Updated: Sep 23, 2019
One of the things I have found frustrating over the last few years of trying to eat healthily is how much contradictory information there is out there – it seems that every week there is a new idea about what a healthy diet should look like. The main rule for healthy eating that I have found to be the most helpful is to eat a diet centred on whole, plant based foods. I had already cut out animal products from my diet for ethical reasons prior to becoming interested in health and nutrition, but now I mostly avoid processed foods (such as vegan burgers, shop-bought vegan cheeses etc) and try to eat a wide variety of whole, plant based foods. This works for me, and is an approach to healthy eating that has been backed by numerous scientific studies. There are, however, still a lot of myths out there regarding nutrition that can be harmful – so in this post I’m going to bust a few of them (who you gonna call…). Hope this helps!
All fats are bad fats
Fat is often considered, quite unfairly, to be unhealthy. Many fad diets look to eliminate, or seriously reduce, fat from the diet (when I was 16 I tried a fad diet from a magazine that involved eating mainly melon for a week – I felt awful, had no energy and gained all of the weight I had lost, plus more, back almost immediately – it was a terrible idea and I couldn’t even look at melon for years). Not all fat is bad, and good fats form an essential part of a healthy diet. Fat is a source of essential fatty acids, which the body cannot make itself. Fat helps the body absorb vitamin A, vitamin D and vitamin E. These vitamins are fat-soluble, which means that they can only be absorbed with the help of fats. Saturated and trans fats should be avoided, such as those found in processed and animal-based foods, but healthy fats such as those found in avocados, nuts and seeds are good for you and should form part of your diet. Bear in mind though that, although they are essential, fats do contain the most calories per gram of any of the macro-nutrients so don’t overdo it if you are trying to lose weight!
A very low-calorie diet is the best way to lose weight
Don’t get too excited – you do need to be in a calorie deficit if you want to lose weight. However, severely restricting calories is not the best way to do this. You need adequate calories to function efficiently and to have energy to carry out your day-to-day activities (including your fitness routine). If you restrict your calorie intake too far you will be low on energy, likely not getting enough nutrients from your diet and you will be more likely to cave in and eat unhealthy food if your diet is not sustainable. You would lose weight, but it would not be a healthy way to do so and would make it extremely difficult to achieve your fitness goals. Some studies have suggested that if you restrict your calories too much, your body starts to go into a state of starvation, and therefore stockpiles energy when it can into easily used energy for the body – fat. It also starts to draw energy from parts of the body you don’t want it to – muscle - therefore creating muscle wastage. There has also been some suggestion that your body will adapt to this extremely low-calorie diet, so when you go back to eating an amount of calories that would have been a maintenance amount before, you will start putting weight on instead of maintaining.
A gluten-free diet is better for you
I hope this goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway – this does not apply if you are allergic to gluten or have a gluten intolerance. If, however, you do not have an allergy or intolerance, cutting out gluten is unnecessary, and may cause you to develop an intolerance. I used to avoid gluten as I thought I had an intolerance, but once I went vegan and cut out dairy my symptoms cleared up (after I accidentally ate gluten and didn’t have any symptoms) – I’ve come to the conclusion that it was in fact dairy that was causing my problems before (not that I actually asked anyone about this – the symptoms had gone, so at the time I didn’t really care why).
Even when I was avoiding it, I didn’t really know what gluten was (except that it was apparently in EVERYTHING I liked eating). For those who don’t know, gluten refers to a family of proteins. These are highly elastic proteins which is what makes them suitable for making bread and other baked goods. Unless you are sensitive to gluten, it is unlikely that you will get any benefit from cutting it from your diet. Instead, by opting for gluten free products you will be spending more money (as these products are EXPENSIVE) and you will likely be replacing these products with more highly processed foods (for example, just look at the long list of ingredients on gluten free bread!). If you are having any digestion problems that are making you consider going gluten free, it is a good idea to speak to a health professional first. If you aren’t having any issues, then there really isn’t any benefit to cutting gluten out of your diet.
Eating carbs will make you fat
Any food can cause you to gain weight If you overeat. If you feel particularly confused about carbs, I don’t blame you. There is a lot of contradictory information out there! There are different types of carbs (fibre, starch and sugar), but as long as you are eating healthy carbs (such as whole grains, sweet potatoes and vegetables (rather than simple carbs such as refined sugar and processed grains) as part of an overall healthy diet based on whole plant foods, you have nothing to worry about. Carbs are not inherently bad – they are an important source of energy, and the fibre from healthy whole foods is great for preventing certain diseases – in fact, research shows that diets high in fibre are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer, so you don’t want to miss out on this! Just avoid added sugar and processed foods, eat whole plant based foods and don’t overdo it on the calories and you will be fine!
Snacking is bad
Again, don’t get too excited – I’m not saying that you can snack on unhealthy food all the time! Snacking has got a bad reputation because it often means eating unhealthy food, but if you are eating the right kind of food and in the right quantities, it can really help you stay on track with your health goals. If you find that you get hungry between meals, snacking on healthy foods like fruit, vegetables, air popped pop corn and our flapjacks (link here) can help you stay on the healthy eating wagon and not give in to temptation to reach for the crisps, chocolates or cake! The important thing is to factor these snacks into your meal plan. If you are looking to lose weight, you will need to be in a calorie deficit, so plan around that (perhaps by making the portion size of one of your meals smaller). You are more likely to stick to eating healthy snacks if you plan for them, so don’t avoid snacks in your meal plan – just find a healthy version that you like, factor it in and enjoy!
Drinking fruit juice is a good way to get fruit into your diet
I’m not going to lie, I really like fruit juice (100% fruit, no added sugar) so I’m not a big fan of this one but it has to be said – fruit juices are not a good way of including fruit into your diet. This is because, during the process of extracting the juice, the fibre from the fruit is lost. Not only is this depriving you of a good source of dietary fibre, but it means that the signals telling your brain that you are full are being bypassed so you will likely drink far more calories of juice than you would eat of whole fruit before you feel full. If you prefer drinking your fruit, try making your own smoothies rather than buying fruit juice from the shops. Blending up the whole fruit means that you are not removing anything and means that you will get far more nutrients than in the shop-bought alternative. Not only that, but you could start adding in vegetables for an extra health kick! We have beetroot in our smoothies every morning, and I enjoy green smoothies with spinach, kale, cucumber and mint – they can take some getting used to but are very good for you!
Now for the disclaimer - it is important to seek medical advice for any medical condition and this is in no way intended to count as medical advice. Some medical conditions may require specific diets, in which case it is important to follow your doctor’s advice. The above is intended as a general guide for those looking to improve their health and fitness.