These days, it seems there’s no shortage of quick-fixes and cure-alls for anything from weight loss to cancer prevention. Supplements and shakes promise us the body of our dreams, but if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, says Dr. Tom Campbell, co-founder and clinical director of the University of Rochester Medical Center Program for Nutrition in Medicine.
“In a way, it feels that we're always being sold seemingly magic fixes or effortless solutions, but the truth of the matter is that long-term solutions to difficult health problems demand hard work,” he says. “Problems that are related to diet and lifestyle, for example, hinge on overall food intake and physical activity level, rather than any one supplement, or juice, or some other trendy thing.”
Originally marketed to individuals with Celiac disease, gluten-free products are becoming more popular with the general public because of the common thought that carbohydrates cause weight gain. Campbell says this is a very common, very harmful myth.
“For thousands of years, almost all human civilizations have eaten diets based primarily on starchy carbohydrates and had very low rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancer,” he says.
Unprocessed carbohydrates, such as those found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans, are very healthy. They are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and protein.
“The problem is that almost no one eats these healthy carbohydrates,” Campbell says. “Instead, they are eating primarily added sugars and refined flours — think pizza crust, cookies, cakes, pastries, soda, white bread and french fries.”
Refined carbohydrates have had their best components stripped away and make us sick as a result.
According to Campbell, the idea that coconut oil is a health food is another food myth. In actuality, it is pure fat, high in saturated fats and is not a food proven to have any particular beneficial outcomes on long-term, chronic disease. One thing that is true, though: Coconut oil is great for the skin.
There are some misconceptions when it comes to soy, as well. It’s been suggested that women should avoid soy to protect against breast cancer and men should do the same to avoid adverse hormone changes. Campbell counters, saying studies fairly consistently show that women who consume more soy are at lower risk of breast cancer. Similarly, men don’t experience any significant hormonal changes for the worse when consuming more soy.
“I recommend choosing unprocessed soy, such as edamame beans, tempeh, plain tofu and soy milk as opposed to the highly processed options out there such as fake meats, soy protein isolate and soybean oil,” Campbell says.
One claim that actually contains some truth is the idea that vinegar, including apple cider vinegar, can help with blood sugar and weight loss. There is also some research that suggests cranberry juice might have some components that can be helpful for urinary tract infections, though the studies are mixed at best.
“Most feel that cranberry juice is safe so it's okay to try to see if it helps, but remember that it is high in sugar, as are all fruit juices, which isn't great for weight or blood sugar control,” Campbell says.
Another source of confusion are fresh, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables. Which is healthiest?
“In some cases, if the fruit or the vegetable is frozen shortly after being picked, the food may actually have more nutrients than the food in the produce section, which may have traveled for several days across the world, and lost some nutrients in the process,” Campbell says.
Campbell adds that good nutrition is more powerful than most people realize, so making the right food choices is a very important aspect of personal health. The dietary approach that has stood the test of time is a plant-based diet.
“Eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and cutting back or even eliminating animal-based foods and processed foods has been shown to reverse several conditions,” he says. “More than anything, people have to fundamentally change their overall eating patterns. If it really was as easy as some magic pill or trendy product, then none of us would have any problems, would we?”