Diet and nutrition

Thomas Rothwell, physiologist and nutritionist at AXA Health

10 diet and nutrition myths explained

Sorting the food fact from fiction to help you find your feelgood

9 July 2021

With such a lot of information out there about what we should and shouldn’t be doing when it comes to our diets, and much of it seemingly conflicting, it can be a real minefield to know what to take on board and what to ignore. We’ve asked AXA Health physiologist and nutritionist, Thomas Rothwell to bust some of the biggest myths you may have heard when it comes to our diets, to help you make the best decisions to help you feelgood with your nutrition.

Fact or fiction?

1. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day

One of the most well know phrases when it comes to our food habits! We’ve all heard this one. It stemmed from initial research highlighting that ‘breakfast skippers’ had higher BMI’s than ‘breakfast eaters’, however this doesn’t mean that missing breakfast caused the high BMI. ‘But skipping breakfast decreases our metabolism right?’ In the short term very little changes in our metabolic rate. However, research has suggested that whilst consuming breakfast may not enhance metabolic rate, those that do have breakfast are typically more active throughout the day. 

If fat loss is your goal, once again it comes down to that equation of creating a calorie deficit (expending more energy than you intake), so skipping breakfast might just help you achieve that, but that’s down to you and how hungry you feel in the morning (and how likely you are to give in to any cravings!).

Those who want to gain muscle or boost performance will potentially benefit from eating breakfast. And for those people who have an impaired glucose regulation, eating breakfast is advised as it allows for better control of glucose over the course of the day. 

As you can see, there is rarely a one size fits all message when it comes to nutrition. Ultimately, if you like to or feel better after eating breakfast, then eat breakfast, if you don’t, then don’t. For most cases, it’s all down to personal preference. 

2. Spicy food speeds up your metabolism

There is some truth behind this one. Research appears to suggest that capsaicins, which are molecules found in chillies, do increase our metabolic rate.(1) When we say that something increases our metabolic rate, we might think that it goes through the roof, however that isn’t necessarily the case; spicy foods may only have a modest effect on metabolic rate. So, eating chillies certainly isn’t the holy grail for fat loss if that’s your goal. 

3. Eat little and often

The message to eat little and has been suggested to increase our metabolism, as we are continuously ‘stoking the furnace’, so to speak. However, the research does not support that eating little and often when compared to 2 or 3 meals a day increases metabolic rate.(2) This once again comes down to your personal preference and what makes you feel good! If you feel eating little and often helps with managing your appetite and keeping your energy levels steady or makes you feel better while on a particular diet, then it can be a useful tool. But on its own, eating little and often won’t cause weight loss or increases in metabolic rate.

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4. Brown bread v white bread

In some ways, brown or wholemeal bread is nutritionally ‘better’ for you than white bread. However, the comparison of the two often comes down to its fibre content. Because wholemeal is less refined, it retains more of its fibre when compared with white bread. Another way to compare the two is the bread’s micronutrient content, but if you compare wholemeal to fortified white bread, the difference in micronutrient content is extremely minimal.

Fibre intake appears to be the determining factor, but this can be achieved through increasing your intake of fruits, vegetables, pulses and legumes, as opposed to micromanaging your bread intake. So, if you prefer your morning toast with white bread, have white bread! There are so many other ways to increase fibre throughout the day that your choice of bread should be more down to personal preference. 

5. Drinking coffee helps you lose weight

While there may be factors that don’t hinder weight loss when it comes to drinking coffee, it’s certainly not something to rely on if you’re looking to lose weight. This idea comes from the fact that caffeine increases something called lipolysis (breaking down fat, so it can be used for energy). However, long term studies have not demonstrated that this effects body weight.(3) The healthiest long-term way to reduce body fat is by being in a calorie deficit, meaning we consume less energy than we expend. Read on to myth six to find out more about what we mean by this!

6. Drink warm water, not cold

Now this really depends on the situation. If you are rehydrating after physical activity, cold water will help to cool the body more efficiently. Some people believe that cold water will help them lose weight with the premise that the body has to work harder to warm it, however the metabolic difference is very minimal, and you would get real benefits from a brisk 10 minute walk or any other form of exercise.  

There is some evidence to suggest that warm water can help aid digestion(4), however keeping hydrated in general will also help this. This is because water assists in breaking down our food, so that it can be absorbed by the body; if you are dehydrated you may suffer with constipation. There are both pros and cons to drinking water at different temperatures, however there is no conclusive evidence to suggest one temperature is superior to another. As long as you are keeping hydrated throughout the day and choosing the best way to keep up your water intake, that’s the most important thing. Water is the elixir of life!

