or want more health and fitness information? Follow me on Twitter (@BornFitness), Google+, or Facebook.

>> Read more of Adam Bornstein’s articles here! <<

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