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    The 4 Biggest Nutritional Hoaxes

    I believe the four foods and beverages below have enjoyed an unwarranted nutritional halo for too long.

    While not equivalent to soda and trans fat-laden fast food, they are nevertheless not the nutrition all-stars we have been made to believe. The time for an objective analysis has come.

    In no particular order:

    100% FRUIT JUICE

    The Fantasy We’ve Been Sold: “It counts as a fruit serving!”. “A great way for kids to get their fruit”. “Nutrition in a glass!”. “Pediatrician-approved” (Mott’s desperate attempt to healthwash its Motts for Tots product, which is essentially watered-down apple juice).

    Wake-Up Call: Fruit juice is empty calories. The only reason why so many commercial apple juices contain vitamin C, by the way, is because of fortification (that’s nutrition-speak for “added during processing”). The only nutrient inherently found in apple juice is — of all things — iron.

    In its defense, orange juice intrinsically contains vitamin C, potassium, and folate, but the bottom line remains that fruit juice contributes calories, but no satiety.

    The juicing process removes all the fiber in fruit, and significantly decreases its phytonutrient, antioxidant, and vitamin content. Apples, for example, contain a heart-healthy antioxidant known as quercetin. One important detail: 100% of it is in the peel.

    I remain flabbergasted at the USDA’s decision that 100% fruit juice and a piece of fruit equally count as a serving. Fruit juice should be a treat, not a staple.

    One caveat: it’s one thing to make yourself a green juice (think: celery, cucumber, kale, lemon, and ginger) at home and sweeten it with half an apple, or a small pear. Most of that juice consists of vegetables, and the ginger and lemon add a powerful anti-inflammatory punch.

    Despite the ‘fresh’ and ‘natural’ claims on commercial juices, the reality is also quite different. As this Gizmodo article explains, “100% orange juice” has artificial underpinnings:

    “In order to have OJ actually taste like oranges, drink companies hire flavor and fragrance companies, the same ones that make perfumes for Dior, to create these “flavor packs” to make juice taste like, well, juice again.”

    Also, keep in mind that it takes three to four oranges to make one glass of orange juice . While that glass of OJ can be guzzled in a handful of seconds, eating three or four whole oranges takes more time. The presence of fiber in those oranges also means you’ll feel more satiated consuming those 120 calories from whole oranges instead of juice.

    A Better Choice: Whole fruit. It can be eaten a variety of ways: on its own, dipped in some nut or seed butter, added to a salad (chopped apples go great with kale), or as a topping on a pilaf (raisins, currants, or chopped dates are a great addition to a quinoa and toasted almond pilaf).

    Considering that the average American only consumes 15 of the 25 recommended grams of daily fiber, giving fruit juice the green light and passing it off as a health food is the ultimate deception. Sure, orange juice is a great source of vitamin C. But so is a whole orange — which offers a lot more nutrition.

    CEREAL

    The Fantasy We’ve Been Sold: “A healthy start to the day!”. “A low-fat, cholesterol-free food”. “Contains 23 vitamins and minerals!”

    I refer to it as “the breakfast scam”. I am sure you’ve come across it — commercials where “a healthy and complete breakfast” is illustrated as a bowl of cereal, a glass of orange juice, and a few slices of white toast. Recently, some companies have wised up and now show an actual piece of fruit in place of a glass of juice. Sugar, refined grains, and minimal fiber — sounds like a snapshot of the standard American diet.

    Wake-Up Call: While there are exceptions, the cereal aisle mainly offers minimally nutritious options. Most cereals (and this goes for both “kid cereals” and “adult cereals”) are high in sugar and low in three key nutrients that are important to have at every meal: fat, fiber, and protein.

    A serving of Froot Loops and Apple Jacks each offer a tablespoon of added sugar per serving. A cup of Kellogg’s “adult” Smart Start cereal, which is incredibly billed as heart-healthy, contains the sugar of 3 Oreo cookies.

    Many commercial cereals also contain partially hydrogenated oils, artificial dyes, and petroleum-derived ingredients like BHT (banned in many countries).