7. If you burn more calories than you eat, you lose weight

This is 100% true! You might have heard statements such as ‘calories are not important’ but they actually really are. Weight loss is based on a scientific law, called the law of thermodynamics. You might have heard of calories in, calories out (CICO), which is a simple way to explain the scientific law. But to understand this a bit more, we need to understand our metabolism.

‘Calories in’ is simply the calories we intake through food and drink. ‘Calories out’ is a little more complex and is made up of 3 core things:

  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) – Energy needed for all automatic and natural processes that occur in the body, for example, breathing. This usually accounts for the majority of the calories out.
  • Physical Activity Expenditure (PAE) – Energy expended through exercise and through non-exercise activity (walking, commuting, gardening etc). This accounts for around 5-10% of calories out.
  • Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) – Energy needed for us to digest, absorb and metabolise food. This usually account for 10% of calories out.

So, if calories out, outweighs calories in, we will lose weight, because we’d be in a calorie deficit. If calories in outweighs calories out, we will gain weight, because we’d be in a calorie surplus. If calories in is equal to calories out, our weight will stay the same.

Theoretically, yes, you could outrun a bad diet. But it’s much easier to create a calorie deficit through altering our food intake than it is to try and outrun a ‘bad’ diet. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, it is extremely difficult to accurately measure the calories you burn during exercise. Secondly, excessive exercise may start having a negative effect on your physical and mental health. Exercise can be used to supplement your weight loss goal, in fact people who include exercise in their weight loss strategy are more likely to keep the weight off long term.

8. Whole food is better for you

Whole foods do tend to be ‘better’ for you as they are often minimally processed and contain a greater range of vitamins and minerals compared to processed foods. This is because, when food is processed it might lead to having reduced content of certain nutrients, such as fibre. Or it might have had things added, like salt to preserve it for longer, or artificial sweeteners to make it sweeter.

You can often tell how processed something is by looking on the ingredients label. Listed in descending order of weight, it’s a quick and easy way to see how many additives follow on from the main ingredients. That isn’t to say that you should refrain from eating all processed foods. Quite often, these are the foods that we enjoy eating and enjoyment is a big part of our nutrition! So, don’t be too restrictive, a brownie here or a takeaway there isn’t inherently bad and doesn’t label you as ‘unhealthy’. Eat it, be sure to enjoy it, then carry on with your usual nutrient rich diet and positive habits. Food is there to nourish us and to be enjoyed!

9. Food labelled 'Diet', 'Light', 'Fat-free' and 'Low fat' are bad for you

Not necessarily! But once again it’s all about the context.

Products labelled with ‘diet’, such as fizzy drinks, typically contain artificial sweeteners to replace the added sugars commonly found in the full sugar varieties. It has been claimed that artificial sweeteners increase cancer risk and can still cause weight gain. In terms of cancer risk, the research in humans does not back this claim and diet drinks appear to be safe for human consumption.(5) Also, the fact that diet fizzy drinks contain zero calories, could make them a useful alternative if your goal is to lose weight by switching to diet varieties as opposed to the full sugar varieties, which are more likely to contribute to weight gain.

Foods labelled ‘lite’ or ‘light’, must meet specific criteria to be labelled thus. In this context, they must be at least 30% or lower in a typical value, for example, calories or fat compared to the standard version. Again, if you’re looking to reduce your intake of saturated fat for example, then opting for ‘lite’ or ‘light’ varieties can help you do that and the same can be said for calories if you are looking to watch your calorie intake. However, be cautious of this as it doesn’t automatically make it a healthier choice overall. Sometimes these products can have more added sugar, to make up for the lower fat content. Read the ingredients, they are listed in descending order of weight, or use the traffic light system to inform your choice a little more.

For something to be labelled as ‘low fat’, the product should contain no more the 3 grams of fat per 100g for solids or 1.5g of fat per 100ml for liquids (milk, for example). Similar to the above and for the ‘fat free’ label, be careful to check the ingredients to make sure they haven’t added sugar to make up for the fact it is low fat.

Again, just because something is low in fat, doesn’t mean it’s healthier, in fact we need to get fats from our diet to survive and get all the nutrients we need! Primarily, unsaturated fats are best for us and can be found in foods like oily fish, nuts, seeds and avocados. Be wary of excessive intakes of saturated fats, and transaturated fats. More so the latter; these are really the ‘boogie man’ of nutrition, as they increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, some cancers, obesity and diabetes.(6,7) Take a look at our article to find out more about the fats in your diet.

