As we begin a new year and, arguably, a new decade, there are a few things I think we can safely do without. Here are three nutrition myths that I believed, or maybe wanted to believe, at the start of the decade—and why I’m leaving them behind.
Myth: specific chemical compounds make a food “good for you”
Remember superfoods? Anything with a high antioxidant score was supposed to be especially good for you. The buzzwords have changed, but the concept has not: We keep hearing that the flavonoids in coffee or red wine, for example, make a food particularly healthful.
But these ideas tend to come from studies that look at one food component in isolation—often in lab studies that are miles away from any relevance to humans. Like, ok, if you extract one chemical from red wine and give it to mice, maybe the mice have slightly lower levels of inflammation-related biomarkers in their blood. So? That doesn’t mean that a human being with a habit of drinking red wine is going to be healthier than a human who doesn’t drink at all.
We don’t eat nutrients, we eat foods; and we don’t only eat foods, we live rich lives involving hundreds of things to eat and hundreds of considerations besides what might possibly reduce levels of a certain blood chemical.
Eat your vegetables, get a variety of foods, you know the drill. If you’re debating whether to eat these berries versus those berries, you’re wasting your time.
Myth: Keto does something magic to your metabolism
Keto and other low-carb diets have undulated in popularity. Remember Atkins? Its induction phase was basically a strict keto diet, and it dates back to the 1970s.
At the beginning of this decade, there was still a possibility that a ketogenic diet—one that is low enough in carbs to produce a certain blood chemistry—was doing something special to our metabolism. But since then, we’ve seen some rigorous studies that test that hypothesis, and they find that there’s no biochemical advantage to low-carb diets, nor to any diet in particular.
All diets seem to work equally well (or equally badly, to be honest—most everyone regains the weight they lose in the long run) as long as they restrict calories by about the same amount. So what really matters is choosing a way of eating that you can stick to, whether that’s low fat or low carb or anything else.
Myth: meal timing is super important
I’m convinced that meal timing only became a thing because people are looking for an easy thing to optimise. Maybe you have trouble eating the right amount and type of food, but at least you can get the timing down. Or perhaps you want to prove to yourself that you’re serious about your workouts, so you take the time to plan out the perfect post-workout shake.
Just as low-fat and low-carb diets seem to work equally well, there’s no solid evidence that intermittent fasting is better or worse than many small meals a day. If you like breakfast, you can eat it; if you don’t, skipping it is fine.
While there is some evidence that meal timing around a workout matters, its effect is small compared to the basics of what you’re eating and how much. If you can’t get 30 grams of protein immediately after a workout, it’s not like your muscles will shrivel up and die. (I distinctly remember watching the clock after the gym to make sure I got my shake in the supposed 30-minute window.) It turns out that the window to get that protein is probably several hours long. So most of will be fine to just plan our workout to fall between meals—lunch and dinner, say, or breakfast and second breakfast—rather than sweating any specific timing.