    A Better Choice: If you are a cereal fiend, then look for ones with a 3:1 or 4:1 fiber-to-sugar ratio per serving. To give you an idea, Cap’n Crunch “Oops! All Berries” cereal has a fiber-to-sugar ratio of 1:15. “Oops!”, indeed.

    The Food for Life brand is a good choice, as are some varieties of Uncle Sam. A cereal that offers no more than two grams of sugar per serving (even if its only at 1:1 ratio with fiber) is key; you can always add fiber (via ground flax, chia seeds, whole fruit), but can not take back sugar that has been added during processing.

    If you enjoy grains in the morning, plain oatmeal, quinoa porridge, a 10-grain hot cereal, or 100% whole grain toast (all of those topped with some nut/seed butter and accompanied with whole fruit) are better alternative to most cereals.

    MILK

    The Fantasy We’ve Been Sold: What haven’t we been sold? From “nature’s perfect beverage” to PMS-remedy, the dairy industry has relentlessly pushed milk as a magical elixir. We have also been fear-mongered about the fact that, if children don’t have chocolate milk at school, their milk consumption decreases (we are, of course, supposed to then conclude that without chocolate milk, children’s bones will atrophy).

    Wake-Up Call: Ever wonder why people are so willing to drink a glass of cow’s milk but would consider you out of your mind if you offered them a glass of possum or raccoon milk?  That’s propaganda for you.  It’s amazing how all other adult mammals manage to have strong bones without the need to drink the milk of another species as adults.

    Humans “need” cow’s milk as much as cats “need” dog’s milk. The dairy industry has simply succeeded in convincing Americans that “calcium” is a synonym for “dairy”. Instead of a ”have three servings of calcium-rich foods a day” public health message, we have been brainwashed for decades about the importance of “three servings of dairy” a day.

    The truth is, calcium is plentiful in the food supply, and one can have good bone health and proper nutrition without ever drinking a glass of cow’s milk. The dairy industry conveniently forgets to add that some non-dairy sources of calcium (i.e.: green leafy vegetables) offer other nutrients that are vital for bone health — such as Vitamin K and manganese — that are absent from milk.

    A Better Choice: I recognize that, from a nutritional standpoint, not all cow’s milk is the same. If one chooses to consume dairy, organic and grass-fed are paramount. I also don’t think that the occasional intake of fermented organic dairy (i.e.: kefir, plain yogurt) is harmful.

    However, as I often remind my omnivore clientss, depending exclusively on milk for bone health is terribly misguided, and fails to take into account that there is much more to bone health than calcium and vitamin D. And, as I often like to remind some of my colleagues, it is irresponsible (and dangerously narrow-minded) to allude that a dairy-free lifestyle can lead to insufficient calcium intakes.

    TURKEY

    The Fantasy We’ve Been Sold: At this point, I’ve lost count of the number of TV shows and magazines that highlight a recipe with ground turkey as “heart-healthy”, and the number of restaurants that place turkey bacon in the “light and fit” section of their menus.

    Wake-Up Call: Ground turkey, like all other animal proteins, doesn’t offer the very nutrients most Americans don’t consume enough of – fiber and magnesium.

    In the case of turkey bacon, it is still a processed meat product low in nutrients, and relatively high in sodium, that contains troublesome preservatives, like sodium nitrite. The evidence linking frequent consumption of processed meats with increased risk of stomach, colon, and prostate cancers makes the discussion about the leanness of turkey bacon absolutely banal.

    A Better Choice: As I explain in this recent Grist piece, lower your consumption of animal protein and eat more whole, plant-based foods.

    Now, for the fun part: keep track of how often you see advertisements for these four foods and beverages; pay particular attention to the way they are billed as healthful and wholesome. The healthiest thing about most of these is the advertising budget that continues to perpetuate their unwarranted health halos.

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    32 Comments

    1. Hunter said on March 1st, 2012

      Lol. The fact is you can’t replace bacon!

    2. Ben said on March 1st, 2012

      Sure, raccoon milk sounds gross, but what about *chocolate* raccoon milk? Yum.

