Food myths busted by a dietician

Hasina Aktar, a senior dietician for Vitality partner BMI Healthcare, gives us some expert answers about what to eat, what not to eat – and why.

Is it okay to add a spoonful of sugar?

In a word: no. “Sugar is found in everything,” Aktar says. “In fresh fruit or certain vegetables, it’s not harmful because it usually comes with other nutrients: fibre, vitamins, minerals and water. We need a certain amount of sugar to help maintain our energy levels and a number of functions that maintain general good health.” But with modern food processing, it’s easy to extract sugar from that natural food and leave the nutrients and fibre behind, so the processed food is not very beneficial to your body. “Fibre allows sugar to be released more slowly, so it doesn’t go straight into your blood, but with processed foods and, in particular, sugary drinks, you have excessive amounts of sugar and very little fibre,” explains Aktar. “The sugar goes straight into your body, which can lead to conditions like diabetes and obesity.”

Do carbs make us fat?

“A diet with zero carbohydrates is effective in terms of rapid weight loss,” says Aktar. “The worry is maintaining that loss – we’d never recommend a diet where you take out an entire food group for the rest of your life.” Carbohydrates are essential, she explains: “They’re a great source of energy, vitamins and minerals – and a major source of our fibre, which is good for bowel health.” What’s important is for all of us to start controlling our portions: “If you have excessive amounts, that’s quite a large amount of sugar, which can be harmful for the body. If we have smaller portions, it’s fine for a healthy diet and it won’t encourage weight gain.” Choosing the right options is crucial too. “White carbs are broken down fast and the sugar is quickly released into your body too, which in general is not very good.” Aktar recommends high-fibre carbs instead: granary bread, basmati rice, baby new or jacket potatoes, wholegrain cereals and wholewheat pasta.

It’s good to use olive oil, isn’t it?

As a rule, yes.“It’s high in monounsaturated fats, the best type for protecting your heart from damage,” says Aktar. But while she encourages using it cold on salads or for dressing, cooking with it is not recommended. “When you heat olive oil it changes its properties and becomes a little harmful for the body because it doesn’t withstand heat very well – you can physically see that it smokes up really fast,” she says. “So we recommend cooking with rapeseed oil instead.” How about sunflower oil? “It is very high in polyunsaturated fats so it is still healthier than using a saturated fat,” says Aktar, “but monounsaturated fats are the best.”

Do eggs raise our cholesterol?

We all know that high levels of cholesterol are bad, so should we ditch the dippy egg? Aktar explodes: “There is nothing wrong with eggs! They are very high in what we call dietary cholesterol, as are prawns and shellfish, but this doesn’t have an impact on your lipid profile – your blood cholesterol. And eggs are really good sources of omega-3 which we encourage as part of a healthy diet.” The key thing, explains Aktar, is the way you cook your eggs. “I wouldn’t suggest that you fry an egg every day as what affects your blood cholesterol is saturated fat, and that’s what you’re frying it in, but boiled or poached are fine.”

Is red meat bad for us?

Red meat has received plenty of bad press in recent years, but Hasina thinks that’s a mistake. “The advice that you shouldn’t eat red meat is not correct – it’s absolutely encouraged as part of a good healthy diet. Providing it’s fresh, it is a very good source of iron and the B vitamins, and lots of minerals.” The only issue, she adds, is that it’s high in saturated fat: “That’s basically the visible white fat,” she explains, “so buy as lean as possible or take as much of this off as you can.” But what about cancer risk? “Sometimes carcinogens can be produced when you are barbecuing meat,” she explains, “but in terms of normal cooking, there is no evidence to suggest it increases the risk of cancer.” Moderation still makes sense, though: “Two or three times a week is fine, but if you’ve had or have a heart condition, we’d recommend no more than that.”

Red wine’s good for you, isn’t it?

Good news: “There’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine or two – and you do get certain benefits from red wine in the form of antioxidants.” Bad news: “The problem with red wine is that it may cause an increased level of triglycerides, a type of ‘bad fat’ in your blood. There’s also evidence that excessive alcohol is related to increased cancer risk, particularly head and neck cancers.” Aktar recommends 2-3 units a day women (equivalent to a 175ml glass of wine), 3-4 (a pint and a half of beer) for men. “If you’re keen to consume those antioxidants, simply eat more fruits and dark leafy green or purple vegetables, which probably have triple the amount of antioxidants than your red wine!”

Butter: is it better or worse than margarine?

Butter’s gone from being blamed for everything to making something of a comeback, but you can have too much of a good thing. “The evidence is quite clear – butter is not healthy!” Aktar cites the Dietetic Guidelines on Food and Nutrition in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease, which looks at the results of hundreds of research papers. “There is a clear link between high intake of saturated fats such as butter,” she explains, “and high levels of cholesterol in your blood, which puts you at risk of heart disease. We recommend you stick to margarine because it’s unsaturated – or better still, olive-based spreads which are monounsaturated-based.” 

There’s no harm adding salt to food, is there?

Yes – we’re already having too much without realising it. “Most everyday foods contain high amounts,” Aktar says. “The average intake we recommend is 6g a day: about a teaspoon.” The UK average of 8.1g increases your chance of developing high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease, kidney disease and stroke. Big culprits are meat products, crisps, biscuits, ready meals, soups, pasta sauces, bread and some breakfast cereals. “Try to cut down on these. And don’t add extra salt when you’re cooking or at the table, use pepper, spices, lemon juice or herbs instead.” It might be easier than you think: “Salt is an acquired taste,” says Aktar, “and it’s easy to ‘unacquire’ it. For one week, go on a low-salt diet and don’t add salt to your foods – then go back to your normal consumption after a week, you will really be able to taste that salt.” Try it!

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