Always remember, there are no inherently ‘bad’ foods, just bad diets.

10. Men lose weight more easily than women

When girls and boys hit puberty and their hormones start to change, men typically have increases in testosterone which lead to an increased muscle mass, whereas women typically have increases in oestrogen, which lead to a broadening of the pelvis, stimulating breast development and increasing fat storage, particularly around the things and hips. Also, women typically have higher levels of a particular enzyme considered the ‘gatekeeper’ for storing fat in fat tissues. Biologically speaking, women appear to have the physiology of holding on to fat (typically in the thighs and hips) more than men (but this doesn’t make it impossible). It’s also worth considering that men on average have more muscle mass than women, which contributes to men having an increased metabolic rate (burning more calories), leading to it being ‘easier’ for men to lose weight.

But don’t let this demotivate you. As with anything in health and wellbeing, don’t compare yourself to others. Remember, comparison is the thief of joy. But if you do want to compare, then compare yourself to yourself. If weight loss is your goal, the important bit is to be in a calorie deficit and to find a strategy that you enjoy and can stick too!

Sometimes all the information that’s available can make nutrition seem extremely complicated and not very user friendly, but hopefully Thomas’ tips and information will help you understand a bit more about what you’re eating and why. 

For more information on diet and nutrition topics, as well as a number of delicious, easy recipes, be sure to take a look at our Diet and Nutrition hub. And to see our mythbusters videos along with a whole host of content to help you find your feelgood health, be sure to visit our Feelgood Health hub. 

Further reading

Feel good food | AXA Health

Feelgood Health - The hub | AXA Health

What our health experts eat for breakfast - and why | AXA Health

Getting active your way | AXA Health

Energy boosting foods | AXA Health

References

1. Zheng, J., Zheng, S., Feng, Q., Zhang, Q., & Xiao, X. (2017). Dietary capsaicin and its anti-obesity potency: from mechanism to clinical implications. Bioscience reports, 37(3), doi: BSR20170286. Retrieved here: Dietary capsaicin and its anti-obesity potency: from mechanism to clinical implications (nih.gov) (Accessed July 2021).

2. Bellisle F, McDevitt R, Prentice AM. Meal frequency and energy balance. Br J Nutr. 1997 Apr;77 Suppl 1:S57-70. doi: 10.1079/bjn19970104. PMID: 9155494. Retrieved here: Meal frequency and energy balance - PubMed (nih.gov) (Accessed July 2021).

3. Westerterp-Plantenga MS, Lejeune MP, Kovacs EM. Body weight loss and weight maintenance in relation to habitual caffeine intake and green tea supplementation. Obes Res. 2005 Jul;13(7):1195-204. doi: 10.1038/oby.2005.142. PMID: 16076989. Retrieved here: Body weight loss and weight maintenance in relation to habitual caffeine intake and green tea supplementation - PubMed (nih.gov) (Accessed July 2021).

4. Çalişkan N, Bulut H, Konan A. The Effect of Warm Water Intake on Bowel Movements in the Early Postoperative Stage of Patients Having Undergone Laparoscopic Cholecystectomy: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Gastroenterol Nurs. 2016 Sep-Oct;39(5):340-7. doi: 10.1097/SGA.0000000000000181. PMID: 27684632. Retrieved here: The Effect of Warm Water Intake on Bowel Movements in the Early Postoperative Stage of Patients Having Undergone Laparoscopic Cholecystectomy: A Randomized Controlled Trial - PubMed (nih.gov) (Accessed July 2021).

5. The truth about sweeteners. NHS, 2019. Retrieved here: The truth about sweeteners - NHS (www.nhs.uk) (Accessed July 2021).

6. de Souza RJ, Mente A, Maroleanu A, Cozma AI, Ha V, Kishibe T, Uleryk E, Budylowski P, Schünemann H, Beyene J, Anand SS. Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. BMJ. 2015 Aug 11;351:h3978. doi: 10.1136/bmj.h3978. PMID: 26268692; PMCID: PMC4532752. Retrieved here: Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies - PubMed (nih.gov) (Accessed July 2021).

7. Dhaka, Vandana et al. Trans fats-sources, health risks and alternative approach - A review. Journal of food science and technology vol. 48,5 (2011): 534-41. doi:10.1007/s13197-010-0225-8. Retrieved here: Trans fats—sources, health risks and alternative approach - A review (nih.gov) (Accessed July 2021).

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