    3. Lauren Slayton said on March 1st, 2012

      With you on cold cereal all the way. Even “better ones” aren’t ideal, as you said. I am not against my kids having some fresh squeezed OJ, sugary and not as good as fruit but I don’t think it’s the end of the world. We’re not talking Juicy Juices. I just love the idea of questioning so much of the dogma everyone accepts at face value.

    4. Andy Bellatti said on March 1st, 2012

      Thanks, Lauren. I think fresh-squeezed OJ is fine as long as it is seen in a realistic light: a treat. This notion that children should get their fruit servings from juice is very skewed, in my opinion.

    5. Matt said on March 1st, 2012

      Great post Andy…very informative, as usual.

    6. Kevin said on March 2nd, 2012

      I mostly agreed with you up until #4. Lacking magnesium and fiber hardly seems a sufficient reason to group a whole food (with its own set of naturally occurring nutrients) with the likes of Cap’n Crunch and Tropicana. While the bulk of my diet is vegetables, I also eat a fair share of meat, and don’t have any more problem with turkey’s lack of fiber then I do kale’s lack of protein.

    7. Andy Bellatti said on March 2nd, 2012

      Kevin,

      The problem with turkey’s health halo is that, like all other meats, it is low in nutrients most Americans do not get enough of (nutrients that are very important from a heart health standpoint). I think Americans would be better served if they were encouraged to eat more plant-based proteins. The turkey bacon health halo is particularly disingenuous because there is nothing remotely healthful about processed meats.

      I have come across too many people who think the mere act of replacing 1 pound of ground beef with 1 pound of lean ground turkey automatically makes for a healthier meal, which I think is a very myopic way of looking at the matter.

      Kale’s lack of protein is indeed irrelevant because, unlike fiber and magnesium, protein is a nutrient most Americans get more than enough of.

    8. Adam said on March 2nd, 2012

      If possible I’d like to ask your opinion on skim versus whole milk and which you feel is the better product overall? Over the last two decades or so we were led to believe that fat was bad and as a result demonized whole milk and shifted towards skim. Is skim truly the better choice?

    9. Peter said on March 2nd, 2012

      A few years ago I developed Post-Nasal drip. My Doctor put me on steroids but that was ineffectual. When I stopped drinking milk the drip was gone. I’ve been drip free ever since. Milk is for the nutrional needs of baby cows not humans and it’s mostly mucous. Post-Nasal drip is mucous.

    10. Brandon said on March 2nd, 2012

      I do like that, as far as meeting current government recommendations, fruit juice only ‘replaces’ fruit to 1/2 cup.

    11. Jean said on March 2nd, 2012

      LOVE the dairy “wake up call” as I agree 100% that we’ve been propegandized into believing that we need cow’s milk in our diet!! When did that start and how is it that some of the most intelligent people in the world don’t see this????

    12. Rene said on March 3rd, 2012

      What’s amazing to me is how so many people think that you MUST give small children fruit juice, that when they drink something it must have flavor. Suggesting they put water in their kids sippy cups is a shocking idea, as if they can’t imagine kids actually drinking water. If you start out with water, than that’s what they like. To this day my kids, now in college, will drink the occasional soda but when they are thirsty they drink water, even with meals.

    13. Ryan said on March 3rd, 2012

      We have a restaurant here in Canada touting the egg-white sandwich as a healthy choice. They don’t even have a healthy choice on their entire menu! Coffee, donuts, bagels,turkey sandwiches with scant greens and not a salad in sight.

    14. Beth@WeightMaven said on March 3rd, 2012

      Another problem with 100% juice drinks is that they often have all sorts of fruits on the front to suggest you’re getting juice from multiple healthy fruits when the reality is that the majority of the beverage is white grape juice.

    15. Tina said on March 3rd, 2012

      I mentioned to my friends about the juice thing and they tell me they get their fibre from the pulp in the juice. Can you explain how this isn’t the same, please?

    16. Andy Bellatti said on March 4th, 2012

      Tina,

      There is no fiber in commercial fruit juices “with pulp”. I explain here: http://smallbites.andybellatti.com/you-ask-i-answer-orange-juice-with-pulp/

    17. Yuuki said on March 4th, 2012

      It is definitely a fallacy that milk is the “only” source of dietary calcium, but it does fall into the dietary pattern of a large number of Americans, whereas the calcium alternatives you and I know exist largely (and unfortunately), do not. Working day-to-day, you have to be realistic and ask what you can get done in 45 minutes (typically more like 15-20, if that). If, as is typical, the calcium alternatives are nonexistent in the diet and dairy is there, you can bet I’m going to go the “drink more milk” route because it has the best chance of sticking.

      Telling the person who has a negligible vegetable content that to meet 100% of their calcium RDA they would have to start eating north of five cups of dark green veg doesn’t strike me as a particularly winning strategy.

    18. Norma said on March 5th, 2012

      @Yuuki: almond milk (readily available in the dairy dept. of most supermarkets now) provides nearly 2x as much calcium per serving as cow’s milk at half the calories of skim milk.

    19. Leslie said on March 5th, 2012

      I was completely with you until #4. I don’t buy or drink juice. Sometimes, we’ll have it as a very occasional treat, but I don’t really like drinking sweet things (I’m more of a black coffee, black tea, sparkling water with lime kinda gal). I don’t drink milk (that’s more of a hatred than a moral decision). I buy it, and use it in things, and I do offer it to my daughter, but I don’t obsess over it. If she has it, great. If not, oh well.

      For cereal, we do buy it sometimes (usually have cheerios in the house) – it’s more of an occasional thing than a regular. I prefer slices of whole grain bread with natural nut butters, personally. Or eggs. Or protein pancakes with real maple syrup (kay wait, that might be not the best thing….hehe)

      I think your 4th item would be more aptly titled turkey bacon (or perhaps the more general ‘lean processed meats.’ I don’t think turkey is any better or any worse for you than other lean animal protein choices (like pork tenderloin, x-lean beef cuts, chicken), and you are right that most of us eat way too much protein anyway. But the health issue seems to lie far more in processing than in the natural product….so that’s why I’d be tempted to rejig. Besides, turkey bacon is gross. I think we should just have normal bacon less often, but when we do have it, have a small amount of the delicious double-smoked, thick-cut, locally-raised variety (i.e., befriend a butcher). That stuff is like gold and should be savoured rarely, but savoured nonetheless because it is epic.

    20. Andy Bellatti said on March 5th, 2012

      Leslie,

      I chose turkey because, without fail, many health magazines and morning talk shows often have a recipe that is traditionally made with ground beef made with ground turkey instead, and credit that swap in and of itself with making a “lighter” and “healthier” meal. I have seen it hundreds of times.

      It isn’t just turkey bacon that gets the health halo.

    21. Kate said on March 5th, 2012

      People are also grossed out by the thought of breast milk! Hello, that is nature in action. Baby humans need human milk! Most mothers feel uncomfortable nursing, but humans are mammals too!

    22. Yuuki said on March 5th, 2012

      @Norma

      I would use almond milk as an option, but unfortunately it is cost-prohibitive for the population I work with. Anywhere from double to triple the price per gallon, assuming you can find it.

    23. Andy Bellatti said on March 7th, 2012

      Yuuki,

      The fact that milk falls into the dietary patterns of Americans doesn’t justify recommending 3 servings of dairy a day. Soda also falls into the dietary patterns of Americans — should RDs also then just encourage diet soda because people like it more than water and, hey, it’s calorie-free?

      I have done a fair share of counseling and have explained to people why dependence on dairy for calcium has its cons; I have also explained the importance of getting other minerals crucial to bone health. It isn’t about having everyone completely give up dairy, but lower their intake.

      I never suggested people start eating five cups of dark green vegetables a day. However, considering that most people have zero a day, I like to encourage them to be sure to have at least a half cup of a dark leafy green vegetable per day.

      The way I work with people is to impart new information and get them outside the dietary box that so many RDs are, for whatever reason, incapable of stepping outside of.

    24. Andy Bellatti said on March 7th, 2012

      Yuuki,

      In many parts of the country, shelf-stable plant milks are not more expensive than dairy milk. Of course there are exceptions (i.e: food deserts, remote areas), but the average American living in a moderately populated city has access to these products.

      Even when I counseled at WIC, I had several clients mention to me they were already drinking almond milk (they purchased it at a Trader Joe’s). They did not tolerate dairy, and didn’t like the taste of soy milk.

      The notion that eschewing meat and dairy is “elitist” or “unaffordable” is inaccurate and really hurts nutritional advocacy efforts.

    25. Vanessa said on March 7th, 2012

      Great post Andy.
      It’s funny because I’ve only left the school benches recently and it wasn’t until I did my own digging that I understood how narrow of a picture we were initially painted. Keep up the great work, I always learn something new ;)
      For the turkey, I don’t usually position it as the leaner choice but rather as an alternative to transition towards less red meat. As for turkey bacon…Never tried it…and don’t plan to.

    26. Yuuki said on March 10th, 2012

      Andy, I’m not saying your comments are without merit, but the comparison of dairy to soda are a bit over the top. Soda is a product with zero (perhaps even negative) nutritional value. Dairy, flawed as you may believe it to be, does possess redeeming dietary qualities. I live, as you may know, in a state which is majority rural food desert, a more feral beast than the urban variety. I make it a habit to visit the local grocery stores when I can, and in the majority of cases the dairy alternatives are ounce-for-ounce 2-3x the cost – assuming you can find them. Wal-mart stocks them, true, but even at that price point a lot of people get turned off.

      So I’m stuck, dealing with someone who refuses to eat anything remotely green or leafy (but lettuce or possibly, spinach – calcium content negligible) but who will tolerate dairy. Dairy ends up being the most expeditious, cost-effective way of supplying adequate Ca without pulling the supplement trigger. I’m sure we can agree on the point that food > supplements. This is assuming I even get around to discussing calcium, which I frequently don’t since there are much, much bigger dietary issues.

      For most of my patients, the real issue is financial. The nutritional “problems” are just a symptom.

    27. Tiffany said on March 12th, 2012

      Thanks for the breakdown and great post! So many people (and I used to be one of them) take nutritional marketing at face value, fail to research the ingredient list themselves and assume all things marketed “healthy” and “better for you” are actually those things.

    28. Andy Bellatti said on March 13th, 2012

      Yuuki,

      I definitely appreciate the situation you are in (in terms of population, access to foods, etc), and certainly do not hold you to the same standard as someone with a private practice on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

      This post is more targeted at individuals who live in more populated areas and have more dispensable income (and, as you point out, have most of their nutritional needs met in such a way that calcium can be a main topic of conversation, as opposed to whether or not they have the financial means to have enough food and not go hungry).

      My soda comparison wasn’t so much nutritional, as much as it was a parallel to the idea of ingrained patterns of consumption often used as a reason why alternative suggestions “won’t work”. I pointed it out because I have heard it often from RDs who work with individuals who, when conversed with, are open to getting their calcium outside of the “3 servings of dairy a day” party line (and have access to a variety of alternatives).

      It’s especially worth pointing out because I know many RDs (who work with more affluent populations) who like to frame calcium discussions almost exclusively around dairy, and many times warn clients that giving up dairy could end up hurting them.

      In the population you describe, my concerns have more to do with flaws in the food system, and how absolutely maddening it is that these people have limited access to healthful foods. A WIC client in Seattle or NYC does not “have it easy”, but they at least have more access to farmers’ markets and stores like Trader Joe’s, which can make certain purchases more viable.

    29. Drew said on May 14th, 2012

      I love your website! I earned a bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and am now a medical student, and I find that so much of this information is misreported or manipulated into marketing messages. Thanks for doing your research and having a voice!

    30. Courtney said on November 12th, 2012

      I have a question. My 6 year old son is a terrible eater! And what he WILL eat is all junk (provided by his Dad.) What kid-friendly foods that are high in nutrients AND calories can you recommend for me to try with him? About the only thing in that category that he likes at all is avocados. I’m not opposed to even trying something like Pediasure to make sure he is eating enough, but I would rather use whole foods if possible. Also, I’m a vegetarian so while I don’t force my kids to not eat meat, I won’t cook it for them. They may order it when at a restaurant or when with their father.
      Thanks!

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